Jim’s Tech Talk
By Jim Langley
If you’re thinking of buying your first clipless pedals and want to jump to my best tips on how to avoid falls and crashes, you’ll find them all in my video here. By way of introduction and to express my respect for and connection with clipless pedals, here’s some personal history first.
Dateline: September, 1985
I don’t know if it’ll be possible to make out the text on the photo here, so I’ll explain that it’s a scan of my Technicalities column in California Bicyclist magazine from September, 1985. My title reads A Revolution in Pedal Design. The topic is the greatest invention to hit cycling in a long time, clipless pedals. As far as I have been able to determine, I was the first to cover clipless pedals in print.
I started riding AeroLite clipless pedals in 1983. It looks like they’re still available today http://aerolitepedals.com/. I then got one of the first pairs of Look pedals to hit America a little before I wrote my column back then. Bernard Hinault brought the first shipment here when he came to ride the Coors Classic (which had two stages in San Francisco before heading to Colorado).
My Look pedals were a gift from my boss at The Bicycle Center, Roger Sands. As a VIP at the race he had received them from Hinault. Hinault was already a proponent of the amazing new bindings for bikes and so was his La Vie Claire teammate Greg LeMond who won that Coors Classic on them.
You’ll notice that right next to my article is a Look ad, and if you can read the text you’ll see something interesting, the pitch: “SAFETY PEDAL, PEDALE DE SECURITE.” That was also printed in large lettering on the outside of the early Look pedal boxes.
The reason Look’s new clipless pedals were so revolutionary and safe was because they were the first quick-release clipless pedals. Unlike the much earlier Cinelli M-71 clipless pedals (late 1960s), on which you had to pull a pin out to extract your feet; and unlike my AeroLite pedals, on which you had to literally yank your feet off the pedals with a lot of force – with a mere flick of your heel you could escape Look’s pedals.
Dropped in an Instant
Only days after getting my set, I raced with them as the biker on a coed relay team in the 1985 World’s Toughest Triathlon. The bike leg was 120 miles covering three passes in the Sierras.
Amazingly, when Judy Scovil, our swimmer exited Lake Tahoe, she was in second place and as she sprinted into the bike corral to tag me, I looked over and saw that first place – a former Olympian (sorry I forgot his name and haven’t been able to find any records from the race), was tagging his biker – who was none other than Greg LeMond!
I’d like to say I hung with Greg for a while, but he was gone in a blink (he broke 5 hours and his team won the relay race easily). Meanwhile, I suffered like a dog crawling over Monitor and Luther Pass. Still, our runner, Marty Kruger had an epic marathon and we took third coed team.
Another Kind of Safe
There’s nothing like a tough ride to test equipment and those new Look pedals blew me away that day. They were ultra easy to get in and out of and held the feet better than the tightest toe clips and straps. There was no foot numbness or pain, either.
But, what was truly remarkable was that you could ever so slightly move your feet on the pedals. This was before float was introduced by Time. So the Look pedals and cleats didn’t float. Yet, because the pedals had sprung jaws, you could move your feet laterally.
Most riders might not have noticed. But, I have had “trick” knees since high school and straight away I realized that that little bit of built-in lateral play was a game-changer making cycling safer – for the knees! I realized it was another huge benefit of the new clipless design – only to get even better with Time’s and later Speedplay’s true floating pedals and cleats.
Clipless and Crashing
Back at the bike shop we placed orders for as many Look pedals as we could get and they quickly sold out. But, a strange thing happened. We started to have customers coming in and telling us that they heard that clipless pedals made you crash and were not safe but dangerous.
We learned from these shoppers that they heard this from friends who had tried the newfangled bindings and also from bicycle shops who refused to sell the pedals because they were dangerous. The shop didn’t want to be held liable for crashes.
This was a disconnect to us and even with the negative buzz out there, the demand from most of our customers was so strong that we kept selling Look pedals. Now, 37 plus years later, clipless is a super common choice.
The sad thing is – you will still hear people say that if you get clipless pedals for the first time you’re going to fall off or crash. It’s sad because if you are introduced to clipless pedals the right way – taught a few basic tips on using them, you stand an excellent chance of never hitting the deck.
To help new clipless pedal riders avoid falling and crashing, I made this video with the steps to take before pedaling out on the road. If you’re an experienced clipless user who has shown others how to get going with them, please share your tips, too Hopefully we can save some new clipless riders from falling or crashing.
10,249 Daily Rides in a Row
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 cycling streak ended in February 2022 with a total of 10,269 consecutive daily rides (28 years, 1 month and 11 days of never missing a ride). Click to read Jim’s full bio.
Jim: A quick question…since you were there from the beginning, could you explain why they are called “clipless” pedals when one actually “clips” into them? This has always puzzled me.
B Glenn says
Not the expert here – but suspect to differentiate from toe clips (now referred to as cages).
I’ve always assumed it was because the old style pedals that you strapped your feet into had those metals restrainers the went across the top of your shoe and were called toe clips.
“Clipless” pedals do not have them.
Jim Langley says
You don’t “clip” into clipless pedals, you “click” into them. There are no “clips” on clipless pedals. There are jaws on most clipless pedals. People do say “clip in,” but it’s a carryover from when we did actually clip into our toe clips and straps. In the video I tried to only say “click in” but I did once say “clip in” because it’s still stuck in my memory from all those years using toe clips and straps.
Thanks for the great question, Walt.
I was in a group ride one time. The guy next to me told me he just got his first set of clipless pedals. I told him you will fall over at some point. He said he did in the store when he was trying them. He was holding himself up by a rack of bikes but started going the opposite direction and could not unclip. I told him mine was in front of a lunch crowd at a Dairy Queen as a guy went the wrong way on a one way road to get to an alley. I had just started taking off from a stop sign. I braked but could not release fast enough falling on my knee. I got up quickly only to see blood dripping down my leg. You learn, sometimes the hard way. I had my wife learn on grass, constantly unclipping every time she slowed down.
joel pontbriand says
i’ll bet that if one were to take a poll that 99% of of everyone using clipless road pedals at some time in their existence has encountered the nightmare scenario of coming up to a stop sign on an incline and falling over when your cleat slid out from under you! pretty much everyone i know has had it happen at least once! imight add, clips and straps weren’t any picnic under those conditions either!!! another fun situation was when you might find yourself on a horrendous climb and you had to swallow your mountain goat pride and dismount before you passed out from oxygen deprivation only to try and re-mount on a 10% grade-pure fun!! i always looked upon all these lovely situations as baptism by pedal-a badge of honor!!!!
Jim Langley says
“clips and straps weren’t any picnic, either!!!” Exactly, Joel! Thanks for making that point. Unlike clipless pedals, with toe clips and straps, racers would have to reach down to loosen the strap first, then they had to lift their foot and pull back followed by moving your foot sideways to put it on the ground.
This became second nature after awhile, but was way more difficult than getting out of clipless pedals. Cyclocross racers had to practice a lot to be able to on and off of their bikes and in and out of their toe clips and straps fast. Plus toe clips hung upside down when your foot wasn’t in them and they would get caught on roots, etc. leading to some entertaining Supermans over the bars. Ah, those were the days. Crossers with clipless pedals who never used toe clips and straps don’t know how easy they have it 😉
Was one of those not shown the proper way to use clipless pedals. Very first group ride with my new bike and pedals we stopped for route clarification. Standing still, with my left leg at top of pedal stroke ( not normal stance now) I inadvertently shifted my weight to the left and experienced my first, very slow motion fall. Recollection was seeing the the blue sky as I fell and the embarrassment of others asking if I was all right. Best advice I was later given, as soon as you see a stop head, unclip one pedal. This advice has served me well.
I teach riders new to clipless pedals to leave a regular pedal on the side on which they usually put their foot down when they stop until they get used to unclipping and it becomes second nature. Then install the second pedal.
Jim Langley says
That’s a great tip, Maude, thank you for sharing!
Kerry Irons says
My wife is one of the few people I know who never fell over from being unable to get out. She resisted clipless pedals for a long time and nothing I could say would convince her. Needless to say it was somebody else saying how much she would like clipless pedals that made her change her mind. We installed Speedplays in the fall after the end of the road season, and she rode with them all winter on the rollers. By spring, she had so much practice that she never fell over once she got out on the road. I’ve fallen over a couple of times – once in probably the first week with clipless pedals and then once more when I was “somewhere else” when I came to a stop.
Even VERY experienced riders sometimes (maybe every 2-3 yrs) fall at a stop with their clipless pedals, especially riders who also ride flats (flat platform pedals) regularly or who just changed to different clipless pedals (or tighter cleat tensioning).
For riders just starting to ride clipless, I always advise to unclip EARLY when approaching a stop. I also tell them that falling at a stoplight is like a ‘right of passage’ that has happened at least once to most riders…..so NOT to be too embarrassed and give up if/when it happens. The benefits of these pedals are well worth the transitioning effort.
My road clip less experiences (falls) mirror the other comments. I advocate for them with new riders, but warn them that sooner or later they will fall over but they should not be embarrassed because we have all been there. However, when I bought my first mountain bike and slapped on an early version of Shimano MTB cleats I fell over several times because I physically could not pull the cleat out. After unsuccessful lubing, adjusting and swearing I ditched them for Crank Bros. pedals and have never had a problem since. They are super easy in and out.
I fell out of a pair of Look pedals the very first time I tried them. I was buying my first “real” bike and bought the pedals and shoes to go along with it. When returning from a test ride with the pedals, I pulled up in front of the shop, couldn’t clip out and fell over in view of several guys working at the shop. Despite my lack of grace, one of the guys married me 8 months later. That was 34 years ago! We’re both still riding and I think I’ve only had one mishap since.
Jim Langley says
I never expected a romantic clipless pedal story, K.H. That’s great that you guys are 34 years married and still riding. Congratulations!
Rolling Wheels says
There is a learning curve when using clipless pedals, falling is a almost a rite of passage when first using clipless pedals. First time I fell was at a traffic light in a left hand turn lane, went down like the guy on Laugh in riding the tricycle, there was a car with a little boy in the back seat, he started to giggle, Mom said dont you dare laugh, I said its OK , then I heard the cutest laugh ever, and Mom and I had a good laugh
Jim Langley says
Thanks for the great clipless stories and tips, everyone!!
Pete Lampley says
99% of all clipless riders will fall at some time in their riding career and the other 1% have only been riding about 1 day in their new pedals!!!
Kenneth Pierce says
With clipped pedals you had to learn to pull your foot back out of the clip. With clipless you had learn to twist your foot to the outside. So, going from clippless to clipped was just like learning all over again.
And riders of all experience levels still fall from not clipping out quickly enough.