Dirty Words: Flat pedals for a round planet

By Sal Ruibal

When I first learned to ride a mountain bike in 1996, I was introduced to a guy named Ned Overend. We were at a Cactus Cup training camp set up by Specialized the week before the big Arizona series of races.

Ned was going to teach a motley crew of journalists how to ride these new-fangled bikes with big knobby tires and revolutionary – for that time – front and rear suspension. I believe the travel for both shocks was about 1.5 inches. Revolutionary, dude.

Ned and other pros, Steve Tilford, Bart Brentjens and Todd Tanner among them, brought out our shiny new red and yellow mountain bikes. The rear shock was a thick yellow coil behind the saddle and had the density of pig iron.

That part made sense. Then they gave us mountain bike shoes that had a little metal piece bolted into soles just under the ball of the foot.

The pros explained to us that this little piece fit into the pedals, which they insisted on calling SPDs for no apparent reason. They told us our feet would be locked into the pedals so we could both pull up and down on the "clipless" pedals.

Ten blank stares were returned. We were about to learn to ride a mountain bike from pros at South Mountain, which boasted both the National and Mormon Trails. With our feet stuck to the pedals.

State of the art, circa 1996. No joke.

I would like to say that hilarity ensued, but as I now run my fingers over 16-year-old scar tissue on my shins and elbows, I vividly recall a sick series of crashes into cactus gardens, rock gardens, boulders and fellow riders.

These locked-in and tipped-over crashes were referred to as Arte Johnson crashes after a character on the very old Laugh-In comedy TV series who would ride his bike three yards then crash with his feet still on the pedals. Ha ha ha.

Arte was better off than me and much of a generation that had to painfully learn how to ride "clipped in," a misnomer if there ever was one. The little metal piece is not the "clip." The clip that was "less" was the "toe clip" that held a bike shoe to a road bike pedal with a vertical metal strip and a horizontal leather or plastic strap.

The mountain bike pedal was named for what it was not.

Flash forward to 2012/2013 and we still call those pedals clipless. But the times they are a changin'. Backwards.

Back in the 1950s, everyone rode bikes with platform, or flat pedals. I used to ride barefoot on the rubber and metal flat pedals on my Schwinn.

That Mesozoic flat pedal has survived the many lives of the mountain bike industry despite the steep learning curve that has caused many newcomers to quickly drop it after mangling their limbs before they could ride out of the parking lot.

"SPDs are more efficient that flats," they were told. "You'll catch on after your orthopedic surgeon fuses your tibia."

One of the most endearing things about mountain biking is that everything that is old becomes new again.

This came about in the last decade because jumping your bike became cooler than just riding your bike. But coming out of your SPDs while in mid-air required clipping back in to a pedal the size of a Oreo cookie before you hit the ground.

So we eliminated the Oreo and made platform pedals with an SPD inside!

That works pretty well and I have had some great riding with the Time ATAC flat pedals Jill Kintner gave me for my enduro MTB. But that was like pre-dipped potato chips.

I still used the ATACs for cross-country fun rides and endurance races. But then I got pinned—about 10 per side.

True flat pedals (shin-shredding pins and all) make a lot of sense and I should have realized this a long time ago, but I never felt hip enough to use them just for the 90 percent of my riding that's just mucking around on the local tracks.

But then my wife had ankle tendon reconstruction surgery and the doc told her the torque needed for clipless pedals could rip up the tendon.

She didn't want to quit riding, so I suggested she get a pair of pinners and some pin-able shoes. The key was that she would have to get a whole bunch of new bike shoes, which took zero convincing.

The forbidden fruit that has sorely tempted Sal.

I was still holding out, but my West Coast BIKE colleagues had been pinning for years, so I bought some pinners myself. Figured I would use them for those chilly, muddy days on the East Coast when an SPD cleat would freeze-lock into the pedal.

I bought some high-top Van's and, wow, they felt comfy and I didn't have to ratchet my foot like a hoof to feel secure. And I didn't have to change shoes to drive the bike-truck. I rode them this week at Laurel Hill and Accotink and felt like a kid again, a free man in Paris, unfettered and alive.

The interface between the pedal and foot is now somehow more organic, not in a Whole Foods sort of way, but more like a Flintstones car sort of way.

There is no one-pedal-fits-all solution and I'll still race with metal to the pedal, but you owe it to yourself to try something new.

I was looking in a toolbox and found a set of ATAC cleats still in the bag. The price-tag read $31.99 – for two little cleats and four bolts. I got my pinner flat pedals and Van's shoes for less than $70 total and I won't have to replace them as often as those brass cleats.