My love of bikes started with BMX.
In those days, a cinder block and a piece of plywood made a pretty awesome jump. If you were lucky, a few friends were brave (read: dumb) enough to lay down and let you jump over them.
Those were the days.
Later I switched to mountain biking, and I was introduced to clipless pedals. They seemed to be the only option for anyone who wanted to be considered a “real” mountain biker. So I got some.
My first attempts to clip out resulted in several FTBC (Failure to Be Cool) maneuvers—those are familiar to anyone who’s ever clipped in. Unable to clip out when I started going down, I slammed my side on the ground from a standstill. It hurt like a mother, both physically and emotionally. I learned pretty quickly to clip out earlier.
To MTB coach James Wilson, this is proof that I learned to ride incorrectly. Mountain biking demands strength, stability, and ability—and in Wilson’s opinion, clipless pedals help build none of these.
As Wilson sees it, the entire industry has committed to the wrong paradigm.
JW: A mid-foot position also allows you to be more agile on the bike. Being on your toes is an unbalanced position, especially if your foot isn’t getting ready to come off the pedal. You can look at athletes like surfers and skateboarders as two examples of athletes who have a “flat foot” but are amazingly agile. The idea that being on the ball of your foot improves your pedaling power or agility on the bike has no basis in real life and is simply tradition.
This is the premise behind the new Catalyst Pedal from Pedaling Innovations. The pedal has a wide platform, so riders can take a middle-of-the-foot position on the pedals to gain maximum power and stability.
JW: It is how your foot is designed to work best. You only push through the ball of the foot when your foot breaks contact with what it is on like when running or jumping. When your foot stays in contact with what it is on, like it does when pedaling, you want a mid-foot position so you can drive through a strong, stable foot.
This is why you are told not to come up on your toes when squatting, deadlifting or lunging in the gym—it destabilizes the foot, decreases power and increases stress on the knee and low back. Studies have also shown that pushing through the ball of the foot isn’t better, but that it does place more stress on the calf and Achilles tendon and makes it harder to recruit the hips, which are the major drivers of the pedal stroke.
I’ve ridden with clipless pedals for several years, and I’ve become accustomed to being clipped in. This has allowed me to get away with some bad habits.
I’ve never perfected my balance, for one thing, because I clip out at the first inkling that I might fall over. If I need to bunny hop over an obstacle, I just launch my body weight vertically. The bike comes with me because, well, it’s attached to me.
When I tested out Wilson’s techniques and the Catalyst pedals, then, I was primed for a learning experience.
JW: The main thing is how to apply foot pressure into the pedals. But again, with the mid-foot position and stable foot that the Catalyst Pedal provides this isn’t as hard as it is on a normal pair of flats. You can’t apply pressure unless both ends of the arch are stable and this is one of the reasons riders struggle at first with regular flats.
After learning how to apply pressure you can keep your feet planted better through rough stuff and you can start to re-learn how to bunny hop and lift your rear end through weight shifts and foot pressure instead of relying on the attachment point.
For my first hour with the Catalysts, I rode like I was still clipped in.
I pulled the pedal over the top of the pedal stroke: a technique to build up power for a quick climb. Without the clips, my foot shot right off the pedal.
On my first couple of jumps, my poor body position catapulted me out of the pedals. My first bunny hop was a disaster.
I was also tentative on the turns… until I started to put my foot down and it clicked:
I’m not clipped in. I can put my foot down whenever I want.
With that understanding, I had a blast riding with the pedals. I did note that the midfoot position brought my toes closer to the ground, so I definitely made contact a few times I wasn’t expecting to. It was clear that this change would demand some adjustment, but all changes do.
Riding the Catalyst pedals was better for my technique. But that wasn’t everything.
After years of riding and racing my mountain bike, I was getting burned out. I just wasn’t having fun anymore.
Switching to flat pedals reminded me of my early days. No Lycra. No logos. No Strava. Just skidding out in the turns, bunny-hopping the obstacles, popping wheelies, and having fun.
If only I could find a friend to jump over…
The Catalyst Pedals sell online for $89/pair.