The end of flat pedals at World Cup downhills?

Richard Cunningham over at Pinkbike wrote a fascinating piece about flat pedals in World Cup downhill racing. This is so good I need to weigh in.

Here is RC’s story:

First of all
Richard Cunningham knows his stuff. This Mountain Bike Hall of Famer was already a legend in this sport (check out this Mantis timeline) when I got my first mountain bike.

I once interviewed with Richard for a job at Mountain Bike Action magazine. I did not get the job (but I don’t blame RC).

Full respect to RC. Here are the main points I got from his piece, along with my responses:

DH competition is tight
No doubt. To my eyes, the top racers have excellent technique. Below that, I can see clear errors and bad habits (I can help!), but the top guys are super dialed.

If you want to pedal as powerfully as possible, you should clip in
For sure. A strong/skilled rider can learn to pedal pretty darn well with flats, but (s)he can make more power with clips.

I’ve seen this with my own riding. When I switched to flats, I learned to make more peak power, sustained power and max cadence than I’d ever made clipped in. After the two-year experiment, I clipped back in, and my peak power, sustained power and top cadence went even higher. See Climbing with clips and Sprinting with clips.

This effect will become even more noticeable when you’re fully pinned, and especially when you’re pinned on gnarly terrain.

And that doesn’t even count the control advantages of being attached to the bike. You can move the bike in unique ways, and you don’t spend bandwidth keeping your feet on the pedals.

If you’re a top rider and you’re not riding foot-out — the fastest racers know they’re fastest feet up — I see no advantage to flats. Remember, these riders are not limited by fear of the terrain or fear of falling off their bikes. I guarantee they can all rip on any pedal they want.

DH bike geometry is changing things
I agree that slacker head angles move the front wheel farther forward, and that affects the fore-aft balance of the bike. When you’re riding a DH bike with heavy feet and light hands, your rear wheel is heavier and your front wheel is lighter than they would be on a steep XC bike. (BTW: This is one reason some DH riders like longer chain stays: More even fore-aft balance for cornering.)

“With slacker head angles, controlled slides have become a popular high-speed cornering technique.”
The slacker head angles create a longer front-center, which is the distance between your feet and the front wheel. This makes the front of the bike lighter, which reduces front-wheel traction. The best way to counteract this effect is to intentionally shift your weight forward while cornering.

The forward weight shift is easy to overdo — especially when you’re exhausted — and I think that explains a lot of rear-wheel drifts. As Steve Peat told me, if you have to pick one tire to stick, pick the front. However, I think most pros want to load the front tire enough to stick but not so much the rear breaks loose.

People have been sliding their rear wheels for decades. Rear-wheel drift is an arrow in the quiver, but I don’t see it as a technique born of modern geometry.

See Weighting the front end in turns (again)

The new geometry plus clip-in pedals are moving riders’ positions farther forward
From what I understand as a rider, skills author and instructor, the only great place to ride a bike is on your feet. Watching World Cup footage, I see racers moving forward and backward to handle various situations, but their home base is where everyone’s should be: heavy feet, light hands.

While clip-in pedals allow you to ride farther forward with weight on your hands, I don’t see the top racers riding forward unless there’s a reason. (See the cornering section above.)

We are seeing more riders adopting a butt-back, shoulders forward position. This is the core of what I teach in print and in person. This position gives you the glute recruitment and arm range to deal with madness, but it DOES NOT change your fore-aft balance. You’re still riding with heavy feet, light hands. Watch Aaron Gwin, Gee Atherton or Steve Peat. Heck, if those guys intimidate you, watch me.

Double-red gnar at Left Hand Canyon OHV Area. Shoulders way forward, all weight on the feet.

Thanks to RC for spurring this discussion.



What do y’all think?

Know more. Have more fun!

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16 replies
  1. Jared says:

    I love the bandwidth comment! I can hit 180 RPM on flats on my trainer but it’s a HUGE mental exercise! There is no way I could spin that high while also focusing on the terrain, heavy feet-light hands, and keeping my feet connected. It just wouldn’t happen.

    When you’re as dialed in as the top riders, any aspect that makes your riding more “automatic” will (hopefully) shave some seconds off your time. I think the interview with Steve Smith highlighted that point very well.

    All that said, I’ll still be rocking the flats because they make riding fun for me. I get all knotted up mentally while clipped in. 12″ skinny clipped in? No thanks! 4′ drop while on flats? Don’t mind if I do!
    I’m not (nor will I ever) be racing at a top level. I’ll gain more by focusing on technique, mobility, or power than learning to ride clipped in.

  2. John K. says:

    Hey Lee I wonder if you would comment on another “weight-forward” situation. I’m a firm believer in the heavy feet-light hands philosophy, and that one tip has taken me further then I ever thought I could go with my riding. So thanks for that.

    When jumping, however, I’m feeling more balanced and “poppy” when I shift my weight forward as I approach the jump. It seems that by shifting my weight forward and loading my hands, I can really control the pressure on my front wheel as I ride up the lip of the jump. I still pump the bike with my feet, but by weighting the front of the bike, I’m getting more pop and I’m consistently well balanced in the air.

    Conversely, I’ve noticed that if I ride off a jump with no hand pressure, my front tire will sometimes drop as soon as it goes off the lip, while my back tire pops nicely off the jump. This leads to that dreaded forward rotation in the air, and occasionally an OTB experience. I used to think these experiences were a result of being too far forward on the bike, but I’ve now come to realize they are result of not loading the front wheel sufficiently into the lip of the jump.

    Anyways, appreciate your observations/thoughts. Cool article for sure.

  3. chris arellano says:

    Many of the top riders are sporting crank bros mallets. Guys are scratching their heads about why Gwin is so fast. I know a big reason why. Even though he does come from a MX background, he doesn’t put a foot down like an MX rider. Anticipating a hairy situation and dragging a foot SLOWS YOU DOWN. Knowing how to corner clipped in wins races. Remember, MX guys have a motor to drive them while they have a foot down. DH guys do not.

    Now you guys know why my Strava DH numbers are so good. *grin*

  4. WAKi says:

    Yea I think Richard nailed it, but I also appreciate James Wilsons hammering into people’s head: flats to learn to use clips on the race, or as you wrote to me once: “flats for fun, clips to work”.

    Drifting theory… I got a bit into car driving lately, more from facination than true practice (I went to open air gokart circuit – braaaaaaaap), because I have no resources to visit track regularly or buy a sports car (which you can’t use properly on public roads anyways and I’d hate anyone that does…). All rally drivers will say that even on asphalt the drifting is the fastest (and safest) way. When you hit the gokart track or race curcuit though, they tell you: no skids! But but but… the very idol of mine (mainly as a personality)Ayrton Senna had a big trouble driving straight, and his adversaries had big trouble keeping up…*

    On bike I feel relatively well in loose gravel or in wet. The riding is loose but quite predictable.But deaamm: mixed conditions and the day after the rain, with this godly grip? I feel very insecure – pushed to go faster than usualy and scared of loosing grip

    *Watch a 2010 “Senna” movie – a must!

  5. leelikesbikes says:

    I tell all of my students, and you guys on this site: If you really want to learn how to Ride, learn to ride flats. If you want the ultimate in power and control, clip in. But ride the clips with the same engagement you use with flats.

  6. chance says:

    John K. are you jumping with a FS bike? or even a bike with a front shock? if so that feeling you get is preloading your fork and suspention and it is needed to really get pop off the lip but in general I would recommend to really go with the lip and that is a slight foraward to slight shift back as you are leaving the lip and then slightly moving back towards the front to level the bike in the air and then matching the landing on the way down.
    I’m interest to hear Lee’s full explanation on this tho.

  7. Agleck7 says:

    I’m not positive about this, but after loading into the lip and extending off of it, I pull up on the bars and pull them close to my belt-line. This prevents the front end from dropping immediately after going off the lip and gives you control of them to level off and guide the front tire down to the landing. This way you still ride the lip with light hands heavy feet, but control the front end in the air. I’m certainly not an expert, so defintely could be wrong.

  8. Wacek says:

    Im not an expert either but I know a thing or two about jumping because… Im usualy having a big trouble with it. If you want to take off a root to fly longer and higher you have to find a fine balance between hitting it and… Not doing it. You want to be light and going upwards (bunny hopping) already before you hit it, so that it pops your wheels up when they slightly touch it. Trial and street riders use that technique when wanting to jump up high line of stairs. They use the first bottom step to elevate themselves. I’ve been rocking A-line kind of trail lately with up to 10m long flights and after 1,5 day on it I must say it’s all bunny hopping. Staying active yet balanced is the key, whether you want to launch or squash stuff. Bunny hop bunny hop… Lee please discipline me here

  9. WAKi says:

    Agleck7 – loading the front into lip and then pulling is a bit short sighted technique that I’ve been using for a long time. Short sighted in a way that it works as long as speed is low or medium, which means it’s not a proper technique. At a lip your bike will go up and follow the vector of the force directed by the lip, but not your body. By loading the front you are sort of forcing the bike not to follow that vector. So it is a semi solution. But when speed is high the kinetic energy is so big that it will force the bike up along the lip vector, no matter how you try. Mind also the more suspension you have more that vector will be flattened, be very aware of that when trying jumps by following your friends that ride abike with much different travel than yours. If you are on DH rig and follow a guy on 6″ play bike, with same speed as his, you might case the landing, or even not make it to it! You will just go flatter than him!

    The question then is: why fight when you can go with the flow, or at least what is the other way of flattening that vector? Remember here that, your vector of the force and bikes vector are binded together by nothing else than bottom bracket, this how bike transfers forces along with their vectors to you. You need to imagine the lip as an arch with center above and behind it that your front wheels and BB are following. In static position on bike your CG needs to remain on straight line between BB and center of the arc.

    As I wrote before there are two ways and both involve technique nearly identical to bunny hopping. Note that while bunnyhopping you don’t need to load the front much, you want to shift your weight backwards violently, all it takes is shift weight to front to load the gun.

    By going with the flow you are pulling the bike in the middle of the lip, to make your CG go up along the lip vector (or higher if you want to launch it).”To fight the flow” and squash the jump you need to pull the bike before it reaches the critical point of the lip so that you sort of “shorten the lip”.

    Timing is nearly everything here – it has to be dynamic but it can’t be overdone, how many times tried to do a wheelie or manual, pulled hard and you overdone it one side? You don’t want that to happen on a lip of a 10ft+ jump! Also remember that leaning a bit towards one side makes YOU decide which side the bike will tip, then slight counter steering compensation with the bar and you’re in the sweet spot. If you focus on coming out straight to avoid being swayed aside, you will surely end up being tipped towards one side, and how you know which one this time?

  10. WAKi says:

    Sorry for a long post, I had to put down my latest observations… I mean I feel I finaly dig the jumps, I concentrated my latest bike park weekend on it, as I wanted to do that huge line in Hafjell Bikepark. I didn’t want to try it without feeling balanced and in control. Squashing became my obsession, if you time it right and do it well it is just mindblowing that you can fly 20ft+ tabletop, and then on the second run, with the same speed you can squash that lip so much that you barely lift off!

    I need to learn to scrub now!

  11. Eric says:

    I was pretty excited to read this article, because there are so few good discussions of riding technique in the “mainstream” mountain bike press. Unfortunately, I felt that this was all over the place. Sam Hill popularizing a rearward riding position? And progressing bike geometry, but in a direction that suits clipped in riders more than riders on his preferred flat pedals? Modern geometry has led to a high speed drift style of cornering? Don’t think we’ve seen much of that from the top guys in recent years, with the exception of Danny Hart at Champery (in the mud). Basing everything on the results of the past two seasons where one rider has won nearly every race?

    I think the idea that a slacker headtube angle enables riders to stay more centered over the bike makes a lot of sense. And being clipped in can certainly open possibilities for a rider to adjust his position solely based on what’s fastest and with less consideration given to trying to keep his feet on the pedals. It COULD have been a good article but in the end there was a lot of conflicting info and no clear justification for riding clipped in other than the traditional argument of pedaling efficiency.


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