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The Case For Clip-less Pedals: Things Noobs Need To Know…

For many budding recreational bicyclists, especially those of us who learned about bikes as a kid – which simply means you rode them till the wheels fell off, then let mom and dad pick up a new one, pedals were the least of our worries – those black plastic one’s with the reflectors worked just fine.

As adults, we graduate.  As long as we’re not out for a ride on the leisure bike we’re cyclists and the days of plastic pedals should be left in our distant past – along with the insanity of not maintaining your bike – if you buy a decent one, you won’t be wanting to replace it in a few years.  Some will stick with the toe clip pedals that come with many bikes thinking these are an upgrade from standard pedals.  They are an upgrade, but they’re still pretty useless when compared with today’s press-lock, twist release shoe and pedal options.  Having switched early in my new adult cycling addiction, both styles of bikes (mountain and road), I can say that decent pedals and shoes are worth every penny spent to upgrade to them – and in many cases we’re talking about a lot of money.

The "Clip" part of this pedal refers to the cage that holds the foot to the pedal.

The “Clip” part of this pedal refers to the cage that holds the foot to the pedal.

For the mountain bike, SPD pedals and mountain biking shoes are excellent, though you do get what you pay for.  I’m on my second set of low-end Shimano pedals for my mountain bike and I’ll probably end up having to replace those at some point this year – I’m just too strong and I ride too hard for the cheaper pedals (PD-M520L).  For the next pair I’ll have to jump a few grades to get any length of use out of them.  Now, on a rough single track I find the SPD’s (hereafter referred to as lock-in pedals) absolutely indispensable – especially when climbing up a hill with roots and rocks in the path.  The usefulness inherent in the ability to pull with the opposite foot while pushing with the forward foot cannot be emphasized enough.  On the downhill sections is where the lock-in pedals really prove their worth – your foot can’t bounce off the pedal.  The only thing that I really miss about lock-in’s is the ability to take my inside foot off of the pedal and put it out for stability.  While this habit has died hard, it’s only needed because I lacked A) riding skill, B) confidence in my bike and C) the ability to pick a good line.  Once those three things came around with practice, I stopped wanting to put my foot down and things got better.  You can expect to pay between $100 and $300 for a decent set of pedals and shoes.

A decent entry level SPD pedal

A decent entry level SPD pedal for Mountain Biking

Next is the road bike.  I have Pearl Izumi Tri Fly III Carbon shoes with Look Keo Classic pedals.  I won the shoes from College Tri and bought the pedals at my local bike shop.  All told the setup would run anywhere from $250-$400 depending on where you buy, and you still have to pay to have the cleats installed on the shoes (a process that could probably be done at home but is much easier with the proper tools and a pro’s knowledge).  Now I always buy everything from the bike shop even though things are typically more expensive.  I could save $50 here and there, maybe even more but I rely on my bike shop being open so I don’t mind spending a little more.  Now, cost aside, road biking is quite a bit different from mountain biking at the purely “fitness” level, though it’s very easy to get sucked into the carbon this and titanium that, “I gotta have the lightest thing on the market” mentality.  Do my P.I. shoes with the carbon fiber soles help me go faster?  Sure, I’d say they’re stiff as a board, but they’re actually a lot stiffer than that, so they transfer all of the force from my legs to the pedals, but for most of us recreational cyclists you don’t have to get the most expensive product to get a decent benefit.  That said, the road setup is much more “locked in” than my mountain bike setup and I absolutely love it.  Again, the benefit of being able to push and pull at the same time simply can’t be quantified when you’re looking at the difference between standard pedals or even pedals with toe clips – which, unless you spend some decent cash on a decent pair, have a tendency to fail over time.  I was out with a buddy on a 49 mile ride (it was his 49th birthday) and his toe clip lost a bolt with about 8 miles to go – he had to ride that last bit with the clip hitting the ground every time the pedal went around and it drove him nuts.  As far as I’m concerned having a setup that won’t allow that to happen in the middle of a ride is worth every penny.  I like adversity, but not that much.  Here’s my shoe, pedal and cleat setup:

PearlIzumi-TriFly3-Carbon-Shoe-2 look-pedal-keo-cleat-grey LookKeoClassicPedal

Now if you do decide to upgrade to lock-in/twist release pedals there is a learning curve.  Ask anyone who has switched and you have an 80% chance of hearing an “I fell down” story.  You’ll hear about hurt pride and scraped up knees and you might even bump into someone who will warn you against making the upgrade.  The tough part of making the change is getting used to the fact that you have to twist your heel to unlock the cleats – an action that wasn’t required when you learned how to ride as a kid.  I can tell you, I’ve never fallen because I failed to unclip at a stop (sudden or simply forgetting) though I have a few friends who have.  So, how to go about switching?  If you’re starting out on a mountain or cyclo-cross bike, I would recommend against starting out on a single track mountain trail.  A road bike?  You won’t want to start on a steep incline in the mountains.  In fact, I recommend starting in the front or back yard – on grass.  Grass hurts a lot less when you fall on it and it probably won’t chip the paint or harm the components on your bike.  Practicing on a road bike can be a little trickier with the thin tires in the spring – the ground beneath the tires simply isn’t firm enough to support you.  If you’re clumsy, wait until late spring or early summer for the ground to firm up a bit to switch – or take your chances on the pavement, maybe in an empty parking lot – somewhere lacking traffic is the important factor here.  Once you’ve had your practice session or two you should be fine, just keep the fact that you have to unlock your foot when you stop at the forefront of your mind until the movement becomes natural.

To summarize, embracing the clip-less pedals for cycling, whether on the road or off, is well worth the money and effort to get used to them.  There’s a reason, if you show up to a group ride, that everyone else is using them – they’re that good.  If you want to go old school, which can definitely be pulled off, you’ll still have to upgrade to decent cycling shoes and pedals.  Showing up for the group ride with plastic pedals and rubber toe-clips is not old school, it’s gauche.  Is that fair?  Probably not, but nothing in life is.  Put simply, if your pedals cost eight bucks new…



High Tech Old School

High Tech Old School


  1. Jean says:

    I’m sure I’m going to appear to be a dweeb to you, but I have toe cups. Haven’t gone to clipless and I’ve been cycling for the last 22 years. We’re car-free. My partner has cycled 4 times across North America…same. And both of us cycle with our own loaded panniers.

    • bgddyjim says:

      You assume too much, I wish I could be you – unfortunately carrying a pallet of ceiling tile to one of my job sites simply can’t be done on a bike. Again, with as much cycling as you’ve done I doubt you’re using an $8 pair of pedals – your toe-cup pedals are probably of the higher end variety… You get old school points. 😉 As for the panniers, you can ride a hundred or two miles on a road bike with the stuff you can fit in a jersey. You cannot ride across America that way. Whatever floats your boat is awesome.

      • Jean says:

        I never ride 100 km./miles with just stuff in my jersey. I carry a U-lock. Remember, I cycle for transportation locally as well as long distance riding for fitness, which means getting off and locking up my bike to do stuff. When one is completely car-free (no car at home at all), the bike becomes very valuable. It must be locked up at least. Can’t be left unlocked outside.

      • bgddyjim says:

        But of course. Didn’t mean to imply otherwise.

  2. lampenj says:

    I use spd’s as well but would like to switch to crank brothers for my mountain bike. Unfortunately, that would mean I’d have to do a wholesale change for my Epic, Single Speed, and road kid as I only have one set of shoes and wouldn’t want to mess around with swapping out cleats before rides. If you have to replace your pedals anyway and have separate MTB shoes, take a look at the crank brothers.

    • bgddyjim says:

      I have and they look awesome and simple but the single wire clip-in on either side had me a little concerned with how they worked. My plan was to wait until the SPD’s wear out again then I’ll go with what the guys at the shop recommend – there are two younger guys there who are excellent MTB riders (one placed in Iceman last year if memory serves). I’ll definitely keep them in mind though. The one awesome quality that really caught my eye in the Crank Brothers pedals is their simplicity. Thanks for the tip.

  3. BikeWar says:

    Great post. You’re the few exceptions if you haven’t fallen over on clipless. 🙂

  4. I am proud to say I have fallen using both SPD and Look clips. Luckily, both times were are very slow almost stopped speed. I bought the SPD/Platform pedals for my TREK DS 8.3 as I never had clip in pedals before and also want the option for those times that I did not want to wear bike shoes. Having used them for two years now, I will most likely upgrade to straight SPD set and get a better shoe. I went cheap with this first set up as I did not know if I would like clip in or not. Love them now so I will invest in much better shoes and pedals. For my Cervelo S2 I went with the classic Look pedal and a nifty pair of Diadora Mig Racer shoes. Love the set up and how much more secure when pushing hard up a hill.

    Love your blog post but man is the black/grey back ground and white font hard on the eyes to read.

  5. Sandra says:

    I could not agree more .. . I love my clipless pedals–although I went for the least expensive shoe options and my feet sometimes hurt when I’m around mile 8 or more. Makes it difficult to transition into the run.
    I haven’t bought clipless for my FX 7.6 WSD yet, but that has more to do with the fact that it’s my commuting bike and I don’t like having to haul shoes back and forth. On the up side, maybe that means I can buy a couple pairs of shoes/sandals that I just leave at work, eh? I like that idea.

  6. I really enjoyed your blog, I’m currently putting together a beginners guide on my own blog and pedals are a subject I might well cover, although you appear to have touched on the main differences so I might just send my visitors in your direction!

    I admit that when I took up road cycling this time last year I started with toe clips, but a friend suggested cleats, however instead of going with a road set up our LBS suggested starting out with Shimano MTB SPD’s instead – This gives me the confidence to be able to clip out in three ways: left, right and panic! The mountain bike cleats offer a bit more flexibility too, whereas the road bike cleats are more rigid and would possibly suit a more experience cyclist.

    • bgddyjim says:

      You’re absolutely right, as was the advice you got from your LBS. That’s how I started out as well, but I did it for cost’s sake. The road cleats, especially the Look style, un-clip pretty much the same way but you get more connection to the pedal (a greater surface area) – this negates one big problem with the SPD’s – hot spots on the foot above the cleat. They are also a lot tougher to pull out of. This comes in handy on steep climbs.

      Finally, the MTB shoes are meant to walk in, they have some flex to them. Road shoes are much stiffer so you transfer more power to the crank and they’re much better on your feet over the long haul.

      Glad you liked the post.

  7. Cherry says:

    You’ve never fallen? WHAT! I’m proud to say I use egg beaters on a road bike! That’s right, “mountain” shoes on a “road” bike.

    • bgddyjim says:

      Oh I’ve fallen a few times mountain biking but it wasn’t because of the pedals – it was from riding too fast my first time out. 😉

      I use SPD’s on my road bike for the first nine months then went up – they’re better to walk on and cheaper with two bikes. Later the road shoes just started to make too much sense.

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