Jim’s Tech Talk
By Jim Langley
Pickleball, Spartan Racing, Ping-Pong – regardless of what new sport you’re trying to get up to speed on, it can be difficult to find enough helpful information for beginners. So, every now and then I like to put my rookie glasses on and look at some aspect of what people just getting into road cycling deal with.
This week’s Tech Talk and next’s will cover road bike pedals, which to a lot of new bike shoppers are one of the first mysteries of road bicycles.
To explain why, imagine if you went into a dealership to buy a new Toyota or Ford and every vehicle on the lot wasn’t equipped with a steering wheel. Ditto for the cars and trucks on their websites, and in all their advertising.
That would be weird, wouldn’t it? How can you take a test drive without a steering wheel? What do you hold onto when sliding into the seat and getting a feel for the cockpit? How can one dream about zipping through some sweet S-turn in an undriveable car?
Yes, it’s a ridiculous concept and it would never happen with cars. But, guess what? When it comes to road bicycles, something as important to riding as steering wheels are to driving IS missing: the pedals.
For some time now, with all the big bike companies, the majority of road bicycles in their lineup come without pedals. And if you look at their websites, print catalogs and advertising, all you see is crankarms with empty holes. In other words, unrideable bikes.
Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I think it’s unfortunate that the bike industry apparently thinks this is okay. If I were in charge, all bikes would come with pedals and be shown with them. Because I’m convinced that many beginners are confused and turned off by the fact that the pedals aren’t included.
It leaves them at a dead-end with an unanswerable question when learning about and researching road bikes. They reason, “I can’t ride it without pedals, so, why doesn’t the bike come with them – especially at the price they’re asking?” What’s more if they look at the specifications for the bike, they’ll see under Pedals: “Not Included,” or words to that effect.
How Road Bikes Became Pedal-less
In an attempt to help with this situation, I want to give my take on how we got to where we are today, and explain what you (beginners) are expected to do with your new pedal-less road bike. Hopefully road cycling newbies trying to figure out why bikes don’t come with pedals will find this article and learn what they need to know to move past any confusion.
To go back to when all road bikes came with pedals, it was when bicycles had regular, basically flat, grippy pedals. In order to ride efficiently, you learned or were taught to pedal quickly – about 70 to 90 revolutions a minute (per foot) is an efficient “cadence.”
Toe Clips and Straps
Pedaling that fast takes practice and skill, and on those regular pedals, your feet could slip off. It was a common issue back in the 1960’s and 70’s and led to injuries and even accidents.
Luckily, a device was available to keep the feet on the pedals called the toe clip. This metal or later nylon cage attached to the pedal to cover the shoe and keep it in place on the pedal so that no matter how fast you pedaled your feet wouldn’t slip off.
Later, straps were added to toe clips allowing riders to essentially lock their feet to the pedals. Toe clips and straps were sold with some new road bikes and they could be added as an accessory if you had a road bike with flat pedals and no clips and straps.
Tip: Standard flat pedals and toe clips and straps are still available for road bikes. Courtesy of Compass Cycles, here are photos of some of my favorites, MKS pedals and toe clips ($79 and $15 or $17 respectively; MKS toe straps are also available for $23).
Find them all here: https://www.compasscycle.com/product-category/components/pedals/.
Pedals with toe clips and straps worked well and were ubiquitous with roadies up until about 1984 when a new pedal came along, which became known as the “clipless pedal.” Notice that the word clip – as in toe clip is in the generic name of these new pedals.
They were called clip-less because this new type of pedal no longer needed a clip added to it to hold your feet on. Instead it had a built-in mechanism that engaged with special pieces (called “cleats”) you would attach to your cycling shoes to lock your feet to the pedals.
Those familiar with how step-in ski bindings worked, immediately saw the advantages of these new clipless pedals. And, while there were some holdouts (who were devotees of pedals with toe clips and straps), in about a decade, almost all roadies and road bikes had pretty much converted to clipless pedals.
Clipless Systems Take Off
At this point, it started to get complicated as myriad companies came out with different types of clipless pedal systems. Few worked with each other. And riders had their favorite systems and often several pairs of shoes all setup for that specific system.
It was at about this point, that the industry made the decision that they didn’t need to provide pedals with new bicycles. The reasoning was that every serious roadie already has their favorite clipless pedals and shoes, so why include pedals, since the new owner probably uses some other type anyway?
But, I think you can make a case for the fact that there are new road bike buyers who haven’t yet learned anything about pedals and would be happy to take and learn to use whatever type of clipless pedals are provided with their new bike.
What You Need to Decide in Order to Pick Pedals
Since you’re unlikely to get pedals with your new road rig, let’s look at your pedal options so that you can get the right pair.
Standard and Platform Pedals
First, you could get basic standard pedals just like what road bikes used to come with. They work fine if you toodle around the neighborhood or bike paths and don’t pedal quickly enough to risk your feet slipping off. If you like the pedals and start pedaling more quickly, you can still get toe clips and straps to add to these pedals (see photos above).
Plus, flat pedals work with almost any shoes, you don’t have to get dedicated cycling shoes. You can also get wider platform pedals with grippers built in to help prevent your feet slipping off. Here’s an example above, MKS’s $69 Allways pedals. https://www.compasscycle.com/shop/components/pedals/mks-allways-pedals/
If you start pedaling quickly and want to cover longer distances, clipless pedal systems outperform toe clip and strap pedals. Clips and straps don’t provide as positive a connection to the pedals. And, the clips and straps can cut off the circulation to the feet and cause chafing in some cases.
In order to go to clipless pedals, you do need to buy dedicated clipless-compatible shoes to go with whichever type of clipless pedals you choose.
Once you have the shoes and pedals, you can simply step onto the clipless pedals to lock into them. Jaws on the pedals or jaws on the cleats lock the shoes onto the pedals. This lets you apply force through more of the pedal stroke and ensures your feet won’t slip off by accident.
To free your feet from clipless pedals, you swing your heels to the outside which releases the jaws. Once you get used to getting in/out, it’s a fast and easy motion, which is why the first clipless pedals were marketed as safer than toe clips and straps, too.
The First Decision to Make
If you choose standard pedals for your new road rig, you don’t need to continue reading. But if you go with clipless, in order to get the right system, you first need to decide how you’re going to use the bike. If you’re not sure, it can help to think about where you plan to ride and what you’re going to do on rides. Or think about the friends you want to ride with and how they ride.
In general there are two broad camps of road riders. One group pretty much rides non-stop while the other type enjoys stopping during rides and spends time walking – maybe even hiking – or seeing the sights while off the bike.
For each camp, there are appropriate types of clipless pedal systems. We can call the first “performance clipless” and the second “walkable” or “recessed-cleat” systems. The main difference is in how the cleats mount to the shoes. (because the cleats are up inside the shoe soles for easy walking).
That’s not to say that you can’t ride for performance in walkable systems or walk in performance clipless shoes, but just that knowing how you’ll use your new bike will help narrow down your first choice. You’ve got a week to think about it.
Later in the month after Interbike takes place, I’ll explain in part 2 more about the different types of clipless pedals, pros and cons, provide some examples, and give you some important safety tips for getting started with clipless pedals.
Bicycle pedals have a fascinating history. If you’d like to see how far we’ve come since 1855, the popular American pedal brand Speedplay has an awesome online museum you’ll love: http://speedplay.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=pedalmuseum.intro.
Ride total: 9,024
Jim Langley is RBR’s Technical Editor. He 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 out 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 more than 8,000. Click to read Jim’s full bio.