How to ride flat pedals, on the trail!

Wanna start a dumpster fire on the internet? Spark a debate about vaccines flat pedals vs. clipless pedals! I’ve generally been a lifelong clipless pedal rider- at least since 1996 or so. That being said, I’ll outright say it right now- clipless pedals make it much easier to ride rough trails!!! Rocks and roots can, and will, bounce your feet either off your flat pedals entirely, or they’ll slide your foot to a really awkward position. As a result, it’s MUCH harder to maintain momentum and pedal through the rough with flats. I’ve posted the full video on this subject to my Patreon page, where I post a new, full length riding tutorials every month. But if you’re not a patron, no sweat, I’ll break down the rough strategy here, pun sorely intended.

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Hucking into rocks- this can be a terrifying experience if you aren’t yet one with your flat pedals.

Before we get into how to ride flats in the rough, here is a secret tip for all you racers– I’m a fan of racing in clips. That said, if you’re at an event that permits practice, definitely take a break from your clips and instead practice with FLAT PEDALS. This will allow you to push harder in the corners, and better learn the dirt, and it’ll probably keep you from going absolutely race pace in practice, which in turn saves a bunch of energy. Throw your clips on for race day and you’ll not only feel fresher, feel faster, but you’ll know just how much grip you can really get from those particular trails. You can thank me from the podium!

Ok, now on to the tutorial!

After I broke my pelvis for the third time back in June 2019, I promised myself I’d make some changes- and one of them was ditching my clipless pedals and dedicating myself to learning how to ride with flats. I even made a video about that! Then, after about 6 months, I started to feel pretty comfy with flats. That’s right- even after riding flat pedals on my BMX bikes and dirt-jump bikes my whole life, it took about a half a year to really feel confident with flats off-road. You too can make the switch, and the extra benefits of safety, comfort, and proper riding technique will indeed be worth that sacrifice.

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Notice the slight drop to my heels? That’s a critical element to maintaining traction with flat pedals.

There are three main skills I’ve honed in on for flat pedal success:

The first is to drop your heels when the going gets rough. This sounds subtle, but it’s a big deal. How: This locks your feet in place with your full body weight and also forces you to get lower on the bike. Why: Being low on the bike is critical- this keeps you in that aggressive position that allows for better pumping and a lot more stability. This is also one of the reasons folks call flat pedals a “skill builder”, as getting low on the bike is a skill in itself. In fact, I’d say you’re FAR more likely to crash if you’re riding tall on the bike with flats than clips- this is one of the many ways that clips can cover up poor riding technique. True story- I wasn’t dropping my heels or getting low enough on the bike when I charged into a rock garden in Switzerland with flat pedals. I got flung from the bike and compound fractured my finger. Learn from my mistake!

The next key skill is the down pump. When you approach a series of chunky rocks, you’ll need to drive your feet downwards to keep your bike weighted. This also increases shoe-to-pedal traction. Once you’re comfortable doing this, you can start to play with the timing, and this will lead to you pumping your way through these obstacles. This will make you a MUCH better rider- if you go back to clips, and you continue to pump through stuff, you’ll have a big edge over those that just cruise. Now, this initially takes a lot more focus and energy, but with time, you will adapt, both mentally and physically.

The final key skill is using the handlebars like a lever. To ride flats, you will need to learn how to bunny hop the correct way. To do that, it’s critical to use that handlebar to leverage your bike up and over stuff, all while unweighting your feet. I find that I’ll drive the bike through the rocks by pulling back on the handlebars a lot more then I would with clips. This works to increase the pressure of your feet on the pedals, and it counteracts the upwards impact of the rocks. While not as smooth as pumping or floating, it’s still better than straight up mashing, and it’s another tool in your mental toolbox of riding techniques.

As you practice using the bars like a lever, it’ll also build another skill- timing your feet with your bike’s positioning. This is another skill you’ll need to master, and this has many trail riding benefits. Heck, it’ll even help while you’re timing your pedal strokes on technical climbs. It’s also partly why it’s so hard to learn flats when coming from clips.

Flat Pedals

Also, I never consciously think to myself that I need to “scoop” my bike with my feet. There is always more than one way to do something, so maybe that’s your style, but it hasn’t been something I’ve considered at all. I’ve done a couple videos disproving the whole “scoop” theory- here’s the first, and here’s the follow up.

Finally, equipment. I am a sponsored Shimano athlete, and use their flat pedal shoe (AM9). These are not quite as soft and grippy as 5.10 shoes, but not far off, either. While very close in traction, they might be 3-5% firmer in rubber. I have some 5.10 Freeriders at home, and do wear them on occasion, but I find that when my foot slips a bit on the flat pedal, it becomes VERY hard to reposition it with the 5.10 shoe. The Shimano shoes allow for a little more float- not so much that it’s sketchy, but it’s nice to have the option. I’m actually getting to the point that I’m interested in trying another shoe with LESS grip than the Shimano AM9! But again, that’s after 2+ years of dedicated flat practice.

For pedals, I generally alternate between the Saint flat pedals or the XT large platform flats. I swap the longer pins into all of these pedals. I’ve found the XT pedals to be slightly more grippy, and very comfortable, but the Saints have been great as well. I ride these pedals a lot, and actually bent a couple of XT spindles, so I’m mostly down to my Saint pedals now. I did just request more XT pedals for 2021 tho!

I have some Chomag Scarab and Dagga pedals, both of which are nice. I believe I bought one pair and Chromag gave me the other- I forget the exact details, but they’ve been a great compliment to the Shimano units. I actually like the Scarab a tad more than the Dagga, as it allows for more float and the wider flat portions of pedal are a little more comfortable than the Dagga, at least for me. Still, both Chromag pedals are fantastic.

I also have some Anvl Tlt pedals, which are really good. I loved them, but both spindles bent slightly on some big jumps, and the bearings are a tad loose after a year of riding. Grip is solid- similar to the Scarab.

A while back I bought some Convex One Up pedals, which have been very durable. I have not found the convex shape to my liking though- I prefer concavity. Still, a quality product that many folks rightfully love.

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When all is said and done, the transition to flat pedals isn’t easy. It is fun, though, and it’ll definitely make you a better rider. Plus, it’s way more comfy for the post ride snacks than the disco slippers you used to wear!

As always, to see the full tutorial video, become a a Patron! At tiers of only $7 or $10 a month, you’ll have access to over 30 Patreon exclusive tutorial videos. Also, you’ll have my eternal gratitude for supporting my quest to live out my mountain biking dreams!

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