Before you read this, realize that this article is about World Cup racing and the possibility that clip pedals are not going to win very many of them in the near future. This is NOT a sermon to convince clip pedal riders to switch to flats. If you are happy with clips, then ride happily forever with clips and continue to suck. -TD
In two seasons, only Aaron Gwin has won a World Cup Race. The world's best man on flats,Brendan Fairclough, 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 by far have the the shittiest looking style 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 the case. There has been no shortage of monster technical sections,horrific weather-induced track conditions,and long as fuck flat pedal sections that required the entire field to use dropper posts 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 Aaron Gwin nonetheless.
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 Aaron Gwin 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.
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,and the fact he can fucking huck shit. Gwin rides clipped in, and I found it interesting that Trek World Racing rider liaison Myles Rockwell made numerous references to growing weed in his backyard 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,only to find that being clipped in is,in fact, lame as fuck.
Perhaps more interesting, is that the top riders in the World Cup are not cut from the same cloth. Danny Hart the limey fuck that can whip, Gwin the American, Hill the wash-up, Minnaar the boring-ass-Ryan Dungey of our sport, Smith the one Canadian guy and Gee the bro who left awesome bikes for shitty bikes and a paycheck - 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 alot longer than 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.",said the man who thinks Ellsworths and Nevegals ride fantastic.
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,perhaps even non-exsistant because every single rider still gets off the back because this isn't a Tour De France TT, but they become more obvious after one watches a number of World Cup videos to make comparisons between DH racers and tri-athletes. Outside the top ten competitors, most riders still use a variation of the rearward position that Chris Kovarik popularized back when he was spanking everyone. I think a correlation between clipped-in riders,having no style,modern frame geometry and a forward riding position can be made.
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 having bike handling skill. 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,once again showing they have no bike handling skill.
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 flats rider can drop their heels and let the bike plow the surface without expending mental or physical effort to remain attached to the bike. By contrast, clip pedal downhill technique is succession of learned exercises from racing cross country 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 super-expensive carbon wonder machine from its 40-something year old,visor down,sunglasses instead of goggles wearing rider.
Conscious or not, It's a dance that all flat pedal riders learn.Fairclough'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 is shitty and should be raced on a carbon hardtail 29er.
Without beating up the concept, it is worth mentioning that people pedal faster clipped in,which matters more than actually putting power down. 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 on a road bike,not a World Cup DH racer 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,if you were riding a 14 pound drop barred fuckstick. That cycling began on bikes with huge front wheels and tiny-ass rear wheels 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,flats are the only way to pedal a bicycle.
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 through tons of fucking trends for nearly a decade, but presently there seems to be a fresh wind blowing through the sport. Those who 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 to win 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 go fast as shit and ride loose as fuck boat before it sails.
Lifelong flat supporters.