Don't worry, this isn't yet another write up on punctures. Unlike a "pap wiel", this kinda flat is gaining momentum and causing much confusion amongst the trendsetters in mountain biking. Like tubeless tyres many moons ago, the latest hot trend on rides are all about pedals and shoes. We're talking about the war of the "Flat Foot Brigade" vs "The Lycra Clipless Warriors".. (And knowing which side to choose..)
Ten years ago, the ultimate benchmark in mountain biking was whether you were on cleats (also known as clipless pedals) or if you were still riding steel commuter pedals, or even toe clips like a newbie. Too many of us felt the pain of a grazed knee or elbow in our quest to prove our mountain bike worth by staying firmly cleated into the latest pedal fad, only to discover that cleats will awaken you from your day dreams, and like a jealous lover, it doesn't always let you go when you want to...!
Back then, cleats were the uncontested gold standard of your riding ability. Rocking up for a ride in takkies when the rest of your group were clad in carbon soled sleekness could translate into a lot of performance anxiety, and make you swallow your banana whole before the ride even started. Your mountain bike worth depended on whether you could stay cleated in while mounting rock gardens, and putting out a foot as you flew around a corner just proved your lack of skill. Weirdly, I still hear these comments often since we really seem to take our jolly time to catch-up to international trends, where flats have rapidly gained popularity in the last few years.
I also often see riders (ladies especially) uncleating one or both feet as she approaches an obstacle, rendering her completely unstable and out of control as she reels down a singletrack. It's a Bokkie rule that you either walk or ride with both feet firmly cleated in.
In recent times our trails and races have become a lot muddier, rockier and twisty, and as such the option of riding with flats have emerged as a more sensible way to "save face"; showing off on your trendy flats means you're serious about your riding, but not keen on smashing into the ground like a cannonball! The debate on "the best shoes/pedals to ride" has evolved from its sleek carbon lightweight shell to more robust options for real people.
So which one is better? Cleats (clipless) or flats?
The answer, in short, is both. Or neither. Depending on your style, your idea of fun and where you want your steed to take you. But they don't have to be mutually exclusive either. Consider some of the following...
#1. Mountain biking is rough.
With more and more singletrack bliss on the stage race menu, and bike parks mushrooming all over the country, riders have to keep up with the terrain. Less smooth and more rough, means that training on a tar road counting cats-eyes to stay awake just isn't an option anymore. As you bump around on rocks and roots, you have to constantly adjust your centre of gravity by transferring your weight and power through your legs. While there is seldom the risk of falling asleep, the correct technique is paramount to getting you home in one piece for the after-braai debrief.
Learning to handle your bike safely and still maintain a good solid tempo can be interesting on cleats. A lot of technique lies in your ability to transfer your weight correctly through the pedal as you scale an obstacle or corner. In cleats this can be tricky as you cannot actually feel the pedal under your foot, and it becomes a bit of guessing game. But you wouldn't really know the difference unless you've actually tried flats! It's easy to get lazy and use poor technique on cleats, since they keep you connected to your bike, but on flats you have to think about that bunny hop and scoop your feet properly. The upside is that a better technique will translate to a cleated ride seamlessly, making you much faster and confident.
#2. Staying connected
Your pedal is probably one of the most important contact points between you and your bike, the other two being the saddle and the handlebar. Staying connected to your bike allows you to go faster and have more control but then, when things do go a little pear, you don't want to be too connected! Bikes can hurt your body when you decide to do cartwheels 🤸♂️ as one..
Cleats should thus be loose enough to let you go if the need arises, but on flats it's much easier to get out of harm's way when your bike decides to be your frenemy.
On flats, the (much bigger) size of the platform of your pedal allows for a better contact point that is more tactile (you can actually feel the pedal through your shoe) and control comes from the pins combined with the sticky soles of your shoes. It's easy to change your foot position simply by lifting your foot a wee bit and replacing it back on the pedal. This reduces foot fatigue as you can vary the muscle groups you use in your foot.
On cleats, you are firmly attached to your tiny pedal, which means the point of contact with the pedal in actually very small. The pedals do allow for a certain amount of "float" that allows you to put some pressure through the pedal and to change your foot position to some degree, but you're pretty much stuck dancing in one position. No problem if a two-step along a district road is your vibe!
And if you still ride in takkies, you'll know the feeling when you foot slips off the pedal and a sensitive body part connects with the bike frame. Smiles turn to grimaces in a split second.
#3 The fun factor
If you believe that your "free time" should be exactly that, consider the fun factor. For some, the "fun" is all about chasing the best strava stats, but some brazence strava warriors are emerging from the closet, and asking if it's ok to just have a jol in the trails. If you've had the privilege of whizzing down the famous Umkomaas drop you'll know what I'm talking about. Nothing beats feeling one with your bike, whizzing through a turn like a Greg Minnaar look-alike. And when you have a rude awakening, you can casually put a foot out on your flats and keep pretending. ;) Because descending down a rocky cascade with your heart in your throat while thanking your financial planner for his excellent advice on medical aid schemes isn't that much fun.
Overall, flats give you that kindred feeling, maybe it's a nostalgia of when you first rode a bike. Either way, they just exude fun and a lighter side of your passion.
In the end, isn't that really the debate between flats vs clipless?
If you want to be faster, ride cleats.
If you want to have more fun and improve your skills, try flats.
If you want a bit of both, then you may have to increase your credit card limit. Not many of us can still afford the time to ride those 5 hour training rides. For many a discerning rider who is precious about how he/she spend their free time, the quality of the riding experience will be worth the cost of having the choice of going from flats to cleats, depending on your ride. And who says you can't?