Clipless Pedals: An Intro, Pros, and Cons

by Stephanie on April 4, 2012 · 0 comments

in Gear & Equipment

Four years ago I had signed up for my first triathlon and my first RAGBRAI (a week-long bike ride across Iowa).  I was a very casual biker at best and I had no idea what clipless pedals were.  Now I’ve been using them for four years and I’ll probably never go back to regular platform pedals.  Here’s what you need to know about clipless pedals and my experiences with them!

What are Clipless Pedals?

Clipless pedals are a bicycle pedal that you clip in to with a cleat fitted to the bottom of a cycling shoe.  They can also be called clip-in or step-in pedals but are most often referred to as clipless.  This really confused me at first until I checked out Wikipedia and found out that the term clipless refers to the lack of a toe clip or toe cage that used to be a popular pedal type.

Pedal with toe clip (also called quill pedals):

(source)

The Pedals

A standard clipless pedal is often quite small in surface area.  They are designed to be used only with cleats.  You would have difficulty pedaling these in regular shoes.

(source)

There are a few clipless pedals that are designed with the locking mechanism on one side and a platform pedal on the other.  We’ll call them beginner pedals.  I went with this kind of pedal when I switched because I didn’t know how serious I would get with my cycling and or if I would like being clipped in.

Platform side of my pedal:

Clip side of my pedal:

The Shoes

The shoes are stiffer than a typical athletic shoe.  The sole is usually made of carbon fiber (typical of more expensive models because it is lighter) or a combination of plastic and carbon fiber or fiberglass.  Most have Velcro closure but I have also seen slip-ons.  The shoes vary depending on their purpose (road biking, mountain biking, triathlon, etc).  You can read up on the differences here.

My shoes (aka “the space shoes”) are pretty typical of a cycling shoe.

There are also sandal versions if that’s more your style.

 

The Cleats

The cleat on your shoe is generally located where the ball of your foot would be as that is where you get power when you pedal.  You clip the cleat into the pedal by stepping firmly down and forward.  This “locks” your shoe to the pedal.  To unclip you twist your heel outward.  (Some pedals clip and unclip differently but this is the standard.)

Depending on the type of cycling shoe you have, your cleats may be recessed.  Recessed cleats make it easier to walk normally because the cleat does not stick out of the sole of the shoe.

My space shoes have treads on the sole that essentially make my cleat recessed thus making it easy to walk around.  The treads are removable though, meaning that I can take them off in a race and my shoe will be lighter.  I’m not competitive enough (i.e. too slow) to worry too much about the small amount of extra weight but it is a nice feature.

Pros

  • Feeling attached or “one with the bike” – For me this is the biggest advantage though it is a feeling that is hard to explain.  I don’t have to worry about my feet slipping forward or off the pedals.  I feel like I ride much more smoothly clipped in than otherwise.
  • More control over the bike – During a triathlon or a long day of biking I’ll be changing hand positions often and moving around to get water, gels or other nutrition, play with my bike computer, or a number of other things.  Being clipped in gives me a better feel for my bike.  It also prevents you from unnecessarily taking your feet off the pedals which can cause you to slow down or get off-balance.
  • Improved performance (power/efficiency) –  It keeps your foot in a more ideal position and increases the power you can get out of each pedal push.  This can be beneficial for both racing and long rides.  Many also believe that it increases the efficiency of your pedaling, though I don’t have hard data to back that up.  Personally I think it definitely increases performance overall.

Cons

  • Cost  –  Pedals and shoes are an expense over and above what you pay for a bike.  Pedals can run anywhere from $40-120+ and shoes probably the same.
  • Restricted Shoe Options – You are restricted to cycling shoes with most clipless pedals (though mine, with the platform on one side, are an exception).
  • Fear/Danger of Falling – There is definitely a learning curve when you first get clipless pedals because you have to remember to clip out every time you want to stop.  It only takes a couple of falls (twice my first time out!) to get this ingrained in your head but it does scare off a lot of people.  There is the potential to not have time to unclip in a “quick stop” situation such as a car pulling in front of you, though you get better at this over time.

Conclusion

Clipless pedals are probably not the best option for you if your main form of biking is around the block with the kiddos or very casual riding.  However, if you are doing a triathlon or a long ride and are interested in increased performance you might want to give them a shot!

Have you tried clipless pedals?  Feel free to leave questions/thoughts in the comments!

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