Flat Pedals Versus Clip Ins

Sometimes, becoming a stronger rider isn’t about having LASER focus on whatever you’re stoked about or training for.

Sometimes, it’s about switching it up.

How flat bike pedals improved my riding and handling

There is no doubt that improving your bike handling skills will make you a faster rider. If you want to have more technical skills, trying on a pair of flats for a week might just help you dial in your bike handling skills.

Recently, I did something I never thought I’d do: I swapped my clipless bike pedals for a set of flat bike pedals.

A mountain biker mid jump with flat pedals.

Unsurprisingly, the first thing I realized was that without my feet conveniently attached to my pedals, I couldn’t bunny hop. I couldn’t even get my rear wheel off the ground. Laughing at myself, I decided it was time to go back to basics and relearn how to ride my bike.

What was surprising is just how quickly a person can make huge gains on their bike handling skills while using flat bike pedals.

Within minutes of attempting an ever-so-slight toe dip, my rear wheel lifted. Not much, but half an inch (of stoke!). Within a few more minutes, and a well-timed preload, both tires lifted off the pavement. I was hooked.

The next day, I paired the toe dip and the preload with a little pull from my arms, and instantly I was in the air.

Kids doing manuals in the parking lot behind the high school...WATCH OUT.

On day four, I clipped back into my pedals.

As a disclaimer, three days of basic mechanics in no way turned me into an instant ripper. (Let’s just say the kids at the middle school laugh at my wheelies, like all the time.)

But, the dramatic change in my riding—particularly my riding style—was astounding. Suddenly, I could maneuver rocks and logs that would have thrown me off a week prior. I hopped and pulled and threw my bike around like a much stronger, better rider.

Features that I never thought I’d hit didn’t seem so far out of reach. The lesson? There is value in switching it up.

How switching up your bike can improve your riding skills

If you live in a four-season area, you likely alternate between rides. Winter is for dusting off your cobwebbed fat bike, summer is for singletrack, and spring is for filling the cogs of your gravel bike with mud.

However, you might want to ride all three during the summer.

A mountain biker with flat pedals jumping alongside his bike on a trail

Photo by Laura Heisinger

It’s amazing how much your body adapts to riding different terrain at different intensities and durations. I never enter one season as strong as I leave it—at least not on that specific bike.

Yet, in my experience, diversifying my stable has made me an all-around stronger rider. That’s because what you gain from various bikes carries over to the next.

In general,

  • Fatbiking requires even, powerful pedal strokes and gets riders comfortable with sliding tires and balancing acts. I think it can even foster a tough mental attitude and can make riders more aware of the elements (the Dodgeball logic of, “if you can fix a flat in a blizzard, you can fix a flat anywhere”).
  • Gravel grinding is all about sustained power over long distances—hence the word “grinding.” It’s also a useful bike for training, as it’s easier to control your heart rate and power output on a predictable gravel road (as opposed to steep singletrack or groomed trail).

Both gravel and fat biking can transfer into gains on your mountain bike.

Singletrack and trail riding requires quick, powerful strokes (like fat biking) and a strong physique to handle sustained descents.

If you want to go further, all that time grinding gravel will help, too.

The Takeaway: Switching it up will improve your riding game

During the offseason, hop on a gravel grinder or a fat bike and watch your handling improve. Don't wait till the snow clears up to ride again.

If you only ride flats but enjoy cross-country trail, why not go clipless? Like the inverse, there is a learning curve (that includes kids laughing at you), but there are gains, as well.

In my experience, clipless pedals make riders more powerful on steep, sustained climbs, and are more efficient over long distances.

I also like that they keep my feet in place during long rides--constantly switching your foot position can be tough on joints.

Besides, your clipped in friends have been begging you to try them for years—what do you have to lose?

Pulling yourself out of your niche, whatever that might be, could serve you well.

Whether it helps you bunny hop or allows you to ride longer distances at a faster pace, switching up your gear can greatly improve your riding style.