Flats VS. Clipless: 20 Pros and Cons

Words Cam McRae
Date Apr 8, 2015

There are three types of riders; flat pedallers, those who clip in, and those who swap back and forth. In my time riding mountain bikes I have been all three, plus a pre-SPD stint as a toe clipper.

Lately, the prevailing opinion seems to be that you can’t be legit (or serious!) if you ride flats. Unless you happen to be a freerider, or one of the handful of DH pros clinging to their sticky Five Tens that is. Of course that is elitist bullshit. Run what makes you happy. There are good reasons to use both.

SRobarts-PeteRoggeman-NSMB-SantaCruzNomad

Roggey beat me to the punch on the swap. Photo – Scott Robarts/scottrobarts.ca

I’ve just about recovered from fifteen plus years of full time flat pedalling. I returned to SPDs early last summer and I’ve enjoyed re-learning the clipless experience, but it hasn’t all been roses.

I wrote about my motivation for the swap in October. (Let’s not talk about the original title). The takeaway was that, as much as I enjoy the fun factor of riding flats, I was going to give clipping in a shot and see how it meshes with the kind of riding I do now. Data has been collected and the results are in; there are some elements I really like, and a few things I’m less keen on – but overall I’m riding faster and I’m more amped than ever about riding.

Going through this process after years of riding has taught me some things about both foot attachment methods. Here are some elements I’m grooving on.

  1. Clipless pedals are skinny. Even the thinnest, narrowest flats are huge when compared to a pedal like Shimano XT Trails. I spit in the face of narrow spots where I used to get hung up.
  2. Rear wheel precision. Being clipped in allows me to be a little less prepared. On flats I can push the bike forward to keep the wheel from hanging up on a drop but clipped in I’m able to do so more easily. I can also lift up to prevent hang up so I can go too slowly off something without nose diving. The same goes with having to re-position my rear wheel with a hop; more lift and accuracy.
  3. Being attached. When things get rough and I lose my rhythm I love the security of my SPDs. Not having to think about slipping a pedal makes me happy.
  4. Footwear. While there are some good shoes for riding flats, there are none that compare to the quality and tech that goes into shoes for clipless. And most flat pedal shoes have one deficiency or another (heavy, sponges in the wet, not sticky enough etc.). Having good options for foul and fair weather is another bonus.
  5. Pedalling efficiency. I stand by my contention that it’s possible to pedal very well with some sticky flat shoes with a good insole for some added stiffness, but clipped in I can be lazy about spinning circles and still do okay. And I never have to reposition my foot for the climb. Mashing through tech climbs is easier and I’m more likely to step on the gas through rough dh sections as well.
  6. Air. This was a surprise but I am more confident on jumps and drops than I was riding unattached. This means I’m slightly less pathetic. And to be clear, I’m talking about tiny jumps and drops. This factor has been ramped up because some modern shoes have longer channels so you can push your foot forward on the pedals
  7. Bunny hops. I could bunny hop okay on flats but it’s nice to be able to cheat being clipped in. More lift and confidence to be sure.
  8. Feet up. Being attached to the bike makes me less likely to dab and as a result I ride through more rough sections, both up and down.
  9. Speed. I feel like I’m faster now. both up and down.
  10. No Rub. It’s a treat having the finish stay on my cranks and chainstays for a change.
  11. Bonus Pro: Rat Boy.
nsmb-shimano-m530-1

Clipless pedals need not break the bank. Morgan Taylor sang the praises of the $65 Shimano M530 pedals.

Here is a list of Pros for flats, which could also be seen as downsides of clipless.  You get the idea.

  1. Walking. Every ride includes some time off the pedals, and where I ride that often means carrying your bike across a slick green log, or along an off-camber granite section. Even the best clipless shoes suck for walking in challenging terrain for one reason; there is a slippery chunk of metal under the ball of your foot. The racier the shoe the more suck at your disposal.
  2. Crashing. If you go off the front and you are wearing clipless your crash is going to be worse. And there are crashes you can save with flats that you can’t with your feet attached. (remember Stevie Smith racing to second at Mont Ste. Anne in 2010 on flats? To me it was clear he would have crashed if he had been clipped in).
  3. Comfort. Five Ten flat shoes are as comfy as any shoes I’ve worn. Clipless shoes are made for performance, not for cozy toes.
  4. Beers. You can head straight to the bar without looking like (much of) a dork.
  5. Skills. It’s easier riding clipless once you get the hang of it and you can be a little lazier about almost everything (see exception below). Riding flats can teach you a lot as a result.
  6. Easy on and off. Starting somewhere nasty on flats is no big deal. With clipless you have to live with the realization that you won’t always get in and you may find yourself with one foot skating around metal on metal without much control. I have to live with this scenario at least.
  7. Conditions. Flat pedals are better in the mud, when things get very steep and in most hairy situations. Just ask Gee how he won World Champ’s last year.
  8. Feel. There is something liberating and satisfying about riding flats. I’m not sure if it’s that feeling of stomping down on the pedals or being able to jump on your bike with flip flops to head to the store. Feeling like you are just standing on your bike with no restraints just feels sweet.
  9. Tailwhips and other release tricks. These have no place in my life – but they might in yours.
  10. Foot positioning. There are times when angling your foot on the pedal, sliding it forward or back, or even sticking it out like an outrigger, can save your ass.
  11. Bonus Pro: Sam Hill.

I think I’ll eventually go back to swapping back and forth between flats and clips. I’m still building my skills back up on the clipless side but once I’m there playing for both teams makes a lot of sense.

19c1cdbe-4baa-4082-bfd1-5e1c75f50679

Thankfully I did not go through a Power Grips® phase.

 

This list is by no means complete but I’m now convinced that there are solid reasons for using either type of foot holder full time. It makes great sense for beginners to run flats and they are ideal for bike parks, but beating your buddies and (most) racing is the realm of clipless. Or, in the well-fermented words of Johnny Smoke: “Ride clipped if you want to get fast. Ride flats if you want to get good.”


What is on your list?

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Comments

Brocklanders
0
yahs  - April 13, 2015, 9:28 a.m.

Switched over to spd's a year ago. Was a bit sketchy at first but when you work them in they come out effortlessly. Really like the way I can climb up stuff being clipped in, would never go back to flats for that reason. Antone have the Terraduro shoes? Feedback?

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badgerv
0
Chris Hudson  - Aug. 3, 2017, 11:03 a.m.

I run the terraduros and I mostly like them.  I've ridden them for a bit over a year and they're relatively comfy to walk in and the vibram soles allow for a better than usual grip for clipless shoes.  I have noticed some delamination of the sole around the insert for the cleat which I attribute to a lot of wet Florida rides.

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bruce-mackay
0
Bruce Mackay  - April 12, 2015, 10:09 p.m.

I started on flats (in 1988 in SK) now live in the BC interior. Almost blew up my knees with those damn PowerStraps (tightened as you rotated foot in. That was well thought out!?) I swing both ways with my pedals, have for years, both have merits. I agree with Johnny Smoke 100%. If you can do it on flats you'll own clipped! That said Cam, I am also a low flyer, rarely going over my own head. You missed a pretty big point for flats: I rode a lot of winters in SK and AB (you know, where its actually cold) No clippless "system" will be as warm as flats and good boots, and the interface rarely ices up so you can't get in / out depending when it happens.

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max1mvs
0
MAX1MVS  - April 12, 2015, 12:15 p.m.

I don't ever plan on trying clipless. I've ridden flats on every bike I have ever owned, and the idea the being clipped in and having that static attachment point is frightening. I know that with my 5-10's and a solid pedal I don't ever think about them. I seem to keep up with my clipless friends just fine. So…long story short, ride what you are most comfy with. For me, I will keep my flats and 5-10's and just enjoy my time on two wheels. Party on Wayne!

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DemonMike
0
mike  - April 10, 2015, 10:12 p.m.

on todays ride i was very glad i had flats for some stuff , then had both feet come off the pedals and just missed being calfslapped by the pedal i was wishing i was clipped in . thinking i may try some Mallet DH,s now that they can be had in black . a question i have shoes that i bought 15yrs back , are todays shoes using the same cleat location ?? thought i seen they are moving the cleat further back with more modern designs

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cam@nsmb.com
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Cam McRae  - April 11, 2015, 8:52 a.m.

Some shoes are. I've been riding shoes like that and I'm sold.

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DemonMike
0
mike  - April 11, 2015, 10:52 p.m.

what brands offer a more rear set flat type shoe . i prefer a lace up shoe as well

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pete@nsmb.com
0
Pete Roggeman  - April 12, 2015, 8:38 a.m.

The Giro Terraduro is not a lace-up, but does have a more rearward cleat location.

The Shimano M200 has the most rearward range for cleat location that I've yet seen. It doesn't lace up but does use an elastic cinch system that comes close. I highly recommend either shoe.

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usj
0
Usj  - April 9, 2015, 10:04 p.m.

Depends on what and where you are riding. I'm a swapper myself. Average days I ride sad. But if I know I am doing highly technical or big jumps, drops where I want more freedom, I ride flats. I rode spd for 10+ years and when I had to make the change to flats, I had a terrible time, almost like I couldn't ride any more. Riding flats tought me to really ride my bike again without being so lazy. That's why I think swapping back and forth is best. There is a lot to be learned riding flats, and when you take that skill and ride clipped in, you can be that much better and faster.

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doug-nielsen
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Doug Nielsen  - April 9, 2015, 8:45 a.m.

Oh man I've been singing this tune for years. Great article. Here come the haters!

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the-chez
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The Chez  - April 9, 2015, 7:28 a.m.

I've always wondered why they're called clipless when you clip in…

Man I ran toe clips for a while back in the day. Took a lot to get me to switch but then I saw the climbing benefits. I've always pondered going to flats but just don't want to make the investment and I'm not certain my shins need more scars. Still….it would get me to try steeper stuff knowing I could bail easily.

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cam@nsmb.com
0
Cam McRae  - April 9, 2015, 10:23 a.m.

It's misleading in current terms, but you clearly recall that before SPDs Toeclips were the best solution. Hence - clipless.

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litespeed74
0
litespeed74  - April 8, 2015, 9:29 p.m.

Extremely useful article as I have been pondering how on earth people ride flats. I am really amazed and respect the folks that can do what they do on flats. I've ridden all of the above but starting out on flats coming off of horrible toe clips I was extremely 'green' as a beginner and didn't really feel like getting clipped in. Once clipped in I feel 'connected' to the bike. To each their own I guess. I can see pros and cons on each side.
I guess it depends on your style of riding and where you live. I live in CO where you have to go up and up and up then bomb down. I like climbing so I appreciate being clipped in to ride techy stuff up hill. And now that I think about it. I clip out quite a bit on some turns depending on the terrain and angle…

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NickB
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nick bitar  - April 8, 2015, 5:55 p.m.

I've finally bought a pair of 510's and some decent flats after a lifetime and a half of riding in clips… And I suck at it!
I degress from a sorta competent to completely terrible rider within a few pedal strokes.
How do you stop your feet from just vibrating off of the pedals? How do you do drops? How do you not look like a terrible rider when you are not glued to your pedals?

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olly
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Olly  - April 9, 2015, 3:11 a.m.

Relax. Bend ze knees. Drop your heels. It gets easier 🙂

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cam@nsmb.com
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Cam McRae  - April 9, 2015, 10:25 a.m.

You'll get there for sure. Move your foot forward on the pedal for the descent and let the bike move beneath you. And really stand on the pedals evenly. When I first went to flats I discovered I was pulling back on my bars trying to stay connected. Let your weight keep your grip solid.

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pete@nsmb.com
0
Pete Roggeman  - April 10, 2015, 10:09 a.m.

Good advice from the others here. Patience. IIRC when I first tried out flats, it took 5 rides or so before I felt like I was able to do drops comfortably. Like anything else - work up to it. Find a curb, then a bigger one, etc.

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Vikb
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Vik Banerjee  - April 11, 2015, 9:47 a.m.

After decades of clipped in riding I went to flats 6yrs ago. Riding coastal BC tech plus Moab/Sedona as my winter getaway spots I can't recall a single time my feet came off the pedals when I didn't them to.

This is on a 6″ travel FS bike so I don't get hammered like I would on a hardtail.

Went back to clipped in for my road commute [25kms each way] and found my times between flats and clipped in were pretty much the same for either option.

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jm
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jm  - April 8, 2015, 2:07 p.m.

I learned to ride on flats and never had any issues (I guess I didn't know any different). Lived and rode in Whistler for years on flats, XC and DH. When I moved to New Zealand I gave clipless a try because trails were much smoother, less techy, and everybody was really fast on the uphill (crazy people!). I'm used to it now and like it, particularly being attached to the bike when things get rough - no accidental slipping off the pedal on a high speed brake bump filled line. But I have to say I miss flats when I get to try new techy trails. I enjoy the sense of security of being able to put your foot down and being able to start right at top of a difficult section without having to struggle to clip in. Ideally, I'd be able to switch back and forth depending on the day and the ride.
Main issue? There are very few good flat pedal shoes for women! My feet are too small for the unisex shoes (generally don't come in smaller than 39). And I hate the FiveTen Karver. They are the most uncomfortable shoes I have ever had, heavy, bulky, shit sole (inside), ugly and don't dry for days after a wet ride. They grip well but that's all they have going for them. I'm really looking forward to getting my hands on (feet in) the new Specialized 2FO. Maybe the answer to all my problems 🙂

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tahnee-juryn
0
Tahnee Juryn  - April 8, 2015, 4:25 p.m.

Speaking from experience: the 2FOs are the answer. I struggled with finding a good pair of women's flats too and was stoked to grab a pair of these: they fit women's feet and are so light and grippy. A lesson to all mtb apparel manufacturers out there: women want good flat mtb shoes! Don't let Specialized be the only option!

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cam@nsmb.com
0
Cam McRae  - April 9, 2015, 10:27 a.m.

For me the 2FOs don't have enough grip. They aren't as sticky as my favourite Five Tens. That said I'm very keen on the SPD model. Here are more of my thoughts on both.

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johnny-d
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Johnny D.  - April 8, 2015, 1:09 p.m.

Clipless for DH, clips for fixing and flats for all other riding..

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johnny-d
0
Johnny D.  - April 8, 2015, 1:10 p.m.

*Clips for fixie

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paul-davies
0
Paul Davies  - April 8, 2015, 12:31 p.m.

I've got a sweet looking pair of ONEAL SPDs that have taken me up Snowdon with my bike on my back for the last bit of Miners Trail. Rocked me down Ranger's Trail and transported me to the pub in style. Please remove at least 3 ( maybe more) cons for clipless 😉

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GladePlayboy
0
Rob Gretchen  - April 8, 2015, 11:36 a.m.

Clips on the pedal bike, flats on the DH… both have their pros/cons.. if I only had one choice it would be clips.

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counterpoint
0
jeremy  - April 8, 2015, 11:35 a.m.

BMX racing, XC riding and road - clipped in. MOUNTAIN (enduro/freeride) bike riding - flats.

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eric-boyd
0
Eric Boyd  - April 8, 2015, 9:38 a.m.

I've been switching back and forth for the past year and find the variety helps push my riding skills & keep the fun up. As you already mentioned the clipless have distinct advantages in techy situations (especially climbs) and i prefer them in racing situations as it increases the margin for error and limits distractions. the difference in pedaling efficiency is nonexistent despite what everyone will tell you.

I've been riding the Giro chamber clipless shoes and find them to be as comfortable as any flat i've ridden (both on and off the bike). highly recomend them, it's changed my view of clipless dramatically.

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leonardo-echeverria
0
Leonardo Echeverria  - April 8, 2015, 9:22 a.m.

Since you get both, I really like my Cnc Clipless - Platform pedals … You can use your clips for performance and flat for freedom

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D_C_
0
DMVancouver  - April 8, 2015, 8:27 a.m.

Switching from flats to clips made my riding cleaner. Not having the option to come hauling into a section and dab on an instant's notice forces me to plan and commit. This not only made my faster, but improved my technical riding as well.

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Captain-Snappy
0
Merwinn  - April 8, 2015, 7:51 a.m.

I've run clips since the first gen Shimano MTB pedals, and after a few muddy TOM's I was ready to chuck them: no mud shedding on those things. Alternatively, there wasn't any reasonably stiff shoes for flats then either, and a pair of Van's would become wetter than a dolphin with a bladder infection (nod to Mr Warner). Have ridden clips forever (yup WBP too) and am liking the newer AM clipless shoes (Torbal, Terraduro, blah, blah): less XC disco slipper, more suitable all-rounder for the Shore.

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blackbird
0
tw  - April 8, 2015, 7:16 a.m.

The new Specialized 2fo for clipless covers some of your objections. I use them with Frogs so not exactly the same as spd.

Walking is good. Clipping in is actually easier than a more xc shoe. Reasonably light.
I hate the laces but that's because I'm used to the boa system on their other offerings. Not a problem just personal preference.
Fit is better for those without a super wide foot. I couldn't fit into 5-10s (toe box too big) or I would have a pair.
I think the cleat is reasonably recessed so you could actually wear them off the mountain without issue.

The other thing you forgot about clipless as an advantage: they hurt when they hit your shin, but they don't carve you up no matter where they hit you, like a good pair of flats.

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Captain-Snappy
0
Merwinn  - April 8, 2015, 8:59 a.m.

Show me a pedal that doesn't hurt when it hits your bare shin and you will be rich.

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Cheez1ts
0
Garrett Thibault  - April 8, 2015, 9:06 a.m.

Those fixie pedals with big fuzzy straps.

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pete@nsmb.com
0
Pete Roggeman  - April 8, 2015, 12:08 p.m.

It's true, however I've never seen a clipless pedal pull flesh and hair off a shin right down to the bone, but I've seen flats do it more than once.

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Captain-Snappy
0
Merwinn  - April 8, 2015, 1:56 p.m.

True, true.

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andrewbikeguide
0
AndrewR  - April 8, 2015, 6:58 p.m.

You need to have a one foot clip in/ one foot clipped out bigger crash in that case!

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olly
0
Olly  - April 9, 2015, 3:14 a.m.

I've seen an XTR trail pedal slice deep into the back of someone's calf. Does that count?

It took ages to clean all of that sticky red stuff off his bike!

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doug-nielsen
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Doug Nielsen  - April 9, 2015, 8:47 a.m.

Pete-in all honesty though-when was the last scorpion crash you saw that the rider was wearing flats? The answer is never. Safety pros totally out weigh a nasty shot to the shin.

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mdub
0
Mdub  - April 9, 2015, 9:18 p.m.

Why not make a sticky rubber coated pedal and use a golf spike style shoe? It would be super traction on and off thebike and no more calf cuts!

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pete@nsmb.com
0
Pete Roggeman  - April 10, 2015, 10:07 a.m.

Oh, I agree, but I was only commenting about shin strikes. As far as safety goes there's no doubt that flats are the clear choice.

To answer your question: the last scorpion I saw that involved a rider wearing flats was also the worst scorpion I ever witnessed first hand. Pretty sure his feet touched the back of his head. He was not unscathed.

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doug-nielsen
0
Doug Nielsen  - April 13, 2015, 8:52 a.m.

Oh man!! Brutal! I stand corrected then!

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Lalena
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Lalena Desautels  - April 8, 2015, 7:10 a.m.

I used clipless when I raced downhill; hands down they're faster. Now that I only do the odd grassroots race, I use flats. Too me flats are more fun and there's something exhilarating about getting rowdy on flats. I also dirt jump, and I like that I don't have to get used to different pedals each time I transition from riding trails or dirt jumps.

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cam@nsmb.com
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Cam McRae  - April 9, 2015, 10:28 a.m.

Faster - unless you are Sam Hill!

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gt-dad
+1 Cam McRae
GT dad  - Aug. 2, 2017, 11:22 a.m.

After nearly foling my left knee sideways snowboarding last year. Im rehabbing my knee and back on the flats. Spd's I love too but a few crashes aI've had either would not have happened or would have been not so bad If I had been on flats. Flats are comfy to. My strava rewards like spd's , but I like my knees more.

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