You must ride with flat pedals! I kept coming across this statement/instruction in my quest to learn to jump properly with my son. So, I gave it bash for a month. All I rode for four weeks, on every single ride, was flat pedals. It turned out to be the worst month of my bike-riding life… Here’s why.
By Sean Badenhorst
Flat pedals – friend or foe?
My teenaged son, Cade, has been really getting into his mountain biking over the past year, driven, like most youngsters, by the fun stuff, not the suffering. This means that he rides a lot of jump lines and flow lines and spends a lot of time perfecting his jumping and tricks.
In the early 1980s, from the age of 11 until I was 14, I was a devout BMX racer and rider. When I wasn’t racing, I was riding. I was a keen trickster back then and loved jumping too. I only rode with flat pedals. Cleats weren’t even used for road cycling yet.
I started mountain biking in 1991 and Shimano had just launched it’s SPD clipless pedals. I have ridden mountain bikes since then with cleats. That’s 30 years of riding clipped into my pedals. Of course, during that time, I was more focussed on endurance mountain biking. Only recently, inspired to enjoy riding with Cade, did I start exploring the playful side of riding bikes again.
I did every single ride for four weeks with flat pedals. I normally look way more relaxed than this when sliding the back wheel out. Every ride was quite ‘nervy’…
In fact, I set myself a goal last year – to be able to manual (like a wheelie, but a lot harder) at least 50 metres on my 50th birthday. This required fitting flat pedals and although the I achieved my goal, it wasn’t without it’s challenges. Read about it here.
Flat pedals! You must ride with flat pedals. Is what I regularly read and was told. That allows you to jump more intuitively in line with the physics at play. And it makes sense because with cleats you tend to pull the bike up on a jump with your legs rather than focus on the jumping technique of preload and float. Cade does it beautifully with flat pedals and I wanted to achieve that same level of smoothness and rhythm.
At first, it felt really weird. You’re basically relying on your body weight on the pedals to keep you firmly in touch with the bike. It does change the way you jump because you cannot pull the bike upwards with your legs. Well, not in the same way because if you want to gain real height you still scoop the bike upwards with a forward-down-up motion of your feet.
I got the jumping technique down with flat pedals, but it wasn’t intuitive. I had to concentrate on every jump.
I decided to commit fully and do every ride with flat pedals. These included some normal trail rides and regular jump line and flow line sessions. Initially it was awkward and I felt a lot like a beginner at times. Give it time and persevere I was advised. It can take a few months, I was informed. A few months! I was assured it would improve and I would wonder why I ever rode with cleats.
Week 3 arrived and I was still persevering. It really wasn’t getting any easier and I was still a bit nervous. I definitely wasn’t able to corner with as much confidence. I wasn’t able to jump with great confidence either. Fast, bumpy descents also required some additional focus to ensure my feet were firmly planted on my pedals and didn’t slip off. Almost everything required conscious effort, nothing seemed natural.
At the end of Week 3, I had a small fall on a very basic jump where my foot slipped off the left pedal. I felt like a complete fool because I am quite skilled and have been riding mountain bikes since 1991. I have also taught basic and intermediate mountain bike skills to over 2500 people since 2010. As I sat on the ground next to my bike, rubbing my arm which took a bit of a knock, I looked at the flat pedals and sighed.
In Week 4, I considered not doing planned rides with my son because I just wasn’t enjoying my riding. I was distracted by the flat pedal-progress. I persevered though. But riding mountain bikes was losing it’s appeal. It was then that I decided to remove the flats and replace them with Shimano SPD pedals. Just to see something…
Back with cleats and I’m a much more confident rider. And jumper.
My first ride back on cleats was incredible! I felt like the old me again. Attacking turns, powering along between obstacles, jumping with more confidence.
“Welcome back!” grinned Cade as we came to stop at the bottom of the Delta Park jump/flow line. “It’s great to see you riding so well again. I have missed this you!”
I had missed this me too. Riding with cleats again didn’t just feel good. It felt bloody amazing! I absolutely love riding mountain bikes and for a month, I started to lose that love. I was so focussed on trying to become a flat-pedal convert that it consumed me. It took away my natural ride rhythm. It made me doubt my abilities. It made me feel like a beginner. It filled me with a lot of frustration and a bit of fear.
Consider this: Almost all the competitors in the UCI Downhill World Cup and Enduro World Series use cleats. Yes, they probably all learned their skills on flat pedals, but they’re more confident and faster with cleats. I’m not at their level, but I am way more comfortable and confident with cleats.
What I did learn during my month of riding flat pedals is to not pull the bike up by the pedals over jumps, but to rather let it come up off the lip. Barry Crouse, a guy that got into mountain biking in his 40s and who has been giving Cade and I jumping guidance, says that I have overcome the biggest problem with cleats.
“If you’re more comfortable in cleats then that’s fine, as long as you’re not controlling the bike with your legs over the jumps. That interferes with the natural position of where your body needs to be in relation to the bike and that can lead to some awful landings and even injuries if you crash hard,” he said.
So, it’s settled. I didn’t really enjoy my month of riding flat pedals, but it did teach me to not rely on my cleats to pull my bike up when jumping (and bunny-hopping). And I’m not saying flat pedals aren’t important. They are, especially for youngsters and those with ambitions to add jumping to their daily riding diet. They’re just not for me.
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