Understanding bicycle pedals can be confusing, especially if you’re new to cycling and its equipment.
There are different types of pedals and each one has its own advantages and disadvantages. You may know the regular flat pedals, but have you heard of clipless pedals?
But what are they and why are they called clipless?
In this article, we’ll look at clipless pedals in detail so you can decide if they’re the right type of pedal for you.
What are Clipless Pedals?
Clipless pedals are a type of pedal that cyclists clip their shoes into. It may be confusing, as the name of the pedal suggests that there is no clip!
These types of pedal-and-shoe combinations are most often used by road cyclists. When deciding to switch from flat pedals to clipless pedals, you will need to replace not only the pedals on your bike but also your cycling shoes.
In order to clip your shoes into the clipless pedals, the shoes and pedals need to have compatible clips.
You can’t add clips to their regular shoes, so new cycling shoes will be needed to match up with the pedals.
A Brief History of the Modern Clipless Pedal
The first clipless pedal was designed in 1895 by Charles Hanson. The rider would twist their foot to lock or unlock the shoe from the pedal.
But it didn’t become popular until 1971 when Italian cycling company Cinelli brought out another clipless pedal—the M71.
This system used a plastic cleat attached to a bike shoe, which slid into the pedal and locked in place. It could only be loosened by bending over and lifting the level, which led to these pedals becoming known as “death cleats.”
The clipless pedals that are used today are based on a design created by French inventor and engineer Jean Beyl. Beyl broke his leg while skiing, and began looking for a safer alternative to rigid bindings. He invented a ski binding mechanism and opened his own company—Look—in 1951.
Beyl also designed a clipless bicycle pedal—an “automatic safety pedal”—in the early 1980s, and shortly after the company was bought over by businessman Bernard Tapie. He saw the potential in Beyl’s pedal design and formed a professional cycling team—La Vie Claire.
La Vie Claire’s cyclist Bernard Hinault won the 1985 Tour de France using their PP65 clipless pedal.
The following year, Greg LeMond won the Tour using a Look prototype. Since then, clipless pedals have become the defacto pedal/shoe system used by serious cyclists.
Differences Between Pedals with Toe Clips, Clipless Pedals, and Platform Pedals
Pedals with Toe Clips
Toe clips were the original “clip-in” design. A cage or clip is attached to the front of a regular flat pedal, where the rider can wedge their toe in. Straps across the foot keep the foot firmly in place and prevent lateral movement.
The toe cage allows you to have a better power transfer and make the upward stroke more efficient by “pulling” on the pedal instead of simply letting momentum bring the pedal upwards and over.
The biggest problem with toe clips is that in order to get your foot out of the pedal when coming to a stop, the strap needs to be loosened, which can be difficult to do while still moving.
Although these pedals use a cleats system to clip your shoe into the pedal, they were named “clipless” because they are missing the conspicuous cage or clip at the front of the pedal.
Clipless pedals offer a strong foot-to-pedal connection and can increase pedaling efficiency by bringing more power to the upswing of the foot when pedaling.
But they are also noticeably safer than toe clip pedals since you can connect to and disconnect from them almost instantly.
Platform pedals are another name for the regular flat pedals that you most likely had on your bicycle as a child. Many cyclists still use these types of pedals in races, and they can be used with normal shoes that don’t have a cleats system.
The big advantage of this type of pedal is that the cyclist’s foot isn’t restricted. If you need to place a foot on the ground, there’s no need to unclip from anything.
Platform pedals have a wide foot surface and often have a texture or pins that protrude from the surface for better foot traction on the pedal.
Two Types of Clipless Pedals
MTB Clipless Pedals
Mountain bikers move more on their bikes than road racers do because of the terrain, which makes normal clipless pedals dangerous for them to wear.
Specialized MTB clipless pedals were created just for mountain bikers that have some different features to road ones.
MTB clipless pedals and cleats were designed to allow the biker to dismount and walk without damaging the cleats.
Their design also prevents them from being clogged by debris and mud. They’re easily clipped in and out for moments when the rider may need to put their foot down while riding.
Mountain bikers will have to purchase special shoes in which the cleats are recessed.
This allows you to walk easily without the cleat being affected. The cleats are small and are attached with two bolts. The associated pedals are either double-sided or four-sided, so the biker can clip in regardless of the position of the pedal.
Road Clipless Pedals
Road bicycles have a slightly different clipless pedal design.
Whereas the MTB cleats are small, the road cleats are larger, but are lightweight and attached to the bottom of the shoe in such a way that they extend slightly. This means your foot doesn’t sit flush against the floor when they stand, making it hard to walk with these cleats, as well as easy to damage the cleats.
The cleats are attached with three bolts. The pedals are single-sided, so if one unclips, the pedal has to be right-side-up before it can clip in again.
How to Use Them?
To use clipless pedals, simply step onto the pedals and push your feet downwards into the pedals. You will hear a “click” sound once the cleat has locked onto the pedal.
Your feet will stay connected to the pedals until you want to remove them. When you do want to unlock the cleats from the pedals, swing your heel outwards as if you are about to take your foot off the pedal and put it on the ground.
The locking mechanism will disconnect and you’ll be able to remove your foot from the pedal and place it on the ground.
When you install a set of clipless pedals, you will need to adjust the cleats to suit you. The most common place under the foot to install your cleats—center them—is in the region of the third metatarsal-phalangeal joint.
Athletes who ride for longer periods of time—triathlons or long training rides—may find that positioning the cleats slightly further back towards the midfoot is more comfortable. But those who want to get an extra burst of speed, especially near the end of a race, may find that moving the cleats a little closer to the toe will allow for extra power.
Why Use Cycling Shoes?
If you’re using clipless pedals, you will need to buy cycling shoes with cleats.
You won’t get the benefits of clipless pedals if you’re using normal shoes, as you won’t be able to generate power on the upswing as well as the push-down.
Having your feet clipped into your pedals means that you can put power into pushing the pedals down but you can also put power into the upwards pedal stroke.
This means higher pedaling efficiency, so you get more power with less effort.
Features & Benefits of Clipless Pedals
When you’re using clipless pedals, your feet don’t move around or slip off the pedals while you’re riding. This makes it easier to keep pedaling at a good cadence without having to adjust your feet as you’re riding.
Being permanently attached to your pedals also means you put energy into every single stroke—both upstrokes and down strokes—so your overall power will be increased. This is helpful for climbing and bursts of acceleration.
Clipless pedals are helpful for mountain bikers as they are less likely to catch on rocks or sticks than toe clips and straps are. Toe clips can also cause poor circulation and blisters as a result of chafing, making clipless pedals more comfortable.
Clipless pedals are also safer than toe clips, as they’re easy to clip into and even easier to release, unlike trying to undo a strap on a toe clip while you’re still moving.
Clipless pedals are also lighter than other pedals and have a minimalist look to them.
Clipless pedals are more costly than regular pedals as you need to invest in an entire system rather than just one piece of new equipment. To use clipless pedals, you need to buy the pedals, the right shoes, and the cleats. You also won’t be able to use your existing pair of shoes on these pedals unless they’re already a pair of cleated shoes.
Risk of Injury
If your cleats are incorrectly positioned on your shoe, you may be at risk of injuring yourself as your feet are placed in a way that’s putting strain on your joints. Make sure your cleats are placed in the right position for the type of riding you’re doing.
If you’re accidentally unclipping from your pedals when you don’t intend to, you need to adjust the tension of the cleats. This will keep them more firmly connected to pedals and avoid potential injury that could happen if your feet come out of the pedals.
Uncomfortable to Walk In
If you’re using MTB cleats, you’ll find it easy to walk in them as they’re recessed into the shoe.
But road cleats stick out underneath the shoe, making it difficult to walk properly and also increasing the risk of your cleats becoming damaged.
Either you will need to remove your shoes when you need to walk, or you can walk on your cleats but then you may need to replace them sooner rather than later.
Risk of Falling
One of the most common problems faced by those who are new to using clipless pedals is forgetting to unclip when you come to a stop. If you aren’t used to clipping in, you are at risk of falling when they slow down, as you have no free foot to lean on the ground.
This is a problem that is easily overcome with time and practice. Once you become used to clipless pedal systems, you will find yourself clipping in and out without even thinking.