I have a friend (na, really) who started mountain biking after many years on the road, and even a shameful period of triathlon. She had no problem with clipping in on the road bike, but being connected to the pedals off-road freaked her out a little. To overcome this, she would clip her right foot in, but leave the left foot unclipped, floating precariously on the pedal and not offering much in the way of a stable platform. This frustrated me more than her, and I made more than a few 'friendly suggestions' that she should either just clip the hell in or even run a flat pedal on the left (not the best solution, requiring two different shoes!). Flat pedals weren't on my radar, so I encouraged the clipping in option vehemently, rejecting her curiosity of using flatties, and I believe that she is still a 'floater' to this day.
Having ridden flats for a long time on BMX/dirt jump bikes many moons ago, my curiosity was piqued, so I decided to revisit not being attached to the pedals. Early rides revealed that an ingrained reliance on a shoe/pedal connection was a reality, as each time I'd bunnyhop or get any semblance of air, my feet would automatically lift slightly off the pedal. Within a couple of rides, my brain had reprogrammed and it was like I'd never been away from flatties. Cornering with a foot out (in some situations) was a blast, and the ability to quickly unload a foot in technical situations was a bonus. Spinning uphill posed no problems either, with some smoother technique applied. I was converted.
I tried a few different pedals and shoes, and all performed pretty well. When we received the Specialized Boomslang pedals and matching 2FO shoes (see review in Issue 64, and our first look here) the stakes were raised. These pedals may not be the lightest flatties out there (around 440 grams) but they have to be one of the grippiest. I haven't slipped a pedal yet (touch wood) and am not looking forward to, what with those long pins waiting to get gnarly on the shins.
Those pins are shaped so they're fatter at the ends and thinner in the middle, which helps contribute to the grip. So good is the grip, that making small positional changes can require a slight unweighting of the foot; they really don't want to let go, which is a confidence booster for anyone worried about ripping into their flesh (I did manage to put three gashes in the back of my leg from some inattentive pushing back up a steep bank). They have taken some serious whacks and have barely registered a whimper. The pins thread in from the back side with a 2mm Allen key so swapping out damaged pins is a no-sweat operation.
The platform is a generous 110 x 108mm, with a concave shape which tapers from 10mm in the middle to 15mm outer edges, and transitioning from smaller-bodied clipless pedals means that the bigger alloy body will cop its fair share of scrapes if you forget what you're standing on... once again though, the Boomslangs have brushed off the harshest impacts admirably.
The main inside sealed bearing is nice and big yet very thin, allowing the foot to get close to the crank, though I find myself having to consciously slide my feet inboard to utilise the whole platform area. One of the trickest features though is the four spare pins threaded into the body of each pedal, allowing easy trailside fixes should you manage to bend or break one.
Servicing is easy, with a pair of pin pliers removing the bearing and spindle assembly, and a trapdoor at the other end of the smooth tapered spindle to get to the outboard needle bearings. An 8mm Allen head secures the pedals to the crank, no 15mm pedal spanner required here. Using the supplied spindle washers is recommended, as some cranks wouldn't accomodate the large flat bearing surface without binding on the crank arm.
At $249 RRP the Boomslangs aren't cheap, but the build quality, durability and grip is second to none. After briefly returning to clipping in on some rides, I can't see any reason not to try a flat pedal system, except possibly for long, pedally, non-technical rides. Riders who aren't confident with clipless pedals might benefit from the freedom of flats, and it's definitely better than riding with one foot unclipped! It's a personal choice of course, but one I'm glad I made.