Consider Being A "Flat Pedeler"!
Updated: Sep 15, 2020
I am not a big conspiracy guy, though I do respect those who are willing to question beliefs that are taken for granted. During this year with no racing, I decided to challenge one of my core beliefs about cycling. That being the clipless pedal.
Since I started riding in earnest back in 2002, I had not ridden more than 10 minutes on a pair of flat pedals. When I bought my first real bike, I got a pair of shoes and pedals. No helmet; no shorts; no jersey. Just pedals and shoes. Truth be told, I am a bit of a sneakerhead, so the idea of cycling shoes did appeal to me.
Riding in a cycling shoe is a unique experience in and of itself. The shoe feels like a track spike and attaches to the bike; what's not to like! (rhyming, maybe I'll turn this article into a poem). Everyone else with a fancy bike clipped in, so I rode my bike clipped in for the next 18 years.
Fun fact: I even bolted a cleat to the bottom of my walking boot when I tore my achilles. That is how pro-clipping in I was.
Cut to 2020, there are no races, and I need to find something to occupy my time. During this time, I came across James Wilson. James is an interesting fellow, but the thing that really caught me off guard was how he talked about body movement. I heard him say things that I've said myself.
It makes sense, James has been highly successful in the bike industry for a long time, working with off-bike strength programs mostly in the mountain bike realm. Meeting someone as into movement patterns in the bike world is rare, then to hear him echo things I have said is bonkers. As much as I appreciated James' knowledge and approach to cycling, there was one concept that I did not see eye to eye with him on. That was the Flat Pedal.
Fun Fact: Even though both James and I have been in the bike industry for several decades, we met through Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Being a Roadie turned Triathlete, I thought that flat pedals were for children and hipsters. While I still believe this to be true, I have given the flat pedal a try because of James's argument on their behalf.
In a nutshell, his argument is that the foot is not correctly supported when using a typical, clipless pedal and shoe ("typical" refers to mass-produced products, exceptions can be found in custom products).
As much as I wanted to debate James on this idea, I could not. I have written at least one article for this blog about how learning to squat properly can help a person in endurance sport. I gave what I consider an under-appreciated presentation about squatting/proper muscle activation at a coaches seminar, and anyone who has done a fit or camp with me has learned how to squat.
My focus has been the hips, the top of the kinetic chain. The place where all the power in the pedal stroke comes from. James, on the other hand, focused on the foot. The place where power is applied. Whenever I talked someone through squatting, I inevitably explained how the foot stays in contact with the ground--mainly the triangle of the foot. There needs to be pressure on the 1st metatarsal head, 5th metatarsal head, and the heel to produce the most economic pedal stroke ( REMINDER: economy is the balance between force produced and calories used). This is where the typical clipless pedal/shoe falls short in allowing maximum force production.
No matter how still the sole of the is, the pedal's axle is located at or just behind the metatarsal heads, taking the pressure off the heel and forcing the calf to stabilize the foot.
However, a flat pedal that can span the longitudinal arch of the foot (the smug way of saying the distance between the ball of the foot and heel) allows for even distribution of pressure on the triangle of the foot. This causes a more economic pedal stroke because the calf is not being used for bracing.
Fun fact: When I put the flat pedals on my tri bike, it felt like the first time I shaved my legs - very taboo and oddly pleasing.
Currently (mid-September 2020), I have only been riding the flat pedals for 6 weeks, but I have logged many miles. So far, my FTP has remained the same, 10s power is up ~15%, and cadence remains the same. I'd like to note that my Achilles are both in great shape right now when I usually have issues with this much volume.
As crazy as this would sound to me 10 years ago, I would recommend everyone try flat pedals. Making sure that the pedal does support both the ball and heel of your foot. A good option, and my brand of choice, is the Catalyst pedal by Pedaling Innovations. Pedaling Innovations actually make 2 sizes to accommodate most foot sizes.