Flat pedals for longer gravel rides?

I’ve been riding for 3 years and always used SPD’s. I’m having toe pain that I can’t sort out, but there’s a big gravel event in just over a week (64 miles). I can’t do it with my current SPD set up.

Last Saturday I got 60 miles or so through a 112 mile ride when the toe pain started, and I had to take my shoes off every 15 miles just to finish. Sunday the pain started 40 or so miles into a 77 mile ride. Today, I couldn’t make it 20 without pain. I have a few new pairs of shoes on the way … I want to see if a different fit and stiffer sole will help. I’m also thinking of trying SPD-SL just to see if the bigger platform helps in my case.

This leaves me in a tough spot for some upcoming gravel events. I’m thinking of trying flat pedals pedals Five Ten shoes in the hopes that I can move my foot around more and find the right position for longer rides on gravel. Is a week enough to get used to flats and Five Ten shoes if I can get some decent mileage in? Will I be asking for trouble going this route? Any tips?

I would be more concerned if you were going the opposite direction on such short notice…from flat pedals to clipless.

I don’t see much risk in going to flat pedals in this situation.


Yup, not a bad situation overall. Picking good pedals and shoe for decent grip is important for cornering and rough stuff. But it sounds like you probably have that covered.

I will mention that you should consider your saddle height. Different shoe and pedal combos can lead to the need for slight saddle height adjustment. 5-10mm is not uncommon and can be up or down depending on a range of factors (pedal and shoe stack height differences, as well as rider ‘ankling’ during pedaling). So be sure to check that and don’t assume it is good to go.


I’d be more concerned with using flats for such a long ride as your foot is almost guaranteed to not remain in the same place and chance more pain if you ride 40 miles too far forward or backward on the pedal, at least SPD keeps you in the same spot

My foot pain has always come from a lack of hydration (toe cramping moving through the outside of my foot) regardless of the shoes I used.

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Thanks for the tip on saddle height…I didn’t even think of that!

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You can sure install everything and take it for a spin. Pay attention and adjust by feel if you feel at all “off”.

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yeah, it’s fine. The shoes are heavier and has more flex, so if you’re counting power transfer efficiency, it may or may not be an issue (really not, to be honest, but that’s the usual argument).

Also, if you need a documented example, Lachlan Morton used flats and Birkenstock shoes on his alt-tour when knee pain hit him.

Other hippie type bike tourers like Ultraromance/Benedict/whatever the hell name he uses these days, uses flats.


I use flat pedals and Five Ten shoes. Once you get used to them, your foot will not move around on the pedal. It stays put where you place it and the only way to move around is to stop pedaling, pick your foot up off the pedal, and put it down into place.

You need flat pedals with metal studs such as raceface chester mountain bike pedals. The studs lock into the shoe sole and stay put no matter what you do, including bunny hops.

The shoes are heavy and totally un-aero.

Having said all that, I suspect you’ll need some time to get used to them, especially on rough terrain.


Maybe single sided spds. https://xpedo.com/product/pedals/city/trvs-duo/

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Flat pedals should be fine, but you’ll still need good shoes that fit and have a grippy sole. I think the biggest difference is on very steep climbs, where it’s easier to keep you foot on the pedal clipped in.

If you think contact area is the problem, there are also spd pedals with a cage around them, so yiu have a larger surface area. But I suspect the shoes are just a bit too small/narrow, and now that you’ve irritated a nerve or so, it’ll take a bit to heal.

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(always) put your cleats as far back as possible. Make sure your saddle is not too high so you pedal with a level foot as much as possible, so not pointing your toes down. This alone can make a huge difference.
Perhaps consider a SPD + platform pedal, you get a bit more stability that way but still have SPD.

Short term- try moving your SPD cleat rearward

Also try loosening up your shoes. Cycling shoes don’t need to be super tight and they don’t have much padding inside. It’s easy to get your toes screwed up because your midfoot adjustment is pushing on one of the bones.


My first bike fit had the cleats all the way up and the shoes were fine for a year until the toe pain flared up on a hot day this summer. I had another bike fit a month ago and the fitter slammed the cleats all the way back. This didn’t solve the issue on longer rides unfortunately.

In the full rearward position, the cleat is behind the ball of my foot and I think that may have caused the hot spot?

I have 2 boas on my shoes and have a hard time finding the sweet spot…too tight and the toe pain appears, too loose and I get a hot spot right above the cleat.

Thanks for the tips!!

Hot spot? That might be because the cleat bolts are too long maybe? Otherwise hotspots are from the sole being too flimsy at the cleat.

Boas - these allow you to way over tighten and focus that tightness on a very small spot. Try it with just the boas lightly tensioned. The ankle one should keep your foot from sliding forward and the mid one should keep the foot from moving sideways- that’s it.

Maybe also play with your arch support

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I’ve been riding flat pedals exclusively for at least 5 years now after a good 20yrs on clipless. While I’m primarily a mountain biker I do a lot of road and gravel as well.

My reasons were mostly for bike handling - I realized spd’s had introduced a lot of bad habits for me as they let you get away with poor on bike positioning, pulling up on cleats when bunny hopping and worse pedalling mechanics. In flats, if you do these things you get immediate feedback when your feet come off. That’s obviously a drawback as well for flats.

I also suffered from foot pain & numb feet with spd’s and that went away completely for me with the flats which is why I now use them on the road and gravel as well full time. Sore uncomfortable feet really detract from the joy of riding.

Personally, I use Pedalling Innovations flat pedals on all my bikes. They have a longer platform and give your foot more support especially if you choose to use a more mid-foot position, which I personally prefer. If you go that route, you’ll likely need to drop your saddle a bit as well as scooch it forward a bit. I have used smaller flats and I find my feet get more tired than with the larger platform. Nothing like the discomfort of the spd’s but I missed the bigger platform for sure.

For 5 Tens, get one of their lighter models. I use the Freerider pros but I’d love to try some of the newer ones for road/gravel like the Trailcross. Shoes like the Impacts are boat anchors. I’d only use them for DH.

Quick mention of the negatives of flat pedals: there is a learning curve to using them and your feet will come off at times you don’t want them to (happens less and less as you improve and far less likely for road/gravel); your foot doesn’t go to exactly the same spot every time and adjusting position can be a bit of a pain as the sticky shoes really do work (this has never led to any riding induced pain or repetitive use injury - flats let your body adjust as you need to and I think makes it less of a risk than with spd’s which lock you into a pretty fixed position); if your feet come off and your shins hit the pedals, you’ll have some scars for life (I wear shin pads now for almost every MTB even though my feet rarely come off now); heavier; probably slight efficiency loss (I don’t believe it’s much though and definitely not more than what you lose from discomfort and getting off your bike).

Last comment is wrt pedalling technique - use all the TR pedalling drills. The only one I couldn’t do effectively was true one leg pedalling. For those I kept both feet on the pedals and let one leg just go limp and go along for the ride. The drills will show you that you can still be active all the way through the pedalling stroke even the 9-12 a clock portion. While your feet aren’t pulling on the pedal, you are getting your foot out of the way so the other foot isn’t pushing against your trailing foot. Even for spd, that is the main point of the exercise as you don’t generate any real power pulling on your cleats at that position.

Good luck - hope you enjoy the flat pedals and it leads to pain free riding.

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What SPD pedals are you using? Before I went SPD-SL’s I did 100s of miles with SPD’s and a touring pedals ( PD-A600 (shimano.com)). The pedals were light and had a decent cage. They are single sided though so I’ve went recently with double sided Richie Comp Trail pedals for my gravel bike ( Ritchey Comp Trail / Mountain Bike Pedals (ritcheylogic.com) ). I’m still to do substantial miles on then though.

Edit the only problem I find with flats is when you stop if you push off with one dominant foot the pedals may not be in the position to do so, its easy to raise that pedal/foot with SPD’s and the like (I’m hesitant to call them clipless :joy:)

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With FiveTen shoes and studded flat pedals, you can do this. Just kick your foot forward and the crank will go up however far you wish. The pedal/shoe really seems to stick together except for one-foot pedaling as mentioned earlier.


I’ve been using Shimano XT M8120…I figured the bigger cage would give a boarder platform when riding. I’m not sure how much these actually help compared to regular SPD’s.

@jfranci3 I’m using the bolts that come with the cleats…not sure how to tell if they’re too long. I have some Bontrager SPD shoes on the way that are 12 out of 14 on their stiffness scale. Hopefully that helps but I’m open to trying anything and everything at this point!!

@Phat_Tony Thanks for the tips!! I wear a 14 US or 48/49 Euro so those pedals look down right amazing.

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Something with a cage can help to disperse the load, as oppose to plain spuds which definitely won’t help. But you are using something like that already so that’s not the issue, maybe its over tightened boas which someone says. They maybe don’t feel tight at first but after your foot starts to swell maybe you need to readjust :thinking:

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Lol, that reminds me of another issue but it more user error. The last time I had hired a mtb with spiked pedals. I got round without whacking my shins. Great I thought, then someone pointed out my calves were bleeding a fair bit. I hadn’t once whacked my shins and my calves weren’t bruised or sore but I had perfectly perforated them with the spikes :rofl: