The Secret behind Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal Lean and the Clipless versus Flat Pedal Debate

This week saw the 9th anniversary of Michael Jackson‘s death but recently he’s been in the news for another reason. Michael’s forward lean illusion, in his 1987 video Smooth Criminal, made the news after a team of neurosurgeons in India published an article about it in the Journal of Neurosurgery.

JacksonThe article details how the illusion was achieved through a combination of athletic core strength and anchor points on the floor which he could ‘clip’ in and out of using a patented shoe design. It concludes that Michael’s gravity defying illusion is impossible without both elite athletic level core strength and crucially, the feet being anchored. The research resonates with mountain biking to a degree, with a weight of opinion suggesting clipless pedals allow levels of performance that can’t be achieved on flat pedals. The issue with this is that it’s far less clear cut than many would have us believe……potentially it’s misleading.

The debate about clipless pedals pretty much centres on two areas:

  1. Pedalling efficiency
  2. Enhanced ability on the bike

Pedalling Efficiency

Clipless pedals (given their name to differentiate between them and toe clips) originated in road cycling as early as 1895. To cut a long history short, they didn’t find popularity in  mountain biking until 1990 when Shimano introduced their Shimano Pedalling Dynamics (SPD) pedals. The draw of clipless pedals was the promise of improved pedalling efficiency as they allowed the rider to pull up as well as push down during pedalling which improved cadence.

The flat versus clipless game changed in 2000 when Five Ten made their first MTB specific shoe for the Intense Cycles team. Combined with pins on the flat pedals, the Five Ten shoes offer an unparalleled level of grip and in the years following 2000, riders such as Sam Hill, Nathan Rennie and Chris Kovarik showed just how fast you can be without clipless pedals. Roll the clock on a few years and Sam is continuing to dominate the field but in enduro rather than downhill. The significance of this probably isn’t lost on you -there’s generally a lot more pedalling in an enduro race than there is in a downhill race but Sam is still beating a field of riders on clipless pedals.

There’s a lot of factors to consider here but we’re going to discuss riding technique with the different pedals below and that starts here. One thing that’s fairly well accepted is that clipless pedals forgive poor technique and biomechanical dysfunctions where flat pedals don’t. With modern rubbers, flat pedals with pins and good technique, the pedalling efficiency argument starts to look less convincing.

Enhanced Ability on the Bike

It’s often said that flat pedals offer a degree of control that flat pedals can’t, with your feet staying attached to the pedals no matter how rough the terrain gets and the ability to ‘pull up’ on the pedals opening up lines and allowing riders to position their bike in a way that can’t be achieved on flats. While there is a degree of validity to these arguments, if you’re looking to assess ability on a bike, trials riders have more than most and the pedals they ride? If your mind starts to wander toward arguments about trials riding being a way more controlled environment and discipline than downhill or enduro, then you’ve only got to look towards the riding of people like Sam Hill, Danny MacAskill, Fabio Wilmer or Chris Akrigg to realise this argument is shaky.

Further Evidence….

If further evidence is needed that clipless pedals may not be the holy grail of foot contact points, I recently read an article by James Wilson that highlights three flat versus clipless pedal tests that show the debate isn’t straight forward at all…..

As I’ve repeatedly highlighted throughout this post, there’s no clear winner here…..and that’s just the point. The debate is going to grumble on for along time yet.

If you’re going to take the time to practice, practice like the elite.


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