Clipless or Flat for XC Racing

By Martin Atanasov

There is a division in our society – a genuine existential stratification between the masses. I’m talking about what pedals to put on for XC racing. Flat or clipless is the ultimate question every rider needs to answer for themselves and start preaching as soon as they find their own truth.

Well, okay, that was a dramatic intro but the fact is that clipless and flat both have their fans. So, what should you choose for amateur or semi-professional XC racing? Let’s talk it over.

The pedals you know

Now, if you tell me you learned to ride a bike as a toddler with clipless pedals, your parents were either insane or you are lying. I’d bet it’s the latter since strapping your kid’s feet to a pedal should be a form of child abuse, shouldn’t it? Indeed, flat pedals are the pedals you know, the pedals you learned to ride with, the pedals that feel like an extension of your feet. They’re the pedals you learned how to bail when falling, and how to manoeuvre and balance with. But that’s not the only advantage of flats over clipless.

When you start joining races, be prepared that you won’t be able to ride the entire course. This means you will have to get off your bike and push. Regular shoes with flat pedals will give you a significant advantage when pushing your bike.

Furthermore, flat pedals have a much larger platform, which offers stability and makes jumping, pumping, and lifting your wheel much easier. They also allow us to be much more dynamic on the bike. Most importantly, however, flat pedals give you a quick and easy bail when things go sideways.

Naturally, not everything about flat pedals is fine and dandy. There are some drawbacks as well.

XC Race
What should you choose for amateur or semi-professional XC racing? © Profimedia

The pedals that hurt

Good flat pedals have these small spikes that keep your foot glued to them. Well, everyone who has a shin knows the feeling when both meet on an unfortunate blind date. Yeah, it’s not a pretty sight and it definitely is not among my top ten experiences when riding a bike.

Unfortunately, hitting your shin on the pedals is uncomfortably common during a race. The terrain constantly changes, there are some traffic jams on narrower paths, and you often find yourself pushing your bike in tight spots and not really paying enough attention to where your pedals are. That’s when your pedals strike the hardest.

Furthermore, some rougher terrain may cause your legs to lose the pedals and hit you again. It’s not pretty, though it’s definitely not fatal.

What I’m trying to say is that flat pedals require excellent technique so you don’t lose them during more aggressive sections of the trail. Moreover, flats will prevent you from achieving maximum efficiency through your pedal strokes and will prevent you from maintaining a high cadence.

Finally, due to their size, some technical climbs may prove hard to clear, as the pedals will inevitably crash into a rock or root, throwing you off balance.

Yep, flats are a blessing and a curse. But so are the clipless pedals, so don’t rush to the store to buy a pair just yet.

The pedals for speed

There is a reason why roadies are madly in love with clipless pedals. They are like a cheat code when it comes to speed. Clipless pedals offer better consistency, faster cadence, and energy transfer. This means you will ride faster and longer with less effort. The secret is in the additional muscles involved in the pedalling process. With clipless pedals, you can also pull, which activates your back thigh muscles, giving you extra endurance and speed.

Furthermore, you are far more stable on your bike during rough terrains, meaning you can go even faster through roots, rocks, and other obstacles. And since your head is stuck in the same place, there is no need to find your balance every few seconds when you bump off a jump.

The size of the clipless pedal also works to your advantage, as you can easily clear rocks and roots during climbs without the fear of hitting anything and losing your balance.

Most importantly, however, clipless pedals will give you much greater control over the bike. When you are stuck on your bike, you can pretty much control every single aspect of it. This allows you to jump, control your rear wheel, and hop over obstacles with far fewer skills than you’d need if you were to do the same with flat pedals.

Still, don’t think that clipless pedals are the best thing since sliced bread. They also have their fair share of downsides.

The pedals that don’t let you go

Clipless pedals are like an obsessed ex-boyfriend or girlfriend. They simply don’t want to let you go. Now, while this gives you the advantages I already listed, it can also bring a lot of problems. Especially if you’re not used to riding with these types of pedals. You need to be able to unclip yourself instantly and believe me, after 3 hours of pedalling, you have long forgotten your foot is glued to the pedal. So, it’s not uncommon to see someone just drop sideways on the ground, as if hit by lightning. Usually, this is not a big deal but in rougher terrains, not being able to bail may lead to injuries.

Furthermore, the smaller size of the pedals does not allow such easy bursts of explosive moves, like climbing over a rock or a steep hill. With clipless, it’s all about cadence and routine.

Worst of all, however, is the mud problem. You will see a lot of mud during races, and you must learn not to care about getting muddy from head to toe. This, however, means you will get mud on your cleats and pedals, preventing you from clipping in. You will have to stop and clean your shoes. The worst part is that if you ignore this and manage to clip regardless of the mud, you risk unclipping at the wrong moment, leading to severe injuries.

As you can see, clipless pedals have their dark side as well.

What to choose

Well, of course, that depends on how advanced a rider you are, the trail, and your style. If you can keep yourself on the bike and you are fast enough to avoid the traffic jams on the narrower parts, then clipless pedals can be a great asset.

However, if you are new to the XC racing world and are not used to clipless pedals yet, try them out on your own terms first. Make sure you feel comfortable in a training setting. Do some downhill sections and climbs first. Ensure you can keep up with the higher cadence, and learn how to properly clip and unclip instantly before you start racing with them. Until then, flats will be your best friend during a race.