Sprinting with clips

I’ve been riding flat pedals almost exclusively for a couple years now, and my handling and pedaling skills are better than ever. Lately I’ve been wondering, what will happen if I clip back in?

Yesterday’s test results were pretty powerful.

I rode clipped in for 20 years

I clipped in when the first SPDs came out. I “learned” to ride clipped in. Learned is in quotes because I actually sucked really bad. Even when I was winning Cat 1 national DHes and ran top 10 at Masters DH Worlds, I sucked.

Over the past 10 years or so I’ve tried to really Learn (capital L, no quotes) how to Ride. As part of that adventure, I learned to ride flats for pump/jump, then DH, and finally trail. For the past two years I’ve ridden flats for everything: pump, jump, DH, XC, coaching and even the road. I’ve finally reached the point where I can ride flats competently in most any situation.

My sustainable power, comfort, smoothness and cadence have improved noticeably over the past couple seasons. Part of it’s increased aerobic fitness, part increased toughness due to fatherhood, part improved technique (Check out Embracing pedaling as a skill). I’ve spent a lot of time learning how to pedal better, and I’m teaching some pretty cool techniques. One elite XC/CX racer just reported an 8 percent power increase — at the same heart rate. Pedaling is a skill. Rock it!

So here I am, finally decently competent on flat pedals, and I want to know how much I can gain (if at all) by clipping back in. I don’t expect much benefit with sustained power, but I suspect I might find a few watts in the sprints.

So the pendulum swings …

The test

Yesterday I installed some ancient Shimano DH pedals (red and bent!) onto my LeMond Revolution-mounted S-Works Tricross, ratcheted on some foreign-feeling Shimano XC shoes and rocked the Sufferfest Downward Spiral video.

Downward Spiral treats you to two sets of descending stair intervals. You go all-out for 2:00, rest for 2:00, pin it for 1:45, rest for 1:45 and work your way down until you’re fully pinned for 0:15. Easy spin then do it again. It’s pretty rad because you’re mixing aerobic work with anaerobic violence. This is not a straight-up max power test; it’s a real-deal hard freaking workout, and I sprint all-out at the beginning of each interval.

The last couple times I did this workout (with flats), my sprints were in the 1,000- to 1,200-watt range. This made me feel pretty great: I was measuring that peak power with clips two years ago, and my sustained power is way better.

Today I rocked the same exact workout. The only difference is Mr. Shimano was holding my feet onto the pedals.

Lee Likes Bikes LLC world headquarters. Check out the wheel stand.

Qualitative notions

• Yuck! This feels strange. The seat feels too low now. The cleats are in the wrong place (apparently they were for 20 years?).

• Sustained power feels about the same, but that’s not what I’m here for. One thing though: I don’t have to pay as much attention.

• As I warmed up, I eased into some sprints. During the rest I’d shift into the 50×17 and drop it down to 70 rpm. When Sufferfest said GO, I pinned it to max speed then sat and punched as hard as I could for the rest of the interval. Whew!

• At first the peak power numbers were normal, but — man — it felt easy: like, uh, my feet were attached to the pedals.

• Hmm, since I’m using different pedals, maybe I should pedal differently. So I started pulling up while I accelerated. Once I got moving, I just hammered as hard as I could. This was much less careful than with flats. The trainer jumped around. The frame wrenched loose from the Revolution’s mount. Tighten the QR and resume action …

• Whoa. The power numbers started increasing. The more I pulled during the initial acceleration and just freaking hammered down on the power phase, the more power I made.

I know yesterday’s test wasn’t scientifically valid, but it was pretty darn interesting:

Quantitative results

Before today, on flat pedals, the highest power I’ve seen on my LeMond Revolution with Power Pilot was about 1,250 watts.

Yesterday, clipped in, I hit 1,450 watts!

That’s a 16 percent increase. Pretty darn huge.

Oh, and this wasn’t a dedicated peak power test. It was a really hard hour-long workout. And my best number came on interval #9.

LeMond Revolution Power Pilot reading. Actual sweat.

But wait, there’s more

If I can sprint with 16 percent more power clipped in, you know what I’m doing at Sea Otter. But that’s at speed: 70 rpm to 180 rpm. What about accelerating from a stop, BMX style?

After the workout, I cooled down and did some stand-start sprints.

34×17 gear. Dead stop. BMX-style sprint for 5-8 strokes. Technique as in Pro BMX Skills. Repeat.

On flats, I was hitting about 1,050 watts, which isn’t bad.

Yesterday, clipped in, I hit 1,300 watts.

A 24 percent increase!

And that’s after a crazy workout.

What I think

• In my nerdy world, this is really big deal.

• My guess: Flat pedals helped me learn to pedal more efficiently. When I clip in, I can make more power than ever.

• Oh man I am sore today. New muscles used at very high intensity.

• This was one test, but an impressive one. I’ll keep exploring this.



Know more. Have more fun!

Join the leelikesbikes mailing list:

18 replies
  1. leelikesbikes says:

    >> sssoo flats or clipped in?

    Depends on the rider, terrain and riding style. I think everyone should learn to ride flats very well, then — *if they want to* — clip in for added power and control. I’ve not clipped in for a couple years, and I’ve been having a great time.

    >> what kind of flats do u use ?

    My bikes have Answer Rove, Point One Racing Podium, Specialized Lo Pro Mag, Truvativ Holzfeller and Fyxation Mesa MP. They are all good pedals at various price points.

  2. BrianS says:

    I started out on flats a few years ago. When I picked up my 29er last year I had a really hard time with foot position and clipping the front wheel so I decided to give clipless a try. I feel like clipless has helped me learn better foot position but I still don’t have the confidence flats give me when things get rough.

    For now I’ll just use both with clipless on the hardtail 29er and flats on the full suspension.

  3. Louis says:

    I’ve always done clipped in for xc/road and flats for dirt jumping/downhill and felt super comfortable. But…
    I recently got a Nomad, and I’m trying to rock big climbs and gnarly descents on the same bike. Climbing and general trail riding feels great clipped in, however when things get more extreme, I do not feel comfortable. Hard plastic on hard metal does not feel anywhere as planted and secure as 5tens on nice big platforms with pins.

    I want to be clipped in like Mark Weir on my Nomad. what should I do?
    I’m on specialized bg expert shoes and xt (not trail) pedals

  4. leelikesbikes says:

    Weir would probably tell you to man up.

    I’ll tell you to keep working your skills and confidence. “Gnarly” is totally relative. The more you rock your kung fu, the higher your gnar threshold.

    For some perspective, watch vids of Weir riding enduros in Europe. Even he will admit he was operating above his gnar threshold.

  5. CB says:

    Glad to see you post this. Like you, I “learned” to ride with “clipless”. I picked up some flats (Straitlines and 5.10’s) a couple years ago when the new-school/old-school movement started gaining momentum.

    Learning to ride flats forced me to lower my saddle, properly weight my feet, and develop better skills. But after riding my trusty old Time’s again, I find that I still keep all of my flat-pedal skills but with the added power for muscling up technical rocky climbs or the balls-to-the-wall kind of effort you describe (not that I’m in shape for that anymore).

    So while flats were fun, I think clipping in makes me a stronger rider.

  6. chance says:

    Hey Lee, I’m like your quote “I know yesterday’s test wasn’t scientifically valid, but it was pretty darn interesting” I wasn’t trying to jab you last time.

    So your saying the big increase was in dead stop starts, bmx style? and then sprints in general? did you find or feel any overall efficiency gains or sustained power gains?
    Also you stated that you began to pull up because you were clipped in. Do you think you or anyone could concentrate on pulling and pushing while in a trail situation? and not locked into a trainer?
    Another great write up! Can’t wait to see you in april!
    Keep it real!

  7. leelikesbikes says:


    Yes, I saw big improvements while accelerating from a dead stop and at speed.

    I didn’t pay attention to sustained power. My guess (not scientifically valid!) is that the gain with clips vs. flats will be much less, if any. I did notice, however, that it was mentally easier to maintain a smooth spin. I suppose that will translate into greater efficiency, especially when fatigued.

    I’ll rock some more invalid tests.


  8. WAKi says:

    I did a lactic threshold test lately, and I clipped in for the first time since joining Unclipped Church of J Wilson. Not because I wanted to but I forgot my pedals and they sort of didn’t have such filthy chunks of metal in the room full of pics of roadies with hat caps up (on another hand, maybe it’s that not many tough-arse DHers come to such “lame” places).

    My observation was that during warm up on higher cadence with lower resistance(for me it means 90+ RPM) I found clipless pretty helpful for applying even load, but later on during the test when things got harder I found myself just stomping. I will do the test again after finishing James program, this time on flats for sure.

    Flats everyday, clipless for race or trainer.

  9. chance says:

    Thanks Lee! Good luck at Sea Otter, and even if it isn’t scientific 😉 I still value your knowledge and experience and will always recommend your site and books!
    See you at the MN coaches/leaders summit! I decided to go for it full on become either an assistant coach or ride leader! Thanks for all your help with the High School Mtb program, it’s such an awesome program!

  10. leelikesbikes says:

    Right on Chance.

    It currently looks like I won’t be teaching the MN coaches summit (there are lots of state leagues, and it’s getting harder to be everywhere). I’m training some trainers in March.

    We have reached the point where I am teaching coaches how to teach coaches how to teach kids how to ride. Say that five times fast!

  11. chance says:

    Oh major bummer, I was super amp’d to meet you and learn from you but I guess your assistant coaches will have to do for now! I will have to try to get out to CO, probably not this year, to take one of your private lessons!

    Keep it real!

  12. chance says:

    or better yet you should try to make a trip up to mn, i know that you could fill classes up here, I would be your free advertising!

  13. WAKi says:

    hehe good one Lee, flats for play, clips for work. Well put, I totaly agree. I just thought that there is no shame with playing at work and I have been fooling myself for a long time that I will ever work. The secret to happyness in life is low expectations! 😀

Comments are closed.