A Beginner’s Guide to Clip-less Pedals.

Faster, safer, more comfortable – bolting your feet to the pedals sounds scary but the rewards are worth it for cyclists who want to improve their performance. By PAUL JOHNSON

What are clip-less (or, more accurately, clip-in) pedals?

Despite the name, clip-less pedals are pedals which you clip into…. the pedal has a mechanism which bolts to a specially designed shoe and "locks" your feet in place. The "clip-less" bit actually means you don’t need to use the traditional toe-clip and strap arrangement to hold your feet in place.

The clip-less mechanism was derived from ski boot bindings, originally by the French company LOOK for road use. To release the clip, you twist your heel outwards, and the binder, or cleat, releases. This ensures that in the case of an accident the shoes release automatically, and means you can (with a little practice) unclip easily rather than having to bend down and release a buckle (as on the traditional toe-clip).

Should I go clip-less?

It's a personal decision. There are pro's and cons on both sides of the issue.

Clip-in pedals offer a more connected feeling to the bike, the shoes are generally stiffer soled than normal shoes, and this can help with efficiency and comfort on longer rides. Arguably clip-in pedals offer some power advantages over flats/clips and most, but certainly very few people who try a clip-in pedal for performance road or off-road cycling go back to toe-clips or platform pedals.

The drawbacks include the expense of the shoes/pedals and in most cases the loss of flexibility. The fact you're limited to a particular pair of shoes may not help. The cleats also need to be set up precisely as incorrect positioning can cause knee and/or ankle pain, some people seem to be more susceptible to this and never get on with clip-in systems.

What Are the Different Types of Pedals/Shoes?

There are two "families" of shoes/pedals. Various different manufactures produce Pedals/shoes but they almost all fall into one of two types: Road systems such as Shimano SPD-SL, Time, LOOK. And off-road systems such as Crank Bros, Time A-Tac, Shimano SPD (Shimano Pedal Dynamics). The two styles both use a metal or plastic cleat fastened to the sole of the shoe. Most shoes will be designed to accept only one of the two types of cleat although there are a limited number of shoes which will take either.

Off-road pedals and shoes (often erroneously referred to as SPD) use a 2 bolt system to fasten the cleat to the shoe. The cleat itself is a small triangular metal wedge which is recessed into the sole and the shoes often have a treaded sole suitable for walking in. Off-road racing shoes may have all the features of a high end road shoe – multi strap Velcro or ratchet retention, stiff carbon soles – but with the addition, surrounding the cleat, of a grippy tread not unlike a football or hockey shoe.

Nb - Watch out for the phrase ‘SPD compatible’. All recessed-cleat shoes use the two bolt attachment pattern originally devised by Shimano. Some, but certainly not all, pedal manufacturers also use the Shimano cleat/pedal interface. Xpedo, Ritchey and Welgo have cleat compatibility with SPD. Other systems – though they use the same SPD two bolt cleat to shoe attach – have their own unique pattern of cleat. Crank Bros and Time will bolt to an ‘SPD compatible’ shoe but the cleats are not cross compatible with the pedals.

Road (SPD-SL, Look, Time) pedal systems use a 3 bolt standard to attach the cleat to the sole of the shoe. The cleats themselves are much larger than concealed cleats, and made of plastic. They stand proud of the sole making them almost entirely unsuitable for walking any distance. The shoes are usually light weight, with completely rigid, smooth soles. In addition, a small number of shoe manufacturers make '4-bolt' shoes which are compatible with the highly regarded Speedplay system.

Which pedal system is Best?

Each type has pros and cons. There is no "best" system - simply one which works best for you.

Recessed cleat systems are traditionally thought of as the mountain bike solution, although many riders choose to use these on road bikes. The cleats are designed to be recessed into the shoe. This enables the shoes to shed mud better, and also to allow you to walk normally.

The pedals come in many designs. Many are double sided, meaning you can clip the shoe into either side of the pedal with minimal fuss. Some have a clip on one side and a traditional flat pedal on the other allowing normal shoes to be used if required.

The shoes themselves also run the full range from SPD compatible sandals through to incredibly stiff "race style" shoes. In most cases however the shoes will be stiffer than normal walking shoes (although not as stiff as a full road performance shoe).

Recessed systems tend to be marginally easier to clip into than road pedals, especially the double sided designs. The smaller cleat and pedal can give less support to the sole of the foot, and some riders complain of "hot foot", an unpleasant burning sensation on longer rides which is caused by flexibility in the sole.

Road pedals are single sided, and have a large flat pedal surface and an equally large protruding cleat design. The pedals may sometimes be more difficult to clip into, but offer a very firm connection and substantial support. The shoes are almost always lightweight race style shoes with reinforced nylon or carbon fibre soles with very little flex. Walking in these shoes is difficult at best, and also causes significant wear to the cleats, so is not recommended.

As a general rule, a recessed cleat/off-road pedal system is more likely to suit if:

(a) you need to unclip regularly - i.e. an urban commute with multiple lights/junctions.
(b) want to walk about off the bike to any degree
(c) want to wear "normal" looking shoes or have the option of a flat pedal in addition to the clips.


A non-recessed cleat/road system will probably suit you if

(a) You're doing long distance rides with few stops.
(b) Want the lightest/stiffest shoes and pedals available
(c) For reasons of authenticity, fashion or peer pressure you really don’t want to wear ‘mountain bike’ shoes on a road bike.

Adjustment/Float and Positioning.

Both types of pedals usually offer some form of adjustments, usually to the force required to clip in/out of the pedal itself. This is usually a screw/Allen key that allows adjustment of the spring force on each pedal. If you're just starting out with the clip-less pedals it's recommended that you begin with the loosest setting. As you perfect the art of clipping in and out the tension can be increased to grip the foot firmer if required.

Almost all cleats are unclipped by twisting the heel outwards in a flat plane, though SPD pedals have an optional cleat whose design also allows the user to twist out in any direction (other than straight up). These multi-directional cleats make unclipping easier, but are more likely to pull free of the pedal if the tension is not fairly high.

Modern pedal systems usually allow a certain degree of ‘float’ i.e. how much lateral foot movement is allowed. Float can be spring loaded (SPD) or free (Time A-Tac, Crank Bros). SPD-SL float is controlled by using different cleat designs. Cleats are available with anything from 0 degrees (no movement) to 9 degrees of float. The amount of float required is a personal choice, but I'd suggest that anyone new to clip-less shoes should probably start with at least some float, until a suitable position can be found.

The position of the cleat on the sole of the shoe may have an effect on the riding position as the new stack height (pedal spindle to foot-bed) may affect the nominal inside leg measurement, requiring a seat height adjustment. Each system allows the cleat a range of movement on the sole – fore/aft, left/right and rotationally, and it’s important to get this correct. Trial and error is probably the best procedure, but a decent starting position can be obtained by sitting on the bike and allowing your feet to hang free. Note the angle at which they point in relation to the pedal and try and ensure that this angle is maintained when the shoe is clipped into the pedal. Adjust the cleat backwards or forwards in the shoe until ball of the foot is located directly over the spindle.

It’s normal, when trying something new, not to know ‘what it’s supposed to feel like’. The human body is great at adapting. But it’s very important that you try very consciously not to adapt to a poor cleat set up. Pedalling efficiency, comfort and avoidance of injury requires that the cleats be located optimally. Be very conscious of where your feet are on the pedals and don’t be afraid of adjusting them if required. Even months after first fitting.


Clipless Moments.

The majority of people who switch to clip-less pedals will probably have experienced the dreaded ‘Clipless Moment’. Approaching the lights or a junction you coast to a halt, forgetting that your feet are now locked to the pedals. As you stop, you frantically try to pull your feet free as you slowly topple sideways to the floor. It's almost guaranteed that this will happen at the most embarrassing time possible, right outside a pavement cafe with a crowd of people looking on.

After a while, unclipping will become natural (trust me - it will). But at least initially I'd strongly suggest practicing starting and stopping several times, at home in a doorway or on a nice soft grassy surface. And repeating the unclip! unclip! unclip! mantra as you approach a stop for the first few days.

Don’t be put off by the idea of being ‘locked on’ to the bike. Clip-less or clip-in pedals are designed by humans for humans. If you are reading this you qualify! Within a few days (or weeks..) the act of clipping in and out will become second nature.

This article first appeared as a post on the very excellent CycleChat forum.

Post script.

Since this article was published on CC and Cyclorama my views on clip-in pedals have changed substantially. Over the last three or four years I've used my clip-in pedals and cleated shoes less and less. With my mountain bike lying in bits for the fourth year in a row and the recent sale of my road bike I've returned to flat pedals and regular shoes/plimsoles. I should point out that I'm a long time user of clip-ins having ridden on them for more than 25 years.

I was delighted to receive Grant Peteren's excellent book 'Just Ride' for review recently. Petersen founded Rivendell Bike Works and has some very forthright views on cycling. The main thrust of his book is that the cycling industry is led by racing. This influences the materials, design, geometry, gearing and our general attitude to cycling. Petersen put into words an idea that was slowly condensing in my own mind, that clip-in pedals fall into the category of over-the-top excessive technology which is unnecessary for most cyclists.

I don't want to put you off clip-in pedals all together - if they're right for your kind of riding go for it - but...

...before you splash out on a pair of new pedals and shoes I strongly recommend you read this extract from JUST RIDE: The Shoes Ruse

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