As I always do I peruse the Internet quite often and I stopped by one of my favorite sites bikejames.com I find James to be one of the more open, straight forward guys out there and value his opinion and information pretty highly and his work out plans kick ass.
He did an interview with an Irish Bike Club Donegal MTB Club. It was short and sweet but he hit on a couple points that I think about a lot and end up in discussions a lot of the time about these topics, especially at the local trails and I think he made some good points.
Here is the excerpt first:
(6) Clip-Ins or Flats? How do you find people react to clips ins physically when switching from flats – does it take time for their hamstrings to adjust?
Flats force you to learn how to develop a more natural pedal stroke and technique. The best riders in the world can ride flats almost as efficiently as clipless pedals. This means two things – 1) clipless pedals are faster and 2) if you can’t ride flats almost as good as clipless pedals then you are relying on the attachment point for a less efficient movement pattern.
Our legs are made to push, not pull, and flats force you to develop a pushing pedaling style. Once you have that down do what you like, just don’t tell me that clipless are “better” or that you can’t bunny hop without being attached to your pedals. Leave your ego at the door and learn to ride flats – you’ll be a much better rider for it in the long run and your knees and low back will thank you.
(7) We have a Canadian member of our club who raves about 29ers…No-one in our club is listening Whats your views?
Overrated for the most part. They are a lot like clipless pedals – they can be better but they can also be used to make up for a lack of fitness and skill. Wear out your regular bike and then worry about it. Too many riders are looking for that “magic bullet” and the bike industry is more than willing to cash in on this by selling big wheel bikes to riders who simply need to do some kettlebell swings and take a skills clinic.
That all being said, I've felt that flats are on a level playing field with clips for years. Ever since I was a teenager racing BMX and beating the kids with clips. I did give them a try for a bit while racing but never felt comfortable in them and after I crashed hard I swore I'd never go back and I didn't until I rode across the country. At that time I figured I would give them another go. I wore them, they worked great, did they give me an advantage? I don't know I wouldn't have anything to compare it to and I didn't have any measurable results documented if I did try to go and test that theory and I doubt I will have the time or money again to ride across the country anytime soon.
I continued to ride them the next summer in my gravel grinder races and cyclocross races. Why? because everyone else was doing it basically and I didn't know any better. I started to read James' blog and it made a lot of sense what he was saying so I said forget them all together and I rode all summer with out them and had a great time. I raced a Xterra Tri and a gravel grinder 86miles on flats and I felt just fine. I really don't think that one or the other gives you a distinct advantage. It sounds like James is agreeing with the masses and saying they are faster but which might be true but in the studies I've read they only give you a 3-5% efficiency gain and do not create a more powerful pedal stroke.
I do not believe either one is particularly better then the other, it is personal choice but as James states I don't think that new riders should start out on clipless right away. I feel that the only way you will be able to truly harness that small efficiency gain is by mastering your riding skills on flats and then if you choose get yourself a set of quality clips and shoes.
I love the point he makes about 29ers. I have mentioned this before on forums and was basically attacked. I think that they are very similar to clips in multiple facets. First they should not be the first choice for new riders. They are much more difficult to handle due to the higher center of gravity and the larger centrifugal force created by the wheels. It takes good technique to corner properly on them. Is there a small advantage for racing these bikes, especially in XC? Maybe but all the reports I've read have only shown a few seconds advantage but a few seconds might make a difference in a race but it's hard to compare when it's pros doing the riding because they can rip anything because they are that good. Second do they work as crutch like clips do and cover up bad technique and form? Yeah I think to a point they do, especially if some one new to the sport jumped right onto a full suspension 29er. It will allow them to ride things that they probably wouldn't have been able to on a 26er or a HT straight out of the gate. You might think well that is great, well it is and it isn't. It's like a new born that starts walking before they crawl. You think hell they are a rock star but actually they skipped an important part of their development and it will catch up to them and end up hurting them in the long run as they have to work harder to relearn those skills when they get to the bigger and more technical obstacles where messing up can get you seriously hurt. Third, I think just like clips the 29er is being pushed too hard and too fast onto too many riders. There are advantages to these pieces of equipment in MTB, look at Carl Decker, he pulled out a huge win at the Downieville Classic where no one thought a 29er would be a good bike to race but again, he's a pro and probably would have killed it on his 26er too.
Before you buy either just think about it, are you buying it because it's the hot new item that you think you need and hope it will make you better with out any extra work or because you have reached the limit of your flat pedals or your old 26inch bike and need that next step in performance?
Are either of these the magic bullet that will make you a WC super star racer? No, does that exist? No, you need to train hard and ride harder but still have fun because that is what it's all about!
Keep it real!