Since the early/mid 90's I've been a die hard clipless pedal user. Both on the road and on the mountain bike. As clipless pedals seemed to be a natural evolution from the days of flat pedals and toe clips, it was easy to buy into the selling points made about their superiority.
Speaking strictly in terms of mountain biking now; it just made sense that the benefits of clipless pedals were just that: benefits. Looking back, it's evident that maybe I was too easily swayed.
I recently was turned onto a product by Pedaling Innovations called Catalyst Pedals. No one was trying to sell me on the product, I just happened to test ride a customer's bike and was blown away at how comfortable it was. Not the bike, but the pedals!
Essentially it had modern style flat mountain bike pedals on it, but with a surface that is much larger than a standard pedal.
The pedals just happened to be the Catalysts by Pedaling Innovations. They are 143mm in length. I think your average flat MTB pedal is around 105mm.
On their website, they will tell you all about the science behind the Catalysts, so here I am going to just give you MY insights into these pedals. Some of it may overlap with the science, but that's happenstance. I LOVE bicycle science. I'm a huge nerd when it comes to biomechanics, bike fit/positioning, and all that goes into making cycling more efficient AND fun, but I don't want to sacrifice the end goal of 'fun' because the science says otherwise. So I love the sciences involved in cycling, but fun and comfort are my priorities.
So what is it about these pedals?
Comfort for one. They are so stable and familiar feeling, yet I've never ridden anything like them. Your feet are so much more supported, that it translates to the rest of your contact points also being more stable and comfortable. You hands on the bars. Your arse on the saddle. They all feel much more connected than ever before.
Due to the forward nature of your foot relative to the pedal axle, lowering your saddle becomes a consideration. Mine is currently about 2 cm lower than it's been in decades (that's a HUGE difference in a world where .5mm can make a difference!). Keep in mind, I'm the science nerd when it comes to bikes. I like using measurements and math to dial in my bike fits. Changing that up, or at least reevaluating how I reach those numbers, was not something that I expected to do so easily. These pedals have changed that.
A lower saddle means a lower center of gravity. It means a more relaxed position of my handlebars relative to my saddle. It means a more moto style fit and a more moto/BMX style feel when handling the bike downhill or over technical terrain. It translates to MORE FUN. My bike is even more nimble and responsive now. Not only is my saddle lower, but I can adjust it on the trail (in either direction) with no painful side effects (within reason; but any amount is a big deal to someone who uses math to find the 'perfect' saddle height and who almost never changes it once it's set...until now ;).
Getting to that position would normally mean sacrificing some efficiency on the bike, as simply moving your cleats back on your shoe would change your balance point on a clipless pedal. Especially if you have a preference or natural inclination to a "heel up" or "heel down" style. And if you're like me and have some biomechanical quirks with regards to knees, even the slightest repositioning of your cleats can mean disaster. Usually the range of what's "comfortable" is very small in my experiences. In fact, I've only ever been marginally comfortable on two brands of clipless pedals and at my best, it was still just "ok".
Speaking of that "balance point" in regards to clipless pedals, that's something that the Catalysts have made me rethink. If you think about the generally small platform of a MTB clipless pedal and cleat combo, you start to realize just how much balance and strength it takes to use such a system. You may not agree, but I can feel it now that I've tried this new way of pedaling. When you are walking with a natural gate, there's no thought about the position your feet or heels take while in stride. Yet, in cycling "heel up" and "heel down" are very common concerns for cycling efficiency and comfort. A lot of small muscles and tendons must come into play to stabilize your lower leg while pedaling.
That doesn't seem to be the case on the Catalysts. The pedaling motion and your foot position seem to be completely natural and in need of no concentration to maintain your form. A lot of energy seems to be saved because you can relax parts of your legs that you didn't realize were so stressed. You can just pedal naturally!
That leads to my next observation: my legs. I feel MUCH stronger on Catalysts. I feel that my quads and hips have so much more authority in providing power to the pedals. I've noticed that I can go faster with less effort. I can ride sections with the same effort but in higher gears which translates to more speed.
I've really noticed that I can climb very steep technical sections WAY easier. Some that maybe I couldn't climb at all in clipless pedals.
So my bigger more dominant muscle groups have way more input to the pedals while others can relax far more than they could with clipless pedals. I'm stronger with more power, traction, and balance but with less effort!
Another thing I noticed: I love to ride in the snow and when you have to wear somewhat clunky/bulky waterproof snow boots, the Catalysts really are an advantage. All you fellow fat bikers out there would love these pedals I think. In fact, so far, there's NO ONE that I can think of that I WOULDN'T recommend these pedals too.
I could go on about my pedals, but I think this gives anyone wondering about them a pretty good scope of benefits that I find in them. Feel free to comment below if you have questions or need me to clarify anything.
I never thought in a million years I would be swayed to rethink using anything other than clipless pedals. In fact, just a week before making the discovery of the Catalysts, I was very vocal about the superiority of clipless pedals to a customer. I WAS WRONG.
Prior to ordering my pair of Catalysts, I put on a standard size flat pedal for two weeks and tested the basic outlines of the science behind the Catalysts to see if I could bring myself to see things from a flat pedal perspective. Of course, I could and ended up ordering my own pair. Relative to the standard size flat pedals I tried for two weeks, the Catalysts were still light years ahead in all the benefits!
Consider me a convert until you hear otherwise, but don't hold your breath ;)
UPDATE: For some reason I'm having issues with the 'comments' section. I wanted to follow up with some of the comments below:
Hello everyone! I just now realized all these comments were here waiting for me. Thanks for reading my words! I'll do my best to answer everyone's concerns (so far) in this post:
1: Long XC rides. YES. I used to spend a good 5-8 hours a day on my bike. These days, it's an hour here, an hour or two there....but yes, the longer you spend on them the more you are glad you are on them.
Because most of my rides have been in snow since changing to the Catalysts, I don't think I've gotten in more than two and half hours on them in a single ride, but I can't wait to spend all day on them when the weather allows. I am considering getting back into some endurance events this spring/summer and part of my motivation is being completely comfortable on my bike for the first time in decades.
2: Road bike? I haven't tried yet, but I WILL. Part of James' philosophy with regards to these pedals made me go back and watch lots of old footage of classic road cyclists...Coppi, Merckx, etc...did you ever notice how low they rode their saddles? How much more upper leg definition they had compared to their calves compared to modern road racers? I believe some of that had to do with the fact that they rode relatively huge pedals by today's standards and wore a more pliable leather shoe. Therefore, I'm looking forward to trying my Catalysts on the road.
3: Pedal strikes: compared to clipless, yes, I notice pedal strikes more. However, compared to a standard size flat pedal? No. Not at all.
4: Handlebar height: It did NOT change. The extra comfort won out over a more aggressive position. Especially since being off road has less aerodynamic benefits to lowering your bars than on the road.
ONE THING that I did do to accommodate the more "Moto" style positioning though was rotate my bars back a hair. It evened out my position over the front of the bike and gave me some added balance.
5: Shoes. I prefer a skate shoe. Vans are my favorite. Something with a vulcanized sole. Otherwise, I'm riding in Sorel waterproof snow boots since it's that time of year here in Colorado ;)
Hope that helps! Feel free to continue commenting and asking questions. I'm happy to give any input I can if I think it will help.