Climbing with clips

A couple days ago I sprinted with clip-in pedals rather than flat pedals, and the power increase was dramatic.

Today I climbed with clips. More drama.

Quick version

Was climbing the hill to my house faster with clips than with flats? Yes.

Was it a lot faster? Yep.

Was it harder? No, not really.

Would I do it again? Yes.

Do clips suck? No.

Should people ride flats or clips? I think they should learn to ride flats, then pick the best pedal for their rides and riding style.


S-Works Tricross with Sun-Ringle Accelerator 29er wheels and a Shimano Ultegra SL build. “Road compact” gearing with a 34×28 low.

The red, battered and trusty Shimano 636 DH pedals. Dang, these pedals are 15 years old and survived my early DH years. Shimano XC race shoes.

Standard stressed out, tired, sore and achy body.

Climb up Linden Dr. to my house. The climb is about two miles with 1,000 feet vertical. Big headwind today.

A couple years ago, I was running 29 minutes and feeling crappy. I switched to flat pedals, learned how to pedal and started building aerobic base.

My current times average 23 to 24 minutes, and my best is 20:30. That’s a huge improvement — and I feel good doing it.


Clipped in.

Rode the bike for errands and met The Bugs and The Wife at African dance. I always wondered what non-bike people do; this is one of the cooler things.

Dragged my ass toward the hill. I felt tired, achy and sore. The bike felt gross. My feet were in the wrong place, my seat was too high, my seat was too low, my knees were hurting, my hips, my back, yuck. Mostly, I missed the freedom of the flats, and I just didn’t like the way the bike felt.

As the climb began and the pedal pressure increased, I gradually lined everything up and felt better. I focused on smooth power and about 8/10 effort at 60-70 rpm. I pedaled pretty much the same way I would with flats, but I did feel more engaged all the way around the circle. I did pull up when I stood. I did pull back on the steepest section. It felt solid, connected. Round.

And the time …


My previous best was 20:20. That’s an improvement of 1:45 or 9 percent.


Yeah yeah, this isn’t scientifically valid. I’ve been rocking the mobility, strength, pump track and Sufferfest pretty hard, and maybe I’m fitter now. (But 9 percent fitter than last week?)

What this means

Testing will continue, but I can confidently say:

• Clips don’t suck. Neither do flats.

• If you can pedal well, clips might help you pedal even better.

• I’ve been having a lot of fun on flat pedals, and for most situations I climb fast enough. But: If I need all the power I can muster, I just might clip in.



Know more. Have more fun!

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28 replies
  1. chance says:

    Awesome job that is super huge and super impressive! I’m guessing its a bit of both the hard work and clips to = 9% but either way that is big time!

    “Should people ride flats or clips? I think they should learn to ride flats, then pick the best pedal for their rides and riding style. ”

    This is the best line out of the write up! Thanks again for all you do for the sport! I hope some day to help the local youth in a similar way! I’ll keep an open mind and keep learning and evolving!
    Keep it real!

  2. Jenn says:

    Really appreciate these comparisons you’re doing — I’ve been skeptical of the clips vs flats debates I’ve found on the web before but I trust your analysis. I’ve also wondered whether flat-pedal riders would see much performance improvement using clips (at least initially) since they have not been training to “pull up” and therefore the muscles and coordination for that task are likely weak. But it sounds like clipping in provides a decent power boost anyway. Good to know.

  3. chance says:

    so lee didn’t you basically say don’t pull up in this article of yours or is that just how I interpreted it? I guess my understanding was that your pedal stroke shouldn’t really change at all from clips to flats or visa versa? or should it? I guess I’m just confused. As your power should be coming from you glutes, and quads mostly… right? your hip flexors are what you use to pull up and those aren’t very large muscles and are easily susceptible to over use injuries….. Could you please clarify? Thanks

  4. leelikesbikes says:

    No matter what kind of pedals you use, you’ll gain the most from making the power phase as long as possible. This means catching the pedal as high as you can and pushing the pedal along its arc as low as you can.

    I think your basic technique — your focus on smooth transitions into long power strokes — should remain the same with all pedals.

    However, there’s all kinds of nuance. More on that when I get a chance.

  5. chance says:

    Cool thanks Lee, I’m only wondering as i get asked all the time “should I be trying to pull up when I’m clipped in” I always so no you should be applying your power from the top of our stroke as soon as you can about 1 o’clock or so until about 7 o’clock and by that time the other foot should be in power stroke push down and you should be disengaging your trail leg, so lightening it up. I tell them you might get a slight sensation of pulling up as you foot is attatched to the pedal but don’t accentuate this motion as your quads and glute are where your power comes from.
    If I’m wrong I want to stop giving bad advice, asap

  6. Eric says:

    I quit riding clipless a few years ago because I was touring. It’s nice to have footwear you can walk in when you don’t really have room for a second pair of shoes.
    I started using SPDs again recently for long distance road rides, though.
    Still riding flats on trail rides.

  7. Mike says:

    Chance – I think that what Lee has written about pedalling is pretty much spot on. But you will always have variation on that theme (the nuance I believe Lee is referring to), regardless of what you tell/coach people.
    Lee writes about having sore muscles/using different muscles with clips and I think this is a good example of nuance. Riders will take on board what you coach them, but end up doing what feels more comfortable for them in the end, using the principles of what has been taught.
    EG: a rider approaches a small pinch climb with clips, to get a bit more oomph to make the top, they will invariably pull up. It doesn’t mean they need to pedal like that all the time.
    Hope my 0.02c helps?

  8. Tino says:

    I have switched up between flats and clips for the last 4 years. I have a 100mm Stumpjumper(130mm forked stunt bike!) and an Enduro. Stumpjumper runs clips in winter and gets used most with a larsen rear tyre for mixing up large base mileage and slippy drifty fun.
    Enduro then comes out in spring with flats on for a bit of fun and getting technique settled. Through summer the Enduro runs the clips for brutal fast fun in the rough stuff/racing and the Stumpjumper runs flats for drifting about and playing on summer evenings.

    And so the cycle continues. Both types of pedal are ace fun when used in the environment you enjoy them.

  9. leelikesbikes says:


    Dude, I did not expect these kinds of results.

    I plan to do some more accurate testing. I’m thinking of alternating intervals with different pedals/shoes.

  10. Markus says:

    I had a similar experience last year. After spending about 6 months on flats I did my typical 2000ft. climb to the top of the local enduro dh run on clips and felt as if I just unloaded a 50lb. backpack. I rode clips for a couple more rides then switched back and then was faster on the flats!?? I don’t know if it’s a mental thing or if they both compliment each other somehow? I find clipping in seems to clear my mind and let me focus on spinning hard and putting the power down efficiently. I am currently trying to master that same mental/physical technique with flats, since I enjoy them more.

  11. BoxFit says:

    Hi Lee,

    Great info there.

    Four years ago I was lucky enough to train a couple times together with some of Latvia’s top BMX racers, including our Olympic champion Maris Strombergs. What I noticed that quite often those guys did practice gates with their flat pedals. I don’t know exactly why. Maybe it helps to improve their snap in some way.

    When I started riding bikes 8-9 years ago, I learned to ride on flats. A couple years later when I started to race DH and 4X I transferred to clips. I saw a huge improvement in my gate times as well in control (especially tight rhythm sections and high speed jumps). I tried to switch to flats for dirt jumping, but found it almost impossible. It messed up mine technique. If I used flats for a day or two, I would have to spend couple hours the next day to get mine clipped-in skills back. I understood it’s not worth changing and decided to do everything (including dirt jumping) clipped in.

    I know there are guys who can easily switch between pedals, but many have the same experience as I do. What about you Lee? Have you experienced the same issue? I know that when I’m jumping with clips I’m a lot more relaxed and in control.

    Funny enough currently I ride flats. I’m not racing anymore. I only do technical trail riding now and feel that flats give me advantage and a bit more safety when it gets really sketchy 🙂

    Love your site. regards,


  12. Esteban says:

    I just started to clip in 4 months ago and only for the dry rides, which have been around 10, compared to the 30 in the mud during the winter. I’ve been riding flats all my life and decided to give clickies a try since I’m leaving DH and getting more into am/enduro. Long story short: get your pedal position right on your clickies! I can not stress this enough. In my case: I set them up, rode up and down the street but there was something wrong on the trail. It felt weird. Yesterday I adjusted them, took some time to stop on the trail and re adjust them and sweet baby jesus it feels awsome.
    So my point is: take your time adjusting your clickies! Or anything on your bike.
    I found the power transfer clipped in is distributed differently on your foot depending on your shoes and system I guess, but at least in my case the foot position relative to the pedal axle isn’t the same for flats or clickies to feel the same. Maybe I’m just weird.

  13. leelikesbikes says:

    BoxFit: When I was with AA BMX Pro Jason Richardson working on the Pro BMX Book, he said he practices starts with flats too (but he races clipped in). He said it helped him engage the pedal more effectively. In the book is a photo of the soles of his flat-pedal shoes. Interesting wear pattern from catching the backstroke.

  14. Lars says:

    Hmmmm, did he just say 29’r AM?

    ….yep. He sure did. The world is turning upside down! This is going to be an awesome year. Will I see clips on DeFiebre Hill too?

  15. Feldy says:

    Lee, regarding your horrible unscientific-ness (and while I appreciate you mentioning it, I think you’re being too hard on yourself): I wonder how much the your cleat position and modified saddle position with different shoes/pedals is impacting your time. Maybe the modified position has as much/more to do with the increased speed/power than being clipped in. Or, maybe you’d be even faster if you adjusted to the proper position. If you want to completely nerd out, you can send me a bunch of different times on different days with different configurations and I can tell you if they’re statistically different. Impossible to do blind study in this case since you’ll know what pedals you have, etc.

    Also, as old-skool as you claim to be, I can’t believe you use the term “clips” to described SPD pedals and their ilk. The term is “clipless” as in not having toe clips. Of course, no-one* has been using toe clips in 20 years, and the term for being locked into said pedals is still “clipped in,” but it’s not the only stupid, confusing, and/or contradictory term in cycling.

    [don’t take the above paragraph too seriously, if there were emoticons on this site, it would be full of them]

    *this is a gross exaggeration if not an outright lie

  16. leelikesbikes says:


    I’d love to send you some numbers for a real physicist’s perspective.

    I’ve thought of the foot placement issue, and so far it seems inconclusive. My feet seem to end up in the same place no matter what I ride.

    Clipless pedals, horseless carriage.

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