For the past two Tech Talks we’ve been discussing replacing cycling shoe cleats. The feedback on these columns convinced me to backpedal and offer some tips for roadies just getting into clipless pedals, which is today’s topic. If that’s not you, pass this along to that friend you’re mentoring in the fine art of road riding and tune back in next week.
Most of us start cycling as kids on standard pedals and shoes. It isn’t until we start riding for distance, fitness, fun or competition that we realize (or are taught) that we should have some type of pedal and cycling shoe.
One reason is that the stiff soles of cycling shoes help our feet handle the stresses from the hard and sometimes sharp pedals, and the repetitive force we put into pedaling. Riding long distances in sneakers, for instance, can lead to serious pain in your feet. Another reason to wear cycling shoes is that they provide a way to keep our feet on the pedals.
This is important because without something keeping our feet in place, the high cadence we spin the pedals at becomes dangerous. Our feet can slip off the pedals, causing a foot to hit the ground, which, because of the potential for the bike to run into your leg, can lead to injuries and crashes.
A basic way to prevent this is to install toe clips and straps that keep your feet in the proper place to pedal efficiently and won’t let them fly off no matter how fast you spin.
Toe clips and straps can work fine, and before clipless pedals came along, even the world’s top cyclists thought they were perfectly adequate. But, clipless pedals, which work like ski bindings, locking your feet to the pedals, offered the advantage of easier and quicker entry and exit, and also boosted pedaling efficiency. So they soon took over for serious roadies once they hit the scene in the early 1980s.
The key thing to understand if you’re upgrading to clipless pedals from toe clips and straps is that it takes practice before you can get in and out of clipless pedals with ease the way you’ll be able to after lots of use. This is because using toe clips and straps trains the muscle memory in your feet and ankles to pull up and back to get your feet out. This is the exact, wrong motion to use to get out of clipless pedals.
So, don’t just buy your first pair of clipless pedals and shoes, have the shop install the cleats and pedals and head out for your favorite ride. Practice a lot first (keep reading). Failing to do this can lead to catastrophes like broken legs and hips or getting hit by a car; all real stories I’ve heard from cyclists who made this mistake.
To get good at using clipless pedals only takes about a half an hour. Practice on grass. You’re not riding yet, so you won’t fall off your bike; however, you could fall to your side.
Now, straddle your bike and lift one foot and click it into the pedal on that side. Click out. At first you may have to look down. Keep clicking in and out, in and out. Try without looking. Do it at least 50 times with one foot. Then repeat with the other foot.
Exercise physiologists say that it’s takes 1,500 repetitions to train muscle memory. You don’t have to do 1,500 reps, but understand that your feet and ankles won’t forget the toe clip exit motion, and it will take more practice until you can get in and out almost by reflex (without thinking about it).
Now that you’re comfortable getting into the pedals on grass, go for a ride, but keep this important tip in mind: when you are ready to stop, if for any reason you feel like you can’t get a foot out of the pedal, DO NOT STOP. Instead, ride to where you can hold onto a parked car or a parking meter or telephone pole, hang on and then click out of the pedal.
This is an important thing to remember until you get good at using your new pedals. In time it’ll be second nature to click out, but it does take a little time; some riders require more than others. As long as you remember that you can just keep riding until you find something to hang onto, you’ll never fall sideways with your feet locked in and break a hip, or worse.
If you want to upgrade to clipless pedals but are worried about getting used to them, I recommend going to hybrid pedals that are clipless on one side and standard on the other, such as Shimano’s M324s.
With these you can have one shoe clicked in and the other not, so that it’s ready to put down if you’re not confident about getting out. Over time, you’ll learn to be clicked in on both sides. Plus, you’ll always have the option of riding on the standard sides of the pedals where you don’t even need cycling shoes.
These Shimano pedals use what’s known as SPD cleats. They are for a type of cycling shoe referred to as a walkable shoe (mountain bike shoes are also SPD/walkable). On this type of shoes there are recesses in the soles for mounting the cleats. This makes these shoes ideal for walking since the cleats are hidden up inside where they won’t contact the ground the way road shoe cleats do.
Walkable shoes are a great convenience and the only reason racers don’t use them is because they can’t afford to give anything away in pedaling efficiency or weight. Walkable shoes weigh more and flex enough for comfortable walking.
Walkable shoes have the advantage that they’re warmer in winter and wearable all day long, so they’re ideal for touring and commuting. Note that to use walkable/SPD shoes, you need SPD-compatible pedals, too.
To finish, there’s another interesting product that some folks swear by. It’s sort of like toe clips and straps, but works sort of like clipless pedals, too. It is designed for walkable shoes and even boots, but requires no cleats. It’s call Power Grips. You can learn more here: http://www.powergrips.com/
Jim Langley has been a pro mechanic and cycling writer for more than 40 years. He's the author of Your Home Bicycle Workshop in the RBR eBookstore. Check his "cycling aficionado" website at http://www.jimlangley.net, his Q&A blog and updates at Twitter. Jim's streak of consecutive cycling days has reached 7,752.
"I've been a long-time reader of your free RBR, but finally decided it was time to subscribe. You have a great publication and perform a much-needed service for the road biking community. Keep up the great work! "-- Roger Fobair
Support RBR with an annual Premium Membership for only $24.99.