There are three vital points of contact between your body and your bike: your hands, bum and feet. It's essential to ensure your set up is dialled in so that each of these contact points is happy and comfortable, so you can achieve optimal performance.
Your legs are the pistons that drive your two wheeled steed, the power you put through them travels from your feet into the pedals and so on. With this much force and adrenaline connecting you and the bike, your feet need to be well positioned in for comfort.
When starting out in the world of mountains and dirt, shoes can often be the last investment. You'll start out with flat pedals, often assuming that regular shoes will do - but that's not the case. There are some important reasons for investing in a good pair of mountain shoes, clipped or otherwise.
Why Bother with MTB Shoes?
There's some key features that a mountain bike shoe can offer with a regular shoe can't. These subtle differences make a huge impact on your riding performance as well, so it's important to get the right shoe and right fit...
FIT - A mountain bike shoe should be snug, more so than your loose casual trainers. You want some wiggle room for your toes, but you want your heel firmly planted in the cup and your shoes done up well. If you're driving your bike around sharp corners, or getting some air, you don't want your foot to be slipping inside the shoe, causing you to come off-balance.
PROTECTION - Whether you're clipping in or riding flat, MTB shoes tend to have more protection around the toe and heel. This maintains the stiffness of the shoe as gives your foot some extra protection from rocks, roots and in the event of a fall.
STIFFNESS - A biking shoe needs to be stiff for that protection element and to evenly distribute weight and power with every stroke. It's the sole of the shoe that should deform to the pedal surface, and not the foot itself.
SOLE SUPPORT - The inner sole of the shoe should provide some form of arch support. A weak or collapsing arch can lead to your knee collapsing on the down stroke and you'll lose a lot of pedal efficiency. The outer sole will vary for flats and clipless shoes. For flat shoes, you'll commonly find a strong lattice design to improve contact with the pins on the pedals, or you'll find a flatter surface made from a softer rubber which deforms around the pins. Either way will provide ample grip.
These important features keep the power channelled from your body and into the bike. Features that provide support and protection help minimise injury from impact and improve pedal efficiency overall.
Platform or "Flat" Pedals
Platform pedals are usually flat in shape with screwed in grub or thru pins which protrude just enough to grip with the sole of your shoe. There are a variety of flat pedals out there, check out our favourites here.
Flat pedals are usually where all cyclists start, even as children. The common reason why pro-flat riders prefer them is that they keep the rider in control. Taking tight corners and having to dab the foot is easier than if you were clipped in, and often gives a confidence boost for those still learning.
With flat pedals, there is less of a need to buy specific shoes, although it is suggested for the reasons above.
However, there are some disadvantages to riding on flats. Firstly, you can sometimes find your foot placement is not spot on, which causes you to wiggle it around whilst riding. This distracts your concentration, and can lead to balance issues because it isn't easy to wiggle a foot that's gripped to pins.
The second drawback is that flat riding reduces your pedal efficiency, especially on the climbs. When you're clipped in, there's less effort required to pick the pedal up because it's attached to you, but when you're on platform pedals, you have to scoop the pedal with you which costs you just a little more in energy and time.
There are a number of brands that do some great women's flat shoes. The Five Ten Freerider's are the most popular for their high quality brand reputation, however equally impressive shoes come from Giro with their skater style Jacket shoes, and Specialized with their 2FO women's MTB flats.
Firstly, let's tackle the real reason why they are called clipless, when you actually need to clip in. It began in the very early days of road and mountain cycling when a common pedal would be flat and fitted with a cage around the toe - the toe clip.
When the early Look pedals came into the market, and pedals began to forgo the toe clip in favour of a clipped in sole, they became known as "clipless" because the toe cage was missing. And so the term stuck, a little counter-intuitive, but to change it now would be even more confusing.
Although it may sound a little scary to be clipped into your pedals, it has great advantages. Riding clipped aids pedal efficiency, as mentioned earlier, and foot placement. Being clipped in allows your foot to stay in the best position possible for pedalling.
Like with anything new, it's a matter of getting more familiar with the feel of clipping in. The Twist n' Click motion takes some practise, and a good cleat set up, but once you get the hang of it, it'll become second nature.
There's a number of clipless shoes available for mountain bikers, anything from skater style trainer to a more XC slim fit.
Your Feet, Your Way...
At the end of the day, you need to feel comfortable and confident in the right pair of mountain bike shoes, and corresponding pedal combo.
Traditionally, most riders will begin on flats and graduate onto clipless either for a taster, or a to fully convert. At the end of the day, there are pros and cons for both, but the ultimate decision lies with you.
Which ever methods you pedal, try and alternate to the other for a varied style of riding. You may prefer being clipped in for long XC and trail days, but prefer flats for those gnarly downhill and uplift days.
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