In the good old days when I first started mountain biking, there was no question between clipless and flat pedals. It was an automatic choice – flat pedals were only for BMX riders. Some people rode their mountain bike with toe clips (the little cage which your foot sat in on the pedal – oh they were fun) but most people just bought their bike and immediately replaced the cheap plastic pedals it came with for SPD clipless pedals.
If you really want an idea of how things were back in the day, we also rode without any suspension on our bikes (yep, not even front suspension forks). We just got out there on the natural trails (nope, there were no trail centres either) and accepted the knocks and the trail buzz (that red itching you got in your forearms) from a fast downhill.
Anyway, I digress, back to the pedals…
At the time, I subscribed to the theory that riding with SPD pedals would make me more efficient on the bike and mean a better transfer of power in my cycling. Sure it could be a little disconcerting having my foot clipped in on technical terrain at times, but there was no doubt in my mind – flat pedals would have been worse and the possibility of my foot sliding off would have made me feel really insecure.
Fast forward several years and I returned to mountain biking after having spent a few years concentrating solely on climbing. During the time that my mountain bike had been hung up in the shed, things had changed in the mountain biking world. Front suspension on your bike was now the norm, with a growing number of people riding full suspension bikes. Flat pedals were also becoming increasingly popular and no longer just for the Downhill riders or BMX tricksters.
I decided to buy a bike with front suspension but still thought that all the reasons for riding with SPD clipless pedals were valid. However, I struggled almost immediately with my new bike (in hindsight, when I finally traded it in, I realised that the geometry was all wrong for me) and I felt pretty sketchy whenever I was out riding on technical trails. This meant that I developed a riding style which had my left foot unclipped from the SPD pedal most of the time to give me the extra confidence of being able to quickly place a foot down on the ground – and if you really want to know what an insecure foot on the pedal feels like, give that a go for a while!
Ironically, I still believed that riding with flat pedals would feel even more insecure, right up until the day I went on a mountain bike skills course. My confidence in riding technical trails had unsurprisingly diminished, so the 2 days of skills training at the Dales Bike Centre was aimed at helping me regain the confidence to throw my bike around. That first morning, our instructor suggested I give flat pedals a try. She put some demo pedals on my bike and despite having to wear my trail shoes (with a raised tread pattern), I loved the flat pedals so much that they stayed on my bike when the weekend was over.
The ability to put my feet down whenever I wanted gave me confidence again when things got technical and more than made up for any potential loss of power from giving up my clipless pedals.
For years, however, I had to ride my bike with trail shoes. I chose an old pair which had the tread worn down in the hope that it would give me a better grip on the flat pedals, but they were still not ideal. They had a flexible sole which curved up slightly (for trail running) and whilst I had strong feet from climbing, they still ached after a long bike ride standing on the pedals because the soles of my shoes just didn’t have the stiffness which comes with a pair of cycling specific shoes.
I looked all over for a pair of female specific flat mountain bike shoes, in every bike shop I visited, in every part of the country I visited. There was a fairly decent range for men, but being male specific they weren’t manufactured in my size (UK 5.5, EU 39).
Eventually, I came across a female specific pair, the Five Ten Karver, and despite them being a half size too big (no half sizes stocked) I bought them due to the lack of options available. Fully expecting them to make a massive difference (in a good way), I was disappointed when I realised that every time I wore them, I struggled on my mountain bike ride. Putting it down to the chunkiness and heavy weight of the shoe, combined with the clumsiness of the extra half size, they were soon relegated to their box and ended up being sold a year later!
I continued wearing my old trail shoes and carried on searching for a better solution, becoming increasingly frustrated at the lack of options for female mountain bikers from the manufacturers. Then all of a sudden, we were spoiled for choice – two pairs of female specific flat shoes came on the market, with a third gender neutral which went down to a low enough shoe size for me to wear:
Singletrack did a really great review between the Five Ten and Specialized shoes on their website – definitely worth looking at if you want to get more information about either shoe on test. I also asked a female mountain bike guide who I met at a trail centre in Scotland what she thought (she had both pairs) and she just edged on the 2FO as being her favourite too.
The only thing left was to try them on. Easier said than done! Most bike shops only stock full sizes of the Five Ten shoes, which is understandable due to cost and all places said they could order in a half size – but in the end I was so unsure about the fit of the shoe that I didn’t want to put them to that trouble and then not buy. I had to make a special journey to the Specialized shop in Harrogate to try on a pair of the 2FO’s (sure I could have bought online, but I wanted to try out different sizes before making a final decision).
To cut a very long story short, I did eventually make a decision and bought the Specialized 2FO (the Five Ten Freerider just didn’t seem to fit my foot quite so well and I never got chance to try out the Shimano shoes).
The shop recommended going up a half size with the 2FO’s and in this instance they were right as my normal size was slightly tight. It also means that I can wear my slightly thicker Porelle socks with them in winter.
The sole is nice and stiff (ask the shop if you can stand on a pedal while wearing them, just to see the difference with a normal trail shoe/trainer), but the weight of the shoe is nice and light which makes it easy to wear.
The upper is a plastic material with some air mesh for ventilation and the sole is “SlipNot” rubber tread which stuck really nicely to my flat pedals, making me feel much more secure when bouncing off the rocks on technical downhills.
My main concerns about the 2FO’s had been whether the mesh would let in water during winter and whether the upper would mean overheating in the summer. I can’t comment on summer yet, but I’ve tested them a few times now out on trails with mud, deep puddles, rocks, fast descents and technical uphills – all in freezing cold winter conditions. I can safely say that I absolutely love the 2FO’s. My foot stayed dry and warm, I felt secure on the pedals, and the stiffness in the soles meant more comfort than usual.
If you’re in the market for a pair of shoes for your flat pedals, my recommendation is to know exactly what you want from your shoe and then check out the different options for yourself. At the end of the day, you can have a list of all the technical features and benefits from each shoe, but if the fit is wrong then it will never be the right shoe for you.
So, the age old question? Clipless or Flats?
Well, the answer to that depends on your riding style, but for me it’s Flats all the way.