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Do I need Clipless Pedals?

Time PedalSpeedplay PedalShimano Ultegra Pedal Look PedalSPD Pedal
 

What about the shoes? What makes them so special?
And the different pedal systems?
What do the pedals cost?
Proper cleat placement is important
Will they cause me to fall over when I stop?


Whether you're looking at a road, mountain or hybrid bike, there may be a clipless pedal in your future. But before we get into details, we need to point out why pedals & shoes are so important, and then define what a clipless pedal is!

The pedals on your bike really serve only one purpose - as a means to transfer power from you to your bicycle. For riding around the block, they don't need to be very fancy... just plastic blocks with grooves or teeth to plant your feet onto. But if you want to go on longer rides (anything over 10 miles), you'll benefit greatly from something better, because:

Without something holding your foot securely to the pedal, it would be easy to slip off the pedal and send your foot into the wheel. Not so likely to happen on a trip around the block, but on a longer ride, when you're tired.
There is a correct placement for the position of your foot over the pedal axle
A good pedal/shoe system has to be able to transfer all of the power from your leg to the pedals without trying to bend your foot over the top of the pedal, which causes both fatigue and pain
You shouldn't have to think about how your feet connect to the bicycle while you're riding. You should be concentrating on having fun!
 

In the old days, bike pedals either were plain (with no straps to hold your foot in place) or they had toe clips & straps. The toe clip was usually steel (most are now plastic) and formed a space, or box, at the front side of the pedal that you slid your foot into. Keeping your foot there is the responsibility of either a leather or nylon mesh strap, which you can pull tight when you wanted to make sure your foot stays in place, or loosen so you can get your foot out when you stop.
 

Toe clips & straps are still the norm for nearly all bikes between $350 and $1,000. They're very inexpensive and don't require the use of a special shoe. But when used with conventional shoes, they tend to focus pedal forces onto a small part of the bottom of your foot, creating fatigue & pain on longer rides as your foot tries to bend itself around the pedal.
 

It's time to enter the clipless pedal revolution!

With a clipless pedal system, you wear special cycling shoes (but don't let "special" put you off...many look similar to normal hiking or walking shoes!) that allow a "cleat" to be mounted to their sole. This cleat literally snaps into a receptacle on the pedal, allowing you to quickly (and without having to reach down!) connect your shoes to the pedals and take off.  I'm not sure if this is actually true, but they do say that your pedal efficiency is greater using clipless pedals as you are able not only to push down on your pedal, but to pull up as well and thereby increase power efficiency by up to 30%.

But why are they called "clipless" when they are actually "clips"?  Good question.  These days you'll hear them being called clipless pedals and clipped pedals just to confuse you even more.  Originally they were called clipless to explain how they were different from the old fashioned "toe-clips" we described above.  Hence "clipless" meant "not-toe-clips" but something new and different.  The name has stayed with us and only recently are people calling them "clip pedals" now that toe clips aren't seen as much.
 

What about the shoes? What makes them so special?

A high-quality cycling shoe is designed to be lightweight, comfortable (some optimizing comfort for both riding and walking, while others are made for riding only), and efficient at transferring power from you to your bicycle without pain & fatigue. Popular brands include Nike, Carnac, Shimano & Sidi and prices range from $50-$250. Their durability is very good, and the workmanship is generally as good as, and sometimes better than, normal street shoes selling in the same price range.  When you are looking at shoes there are a few things to consider:
weight - lighter is better - less weight to pedal up a hill!
sole flex - try to bend the shoe. A shoe that does not flex much (or at all) is better.

material - look for a shoe that lets your foot breathe - a combination of mesh and leather works well

strapping - look for a shoe with adjustable straps and/or ratchets

size - bike shoe fits relatively snugly.  You do not want your foot slipping about inside the shoe.

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And the different pedal systems?
 

Non-recessed (such as Look)

 

Recessed (such as SPD)

Pedal

Shoe

Cleats

 

 

Look Style Pedals - Traditionally Road Bikes (non-recessed pedals)- these will have a cleat that mounts below the shoe so that the cleats are exposed. They will sound like tap shoes and may send you sliding across the freshly-waxed supermarket floors if you're not careful! Exposed cleats were designed originally for road bikes, and are inappropriate for mountain biking, where getting off and walking occurs frequently.

You can avoid the tap dancer and slip-slide feel by purchasing rubber Kool Kovers. They make walking about more comfortable and secure.  They also protect your cleats from wear and tear - extending the life of the cleats. The covers retail from $10 - $25.  The best deal I've found is at Performance Bike where they are selling them for $10.  Considering it costs $12-$20 to replace cleats and the covers last for a few years, they are a sound


Kool Kovers
click for larger image

investment.  In pre-Kool Kover days I was replacing my cleats every 3-6 months, I now replace them once a year.
For more info visit the Kool Kovers web site at www.koolkovers.us

SPD Style Pedals
- Traditionally for Mountain Bikes (recessed pedals)- these feature a cleat that is recessed into the bottom of the shoe, allowing you to walk normally when required. These were initially designed for mountain biking, but it is not unusual to see Road cyclists wearing them as well.  This style is VERY popular with AIDS Riders as people like the convenience of being able to walk around without slipping or sounding like a tap dancer (which is what exposed cleats sound like on wood or concrete floors).

 

Why would you want a shoe that has an exposed cleat (making walking less practical) when you can opt for one that's recessed (e.g. SPDs)? Mostly because the shoes will be a bit lighter weight and also because, with some systems (LOOK, for example), the interface/platform between the shoe and pedal is larger and, for some, gives a more solid and stable feeling while pedaling. However, great strides have been made with the recessed cleat designs, and they are now almost as light and efficient as the non-recessed designs. Some pedal systems also offer the ability to clip into either side of the pedal (SPD & Speedplay come to mind). You may want to consider this when purchasing pedals. It can take a bit of practice to master flipping your pedal over to engage your shoe to the pedal if you do not have a dual sided pedal. Look pedals do not offer dual-side clip in.

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What do the pedals cost? anywhere from $50 to $300

We have tried to list some of the main types and prices on our Pedal page.

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Proper cleat placement is important

...even though the new floating-cleat designs have made it far less critical. There are some basic things to set up for cleat placement
 

Cleat Angle - For the angle, cleats are generally set up so that, when the shoe is moved inwards, your ankle won't quite hit the crank. With this position, most of the pedal systems allow a significant outward angle from neutral (in line with the bike), meaning that your foot can go just about anyplace it wants to. The only reason for changing the cleat position so it allows less outward movement is for those who have difficulty moving their heels out far enough to exit the pedals.
 

For & Aft Positioning - For fore/aft, there are many schools of thought about exactly where the cleat should be positioned and there is no definitive answer.  The old rule was that the cleat should be positioned such that the ball of your foot is centered over the pedal.  New thought has it either slightly in front or behind the ball of the foot depending on shoe size.  The main point is to experiment with your cleat position, making minor changes each time.  I would recommend that you invest in a visit to a really good bike fit person.  Incorrectly placed cleats can lead to horrific pain and life long injury.  But a good fit set you up with a more efficient pedal stroke and a future of cycling enjoyment.  Go to our page about Bike Fit

 

Forefoot Tilt is another phenomena to consider.  Basically bike shoes and pedals have been designed for flat footed people but 96% of us have a tilt to our feet, either inward or outward and not necessarily the same for each foot.  I'm personally flat footed on one side and have a outward tilt on the other.  Ever looked at the tread of a pair of your regular worn out shoes?  See how the sole may have more wear on one side more than the other?  This is because of a naturally tilted foot.  So how will this effect cleat placement?  Well the idea of cleat placement is to set the shoe, cleat and pedal up in such a way as to avoid too much lateral (side to side) movement in your knee.  That's the movement which can help you turn into a hobbling wreck.  How can you do this - with a little thing called a wedge or shim.  Paul Swift designed a shim called "Big Meat Power Wedge" that helps adjust the shoe to avoid unnecessary lateral movement.  We recommend you visit his website to find out more about these wedges and who you can go to to get them fitted. 
Please have a look at Paul's BicycleFit website for more details and especially his page about the biomechanics of wedging

 

Leg Length Discrepancy - are both of your legs the same length?  Many of us have one leg slightly longer than the other and when it comes to cleat placement we are also afforded the opportunity to rectify this discrepancy with the use of wedges.


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But will I fall over?

OK, we'll finally answer the BIG question. Once you get used to clipless pedals, the chances of coming to a stop before exiting your pedal (and thus falling over) are greatly reduced. BUT...chances are, in that first day or two, you'll forget that you need to twist your heel out (instead of pulling back) to unclip. By the time you recognize your mistake, it's too late, as you've lost all forward speed. And, with no place to go but down...you get the picture. You will, in very slow motion, and nearly always with people around to see it happen, fall over. You're not likely to get hurt, but it's terribly embarrassing. And most likely there's nothing that makes you so special that you'll avoid the fate shared by just about everyone else. Just try and remember this...
 

It's almost impossible to come up with a truly original way to embarrass yourself on a bike. The rest of us have already, as they say, been there, done that.  Just ask your fellow cyclists for their stories about their first clipless pedal fall.
 

That said, there are a few things you can do to make your first time in clipless pedals a little easier:
 

When you first get your clipless pedals (what ever the style) have someone put your bike on a trainer - so that it is stable and stationary - and spend a half hour practicing clipping in and out of your new pedals.
Have the bike shop set the mechanism on the pedal a little bit less tight for the first few weeks.  Once you are comfortable clipping in and out of your pedals, tighten the pedal up again so it holds you more steadily for the long haul.  Ask the salesperson or bike mechanic how to do this for your specific pedal type.
On your first couple of rides, try to ride in areas that have long periods where there are no stops.  As you are riding along practice clipping in and out in these areas.  You don't have to stop, just get used to the feeling of clipping in and out.  On your first ride try to find a big empty parking lot to ride about in and try out the pedals
Most people will find that they can clip in and out on one side better than the other.  Work out which side this is for you and try only to clip in and out on that side when coming to a stop.  If you build up this habit you will limit the times when you clip out with one foot  but lean the wrong way and fall over anyway.
Do not look down at your pedal when clipping back in.  You can't see the bottom of your foot anyway so get into the habit of keeping your eye on the road ahead instead.  This is a safety issue more than anything else.  If you feel that you need to look down, first pedal through the intersection unclipped before looking down
You only have to unclip one pedal when you are at an intersection.  Get used to leaving the other shoe clipped in.  It means one less pedal to worry about.  Also when you start from a stopping position be sure to have your clipped in foot at about the 1 o'clock position so that your first stroke is a downward one that will give you more speed.
OK, this is going to sound a bit pessimistic, but as you are getting used to your clips be sure to pack a little first aid kit in your bike gear bag.  Some antiseptic wipes, band-aids and Brave Soldier road rash ointment would be ideal.  Ideally you should always carry a basic first aid kit when you ride.  You can buy a cycling specific kit by Brave Soldier from a good bike store or online at places such as Performance Bike for around $10.  One thing this pack is missing is a pair of sterile gloves.  Try to have these on hand as well for times when you may need to attend to someone else's wounds.
  Happy riding!

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