With many of the worlds greatest racers currently drowning in media and being very vocal on the “undoubted fact” that 29” wheels are faster, many might well have forgotten the flat pedal downpour that pissed over everyone at the opening fort William event fifteen years ago.


By Steven Jones

It seems everyone is now high and erudite on very old facts about wheels, 2017 will probably go down as the year of enlightenment no doubt. You must have 29 wheels and it seems you also must have clipped in shoes. But is this a fact or is it simply that everyone has followed each other? Gwin’s 27.5″ wheel victory at Leogang has certainly put a hose on the wheel theory so are we simply waiting for a rider to tear up the shoe theory too?

It seems not that long ago that the greatest win of all time took place at Fort William and only a few years ago that Hill won at Meribel world cup finals on flat pedals. So what’s happened to flat pedal racers? Are they an endangered species?

There is an unspoken and widely accepted rule of downhill is that entrapment is necessary to win races, that even the the untamed riders of World Cup downhill rely on a good snare to pilot themselves through the wild territories of racing.

Brandon Semenuk. Winner of Rampage but let's not confuse style with racing right?
Brendan Fairclough entrapped in a footwear mind game or simple facts? Still undecided on what shoes to wear.
Connor Fearon. Top ten at Leogang 2017

It has almost become regulation that clipped-in is the footware of choice, the only way to win. It seems that downhill racing, the sport that governs what clothing you wear, has a rule which stops firmly at the heel. No tight clothing, no peakless helmets, but shoes, well there’s no rule guys.

The baggy laws of racing were introduced to maintain or cultivate the sport’s wild image but when it comes to style the flat pedal was always going to win the hearts and souls of riders – Hill, Kovarik, Palmer, Fairclough, Semenuk. Ah yes Semenuk ….but he’s not a racer, simply the Red Bull rampage winner and one of most stylish riders on earth.

Its all about being the fastest right? It seems pretty reasonable to suggest clipped in is faster through dry rough sections where it is important to keep feet firmly planted and not “bouncing around” as some people suggest happens on flats, although something which I’m not convinced of.

It also seems a perfectly well thought argument to say that pedalling is fastest clipped in, after all that’s what road riders do. And pedalling out of a pile of root or exiting rough corners would on paper appear to be the fastest way. It seems common sense right?

More than this, it’s a fact that riders have won the World Cup downhill series for many years on clipped shoes.

To what extent this is simply a case of riders following each other is slightly more difficult to prove so in truth it is largely unknown as to whether they are indeed the fastest method of racing, the results simply show that the winners of those races wore such footwear. It could actually be the case that on certain tracks and conditions flats are better but with so many of the top twenty now on clipped in shoes we’ll probably never know.

It is simply one of the many conjectural stories that float around the pits and in between race days. Is carbon faster than aluminium, is 200 mm travel better than 180mm, is coil faster than air, is 29 faster than 27.5, is a tyre system better than tubeless. Five years ago at least half of the top ten riders were adamant that their size of bike was the perfect fit. Today, Brosnsan, Minnaar, Gwin to name a few have all upsized considerably from that time.

Sam Hill has won an Enduro World Series on flat pedal shoes

But the professional riders are quite probably correct that clipped shoes are quicker than flats. The only question is one of proof.

Testing such assumptions is difficult now that the riders and the industry has followed each other. Adaption has taken hold of the riders so much so that it’s difficult to turn back, if you want to win then you have to be locked in, this is what riders and the industry are telling us. And besides clipped in riders trying to ride flats will need to massively change their muscle memories.

But there are still people who break this rule. Why can Sam Hill win an Enduro World Series on flat pedal shoes? Some people say its probably because he’s so much better than the other riders. And how can he possibly be in contention on the longer stages of these events? Sam Hill continues to break the rules, Chris Kovarik broke all the rules. The greatest runs of all time have happened on flat pedals. The biggest wins of all time, done on flats.

Who can forget Gwin’s chainless victory Leogang? What’s pedalling got to do with it?

And what about the theory that clipped-in is better for pedalling through roots or indeed the fastest way to pedal a bicycle? Well I guess Aaron Gwin winning Leogang without a chain kind of questions that theory. Why pedal when freewheeling without a chain can sometimes be faster?

It seems everywhere you ask it’s all about the feeling, one of personal preference and perception. For many there is also an element of confidence derived from switching to clips, being part of the crowd, and you have to ask how much does the subconscious affect a rider when the competition are all on clips? And that’s fair enough. But where can we find facts?

In short, it’s difficult, but there’s plenty of bullshit.

That run. Hill, Val Di Sole 2008. Up by almost eight seconds before a sniping rock takes out his front wheel in the finish arena

Commentators have desperately tried to engineer a reason for clips being faster than flats.  For example, one editor of a well viewed website believes Hill’s method of riding is “to adopt a rearward stance that creates an imaginary line from the rider’s center of mass, through the feet, and through the bike’s center of gravity so that the bike and rider are aligned with the vector of acceleration created as the bike smacks into bumps or is braking hard.”

It’s a nice theory however he goes on to comment that adopting an exaggerated position has a number of drawbacks and wastes precious time as the courses change. He doesn’t go on to say what these are and doesn’t provide proof of this rearward weight bias.

He also says that the days of riding flats are gone due to changing geometries. He does this by making massive generalisations on frame geometry, failing to recognise that front and rear centres, bottom bracket and reach will have massive differences between brands thus affecting rider stability and crucially failing to point out that often many of the pro riders failure themselves to understand balance and position.

Suspension, geometry, materials, rider size, centre of gravity, rhythm of the track, so many variables and so may people using theory instead of trying it for themselves.

Are flat pedals more suited to wet conditions?

There are so many unanswered questions regarding pedal choice.

Can you move your body better on flats or clips? Can you make more rapid changes of body movement on flats? Who knows? Who cares?

What happens when the rhythm of the track is less understood, when a new track hits the circuit? What happens in truly steep, technical terrain? What happens in wet conditions? After all, Lourdes after a downpour made the pros look ordinary, Fort William roots made most look decidedly amateur. Remember Gee Atherton won Cairns on flats only a few years ago, and who can ever forget Hill’s Champery run in 2007.

There is an argument that says the clipped rider can relax and rely on the clips to keep them in contact with pedals whereas flat pedals require more technique to prevent feet being blown off. The bigger picture reveals it’s all about understanding the rhythm of the hill regardless of shoe type.

Technique and learning the hill always comes into the equation. Maybe Sam Hill has an edge in enduro because of the unknown. Downhill is a sport where the track is learned in detail over several days with body positions and lines being well tuned in. Getting out of shape is quite possibly more applicable to enduro than downhill. But what happens when you get out of shape? Technique goes out the window leading to a much more organic approach to riding style. It’s all about profit and loss.

Maybe, just maybe, the reason many people like to be clipped in is because their suspension isn’t working that well. Take a ride on an emtb because it really hammers home how important suspension working correctly is. The reason an emtb feels so planted might not be because of the weight but because of the suspension working well.

On a personal level I feel that I no longer have feet off the pedals very much during a run particularly on a dry day. But they are rare and in the wet I cannot ever seeing me riding clips as you simply have to make immediate body changes which transfer weight or save a slide.

Maybe the question is more about where and when we are racing than what shoes we are wearing. Lourdes and Fort William have already proved that racing could in fact be way more interesting if wet and technical conditions were thrown into the mix. We are seeing more and more tracks with catch berms, less and less raw mountain. Manufactured terrain is becoming prevalent, and some tracks offer no real change of challenge even in the wet. Are we bringing up a new wave of rider where skill in off camber root is less important than doing a whip?

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