Before you read this, realize that this article is about World Cup racing and the possibility that flat pedals are not going to win very many of them in the near future. This is NOT a sermon to convince flat pedal riders to switch to clips. If you are happy with flats, then ride happily forever with flats and save your spleen for sprinting. - RC
Bulldog Brook's First world cup win and Val D'Isere. The Mondraker rider took his place in the record books in one of the most exciting races of 2012. Fraser Britton photo
In two seasons, only Brook McDonald has won a World Cup Race on flat pedals. The world's best man on flats, Sam Hill, has threatened to put his front tire over the line first a few times, but has yet to make it stick. If one looks at the top-ten results, clipped-in riders are by far the dominant force in professional downhill racing. Those who swear by flats may claim that today's World Cup courses are less technical and more pedally, but this is not the case. There has been no shortage of monster technical sections and horrific weather-induced track conditions in recent history. Also true, however, is that courses as of late are constructed with a better balance of high-speed jumps and corners, and lower-speed technical sections which may have skewed the podium towards clipped-in riders - but the winners have been clipped in nonetheless.
Danny Hart Introduces the New-School Riding Technique at Champéry
Danny Hart and Sam Hill both rocked the DH world with dominating performances down Champéry's challenging track and in horrid weather. Hill, with his flat-pedal signature style and brilliant line choice in 2007 and Hart, the clipped-in-and-forward drifter in 2011. Each rider pushed downhill technique to a new level. Freecaster Video Watch Hill's 2007 race
What we can be absolutely sure of is that speeds are higher in every case and that finish times are much closer on average than they have ever been. What that indicates is the level of competition within DH racing has finally matured to the point where no single racer has the raw talent to dominate and no bike design has dominant technology. Everything counts. Small improvements garnished from training, riding technique, bike setup and equipment choices now determine a winning (or losing) run.
Aaron Gwin, clipped in and forward, launches into the rocks at Mont Saint Anne. Colin Meagher photo
The Gwin Factor? It can be argued that Aaron Gwin's mega-dominance over the past years can be attributed to two factors: the combination of a super-talented rider who is backed by a highly focused support team that searches relentlessly for ways to save tenths of seconds. Gwin rides clipped in, and I found it interesting that Trek World Racing rider liaison Myles Rockwell made numerous references to the slower pace of flat-pedal riders while he co-announced the Leogang World Championships. Considering how much effort the team puts into timing and photographing each section of a racecourse, I would not be surprised if Trek World Racing has made side-by-side comparison tests of flat vs. clipped-in pedaling.
Perhaps more interesting, is that the top riders in the World Cup are not cut from the same cloth. Danny Hart the wild man, Gwin the team professional, Hill the tactition, Minnaar the scientist, Smith the Maverick, Gee the charger - analyse the top ten riders and you may find ten distinct riding styles. What has affected every rider though, is the migration of the bike's head angle from around 66 degrees to the neighborhood of 62 degrees - a change that began three years ago in earnest and has completely altered the landscape of DH riding. As the steerer-tube angle is made slacker, the front wheel moves forward disproportionately more with each degree, because the angular change is being projected upon a flat plane (the ground). The change from 64 to 62 degrees extends the wheelbase farther than the change from 66 to 64 degrees. The lengthening of the wheelbase forward of the cranks altered the weight bias of the bike - and created the opportunity to learn a new skillset.
With slacker head angles, controlled slides have become a popular high-speed cornering technique. Lapierre's Cameron Cole squares off a monster drift two turns before the finish line at Val Di Sole - one of the World Cup's most infamous corners. Fraser Britton photo
As a result, the fastest riders of the moment have been adopting a more low-and-forward position over the bike. The riding style I am writing about is in the transition phase, so the differences may appear to be subtle, but they become more obvious after one watches a number of World Cup videos to make comparisons between racers. Outside the top ten competitors, most riders still use a variation of the rearward position that Sam Hill popularized back when he was spanking everyone. I think a correlation between clipped-in riders, modern frame geometry and a forward riding position can be made.
Sam Hill's heels-down-and-back technique made him the master of steeps. His dominance pushed everyone's technical game, and it could be argued that his insights into bicycle geometry and setup were instrumental in elevating the performance of the DH bike to the point where competitors could attack World Cup courses that were once considered barely rideable. Fraser Britton photo
As one leans forward on the bike, the feet become less secure on the pedals. Of course, one can move back to get a better purchase on the pedals when the steeps arrive, but that requires time and precision. Clips keep the foot secure, enabling the rider to remain in the attack position and that eliminates some of the need to make exaggerated fore/aft movements in order to set the bike up for cornering and jumping. When a rider must make a dramatic move from one position to another in order to jump, corner and handle technical sections, he or she also leaves the door open to be caught out of position and make a mistake.
Greg Minnaar has been clipped in for a decade. That and his super smooth, over-the-front riding style may give reason for his long career at the top of the game. Ian MacLennan photo
The modern DH bike's exaggerated front center ensures that there is enough weight bias to the rear to prevent the front wheel from auguring into a hole and launching the rider - which makes it possible to remain in a more or less neutral position over the bike, and to react more quickly to rapidly changing terrain. Perhaps more important, the clipped in rider can relax and let the bike skim the surface without expending mental or physical effort to remain attached to the bike. By contrast, flat pedal downhill technique is succession of learned exercises intended to keep the rider in contact with the pedals as the acceleration of jumps, impacts, undulating terrain and the bike's suspension work to separate the machine from its rider.
Conscious or not, It's a dance that all flat pedal riders learn. Hill's signature style for staying glued to the bike while descending technical sections is to adopt an exaggerated rearward stance that creates an imaginary line from the rider's center of mass, through the feet, and through the bike's center of gravity so that the bike and rider are aligned with the vector of acceleration created as the bike smacks into bumps or is braking hard. This technique keeps the rider's feet planted on the pedals, the tires biting and it provides a large degree of stability down impossibly rough terrain. Adopting an exaggerated position over the bike, however, may cost precious time when the course offers a number of change-ups. Watch Steve Smith describe the advantages of clips and flats in a recent PB interview (at 5:43)
Steve Smith at speed in the rocks at Hafjell, Norway. Fraser Britton photo
Without beating up the concept, it is worth mentioning that people pedal faster clipped in. Theorists hold that flats are the equal to clips in a sprint, but that is improbable at the high RPM and watt output that a professional sprinter produces. Visualize the science of what it would take to duplicate a ProTour finish-line sprint over rough, unpaved ground on flat pedals, and the advantages of having your feet attached to the cranks begin to make sense. That cycling began on flat pedals and then evolved to clip-ins over a 150-year time interval, further underscores the logic of conventional cycling wisdom. When everything is on the line, clipped in is the fastest way to pedal a bicycle.
Perfect form: Rachael Atherton on fire at Windham, 2012. Colin Meagher photo
Riding styles evolve in the same manner that bicycles do, with longer periods of stable improvement, marked by short periods of rapid change. Downhill racing has been relatively stable for nearly a decade, but presently there seems to be a fresh wind blowing through the sport. Those who refuse to believe that there is a possibility for significant improvements in DH riding technique are asleep at the wheel. Where and how far today's developing skillsets will take the sport is up to the imagination and drive of the emerging crop of new-school athletes. As far as flats vs. clips go, the gap in performance can already be measured in World Cup podiums. The whistle is blowing. I have no doubt that flat pedals will continue win some races, but future pinners aspiring to win a pro ride and to stand on the top shelf of a World Cup Podium may want to jump on the clipped-in boat before it sails.
Josh Bryceland has been switching between clips and flats throughout the 2012 World Cups. Word in the pits is next year may be Bryceland's podium season. Dave Trumpore photo