Re-Thinking Clipless Pedals
Apologies in advance if this post sounds like an ad or a promoted blog post. It is not! Just sharing my recent revelation because it’s been transformative for me and I’m thrilled.
I’ve tried everything (nearly) to deal with ball-of-foot pain on longer rides — 3 or 4 different clipless systems, different shoes, inserts, adjusting cleat position… nothing has helped (though I haven’t seen a podiatrist). I’ve found I’m happiest in my very wide Lake shoes with SPD-Ls, but even with those, my feet are so numb I can barely walk after about 3 hours of ride time.
People assume that road cyclists need to be able to pull up on the back-stroke to maximize efficiency. That’s why virtually all of us use clipless pedal system, right? We believe this not because we’ve read the science on it, but because it is the norm in road cycling, and it wouldn’t be the norm if it weren’t true (right?). But what if it wasn’t?
Then I came across this video made by a sports strength trainer, that sort of turns the assumption on its head.
The philosophy of Catalyst flats makes a lot of sense to me: The arch is one of nature’s strongest structures, but it falls apart if one end of the arch isn’t supported. That’s what happens with clipless — you have an unsupported foot arch, and the stiffness of road shoes is an attempt to compensate. But if you had a looonnng pedal, you could support both ends of the arch in whatever shoes you like.
“A common belief among cyclists is that a stiff-soled shoe is absolutely necessary for an efficient pedal stroke. Many believe that conventional cycling shoes possess stiff soles for performance reasons when, in fact, stiff-soled shoes are actually an attempt to manage the inherently unnatural clipless pedal interface.”
So we’re basically talking about heresy here. People just don’t use flat pedals on distance rides — it’s not done! But what if it were?
So I ordered a pair of Catalysts and have done half a dozen rides with them. The company says it takes three or four rides before your body re-acclimates:
Your body can adapt to sub-optimal conditions and that is what has happened with your current foot and body position. If you commit to the pedals and the mid-foot position for a few weeks then your body will start to recognize the better movement and position and adapt to it.
See those traction studs in the picture above? Catalysts come with two sets of them — one long and one short. In my case, the short ones were pre-installed. I soon realized that I wanted a bit more traction, so sat down with an Allen wrench and swapped them out. There are 72 of them in all, so replacement was a bit tedious (I recommend pre-ordering them with long studs pre-installed, if you have the option).
Efficiency (Personal Tests)
How much efficiency would you be giving up in exchange for comfort gained if you switched from clipless to long flats? This is where it gets really interesting. Anecdotally, riders report NO lost efficiency (I’ve seen various posts questioning whether the efficiency gain of clipless pedals is measurable enough to be “worth it” for non-pro riders to begin with). If there’s no lost efficiency, and you can wear any shoes you want, erase some body pain, have comfort while walking around, and increase safety from the occasional clip-out near-disaster, why stay with clipless?
Since I track all of my rides on Strava (profile), and all of my previous rides were done with clipless, it was a simple matter to just do some of my old rides again and compare the times. Of course there are a bunch of factors that contribute to ride time differences (fitness level on that day, outside temperature, tire pressure, bike condition…) but ballpark was good enough for me.
First, a quick climbing route with a max gradient of 13%. Highlighted ride is with the Catalyst. Compared to previous runs, it’s neither the fastest nor the slowest.
Despite the steep climb, rapid descent, and fast pace over some bumpitty pavement, I never for a moment felt insecure, or like I would “slip out of” the pedals. And I loved having the ability to just put my foot down at stops (funny, I still found myself flicking my heel outward out of habit at first).
Then a longer one I sometimes do with my club:
OK, not exactly scientific, but clearly my times with flat pedals are not noticeably different from historical averages, and the differences can be chalked up to other factors.
Of course I can’t provide realistic wattage differences without a watt meter (which I don’t have), but this is good enough for me. Because guess what? After that 3.5-hour Adagio, I was experiencing NO foot pain. None! My feet felt great, and this had a surprising effect on how good the rest of my body felt (even my neck and shoulders!) And the post-ride sensations later that day and the next were noticeably better as well. Meanwhile, I never had to fiddle with clipping in or out, I was able to walk around normally when off the bike, and I can experiment with shoes all I want without “buying into” a system.
Sorry if this sounds evangelical, but it’s like all kinds of lights are switching on for me. At this point, just a few rides in, I’m already sold. Don’t think I’ll ever be going back to clipless.
Once you make this transition to “flats on a road bike” you find yourself in sort-of lonely territory. Mountain bikers often/usually ride flat pedals, and there are tons of footwear options out there for them, but what should road riders who don’t use clipless systems wear? Right now, I’m just using my Hoka trail running shoes, though I’ve also tried a pair of lightweight hikers. Both worked well, but I’m on the lookout for the perfect shoe. Wide toe box, breathable, semi-firm sole with a nice gummy sole those traction studs can dig into. People have recommended the Adidas 510s to me — I tried one pair and found them a bit narrow. Recommendations welcome.
Excellent article here.
People have asked whether I felt “safe” on a road bike in flat pedals. I can’t emphasize this enough — the grip of those 18 traction studs against a soft rubber soul is insane. I can tip my foot all the way back or forwards and it doesn’t slip a hair.
Meanwhile, everyone has stories about disasters or near-misses while clipping out at stops. That problem goes away, and you return to cycling the way you did it when you were a kid. You step off the pedal, and that’s all.
Personally, I think there’s a huge safety win by riding flat pedals on a road bike.