About 18 months ago, I made a conscious effort to adopt a “slow speed” traveling style during future cycling adventures, which wasn’t a bad thing. Getting away from the daily push for distance and concentrating more on exploring has dramatically enriched my travel experience. Going slower is a better fit for my traveling style.
As part of my new slower, more deliberate travel style, I also made the jump from clipless to flat pedals so I could wear my beloved Vibram FiveFingers minimalist shoes while riding the bicycle — which was no easy decision. Like most road cyclists and many mountain bikers, I’d cycled with toe clips or “rat traps” in the 70’s. In the 80’s I began riding clipless pedals for the higher efficiency, convenience, and comfort. Well, the cycle has come full circle. I’m back to rolling on flat pedals again.
If you’re looking for an alternative pedaling solution, FiveFingers and flat pedal may be what you’re looking for. Read on.
Reasons for Change
I’m a dedicated Vibram FiveFingers convert.
About eight years ago, I began running in Vibram FiveFingers and once adjusted quickly experienced the benefits of the more natural running style zero-drop or heelless minimalist shoes offered. FiveFingers promptly became my footwear of choice. The minimalist shoes gradually became my all-around footwear for virtually every occasion. I’ve taken to wearing them almost year-round. Almost every time I leave the house, save for the coldest and wettest days, I’m in a pair. The minimalist shoes able me to walk all day long without my feet getting excessively tired or aching at the end of the day as they did with conventional running or lightweight hiking shoes.
As I got into long distance bicycle travel, I wore the minimalist FiveFingers off the bike and bicycled with clipless SPD pedals and shoes as I had decades before. Using both types of footwear necessitated bringing two pairs of shoes on tour. Depending on whether I was doing a majority of walking or riding, I would change from one to the other.
In seemingly neverending quest to refine my bicycle travel setup, I was looking for a type of shoes that could do double duty. I wanted something I could wear on and off the bike and were just as comfortable when doing either. Lots of bicycle tourists pedaling flats wear running shoes or lightweight hiking shoes. I’d even seen some riders sporting flip-flops while riding — some SPD capable. If they could do long distance cycling with those pedaling setups, I should be able to use my beloved FiveFingers.
I swapped out my clipless SPD pedals and shoes and began riding with FiveFingers and flat pedals.
Making the Transition
Making the physical transition to flat pedals was relatively simple. I selected a decent pair of flat pedals and began taking local rides. The FiveFinger/flat pedal combination worked out great. I loved the setup on and off the bike. My feet were just as comfortable pedaling as when off the bike walk. Plus, I didn’t have the added hassle of swapping shoes all the time.
Mentally, I had to put myself in a different frame of mind. I stopped taking such physical approach to long distance riding and focusing on achieving the “optimal” pedaling and power transfer technique. My cycling technique adopted a more relaxed manner of pedaling, a more casual approach if you will. I accepted any loss of efficiency for gains in comfort and convenience.
Riding from the southern point of Australia across the Outback to Darwin at the northern end of the Land Down Under was my first big test of long distance touring with the Vibram’s. I figured that if pedaling with the FiveFingers didn’t work out along the 5000 km journey, I could always pick up a pair of lightweight hiking shoes and ride with them. If worse come to worst, could purchase a clipless SPD pair of pedals and shoes and ride those. In over 5000 km of riding, the Vibram FiveFingers had zero issues. I loved the freedom and comfort they offered, albeit at a nominal cost efficiency, and have been riding them ever since.
Riding flat pedals has put me into a slower mode of pedaling, mentally and physically. I am thinking and riding in a more relaxed manner. My pedaling technique is still efficient and good form, but a little more casual. I now focus my mind on experiencing what’s around me rather than riding the perfect line with flawless pedaling style.
In the FiveFingers, my feet are comfortable when I’m on and off the bike. Transitioning off of or on to the bike is a smoother process. I don’t need to change shoes for extended periods on either.
Vibram FiveFingers are minimally constructed and compact. As such, I can easily carry a second pair tucked in a pannier without taking up much space, if I choose to do so.
Minimalist or zero drop shoes (with little or not heal) provide a more natural way of moving over the terrain. They are great for walking or running on hard surfaces because they let your body function as it has evolved to do. There is no heel strike as with heeled shoes. Your calf muscles naturally absorb energy as you land on the balls or mid-soles of your feet. The soles of the Vibram’s provide excellent traction on technical surfaces, making them great for scrambling, hiking, or just walking around. At the end of a day of sightseeing, my feet aren’t killing me, as they tend to do in traditional hiking or running shoes.
On the bike, I feel positively connected to the pedals. The traction pins on the pedals positively engage the sticky rubber soles on the Vibrams providing a solid contact surface. My feet don’t slip or slide. The shoes are breathable and comfortable.
The unique look of the FiveFingers is a great icebreaker and conversation starter with locals and other travelers alike. People are always interested in my Vibrams and are often the first to start a conversation with me.
My Setup: Shoes and Pedals
Getting the correct mate between the FiveFingers and pedal is essential. The thin soles of the Vibram’s (3-4mm) transmit surface features remarkably well to the soles of your feet, which can make pedaling uncomfortable if the traction pins on the pedals are too long. Longer pins that dig into the bottoms of the shoes will create pressure points on the soles of your feet on longer rides. Correct pin height is critical.
Larger pedals provide plenty of contact surface weight distribution. Smaller pedals with less surface area can also create pressure points, as there is no stiffened sole in the FiveFingers to act as a standing platform that is found in regular cycling shoes. The pedals must provide a solid platform on which to place and support the feet.
I’m currently running a pair of Race Face Atlas pedals, which are light, provide plenty of surface area, and the pins aren’t too long. Previously, I had a couple of Specialized Boomslang pedals on my Divide but had to replace the stock pins with a shorter set, as they developed pressure points on the soles of my feet during long rides.
Virtually all of the time now, I cycle with my FiveFingers. I’m currently wearing Vibram Trek Ascent model for their thicker (4mm) and more aggressive tread design. In colder temperatures, when the mercury starts dropping below 15℃, I ride with a pair of Vibram Insulated Trek Ascent shoes, which keep my feet plenty warm. Wool toe socks help keep my feet a little warmer in colder weather. Also, the wool dries faster than cotton when wet. Both shoes and pedals have been durable, supportive, and functional. I’m pretty happy with the arrangement.
Cold Weather Riding
Moisture and temperature are the most significant challenges with minimalist footwear. Wanting to push the seasonal boundaries to ride in colder climes, I’ve switched to the Vibram Trek Ascent Insulated footwear when the temperatures dip. I’ve had no problems riding in the insulatedFiveFingerss at 3℃ in dry conditions. My feet have stayed comfortably warm. Like the regular FiveFingers, they are water resistant, not waterproof. If you soak them, your feet are going to get wet. I wouldn’t consider wearing the Vibrams in conditions too much colder than this. Note: If you opt for the insulated Trek Ascent, recommend up one size from normal, as they tend to run a little smaller.
Riding with the FiveFingers and flat pedals altered my pedaling technique a bit. Placing my feet correctly on the pedals took a little retraining as there are not spring-loaded cleats to lock your feet into the correct position. Getting them to the right place soon became second nature. When climbing, I found on the flat pedals that I’m not able to pull up with as much force on the cranks with my quads. Occasional foot dabbing and placement on the ground is more intuitive than one would think. As clumsy as I am, I’ve rarely stubbed a toe wearing the FiveFingers on or off the bike. Other than that, I feel like I’m a kid again with the flat pedals.
For me, flat pedals are less efficient and not as secure. Poorly placed or lightly loaded feet can slip off of the pedals. And “pedal bite” is real. I have the scars to prove it. Pins on the flat pedals can wear holes in the 4mm thick soles of the Vibram FiveFingers. I feel like I’m giving up some efficiency when pedaling, but I’ve adapted to that. The convince and comfort outweigh any gains in pedaling efficiency. In the rain or wet conditions, my feet just get wet, but they dry out pretty quickly.
Minimalist Shoe Alternatives
If you don’t like the look or feel of the Vibram FiveFingers, the Merrell Glove 4 Trail Runner maybe another zero drop-sole minimalist option which has a more “traditional” shoe appearance. They are very similar to the FiveFingers, just without the toes.
If you’re looking for different adventure bike traveling set up for pedaling, riding with FiveFingers and flat pedals maybe just the way to go. They are for me. My feet feel fantastic all day on and off the bike. I wear each set of Vibrams until they are falling apart. Good deals on minimalist shoes can be found on the internet. Amazon.com is an excellent place to start if you’re interested. Vibram.com has good sizing instructions to help you get the right fit. Hope to see you out there, toes and all.
Please comment and let me know what you think.