Can you ride harder in softer shoes?


Conventional wisdom tells us stiffer-soled cycling shoes are better than softer ones. Something out Power! and Efficiency! and Being Pro!

Our friend Max asks whether that’s true, especially for mountain bikers.


Hi Lee,

My main focus when setting up my bike are the contact points: grips, saddle, tires, pedals, shoes. I ride flat pedals more often than not, and lately I’ve been experimenting with my shoes. I know the prevailing trend in cycling footwear is stiff and stiffer, even in a lot of shoes geared for flat pedals. I question wether having the stiffest footwear is the most optimal way to rip your bike. I became inspired by watching footage of Josh Bryceland, taking note of how involved his hips and body were in getting his bike to move around. I also noticed how flexible his shoe choice was, it seems at some moments his feet absolutely fold over his pedals. So I began to think whether my mobility and bike control were being held back by my relatively stiff choice of footwear (5.10 Impacts).

So I got a pair of 5.10 Aescents, not a cycling shoe, but sticky rubber, and way more flexible than the Impacts. My ability to use my body and hips on the bike and especially in the corners increased noticeably. By effectively activating my feet instead of limiting their movement I gained way more control over the bike. My rides have tons of long climbs, and according to my stopwatch I lost nothing in terms of climbing speed, and in fact I felt like I could drive more force into the pedals increasing power with a more flexible sole. I am obviously in the minority on this, and there are people with access to wind tunnels that I don’t have, but my question is why? Why are we obsessed with stiffness and the perceived power transfer, when there are other things that are perhaps more important? As Shakira says “My hips don’t lie.”

Thanks for listening,

MAX JANSONS


Max!

Thanks for the great question. I’ve been wondering similar wonders.

First the video. Josh is fun to watch!

Last week I brought this up with Brian Briggs, a sports medicine specialist at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine. He and I enjoyed a great chat. Some thoughts:

Your feet are neither dumb platforms nor static levers. They contain lots of joints and muscles and nerves, just like your hands. They are complex and smart — and they are wired into your entire neuromuscular system. The more control and strength you have in your feet, the better the system works. That’s why Brian encourages his patients to train with bare feet.

The way I understand pedaling, you should drive force from the ball of your foot directly into the pedal spindle. When you leap over a car that’s about to smash into you (as I’ve done on my road bike — whew!), do you jump off your heels? Do you jump off your arches? No: You launch off the balls of your feet.

When you pedal you should also fire through the balls of your feet. When you shred (corner, pump, hop, jump, etc.) it should be the same — but even more dynamic and powerful. I know some people believe in mid-foot pedal and cleat placement, but the human animal is designed to explode off the ball of the foot, and I think this is how most of us should Ride (capital R).

If you watch Josh closely, his feet move around on the pedals. But he’s an elite talent with a unique riding style. I don’t suggest copying him.

The part of your shoe that’s between the ball of your foot and your pedal should be stiff enough to support pedaling and Riding forces. The rest of the sole can be soft enough to help you walk, hike, run, jump and shred — and it won’t hurt your pedaling power.

Check out the pressure on the ball of Josh’s right foot!

I’m currently riding the Specialized 2FO Clip shoe:

The 2FO is made for aggressive riding: hiking unrideable sections, pedaling up mountains, sprinting out of start gates, carving corners, pumping sine waves of love and all that good stuff. It’s comfortable, walks/hikes/runs/jumps like a real shoe and is not hurting my pedal power. Heck, I’ve hit almost 1,800 watts in the 2FOs.

Specialized gives its shoes a stiffness index. The S-Works XC shoe is a 13. The 2FO is a 6. Guys like Curtis Keene, Mitch Ropelato and Aaron Gwin are pedaling just fine in their 2FOs, and the greater flexibility of the shoes might help them perform like the human animals they are.

Why are we obsessed with stiffness and the perceived power transfer, when there are other things that are perhaps more important?

Ha!

I’ve worked closely with thousands of riders. Until they learn better (see the Pump Up the Base fitness and pedaling program), most of them pedal almost entirely with their quads. Their hips aren’t firing, and their ankles and feet are static. When you pedal like this, you’re treating your foot like a dumb platform. In this case, a shoe that supports your whole foot might feel better.

There’s more glamor and profit in selling items that deliver InstaPerformance™ than in teaching people how to move optimally. Very few companies — and even coaches — know or care how bodies and bikes should interact. It’s easier to sell quick solutions.

I’m not a PhD, but Brian is. He says, “This all makes a lot of sense. We just don’t have the data to prove it — yet.”

Be nice and kick ass,

Lee


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13 replies
  1. Sven says:

    “Until they learn better, most of them pedal almost entirely with their quads”

    That is one point I’m currently beginning to really understand and improve – after years of mountainbiking and even going through PUTB for two years (and incorporating its concepts and PTPI into everyday riding). One thing I always noticed is that the muscles that start burning the most on longer/intense uphills are the quads, i.e. I’m engaging them quite hard instead of favoring the bigger and more powerful glutes.
    Now I’m more and more learning to use the glutes when pedaling by focusing on it. I imagine pushing the legs down kind of like a bit from behind which helps engaging them. When doing so, it’s immediately noticeable that there’s more power and especially more endurance when laying power down to the pedals. There’s probably even more which can be gained by focusing on increasing the engagement of other muscles useful for pedalling. I’m still in the process of learning all of this and “programming” it into my pedalling movement, which will probably take quite some time.
    Maybe I should also get the saddle a tiny bit more to the back of the bike on my Stumpy Evo 29, perhaps this helps even more for glute-pedalling.

    Greetings from Germany 😉

    Reply
  2. Jared13 says:

    Cool! I tried this even before I knew it was a thing!

    Like most new folks to the sport, I started riding with flat pedals and quickly switched to clips (it’s what the bike shop recommended!). I spent time learning how to clip and unclip then took to the trails…I hated every minute of it. I kept on trying thinking I would begin to enjoy the awesomeness that is clipless. After a month I ditched the clipless and went back to flats and sneakers. I definitely rode harder/faster and enjoyed it more. However, after an hour or so my feet HURT. Just like with the clipless, I kept on trying. However, my feet were always sore after riding for more than an hour. I switched to 5.10 Impact lows and never looked back! I would love to see where they rate on Specialized’s stiffness index scale.

    All that said, I do have a pair of 2FO flats on order from the LBS. 😀 They are definitely cooler temp wise than the 5.10s, I can’t wait to use them now that it’s warming up!

    Reply
  3. John says:

    Cool article Lee! Always something new to work on.

    Question for you – at certain points in the video (e.g., 1:45), it looks like Josh is cornering the bike entirely on his back wheel. Seems he’s able to quickly move the bike through the corner by unweighting the front wheel and pivoting on the back.

    Is this an extension of good cornering technique – or is it a different technique altogether, to be used in certain situations? Love to hear your thoughts. I’m going to play with this on the trail today!

    Reply
  4. Wacek says:

    After my XC racing ballerinas wore off I bought 5.10 MFalcons and suddenly all my mid foot pains went away. I like your take on foot as a static dumb platform, Lee. Once I watched TDF and took a close look how the best paid men in cycling pedal. Many of them have a completely dead foot. Some seem to push over the top and move it around a lot. I just don’t get it, when you are paid 4k € a month to spin circles, you’d be expected to have some composure for each pedal stroke… Or to lean your bike more than yourself through a hammerhead corner, particularly in a situation where if you fall, you take down a dozen of others with you… Alberto Contador is the king though…

    Reply
  5. Steve R says:

    great Article on shoes Lee. Got a pair of 2fo. Love them! Moved my cleat position so the ball of foot is on top of the spindle. What a difference, I can now pop, dance, pump, and wheelie easier!, great foot leverage for power to.
    Also am running tires you recommend, Butcher. Front, purge in back. With your skills training, equip recommendations, and my forty years of braping, I’m now riding better, safer, and faster than ever. Thanks lee.

    Reply
  6. leelikesbikes says:

    Well said Wacek. It amazes me: At the high level the riders put so much time/effort/pain into their craft yet so many ignore the basics, which are easy, earn bigger money and are FUN!

    Reply
  7. Sven says:

    So after some weeks of training to use more muscles for spinning the pedals, I’d like to come back here and say it’s amazing…amazing how much more power you can lay down short and long term, how much longer you can do “all out”-pedalling up shorter steep climbs without your legs feeling like they’re going to explode, how much more fatigue-resistant your legs will be and so more day-to-day riding when there’s time to do so.
    I’m still learning this kind of pedalling though, as it is not yet happening “automatically”, most of the time I have to focus on pedaling, some days it works out better, some not.

    Reply
  8. leelikesbikes says:

    John:

    In my opinion, that’s a specific technique and part of Josh’s riding style. While I can see it being useful in some crazy situations, I think most of us are better off mastering centered riding.

    Compare Josh’s riding style and race record with Aaron Gwin.

    Also look at the way a master like Brian Lopes corners.

    Reply
  9. Purplehayes says:

    I enjoy most of your content and I come to learn but when it comes to J. Bryceland’s foot placement you are way off. I see one snapshot from that video and you seem to use it as an example of his preferred placement. He rides mid foot. Just watch the whole thing in slo-mo. Mid foot is a thing and it works.

    Reply
    • leelikesbikes says:

      “If you watch Josh closely, his feet move around on the pedals. But he’s an elite talent with a unique riding style. I don’t suggest copying him.”

      Do whatever makes you happy!!!

      Reply
      • Purplehayes says:

        Thanks for responding. For sure he moves around and I would have been more accurate to say that. I’d say the majority of his riding is mid foot, with exceptions, for instance, manuals, some jumping, jibs etc.

        I’ve found more power, control and stamina riding mid foot and it’s transformed my riding. Mid foot recruits the postural muscles and leaves the weaker, quad and calf for fine tuning.

        Those that I know, locally, that are the best riders use it. I’m curious why you don’t approve of it, why do you think it’s only for the highly skilled or elite?

        Reply

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