While clipless pedals are undeniably more efficient than platform/flat pedals, there are a number of very tangible benefits to using flat pedals as a training tool, if they aren’t already your primary pedal of choice. The reason for this is that the same aspects of clipless pedals that make them efficient also tend to promote bad technique. With feet mechanically anchored to the pedals, riders give little notice to how they weight the bike and how they pedal. That’s why I choose to ride flat pedals at least a few weeks a year to help break any bad habits I might have picked up over the preceding months. Flat pedals also have the benefit of being really fun and offer the peace of mind that comes from being able to step off the bike without a second thought. When paired with Five Ten sticky rubber shoes, there’s a chance you’ll like flat pedals so much your clipless pedals might end up in your spare parts bin.
The kind of bad habits I am referring to that clipless pedals encourage are pulling up on your pedals to bunny hop or lift the rear wheel, sloppy and inefficient pedaling technique, supporting your body weight with your arms instead of your legs, and standing too tall in rough sections or in corners. Flat pedals help with every one of these problems by forcing you to use proper technique, because if you don’t, your foot will move around or come off the pedal.
Proper bunny hopping technique requires heavily weighting the pedals and leaning back, followed by pulling up and back on the handlebars, and then thrusting the handlebars forward while unweighting the pedals just enough so the bike can rise underneath you. Watch Danny MacAskill throw down a four foot high bunny hop on flat pedals if you are looking for evidence in support of my explanation. Pulling up on clipless pedals and handlebars to lift the bike off of the ground will always lead to less control in the air and usually results in a crooked landing with both tires touching down at the same time. Put simply, it’s a great way to get pitched over the bars. Flat pedals will help you figure out the right way to bunny hop by making the incorrect technique impossible.
The most stable way through a rough section of trail or through a corner is to keep your weight centered over your pedals. When riding with clipless pedals, it is easy to forget this absolutely essential technique. Flat pedals are a great tool for forcing a rider to consciously ride with heavy feet in order to keep the foot stable on the pedal. This also encourages riders to crouch low on the bike in corners and rock gardens because maintaining a lower center of gravity helps keep your feet stable on the pedal. Of course that lower center of gravity will also get you through that section of trail a whole lot faster too.
The last and least obvious benefit to flat pedals is that they improve your pedaling technique. With clipless pedals, just about any random movement short of pedaling backwards will translate into forward motion, since your feet are stuck to the pedals. Problem is, those random movements aren’t all that efficient. The basic fact of pedaling is that the downstroke is by far the most powerful portion of the pedal stroke. Clipless pedals make it easy to forget this by distracting riders with the siren song to “pedal circles.” This frequently misunderstood axiom is often taken far too literally (it’s really all about smooth power application) and riders begin to aggressively pull up on their pedals on the back half of the pedal stroke. This of course distracts riders from efficiently applying power into the leg pushing down on the other side of the crankset. The same problem rears its head again when riders focus on “scraping the mud off the sole of your shoe” at the bottom of the pedal stroke or “pushing over the top” of the pedal stroke.
With a good pair of flat pedals and sticky rubber shoes, you can still “push over the top” and “scrape the mud” (as you should) but if you get too enthusiastic with your efforts, your foot will slip off the pedal. The same amount of force that you can reliably apply at the top and bottom of the pedal stroke with flat pedals and sticky rubber shoes is the amount of power you want to put out in these areas with your clipless pedaling technique. When (or if) you go back to clipless pedals later, you’ll literally be putting your best foot forward with a smooth and efficient pedal stroke.
Even if you are the most ardent advocate of clipless pedals, flats can help make your clipless riding and pedaling technique even better. After just a few rides you might be surprised by how much better your bike handling is. Meanwhile your pedaling technique will be more efficient, so when you do go back to clipless pedals, you’ll be faster both up and down the hill.