Once You Use Clipless Pedals, You’ll Never Go Back

by Marc Lindsay
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Once You Use Clipless Pedals, You’ll Never Go Back

If you’re new to the sport of cycling, the move from flat pedals to a fixed, clipless pedal system can be intimidating. But switching to clipless pedals can improve your comfort and efficiency on the bike. And while “clipping in” will likely stir up plenty of anxiety on your first few rides, with a little practice, it’ll become second nature in no time.

Why You Should Make the Switch

Securing your foot to a pedal in a fixed position is the most efficient way to turn the energy you create into forward motion. When you’re clipped in, you can maintain more consistent force throughout the circular motion of pedaling — instead of a less effective pushing down motion in a flat pedal.

See, clipless pedals allow you to pull up on the pedals on the upstroke (6 o’clock to 12 o’clock) and incorporate additional, bigger muscle groups such as the hamstrings and glutes. This not only improves efficiency, but it also helps to keep you from fatiguing as quickly, as you can produce more power on the bike.

On top of increased efficiency, a clipless pedal system is easier on the joints. When your cleat is lined up properly, your foot will be in the correct position over the pedal axle, which helps lessen strain on the knee joint. This makes it much easier to pedal at a higher cadence of around 90–100 revolutions per minute without losing contact with the pedal, and it also helps ease strain on the knee that comes from pedaling at lower rpms in larger gear ratios.

The Different Types of Pedals and Cleats

In terms of which cleat-pedal system you need, there are three main options:

  1. Two-bolt cleats: Used most often by mountain bikers, off-road cyclists and commuters (as well as spin class attendees), two-bolt cleats are much smaller and can be used with a shoe that’s more flexible and easier to walk in. They’re also commonly used with pedal systems that allow for dual-sided entry, which can be slightly easier for beginners. Shimano SPD and Crankbrothers are two major manufacturers.
  2. Three-bolt cleats: This is the most common design for road cyclists. The cleat is fairly large and triangular in shape, and it screw into a stiff carbon or fiberglass sole on a dedicated road cycling shoe. Entry on most road cycling pedal designs is one-sided. Examples of major pedal manufacturers include Shimano SPD-SL, Look and Time.
  3. Four-bolt cleats: As of right now, Speedplay is the only manufacturer using a four-bolt cleat design. Unlike the three-bolt design, Speedplay’s offering has a locking mechanism on the cleat instead of the pedal. The rectangular cleat is placed over a smaller, circular pedal that allows more side-to-side float of the foot during the pedaling motion. This design also allows for dual-sided entry, which can make clipping in a bit easier. In terms of performance, the choice between this design and the generally more secure three-bolt design will likely come down to personal preference.

Keep in mind that cleats are usually only compatible with the type of pedal you choose. For instance, if you decide to buy Look Keo Classic pedals, you will also need the Look three-bolt cleats that work with that pedal. Likewise, Shimano three-bolt cleats will have a slightly different design and will work exclusively with Shimano pedals.

How to Set Up Your Cleats

The position of your cleats on your cycling shoe is highly individual. For that reason, it is recommended that you get a professional bike fit. Cleat positioning is included in this service, and it will help you to achieve an optimal position that will improve your comfort and performance, and reduce the likelihood of injury.

For a basic setup, you’ll want to get the ball of your big toe directly over your pedal axle. Here’s how it’s done:

  1. Put on your cycling shoe, and make a mark where the ball of your foot is.
  2. With the cleat loosely screwed onto the shoe, line the mark on the shoe with the cleat marker on the side of your cleat. The cleat marker is a raised line on the inside edge. Most major manufacturers use cleat markers, but if you don’t have one, you’ll need to make small adjustments until you have your cleat is in a position that puts the mark on your shoe directly over the pedal axle.
  3. Adjust the side-to-side direction of the cleat so that your foot is in a neutral position, angled neither in or out. The float of your pedal will allow for slight side-to-side movement during the pedaling motion.
  4. If there is discomfort while you pedal, make small fore and aft adjustments as needed or see a specialist.

Clipping Technique Practice Tips

Once you’re all set up, you’ll need to practice clipping in and out of your pedals. Keep these tips in mind to make the transition as easy and painless as possible:

  • Practice indoors. On an indoor trainer or balancing with your hand against a wall, practice pressing the cleat into the pedal (press the foot forward and the heel down) and removing it (twist your heel out to the side). This will give you an idea of technique and the amount of force required to clip in and out of your pedals without worrying about balance.
  • Lower the tension on the spring. On most pedals, there is a tension spring. The higher the tension is, the harder it will be to remove your foot from the pedal. Set the tension on the lowest setting while you practice and gain comfort.
  • Clip out before you stop. The more speed you have, the easier it is to balance when you’re on the road. For this reason, you should always clip one foot out with plenty of distance between you and the stop sign or red light you’re approaching. This will make you feel less rushed and make it much easier to put your foot down rather than waiting until just before you come to complete stop.
  • Get your speed up before you clip back in. The tricky part is getting going. Momentum will not be on your side, which will make clipping in while you attempt to look down and balance much more difficult. To make things easier, keep the foot that’s still clipped in near the top of the pedal stroke. With a hard push, build a little speed before you try to clip the other foot back in. If you’re going too slow, you can pedal another complete revolution with the foot that’s still clipped in. The additional speed will make it easier to balance and buy you a little time to get your foot clipped back in.
  • Stop in the right gear. Before you stop, shift to a gear that’s large enough to help you get back up to speed quickly. If you’re in too easy of a gear, you won’t get much speed with your initial push and balancing will be more difficult.

Related

  • Sam Crabtree

    I’ve a novices question. Why are “clipless pedals” called that? It seems to me that I have to clip in to my clipless pedal.

    • speaker

      It’s a good question and the answer is in the history of pedal systems. Before “clipless” pedals became available, the benefits of being able to power through the whole pedal cycle, both upstroke and downstroke, were achieved with a mechanism called a “toe-clip”.
      The toe-clip was a cage that extended out and up from the front of the pedal. The rider would place the front of his foot in the cage and it provided a secure connection to the pedal – that is if it were adjusted and fitted correctly. These were almost universally referred to as just “clips”.
      So, the mechanism that obsoleted them were called “clipless pedals”.

      • Dave

        No mention made of the satisfactory use of “basket” pedals, particularly for mountain biking. I find old-style pedal clips not only safer than clip-less pedals, but there is no difference in up-stroke power. The only difference in efficiency is in the small weight difference. However, the shoes don’t need to be anything other than cheap running shoes. And for those who think that you cannot get out of them when going over the handlebars, that would be false. I’ve tested that theory, and gotten out of them. I believe that clip-less pedals would have actually trapped me. So, next time one wants to cover the “benefits” of being clipped in, try a more balanced approach.

  • guy30000

    They should be called Clipfull pedals

  • tomthumb3

    I have used clip-in pedals and have fallen down so many times that I had to take them off. I climb a lot of hills and my chain would come off on occasion and that’s when I was clipped in and therefore stuck. Also many emergency stops landed me lying on the side. It became a matter of life or death since I have landed on cars or in traffic on at times one-lane roads. If you are in the wrong position with your foot, say at the top, and you have to push your foot out you can be in trouble. Also, what about gravel on a road going downhill? As a heart patient with blood thinners, I am already at risk. I feel so much better without those damn things. I totally disagree. What a waste of hundreds of dollars in shoes and pedals.

    • kgiles27

      I totally agree with you.
      I don’t compete. I ride for fun. Isn’t it obvious that fixing your feet to pedals creates a dangerous situation. In traffic, clips (clipless or otherwise) should be outlawed. Yet, in the cycling stores, they continue to push the clips. Maybe it has something to do with $$$.

      • BillStrahm

        Outlawed, teal… Just because you can’t use them effectively?

        What kind of nanny starter do you live in. I am a lot safer in my clipless pedals because my feet stay where I want them and I can control my bike.

    • Bill Edgar

      If you practice in safe places (hard-pack lawns and dirt, then low-traffic bike paths maybe) a lot before riding on roads or in sketchy situations, you can learn to get out of your pedals extremely fast. That’s not to say it’s not more effort than flat pedals, but if you ride a lot, they are the only way to go…tremendously more power through the entire range of the pedal stroke. The first few times I rode with them (over 20 years ago) I fell a few times. I haven’t fallen because of my pedals since that first year, and the times I have fallen, I’ve been able to get out of my pedals in plenty of time. I ride both mountain and road on clipless pedals and, while transitioning my mountain riding to them took a re-learning effort, once I was used to them, they were the same as my road bike…I can get out of them in a flash; and I get tons more power in climbs especially. (Oh and I’m 62 years old and have a metal knee on the left and had a triple bypass four years ago, so I’m not just being a smart-ass with no infirmities trying to make people who are having issues feel bad…it’s just about practicing until you are proficient before taking risks during rides.)

      • tomthumb3

        Sorry Bill, the clips are off and have been. I don’t see a difference in thrust. I get light-headed at 1200 ft, for example, while climbing Mt. Diablo and because I am at a steep grade and if the chain comes loose, which I think I have fixed with a new shifter since the componentry was incompatible, I am heading backwards so fast that I can’t get out. The clips demand another step that given the timing was too much. Besides, when I ride, the egotistical level of drivers has caused dangerous situations, where I need to be able to push my bike out from under me in a second, not two seconds or after an awkward dance. Just yesterday, I had to stop before entering a round about because a car was coming and another car wanted to get around me and enter the roundabout before me thus cutting me off and potentially getting in front of the other car, getting hit by it and the slamming into me. I yelled at the driver saying they had to wait. Luckily, I wasn’t strapped in. Another time at the roundabout, a man raced into it without stopping. I had to slam on my brakes. Being clipped in at that second would have meant I couldn’t have gotten away from my bike. Seconds and a less cluttered brain may save my life. Besides, I had them on for at least a year of riding, it is not about practicing. It is about timing and mental ease.

  • rick

    Sadly, not everyone can use these devices. I can turn my heels 180 degrees from each other. The knee does not align with my toes (by a significant margin). When I turn my toes forward, my knees move toward each other and my feet roll to the sides. I have used toeclips because they allow a certain amount of slop during the pedal stroke.

    That said, I have been pulled over (when I was much younger, of course) for speeding in 25 MPH zones (30+). I’m not certain how much clipless pedals would have improved my performance by an appreciable amount. Sure, they’re easier to disengage, but you can’t leave the straps loose enough for those with physical differences to ride with any degree of comfort.

  • jrenninger

    Over the course of 15 years, I have tried clipless three times. i always have the same issue. I get a very sore spot in the front of my foot. It feels like the clipless mechanism is trying to come right through the sole of the shoe into my foot. Yes I’ve tried 5 different shoes – not cheap ones, and added insoles. Besides, i like the look of my lower legs after using the “meat tenderizer” style flat pedals.Looks like I’ve been riding through the briar patch.

  • John Rasmussen

    I personally like the clip in pedals and have used them my whole adult life, I’m 55 now. I tried the clipless and just couldn’t get used to them. I can easily slip out of my clip in pedals but also get use of the upward stroke of the pedal. I don’t race or compete in any way so I don’t care if clipless will give me some sort of edge. Also, I like to be able to walk around normally when I get off my bike instead of having to hobble around on the biking shoes. If you are competing, clipless is the way to go.

  • Arthur Becker-Weidman

    I didn’t see any mention of the risk of accidents, which is higher with clipless than with flat pedals. A long flat pedal is nearly as efficient as a clip-in (see https://www.bikejames.com/strength/the-flat-pedal-revolution-manifesto-how-to-improve-your-riding-with-flat-pedals/ ).

    I used to use clipless but after a fall that shattered my acetabulum, I’ve switched to a long flat pedal and don’t notice any change in the time or distance I can go compared with when I used the clipless. Clipless may be better for those who race and where a few seconds make a difference, but for anyone middle aged and above, the benefits are not nearly worth the risks, which are primarily lower limb breaks.

  • puppy lander

    GCN tested (maybe not totally rigorously), but found no discernible efficiency benefit to clipless pedals. This conclusion bears itself out time and time again.

    In fact, there doesn’t appear to be a single study that shows any improvement in efficiency. (Note that Marc Lindsay doesn’t link one here. You can be sure that if such a study existed, the pedal makers and article writers would trot it out every chance they could.)

    But this doesn’t mean clipless pedals are useless. Foot retention is a thing. Its usefulness/helpfulness is just wildly overstated/limited: hard sprints where you are pedaling so hard and spinning so fast that you’re taxing your coordination.

    • Skip Rice

      I don’t care whether there is a study or not. I can tell the difference, and it only makes sense that the force exerted during the pedal stroke on the other half of the circle that wouldn’t be there with flat pedals makes a difference in both force and speed, as well as increasing the endurance factor since you use opposing muscle groups, not just mashing with the quads.

  • Dale Holland

    The first time I rode with clipless pedals, I ended up, at the end of a 20 mile ride, in the Emergency Rooom with a broken ankle because I couldn’t clip out. I’m now married to my ER nurse.

  • ohiogreg

    Your title is not true. I tried two different kinds of clipless pedals. I fell more trying to get out of those stupid things than I did when I was a kid.
    I was afraid I was going to fall and break something. I went back to my toe clips.

  • Corey Laymon

    Guess my first post failed to upload. Just wanted to add that if you are having problems getting your foot to release, try ordering a set of Shimano Multi Release cleats SM-SH56 from Amazon. They are like $15 and I can honestly say they work great. I like the ability of always knowing my foot is in the right position and the extra help of pulling up on the pedals but could never get comfortable in technical areas because I could not always get my feet out. Since installing the SH56 cleats, I don’t have that issue and yet I don’t have to think about my foot position. Clint Gibbs did a review here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JJBEkKK5liY&t=268s

  • n blanchette

    I don’t understand the comments below from riders who couldn’t get unclicked. Most systems have the ability to adjust the amount of tensions needed to release. It isn’t that complicated. Also try descending a technical downhill on a mountain bike with platform pedals. Your feet will have a hard time staying centered on the pedals. Your feet may actually come off the pedal and if that foot falls in front of the pedal, that’s gonna hurt for awhile.

  • J.D. Kimple

    Well, I did go back. I’m on the BMX-style flats.

    I’m sure someone will tell me how wrong I am. But I road SPDs, Road-SPDs, LOOKs, etc. for 20 years. Raced Cyclocross and MTBs. They (clipless) are efficient and do help some, I can’t argue that. But I’ve found that for me, I went to the platforms initially for super-muddy CX races. Got used to them and started riding them on everything. Unless I take the hardtail out on really rocky courses, it’s platform pedals for me.

    Someone, I’m sure, will mention that the pins will tear up your shins. Well, do you smack your shins on your current clipless pedals? If you don’t, then you won’t have an issue. Does it happen? Once in the past 3 years, at a 6 hour MTB race because I got tired and careless. I’ve hit my head more often than that.

    With some sticky-soled shoes and the retention pins of the better platforms, my feet don’t move around unless I want to. And when I get off the bike, I don’t walk like a duck.

  • Bryant MacDonald

    I think it depends on the bike and the type of riding. I have a city bike, hybrid, and road with clipless only on the road. Rides to the coffee shop or store or along the beach are the forte of the first two. Long rides at higher speeds are for the road bike. I keep the pedals adjusted to allow for easy release, rarely have had any problems, and like the sense of security at high speeds particularly on a stiff and jittery road bike where a slight bump can knock your foot of the pedal. Funny, no one mentions the old clips as an alternative anymore or as a compromise, probably because unless you are really flying imho they are not needed and the clipless do a better job of keeping your foot on the peddle and are easier to get out of and back into. None of that having to toe flip the pedal to the correct position nonsense. (Yeah, I am old enough to remember them). Ultimately, do what makes you want to ride more.