Going Clipless…

Spend enough time hanging around a group of cyclists and sooner or later the subject of pedals will no doubt crop up.

You wouldn’t think that something as fundamental as a pedal would make for interesting and in-depth conversation, but you’d be surprised. There’s just so much choice out there…

Here’s the thing. If you buy a new bike above a certain price bracket there’s a pretty good chance it’ll come without pedals, so deciding what pedals you are going to put on it is a choice you are going to have to make.

Flat pedals

Everyone knows what flat pedals are. A lay person would simply refer to them as “pedals” for good reason. If you ever had a bike as a child, chances are it had flat pedals on it. Flat pedals are good for commuting, mainly because you can use them with any footwear you have on, including your work shoes, trainers, wellies or your steel toe construction boots.

However, the drawback with flat pedals is, they don’t really facilitate a smooth, efficient pedalling technique. You can only really apply pressure on the down stroke and from a certain angle on that stroke.

On the other hand, if you were to be physically attached to your pedals you would also be able to “pull” your trail leg through whilst pushing down with the other. This is particularly useful when pulling away at traffic lights and junctions. It also means that in time your pedal rotation will be a little more smooth and even than it would otherwise be.

It’s at this point we find ourselves burdened with choice.

Clips

Pedal clips have been around for years. This is where you have physical straps holding your feet into the pedals. Once you are clipped in, they’re great until you need to stop, or get started again.

However, there’s no denying that some people like them –even swear by them. Of course, the main benefit of clips is that, just like with flat pedals you can wear a variety of different shoes or trainers and still be connected to your pedals.

MTB Pedals (SPD)

The first of various types of clipless pedals we are going to talk about are SPD’s. Shimano’s two-bolt cleat offering (pictured above) is commonly found on the mountain biking scene, but there’s a number of reasons why you would consider them for your commute on any type of bike.

Firstly, the “cleat” that bolts to the bottom of your compatible MTB shoe is small and invariably recessed, so that you can walk around quite happily on them –unlike the road cleats we’ll talk about later that’ll have you walking around like someone who has just painted their toenails.

The other benefit is that the pedals are very often double-sided, which makes stopping and starting at junctions and traffic lights much easier because it doesn’t matter which way the pedal is facing. The tension is also adjustable, allowing you to vary how easily you can clip in and out.

If you are commuting, these are the ones to go for. You’ll typically pay around £50+ for a pair of MTB shoes and £20-£25 for the pedals. The cleats come with the pedals, not the shoes.

Shimano SPD cleats (left), SPD-SL cleats (right)

Road Pedals & Cleats

The most common type of road cleats & pedals use a three-bolt cleat, such as on the Look Keo and Shimano SPD-SL system. These are usually single sided pedals with a large cleat that bolts onto the shoe and, as mentioned above, has you walking about on your heels.

The benefit of this system is the larger surface area of the pedal, making for greater comfort over longer distances. If you spend a lot of time on long, long rides such as an Audax, you’ll want to be looking at a three-bolt cleat & pedal system.

The downside of course is the lack of practicality. With the two-bolt MTB shoes you can manage perfectly well off the bike, so, if you go shopping on the bike or stop at coffee shops, you can still walk around quite happily without changing your shoes. With three-bolters, you’ll wish you had a spare pair of shoes!

 

Getting started

So, you’ve decided to invest in clipless pedals and shoes. Now what?

For pedals we recommend you go for some double-sided SPD pedals, such as the Shimano M520’s pictured above. They’re £17, so arguably cheap enough to not hurt the wallet too much if you don’t get on with them. You’ll then need some MTB shoes. Pick a pair you like, for as much as you are willing to pay.

Shimano 105 SPD-SL
Shimano 105 SPD-SL pedals

If you do fancy the idea of road shoes and cleats, we can recommend the Shimano 105 pedals as a good compromise between price, performance and weight.

Installation

We’re not going to go into how you screw pedals into your cranks –as long as the pedal marked “R” goes onto the right-hand crank, you can’t go too far wrong. However, we recommend using some grease or lubricant (wet or dry chain lube…) on the threads so that you can get them off again in the future.

The next step is to take the allen key that came with the pedals and turn the adjustment screw to its loosest setting (left on the ones above).

The next part is mounting the cleats onto your shoes. This part is far too involved to write it all out, so we’ll defer to a video BikeRadar made earlier:

Float

With your foot physically attached to the pedal, your foot position becomes a major consideration. Adjusting the angle of your foot by a few degrees can mean the difference between a comfortable ride and absolute agony.

With SPD pedals this shouldn’t be a big problem because they naturally offer a decent amount of “float”. Float is the amount of wiggle-room your foot has before it disengages from the pedal. SPD pedals have a screw adjustment to make it easier or harder to clip in, but even at its stiffest setting there’s a good amount of float.

Speedplay
Speedplay pedals and cleats –thanks to Matt Williams for the photos.

Road systems work a little differently though. The 3-bolt SPD-SL and Look KEO systems have colour-coded cleats (confusingly, different colours between systems too) that determine the amount of float the cleat will allow before disengaging from the pedal. They vary from 0-degrees or no float whatsoever (Shimano’s red SH10 or Look’s black cleats), to a small amount of float (Shimano’s blue SH12 or Look’s grey cleats) and finally a large amount (Shimano’s yellow SH11 or Look’s red cleats).

If you are going to choose a cleat that offers limited float, unless you know what you are doing we implore you to get a proper bike-fit done. Knee pain is a pretty miserable experience, especially miles from home.

Speedplay are a little different again, in that whilst the pedals are pretty simple (and double-sided), much of the fancy work goes on within the cleat itself, including float adjustment. We don’t have any Speedplay gear here to demonstrate, but our friend and Ajax chair Matt kindly provided some photos to demonstrate. On paper, Speedplay seem to offer the best of both worlds, but you do pay a bit more for the privilege.

Practice

Assuming you have everything installed, before you go ANYWHERE you need to spend some time getting used to clipping in and out. Lean your bike against a wall and sit on it. Clip in and out using each foot a few dozen times until you no longer need to look down at your feet.

Next, go somewhere quiet, preferably a field somewhere and practice moving off and coming to a stop. If it helps, get used to unclipping the same side first. I always unclip the left foot –the right stays clipped in unless I’m actually getting off the bike.

Now, there’s no getting away from it, you probably will forget to unclip at some point and fall off –I’ve done it twice. Hopefully only your pride will be hurt, but try to avoid the instinctive move of putting your hand out to break your fall. If you are a fully grown adult, it’ll probably be your hand that’ll break instead. Try to land butt & shoulder first. Something also best practiced in a field!

Eventually you’ll get into the habit of unclipping one foot when you see the traffic lights change, or another potential interruption to your progress comes into view. If you go for SPD-SL or Look pedals you’ll also learn to pedal with one foot clipped as you move off, but before long the whole clipping in & out thing will become second nature.

Hopefully, you’ll look back and wonder why you didn’t go clipless earlier.

Gavin

Bike commuter, randonneur and cat wrangler

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