Does this video really prove that flats are more efficient than clipless pedals?

In case you missed it last week, a video showing a rider pedaling more efficiently on flat pedals than on clipless hit the internet. It obviously sparked a lot of debate and, I think, a lot of riders missed the point of the video in their rush to praise flats or defend clipless.

But, before I get too far into what I think this video did show us about both pedal systems, here is a quick recap in case you missed it (you can also see the video below)…

In a nutshell, these guys from Global Cycling Network posted a video last year telling people that a proper pedal stroke involves pulling up on the backstroke. In some of the feedback they got it was pointed out to them that there is no evidence for that and that the evidence we do have actually tells us that we shouldn’t pull up on the backstroke.

The rider in the video sets up the test by saying that he doesn’t agree with the results of those studies because he “feels” that he is applying force somewhere other than the downstroke. And to prove it they are going to do a test in both clipless pedals and flats to see if pulling up on the backstroke is more efficient.

The plan is for him to go about about 300 watts for 10 minutes and measure his heart rate, PRE, blood lactate levels and level of oxygen consumption. He’ll go first on clipless pedals so he can pull up on the backstroke and then on flats so that he can’t pull up at all.

Despite being on crappy flat pedals and using his clipless pedal shoes (hardly a fair comparison to a decent set of flats and shoes), the end result of the test was that the rider pedaled more efficiently on flats. He consumed less oxygen to complete the test on them than he did on the clipless pedals, which obviously shocked everyone.

Then things started to get funny…or sad, depending on how you look at it. Despite hearing what the results were, the rider refused to believe that flat pedals could be a viable option.

His first excuse was that he needed his clipless pedals to bunnyhop his bike. His second was that – despite learning he didn’t need to pull up during the test – he was still certain that in some situations he was pulling up on the backstroke to add power to the pedal stroke. He seemed pretty certain before the test about his need to pull up on all efforts so this response was somewhat surprising.

For me it was sad to see how brainwashed this rider has been by the cycling industry. He literally believes that it is impossible to ride your bike effectively without being attached to his pedals. Despite knowing that you don’t need clipless pedals to bunnyhop and experiencing the efficiency you can have on flats his mind can’t let go of the “clipless are better than flats” narrative that has been drilled into his mind.

Instead of curiosity at the results and how it might benefit him as a rider you see excuses and rationalizations for why it shouldn’t be. And this response was pretty typical from the clipless pedal apologists across the internet.

It seems that the clipless pedal apologists never let a good theory get in the way of the data and they immediately set about poking all sorts of holes in what was an admittedly “unscientific” test”.

But this is where things started to get out of hand. All of a sudden the debate changed from “do you need to pull up on the backstroke” to “flats vs. clipless pedals”. Hell, the video was posted with that title in it, which didn’t help matters at all.

The test wasn’t looking at the pedal systems, it was looking at the pedal style. And what they found was that the pedal style that flats force you to use is the more efficient way to pedal.

What the video showed was that your pedal stroke should be the same on flats or clipless pedals and that if you try and change it you end up with a less efficient pedal stroke. There is no magical pedal stroke that you can achieve by pulling up on the backstroke – it is a fairytale that every time they try to prove its existence, they only find it doesn’t exist.

The real takeaway lesson from the video was that clipless pedals let you get away with a less efficient pedal stroke because you can pull up on the backstroke. When the rider in the video was actively pulling up he was consuming more oxygen and working less efficiently because he was trying to override his body’s natural way of moving.

When he didn’t have this option he was forced to let his body function more naturally, which means letting the downstroke power things while the trail leg pulls up just hard enough to not interfere with that downstroke. This is how you run and walk and how your body optimally powers lower body locomotion…and that doesn’t change just because you are on a bike.

All this shows is that not pulling up on the backstroke is more efficient than pulling up. You can employ this pedal stroke with either flats or clipless pedals, the difference is that flats force you to do it that way while clipless pedals let you get away with less than optimal technique.

And this is where the the opportunity lies for riders…it isn’t in changing from clipless to flats, it is using flats to help train your pedal stroke and then applying that improved pedal stroke to your clipless pedals. If the rider in the video spent some time on flats and re-trained his pedal stroke, I’d bet that he would be just as efficient on clipless pedals, plus he would have the advantages that secure and stiff platform can provide for power transfer purposes.

But if he just went back to riding clipess all the time how would he know if his pedal stroke was still optimal? How could he be sure that he wasn’t starting to pick up some bad habits again?

The only way to ensure you have an optimal pedal stroke is by spending some time on flats each year. This is why I recommend that every cyclists who uses clipless pedals – both mountain and road – use flats at certain points during the year to train their pedal stroke and skills so they’ll be better clipless pedal riders.

Now, can someone please tell me what is so crazy or insane about that advice?

It isn’t productive for anyone to try and simplify this complex issue into “which pedals system is better”. This video simply pointed to a way that we can use flats to become better riders.

I’ll conclude with one of my favorite quotes from strength coach Ian King –

“I hate to use the words “always” and “never”, it just shows a lack of critical thinking skills.”

Saying that one pedal system is better than another is just like saying that you should “always” use one and “never” use the other, which ultimately shows a lack of critical thinking skills. There is a time and place for both systems and once we stop arguing over which is better the sooner we can learn how to make better use of them both as they relate to mountain biking.

Until next time…

Pedal Strong,

James Wilson

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