Clip-in style pedals rock! Are you clip-in fluent? Clip-in curious? Clip-in averse?
Clip-in-pedals are the easiest way to increase riding efficiency.
BCI- Before Clip-Ins
Even before I became a cyclist I loved the 1979 movie Breaking Away. It is a great coming of age story that, coincidentally, came out the year I graduated high school. Breaking Away features Indiana University’s Mini-500 collegiate bicycle race. The highlight of the action is when The Cutters, aka townies or locals, beat the well-heeled, experienced frat-teams. It’s a timeless movie with a great theme and one of the themes is that naked pedals are for losers!
After a crash, main character Dave Stoller’s team falls behind in the race and the only way to win is to duct-tape Dave’s feet to the no-toe-clips-allowed regulation-issued Mini-500 velocipede. The Cutters don’t cheat, they just work smarter.
In 1979 state-of-the-art meant pedals outfitted with steel cages (aka ‘toe-clips’) and one or TWO straps. Cycling shoes had either plastic soles with steel-shank or shoes with soles that literally did grow on trees. (i.e., they were made of wood!)
These shoes would be outfitted with cleats that slipped into the back of a pedal cage and, when the straps were pulled tightly, allowed riders to not only propel their bicycles using quadriceps muscles but also bring the complementary hamstrings into play. Toe clips, combined with straps pulled taut, were the most efficient way to apply power to the pedals. (Short of The Cutter’s duct-tape.)
Toe-clips-and-straps combined with cleated cycling shoes dominated the cycling world for a century until Look produced the first safe and effective “Clipless Pedal” in 1984. (As they were originally christened: A name rather on par with calling a car a “horseless carriage.”) By 1985, pro-cyclists who weren’t using Look pedals were either ill-informed or were forbidden from doing so by sponsors. (First generation clip-in pedals lacked “float,” a very important issue for mega-milers; this design problem was solved decades ago.)
Clip-in pedals for road cyclists have been available for 34 years and clip-in pedals for mountain-bikers, tourists and commuters since 1990. There is no disputing the fact that clip-in style pedals are an exponential jump from a “naked” or platform pedal and are much more effective than toe-clip-and-strap-pedals with cleated-shoes. (Good luck finding cleated-shoes and cleats for quill-pedals!)
In terms of efficiency, clip-in is the clear winner, but what about safety?
If you are adept at using toe-clip-and-strap-pedals, then you have already mastered a far more arcane and difficult skill than learning how to use clip-in pedals. Properly adjusted clip-in pedals are easier to enter and exit than toe-clip-and-strap-pedals. Period.
Clip-in are easier, but they do require a different skill set than toe-clip-and-strap pedals, a skill set as different as making a movie is from writing a book. If you are adept at toe-clip-and-strap-pedals, then you can master clip-in. This class will show you how and you’ll just need to practice.
Are clip-in pedals as safe as “naked” or platform style pedals? Depends on what we mean by safe.
Arguing that clip-in pedals are as easy to exit as platforms is downright silly- they’re not! -but how about overuse injuries? Keeping our feet on our pedals over rough terrain? Improper foot placement that can lead to hip, knee or foot injuries?
Being able to get our feet quickly from a pedal to the ground is only one area of safety in a list too long to enumerate. If you’re going to ride your bike then properly adjusted cleats on clip-in pedals will not only give you more power, they’ll decrease the likelihood of use injuries.
Knowing this, the clip-in averse may move to clip-in curious, and with practice clip-in curious can become clip-in fluent. Let’s look at the two major styles of clip-in pedals.
Road Race versus Mountain Bike
Clip-in pedals are specialized tools and the variations are enormous, but clip-ins are available with big road cleats and small mountain cleats. Road and mountain cleat sizes vary but road cleats are roughly 2.5 x 3 inches (64 x 76 mm) while mountain cleats hover around 1.25 x 1 inch (32 x 25 mm).
Road shoes and pedals emphasize low weight and stiffness while mountain shoes offer walk-ability. (“Mountain Shoes” also refers to commuting and touring shoes. My commuting bike and mountain bike are equipped with mountain pedals while my road bike has road pedals.)
Eight-ish square inches of road cleat size adds stiffness to the already superior-for-riding road shoe while the tiny mountain cleats fit handily in the recess of the heavier, less stiff, walk-friendly mountain shoe. If speed or extended riding is a goal road shoes and cleats are likely your best bet while mountain shoes offer far greater versatility.)
(Since a road shoe with a mountain cleat provides the inconvenience of poor walking without the added benefit of a stiffer pedal-to-shoe-interface I advise reserving this combination for indoor cycling as many “Spin bikes” have mountain style pedals.)
Single or double-sided?
Most road pedals are single-sided-entry, as are many mountain pedals. Single sided pedals have an up-side as well as a down and can be clipped into only when the pedal is right-side-up. Single sided pedals make clipping-in a bit more challenging as the pedal must be properly oriented before entry is possible.
Single-sided clip-in road pedals are lighter, have a better “lean angle” and are more aerodynamically smooth than mountain pedals. (And hey, let’s just say it, road pedals are “faster looking” than their clunky country cousins.)
Clip-in mountain pedals are more likely to be dual-sided which makes entry easier, but single sided pedals are a popular option for those planning to ride their bikes in street shoes. Cyclists riding short distances for errands, with the kids or commuting in “work clothes,” may want to consider single sided mountain pedals with a street shoe friendly platform on the non-clip-in side.
Single-sided mountain pedals are the mullet of clip-in-pedals, all work on one side, all party on the other. Riders with single-sided mountain pedals have the ability to slip into cycling shoes and clip in or pedal to the grocery store in sneakers. What single-sided pedals lose by being bulky they gain in versatility. (P.S. If you have more than one bicycle and your “other” ride sports naked/platform pedals then dual-sided mountain pedals may make more sense for your “serious” ride.)
Shoes don’t have nerve endings
Clip-in pedals latch our feet to the bicycle via tension-adjustable spring-loaded clamps. While cleats for clip-in pedals vary with make and model, the means of attachment is the cleat/pedal interface. To clip in, the front tip of the cleat is placed into the leading edge of the spring-loaded slot and the heal is lowered until enough pressure is exerted to pop the spring open sufficient to the cleat being clamped by the pedal. (Lowering engage-release tension to the minimum makes for easier neophyte clip-in experiences; once clip-in mastery is achieved returning to higher entry/release tension is as easy as a few turns of a screw.)
The concept of clipping in is easy but finding the hole can at first be vexing. My standard instruction is to extend the feet’s nerve endings down to the sole of the shoe- obvious sarcasm.
Finding the front of the slot with the cleat is the first step in clip-in mastery, the next step is learning how to exert force properly. I use a “sliding into home” baseball analogy, where I urge people to think of sliding feet first to score a winning run. It helps to visualize starting with your feet forward and then exerting downward pressure to engage the back of the cleat as one would exert pressure on one’s backside when sliding.
(Class will include demonstration and practice.)
To disengage from clip-in pedals do the opposite of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz movie, (L. Frank Baum’s book differs on how Dorothy Gale returns to Kansas) heels are flipped out (ONE AT A TIME!) in a decisive, powerful, from the ball-of-the-foot, away from the bike pivot.
Disengaging from a clip-in pedal is easier than engaging but teaching ourselves the technique is critical to safe clip-in pedal operation.
Muscle Memory/Synaptic Response
While we can’t grow nerves in our shoes we can practice finding the sweet-spot and snapping in/snapping out repeatedly until we develop muscle memory, or what I call a synaptic response.
Most of us brush our teeth the same way. We may start on the top or the bottom, go clockwise or anticlockwise but we likely follow a pattern with the biggest variable being how long we brush. Likewise, clipping into pedals needs to become automatic or synaptic.
The first step of engagement is deciding which foot we’ll begin with. I am a right foot in first cyclist, meaning I snap my right shoe into the pedal before starting.
Start with the pedal at “Six O’clock” and snap in. Once the right foot is latched into the pedal backpedal to bring the crank arm to Two O’clock. From the two o’clock position, push down decisively and pedal five or six strokes before coasting long enough to engage the left foot.
It is essential to be moving forward at a minimum of eight mph/12 kph before engaging our remaining foot. Spinning wheels provide a gyroscopic effect that makes us far more stable than we are at ultra-low speeds. Once we’re up to eight plus mph/12 kph coast long enough to engage remaining foot. (Left in my example.)
Carnegie Hall sure beats falls
You’re in! Now how do you get out?
Having mastered the ball-of-the-foot power release of cleat drill now is the time to put your skill to use.
Safety First is a great slogan cycling. While falls from clip-in pedals can be avoided with proper knowledge and skill-drills, if one does fall it will be at zero speed, not zooming down a mountain. The way to avoid a zero mph/kph kerfuffle is to have a plan and work the plan
Disengage left foot ten feet/3 meters before coming to a stop.
Coast to stop.
Put left foot down.
Disengage right foot. (For neophytes. Once a rider is a clip-in Ninja disengaging both feet for stop lights will seem a silly waste of time. Give yourself the luxury of a safe learning curve even if your old aunt Sally only un-clips one foot at traffic lights. “Both feet on the ground equals rider safe and sound.”)
Clip into right pedal.
Achieve 8 mph/12 kph before coasting and engaging left cleat.
Clip-in pedals will allow you to use your muscles more efficiently and will prevent your feet from sliding off pedals. Clip-in pedals come in a variety of forms with varying attributes to fit myriad cyclists’ needs. If you want to ride better, farther, faster clip-in pedals can set you on the road to success.