Going Flat

For the last few months, I’ve been in the process of transitioning my mountain bike riding from clipless pedals to flats. For those of you still clipping on the trail, I’m sure you recognize what a daunting challenge this looked like. It required going backwards in my bike-handling skills for some indeterminate period of time. It meant riding a bit like a beginner.

But I was motivated by the idea that freeing my feet would actually improve my skills, would actually force me to bunny hop properly, tail whip properly, etc. and that unclipping myself would give me the confidence to jump higher, drop bigger drops, and generally let me make one more stab at ‘rad’ as I blossom into my 50s.

Whether I will ever get or be rad, remains to be seen, but I can tell you, I’ve had a lot more fun with this change than I expected. I was sure I’d be frustrated every step of the way and would soon cave in and switch back to clipless. That has definitively not been the case. 

One thing I got very right was staring the challenge with a new bike, the Ibis Ripley I got earlier in the season. Learning a new thing is hard but learning it on a bike you’re already sympatico with is creating a psychological hurdle that is even harder to overcome. So, I’m glad that I made this choice for the Ripley. The whole bike was a blank canvas for me, so I didn’t have expectations about how it would ride.

Obviously, it’s a whole new ballgame riding flats when you’ve been clipping in for years. The Ripley, even in this new paradigm, turned out to be really fun to ride, and that helped me stick at the process of learning how to control the bike without being directly connected to it. There were no rides that were net-negative fun, because I didn’t have the bike handling skills I was used to.

So, what have I learned?

First, I’ve gotten better, when off the ground, at sucking the bike up under me. When you’re clipped in, you just pull it up, because you can. When you’re on flats, you both accentuate the motion to allow the bike to rise on its own and you tip your feet forward and curl your toes like you would bunny-hopping a BMX bike. It sounds like a lot, but it is both the correct technique and is more intuitive than you think.

Second, I’ve gotten better at keeping my heels down, especially when climbing. I’m finding with the full-suspension bike, because of the length of it, I’m climbing out of the saddle more, in a sort of hovering position. This amplifies the bike’s suspension and keeps my feet stuck to the pedals. Climbing on flats is actually, for me, the most challenging new skill, because I have more pressure in the pedals when I’m going up.

Third, I’m learning to dance on the platforms to find the right foot position for each move. This has caused me to appreciate the various sole designs on flat pedal shoes and the type and orientation of the pins in the pedals. I’m really liking the kind of dynamic foot positions you can get on flats. It is, slowly, making me feel more in control all the time.

If there’s one thing that’s still not all the way there, it’s being able to swivel or skitch the rear of the bike around, like you might in a tight switchback, or to adjust your line in a rock garden or other tech obstacle. It’s coming along, but only slowly. Some of that is about pedal control, and some is about learning how to get my weight forward and back on the longer wheelbase bike.

Overall, this whole process has been much more enjoyable and less frustrating than I thought it would be. I really thought I’d be fighting myself all the way and pining for clipless pedals again, but that hasn’t been the case at all. I think I’m far enough along now that I’d even recommend other people give this change a shot, whether you’re trying to get rad or just want to change the game in an interesting way.

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Join the conversation
  1. albanybenn says

    Been flat for a little over four years now, about 25,000 miles. Started with loaded touring and commuting. MTB was next and the final convert was road cycling.

    I’ll never be confused with a Cat 1, but I have multiple trips up Whiteface and Mt. Greylock on flats. Large MTB flats paired with 5/10 Freeriders Pro shoes. Feet are never sore and walking into a convenience store is never an adventure. Be bold, go flat.

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