I’ve been riding bikes seriously since the Reagan administration. Most of that time has been spent clipped into one form of pedal system or another. Mavic, Look, Crank Bros., Shimano. I’ve pedal thousands of miles with my feet affixed to the pedals by some sort of retention system. Early on I accepted as true that affixing your feet to the pedals increases efficiency. We’ve all seen the articles and if the pros do it, it must be true.
I’ve been relatively accident free notwithstanding that clipless pedals can make getting off the bike in a crash a bit more challenging. In fact I haven’t had a crash or fall on the road in over a decade. On the mountain bike trail is another matter; I’m not particularly skilled on technical trails. A few years ago I switched to flats on the mountain bike because I wanted to be able to “bail” and get out of the pedals quicker. The change immediately improved my confidence on tech terrain.
I’ve put flats on my road bikes a couple of times in recent years when having a full time walkable shoe outweighed the potential benefit of dedicated clipless shoes. Over time, my blind reliance on the myth of efficiency has faded but I’ve been reluctant to put flat pedals on my road bikes full time because it’s simply uncool. Never mind that flats and real shoes are actually more practical for most of the riding I do; for example, commuting and gravel rides with occasional hike-a-biking. Practicality be damned!
This past weekend forced me to reassess my relationship with pedals. I broke my wrist during a low speed tip-over caused when my front wheel became wedged in a seam in the pavement. I was perfectly positioned to go head first over the bars, but managed to unclip one foot and shift my weight to the side causing me to fall to the left, pinning my wrist between the bars and the pavement. I never did get the second foot out of the pedals and, for an instant, the bike was actually on top of me as I rolled onto the pavement. I’m sure that bystanders thought I was wresting my bike and losing.
As soon as I went to resume my ride—-I was 18 miles from my car—I put my hands on the bar and knew my wrist was broken, or at least badly sprained.
My day job involves getting healthcare providers to think and behave differently in terms of teamwork and communication. We advocate debriefing after every patient care interaction to actively reflect on what happened and how to manage it better. I used my 18 mile return trip to debrief myself. The decision to make the U-turn where I did was the first link in a chain of events that culminated in what is pictured above. I assumed my fat 650B tires would roll right through the seam. They may have at speed, but not at the slow lurch I was proceeding at. I put myself in a bad situation, the only saving grace is that it wasn’t in the middle of a busy street.
I made good decisions once the crash started. I knew not to go over the bars, to unclip ASAP and try to get a foot down. I wasn’t quick enough but I kept my hands on the bars, which likely saved me from a more severe injury if I had extended my arm and hand to break my fall. I spared my forearm, hand and clavicle. Riding back to my car wasn’t the brightest idea; on the other hand, calling for help would’ve panicked my family.
The pedals were a contributing factor to my injury. To be clear, I’m not saying they are defective or dangerous. I’ve used them for years and they work as designed and they are set appropriately. For that instant in time, however, they weren’t the right tool for that situation and this rider. Could someone else have unclipped sooner? Maybe, but “someone else” wasn’t riding the bike, I was. Would the tire have gotten stuck with flat pedals? Yes, and I most likely would have still tipped over but would not have fallen to the ground.
I can’t change what happened last Saturday. It’s over. I have the second broken extremity bone in my life, which I suppose is pretty good. But I’m re-thinking those pedals. First, I think my risk tolerance today is lower than where it was 30 years ago when I was doing speedy road rides. I don’t want to have this happen again…ever. Second, there’s mounting evidence that you don’t gain that much efficiency from clipless pedals, especially not doing the type of riding I do at my fitness level. I’m not riding Le Tour (though Lachlan Morton just rode parts of the course in sandals!). Finally, I’ve had enough of clunking around in tight shoes with metal cleats on the bottom. I’d rather ride comfy shoes and be able to go into work or the store without the clickity clack of metal on tile. Any potential benefit from clipless, at this point in my life, is outweighed by safety, comfort and practicality.