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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- Put on your cycling shoe, and make a mark where the ball of your foot is.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.