The Shoes Ruse

In this extract from his book JUST RIDE, Grant Petersen of Rivendell Bicycle Works explodes some of the myths surrounding clip-in pedals

The shoes ruse

A firm attachment to the pedals was helpful and almost necessary in the early days of bike racing, when all bikes had fixed gears (no freewheel, no coasting), and the gears were low by today’s standards. Then, once the racers got up to 18 miles per hour or so, they were spinning the pedals like human roadrunners, and if a foot came off the pedal, it was harder to slow the bike down and find the pedals again. Toe clips, straps, and cleats evolved to secure the foot and reduce the danger of runaway pedals, and eventually the freewheel eliminated that danger altogether. But by then, the clips and straps were entrenched, and there was no going back. By 1980, if you rode a bike and didn’t use toe clips, straps, and cleats, you weren’t serious.

Then, in the mid ’80s, LOOK—a ski boot and binding maker—introduced ski-binding technology to bikes, with the first popular clipless pedal-and-shoe system. Pro racers took to it, other manufacturers followed, and within three years virtually every road racer in the First World had converted. It spilled over to mountain-bike racing, and today even a few gullible commuters have adopted them. When I see ten-year-olds riding with clipless shoes and pedals, I fear for the future.

Proponents say:

With clipless, there’s more power to the pedal because it’s not being absorbed by a soft and flexible shoe sole.

With clipless, it’s easier to apply power all around the circular pedal stroke.

Neither is true, though.

As long as your pedals aren’t dinky - say, as long as they’re 2.5 x 3.5 inches, or about the size of a compact digital camera - any shoe does the job without flexing, because the shoe is supported by the pedal. If the pedal can’t flex, the shoe can’t - no matter how flexy it may be just out of the box. Besides, the part of your foot that’s behind the pedal can’t flex while you’re pedaling, because your foot mechanics won’t allow it.

The only riders who benefit from clipless pedals are racers, and only because their pedals are so small and slippery. If you don’t ride tiny, slippery pedals, you don’t need stiff, cleated shoes.

And the 360-degrees-of-power argument is just as weak. In studies where efficient, pro pedal-ers and lousy rookie pedalers have been hooked up to machines that measure muscle activity during pedaling, the machines tell us that nobody pulls up on the backstroke. The most efficient pedalers just push down less on the upward moving pedal than the rookies do. (They still push down on the upward-moving pedal - not a good thing, because effectively one leg is fighting the other - but the best pedalers push down less.) Now, if they don’t pull up, you don’t pull up, and if you don’t pull up, there’s no 360 degrees of power, and no biomechanical/physiological reason to lock your foot to the pedal. 

The benefits of pedaling free far outweigh any real or imagined benefits of being locked in. They are as follows:

You can wear any casual shoe in your closet - whatever your mood, your outfit, and the weather calls for. You don’t have to go find your “cycling shoes” because you won’t have invested in techie two-hundred-dollar pedals that require them.

Your muscles last longer. Moving your foot about the pedal shifts the load, even if slightly, to different muscles, and spreads the load around. Sprint up hills on the balls of your feet and, on long-seated climbs, push with the pedal centered almost under your arch. It’s not a turbocharged, magic sweet spot, but it feels better and more natural, and you can’t do it if you’re locked in.

You reduce the chance of a repetitive stress injury, because your feet naturally move around more, changing your biomechanics.

You get off and on easier at stoplights; there’s no twisting to get out of your pedals, no fussing to get back in.

You can walk in stores without walking on your heels. You can run! You aren’t handicapped by expensive and weird-looking shoes.

Riding “free” isn’t new or revolutionary, and it’s not just a grumpy stab at the established order. It’s normal, it’s natural - it’s the way you rode as a kid, the way most of the planet rides, and the way you’d ride if you weren’t under the racing influence. Can you imagine yourself - after years or decades of perfectly uneventful happy riding in regular shoes and pedals - concluding that you’d be better off riding in shoes that didn’t work as well off the bike, or on pedals that required special shoes?

I know - of course - that it helps to be firmly attached to the pedal when you’re sprinting in the rain (your foot may slip off the pedals without a fixed connection), or hopping over a dead raccoon, or hiking the bike up over a curb without getting off. But giving up normal shoes for a few rare circumstances like these doesn’t make sense.

From JUST RIDE by Grant Petersen ISBN-13: 978-0761155584

Grant Petersen is founder and chief honcho at Rivendell Bike Works -