Readers’ Forum: Flat pedals vs foot retention

Readers’ Forum: Flat pedals vs foot retention

The readers of Bicycle Quarterly are a vibrant group, and that comes through in the Readers’ Forum where we publish comments, opinions, and questions. It’s more than just a ‘Letters to the Editor’ section; we also answer technical questions that don’t warrant a complete Bicycle Quarterly article. In a recent edition, we talked about flat pedals. Does foot retention really provide a useful benefit? As so often, the answer is: It depends. Here’s the section from the Readers’ Forum in BQ 77:

Q: I am wondering if BQ can weigh in on Clipless vs. Flat Pedals. I recently switched to good-quality mountain bike-style flat pedals on my gravel bike and do not find any change in my pedal stroke or perceived power. Do you really get any more power lifting on the upstroke with clipless pedals? Does it really make a difference for non-competitive riding? Or is this just another unchallenged myth?

A: There are several studies showing that, under constant efforts, flat pedals are as efficient as pedals with foot retention. That is my experience, too. When climbing Jikkoku Pass in Japan as part of New Year’s Cycling in the snow (above), I opted for hiking boots and flat pedals. I had to focus a bit on keeping my feet on the pedals, but that was no trouble, and I really enjoyed the ride. This supports the notion that during constant efforts, there’s almost no pulling up on the pedals. I opted for flat pedals and boots mostly in case we had to hike through snow. I also found it useful to be able to start on slippery terrain without having to flip my pedal. 

Things are quite different on rolling terrain and/or during spirited rides. Trying to commute on flat pedals in Seattle was not successful for me. I found that without being able to pull up on the pedals, I lacked the power to get over short uphills that are common here in the city – something I found very frustrating. And during spirited rides on bikes with toeclips, I have to tighten the straps very securely to prevent pulling out of the pedals. Clearly, during short bursts of extra effort, many riders pull up and back on the pedals with significant force. That’s why racers have used foot retention for more than a century.

Natsuko uses flat pedals for passhunting, because it’s easier to start with them in rough terrain. For cyclotouring, she prefers half-clips. She explained that the half-clips allow her to pull on the pedals. When I rode with flat pedals on Jikkoku Pass, I chose MKS Sylvan Next Touring pedals, because the cages interlocked nicely with the soles of my hiking boots. This also provided a little foot retention and gave me a bit more ability to pull back at the bottom of the stroke and push forward at the top, without my feet coming off the pedals.

Another factor to consider is safety. In situations where you may need to get a foot down very quickly – for example, on ice or snow – no foot retention may be preferable. On the other hand, at high speeds on bumpy terrain, having your feet securely attached to the pedals may increase safety.

Finally, there is the issue of jumping the bike, for example, if there’s a rut across the gravel road. Expert BMX and mountain bike riders can bunny-hop their bikes with flat pedals. For most of us, jumping our bikes is much easier if we can lift the rear wheel by pulling up on the pedals.—JH

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Other submissions from readers in BQ 77 included an idea for a jig that centers fender holes, a correction about a mid-century French cyclotouring magazine, a note about Japanese builders of Keirin bikes, and more. We welcome submissions to the Readers’ Forum from everybody – there’s no need to be a subscriber. Simply send your submission to bqletters at bikequarterly dot com. (You can also write a letter, if you prefer.) Please understand that we cannot respond individually to submissions. If your submission is selected, you’ll find it (and an answer, if appropriate) in the magazine.

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