Free Your Heels, Free Your Mind—Clip Out!

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I’d had enough. Grabbing my brakes at an unforeseen sandstone step up, I barely unclipped my foot from my pedal in time to keep myself from tipping sideways, straight into a burly, sharp desert bush. To keep from being impaled on the woody branches, I stepped my foot squarely into the brush. Two warm, red trickles began a slow drip down my shin, and I sighed. It was time to make the change—to flats.

The idea of riding flats had been germinating in my mind for a while, but it was riding Captain Ahab in Moab that finally flipped the switch for me. The sun was low on the crisp fall afternoon, and my friend Laurel smoothly navigated the sandstone steps, drops and ramps  ahead of me. It was my first time on Ahab, and I was getting frustrated. I felt like I was stopping way too much, like my flow was constantly getting checked by having to click out of my pedals.

Of course, other things—like a dropper post or maybe just plain getting some skills—would probably help. I thought I was pretty coordinated at unclipping quickly, but Ahab was giving me a run for my money. I was sick of losing my balance and momentum by not clipping out fast enough, and tired of slip-sliding around on the slickrock when I decided to hike-a-bike. As I watched Laurel lithely dab here and there, I admired her skills. But I also took note of the ease with which she stopped and started. And I thought, maybe flats could help me.

That night, I converted. Laurel’s husband Rodney screwed on the flat pedals I’d been carrying around for several months, and the next morning I tied the laces on my first freeride shoes. It felt so strange to just step on the pedal—I’d been clipping into SPDs for 10 years. But after my first couple of free-footed rides, I don’t know if I’ll ever go back. I’m simply having too much fun.

I was fully expecting to come home with my shins clawed up by the gnarly pins on the new pedals, and despite Laurel’s assurances otherwise, I was expecting to lose out on power and speed while pedaling. Happily, aside from a tiny graze to the back of my calf, both fears were unfounded. Instead, I found myself much more relaxed on descents, and even more tenacious on techy ascents than I had been when I rode clipped in.

I think somehow my body knows instinctively that it has the freedom bail if it needs to, and I end up committing more fully and staying more relaxed. More full contact with the larger pedals also gives me more control.

The real test, I thought, would be a Colorado Front Range ride. Of course, Moab’s ledgy, techy rides would be ideal to ride in flats. But most of my riding has been in Denver’s foothills, where more sustained singletrack climbs demand power efficiency.  A quick jaunt up Mount Falcon put the new setup to the test—and I fell even more deeply in love. Once again, I never noticed any loss of power or control on the grueling climb that I’d ridden countless times before, and I felt so relaxed as I descended the rock gardens and boosters, I was giggling as I rolled back into the parking lot.

I circled around the cars in the lot, touching my foot down as I swooped in front of my car. There’s such a pure, childlike feeling to just setting your foot on the pedal the way you did when you were 5, riding circles on your neighborhood streets. It feels so smooth and free—just like being a kid again. And I love it.

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