For many riders, switching to clipless pedals is a rite of passage from casual to ‘proper’ cyclist. But while they have unarguable advantages, learning to use presents a few pitfalls. Let us help steer you round them.
Making the move to clipless pedals – where your shoes are held in place by a sprung mechanism like a ski binding – is laced with fear and trepidation for most cyclists. Locking feet to pedals conjures images of imprisonment and a loss of control.
Most of this fear stems from the idea that you won’t be able to get your foot out of the pedal when it’s time to stop. It’s true that for people new to clipless systems, a zero-speed fall is almost an inevitability. This type of fall happens when you’ve essentially stopped, and haven’t allowed enough time to unhitch your foot from the pedal.
An awkward dance between you, the stationary bike, and your foot ensues. The inability to disengage your foot results in a slow motion toppling over. You are left flailing on the ground with both feet stuck to the pedals.
Usually, the only way out of this fix is to get your foot out of the shoe. It’s never pretty. It’s always embarrassing. The worst injury is usually a bruise to your ego.
If you ask most cyclists that are using clipless pedals, they’ll probably tell you that they have experienced this rite of passage. If they haven’t, they know someone who has. I certainly have, and mine was even worse because I already had one foot out of the pedals. I fell to the side that was still locked into place. Classy.
The good news is that you can reduce the risk of having your own zero-speed experience. There is a way to make the switch to clipless without learning things the hard way.
But why use clipless anyway?
You might be asking yourself at this point, “Why would I want to torture myself then?” There are several advantages to clipless pedals. The main advantage is that it allows your foot to stay in a more consistent position, rather than floating around on the pedal. Too much excess movement can cause injury.
It’s also safer than the old-school clip-and-strap system. Once you’ve learned the action and trained your reflexes, it’s much easier to engage and disengage when you need to put a foot down. If you clips and straps done up properly tight, you had to reach down and open the strap by hand to get out.
Clipless pedals don’t make it possible to apply more power to the pedal stroke, or make it easier to apply power through more of the stroke, which are common myths, but they will allow you to use power more efficiently.
Buying a pedal system
There are three variables in the clipless pedal equation: the pedals, cycling shoes, and the cleats that go on your shoes. If you don’t currently use cycling-specific shoes, you’ll need to get some. They have a rigid sole that provides more stability for your foot. You’ll notice that on the bottom are holes that are used to screw the cleats in to the shoes. It’s sort of like shoeing horses. You’ll even get to make Pythonesque clopping noises when you walk.
Ideally, you’ll have access to a bike shop that will install the pedals on your bike, set the cleats up for you, and help you adjust them. Most pedals have a tension adjustment, which controls the amount of force required to get in and out of the pedal (Speedplay and Crank Brothers are the most common exceptions). Once the shop installs your pedals, ask the staff person to back the tension off as much as possible.
Cleats should also be installed on your shoes by a member of shop staff; ideally one who is trained to do bike fits. One important thing to remember is that the position of the cleats needs to work with your body’s natural alignment. Any knee or hip pain you might feel after moving to clipless pedals is probably the result of improper cleat position. This often means that it can sometimes take three or four adjustments before the cleats are where your anatomy wants them to be.
Practise, practise, practise
In a perfect world, your local neighbourhood bike store will have a stationary trainer that they let you use to help you get familiar with clipless pedals. By setting your bike up in a trainer, you can practice getting in and out of the pedals without the fear of falling over.
If your local shop doesn’t have a trainer available, do this. After your pedals and cleats are installed, find a place where you can get on your bike and hold on to a counter top, a wall, or a railing; anything that you can use to stabilise yourself.
Next, get on your bike, and step in to your pedals. You’ll know you’re in by the telltale snapping noise you hear. Pedal backwards to get used to how your feet now feel.
To release your foot from the pedals, twist your heel away from the bike. Your foot should be parallel to the crank before you twist. If you point your toe down and twist, then you are more than likely not at the correct angle to disengage. Drop your heel, twist it, and out you’ll come.
Usually, you’ll have one foot in, while your dominant foot is the one that you put down when you are stopped. You’ll figure out which foot feels more natural to you. When you have both feet in the pedals, your body has a way of letting you know which is your default foot for coming out first.
Repeat these steps several times. Make sure that not much effort is required to snap in, or twist out of the pedals. If so, then you can find the tension adjustment, and with an allen key, back it off.
On the road
Once you feel comfortable getting in and out of the pedals, it’s time to add movement into the mix. Before you do this, remember these two golden rules of clipless pedal usage:
1. Your feet do not have to be locked to the pedals for you to start pedaling.
Physics doesn’t stop just because your feet are sitting on top of the pedals, rather than being locked into place. Getting yourself up to speed before clipping in to your pedals will make the whole experience easier.
To start, just put one foot on a pedal, push off, sit on the saddle, and then rest your other foot on its pedal. Get moving a little bit, and then try snapping one foot in. If you start to slow down too much before being snapped in, just pedal some more. Make sure you have a nice long stretch of road or pavement so that you can allow time for Rule 2.
2. Anticipate your stops.
Zero speed falls happen mostly because people wait too long to remove their foot from a pedal before they come to a stop. Again, because physics doesn’t cease, you can remove your foot long before you need to stop and still turn the pedals round.
To practice taking your foot out with time to spare, pick an object that is many yards away from you. Let’s say 50 yards away. It could be a parked car, a telephone pole, anything that you can see. Start rolling, and when you are 25 yards away from that object, take your foot out of the pedal by twisting your heel.
Once it’s out, you can rest it on the pedal again, and even pedal some more if you need to. Then, as you slow down, your foot will be ready to put down on the ground. Practice this several times, and gradually, you’ll be able to wait longer to take your foot out of the pedal.
By remembering these two rules, you can become a confident clipless pedal user. It won’t take long before it’s second nature. Then, you’ll wonder why you didn’t start using them sooner. Clop clop.
Five more clipless pedal tips
1. Choose shoes and pedals that are compatible with Shimano’s SPD system if you want to be able to walk when you’re off the bike. The two-bolt cleats are recessed into the sole.
2. A double-sided system like Speedplay or almost all mountain bike clipless pedals is great for commuting, where you will have to clip in and out a lot.
3. Shimano and a few others make pedals that have a clipless mechanism one side and a flat surface the other. These are great if you want to be able to ride in normal shoes sometimes.
4. Still nervous? Shimano’s Click’R system requires less effort to release than other clipless designs and comes with ‘multi-release’ cleats that come out if you pull up hard too. Read our review on the Click’R pedals, it will boost your confidence to try them!
5. Walking in road-race systems like Speedplay, Look, Time and Shimano SPD-SL is tricky because the cleats stand proud of the sole. Rubber covers over the cleats help, and also prevent the cleats from wearing out quickly.
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