I’ve been riding clipless pedals on mountain bikes for going on 20 years now, and still use them for the majority of my riding. But a few years ago, I started bringing flat pedals back into the mix for all sorts of riding — after only using them for dirt jumping for at least a decade — and it’s been both a lot of fun and good for my riding overall. And so if you haven’t been on flats in a while, I think it’s time to give them another go.
This isn’t to dismiss the advantages of clipless pedals. There’s a reason that they’ve nearly universally taken over top-tier racing — they do offer more efficient pedaling, more control over the bike, lower likelihood of slipping a pedal, and so on. And I know Sam Hill was dominating the EWS on flats just a few years ago, but he’s Sam Hill. It’s kind of like Hoji skiing Hoji things on pin bindings. Just because he can do it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for just about anybody else.
But do you know who isn’t racing? The overwhelming majority of people, the overwhelming majority of the time that they get on a mountain bike. (I know Strava exists, but that’s another rant for another time.) It’s going to be okay if it takes you an extra second and a half to get down the trail, I promise. And riding flats is both really fun, and a good skill-building tool for when you go back to clipless.
I’ve talked a couple of friends into revisiting flats recently, and while neither has switched over full time (and again, I haven’t either), they’ve both enjoyed the different-feeling connection to the bike, and thought that it helped them iron out some kinks in their technique, where they were previously relying too much on their clipless pedals. In particular, the more direct connection to the pedals when cornering (all clipless systems have some slop/float in the interface, and it’s pretty obvious when you hop back on flats) both just feels cool, and helps you learn to control the bike through your feet better — a skill that’s valuable for any rider.
I also think that a lot of people last tried flats on a bike with geometry that might as well be from the 1800s, and while flat pedal technology hasn’t changed a whole lot, bike geometry sure has. The vastly improved stability of modern bikes makes for a very different flat pedal experience than you might remember. Where clipless was once invaluable for keeping your feet planted on a twitchy, short bike with the bottom bracket 2’’ above the axles, flats are now a great tool for learning to weight the front of a long, low, modern bike through your feet, and getting used to lifting the bike without yanking up on a clipless pedal will absolutely make your technique better and your riding smoother once (or if) if you switch back.
I’ve mentioned this before, but there’s also a lot to be said for riding flats in the winter, both in terms of not dealing with gummed-up clipless mechanisms, and in keeping your feet warmer without a big metal heat sink (the cleat plate in the shoe) right under the ball of your foot. But even if you hang up your bike through the winter months, everything else I said above still holds, and is more than enough reason to revisit flats if you haven’t in a while.