Clipless Pedals Explained

Clipless Pedals Explained

I pretended for a while that I knew what people were talking about when they mentioned going ‘clipless’. Even when I first got my new, clipless pedals, I thought everyone must be talking about some even more expensive type of pedal, since my new purchase clearly ‘clipped’ my feet into my bike.

To better understand the term ‘clipless’, I’ll take you through a quick evolution of the pedal.

Platform Pedals

First are the pedals we all had growing up and learning to ride a bike:  platform pedals, or flats.

Platform pedals are simple and safe, since your foot (or more accurately, your shoe) is not actually attached to the pedal.  You can move and drop your foot to the ground easily, at any time, to prevent yourself from falling over.

Basic platform pedals. Don’t forget there is a difference between the right and left pedals.

Platform pedals are generally designed with small bumps on them to provide some grip for your shoes.  They are designed to be worn with running shoes or other types of casual shoes, but not cycling shoes (more on that later).

New bikes will often (but not always) come outfitted with a set of inexpensive platform pedals, so you can at least ride through the parking lot, or up and down your street, before replacing them with your own upgraded pedals.

And remember, even the most basic pedals come in pairs (a right one and a left one), and will be marked somewhere accordingly.

Note the ‘R’ indicating this is the right pedal.

Toe Clips / Toe Straps

With platform pedals, you only generate power when you push down with your foot.   When your foot lifts up on the other side of the pedal rotation, it just sits there atop the pedal, getting a free ride.

Thus, the idea of toe clips or toe straps was born.  The 2 terms are somewhat interchangeable, although they do in fact refer to different parts of the equipment (see photos).

You say ‘toe-clips’, I say ‘toe-straps’, but both terms generally refer to the same piece of equipment.

The ‘straps’ are the thin fabric strips which wrap around your feet and hold them against the pedal. The length of the straps is often adjustable, to ensure a proper fit for your shoes.  You want the fit to be tight enough so your feet aren’t moving around inside the straps, but loose enough so you can easily remove your feet when necessary.

The ‘clips’ are the rigid, plastic or metal pieces which stick out from the front of the pedals.  Their primary function is to keep the soft straps lifted up and open, allowing your feet to move in and out more easily.  But they also provide an ‘end-point’ for your toes, so that the pad of your foot is positioned directly above the pedal (and thus provides the most power).

Toe clips / straps have a couple of benefits:

  • First, they keep your feet more secure on the pedal than simple platforms, so that your feet are more less likely to slip off the pedal while riding in wet conditions, or over bumpy terrain, or if you stand up to mash the pedals while trying to get up that hill.
  • Second, as noted above, they enable power to be captured on the ‘upstroke’, by allowing you to pull up against the straps while pedaling. This energy then gets transferred from the pedal through the crank, gears, chain, axle, wheel, etc, to allow you to ride faster, or climb that hill more easily.

The obvious downside of toe clips / straps is the sudden panic you may feel if, for example, you lose your back wheel going over a slippery tree root, and you need to quickly remove your foot from the clip to avoid an epic wipe-out.

To do this, you need to practice pulling your foot backwards out of the clip.  While this seemed unnatural to me at first, I found that it quickly became habit after just a few rides (and perhaps a fall or two …).

Of course, you’ll also need to practice re-inserting your foot back inside the clip.  The weight of the clip will generally cause the pedal to rotate forward when your foot is removed from it, so you’ll need to work on setting your toes ‘just-so’ on the top of the pedal, and then snapping the pedal up and sliding your foot forward into it, all in one motion (ideally without looking down).

This skill was much more difficult to master than removing my foot was.  So, don’t be ashamed if you have to stop at the side of the trail or road, get one foot secured, and then push off and work on the second foot while coasting for a few moments.

Clipless Pedals

Clipless pedals build upon the advantages of toe clips, but do so without using any sort of toe clips as described above (ah hah, clipless!).  Compared to toe clips, clipless pedals:

  • Are easier for the rider to engage.
  • Are safer since they are also easier to release (in theory).
  • Look way cooler.

Clipless pedals are made of 2 parts: the pedal itself, and a small cleat, usually plastic, which is connected directly to the bottom of special cycling shoes.  The pedals come in many designs and styles, but all have a spring-loaded jaw which the shoe cleat snaps into.

All you need to do is step down on the pedal, and the jaw will open up to accept the cleat.  Just as with toe clips, your foot is secure, and because it’s attached directly to the pedal, you gain even more energy on the pedal upstroke.

To release your foot from the pedal, you simply have to twist your heel outwards from the pedal, not backwards as with toe clips.  Again, this takes some practise to feel natural, especially if you’re trying clipless after using toe-clips for a while.

Clipless pedals come in 3 basic set-ups:

Road pedals:
Clipless pedals - road

Typical road pedals – the left one has been turned around to show the inner spring-loaded jaw at the back of the pedal.

These pedals are larger and flat, to provide more support for your feet for those super-long road rides.  Be aware that there is only one direction in which the cleat fits into the pedal (i.e. there’s a top and bottom), so at times you may have to spin the pedal for the cleat to engage properly.

Mountain bike or off-road pedals:

With road riding, you can generally steal a few seconds to coast, and work your shoes into your pedals.  However, with trail riding, you will want to snap back into place as soon as possible.  Thus, clipless pedals for trail riding are designed so the cleat can be re-engaged from any direction.  The trade-off is that these pedals are smaller than road pedals, and therefore provide less foot support.

Hybrid pedals:
Clipless pedals - hybrid

A style of hybrid pedal – with a 4-sided inner clip (blue and silver), surrounded by a 2-sided outer platform (black and silver). For a ‘pure’ mountain bike pedal, imagine the outer platform being removed.

Hybrid pedals aim to strike a compromise between the other two types.  They have a mid-size platform for foot support, but also are designed to allow you to re-engage from two directions instead of one.

For the cycling rookie, clipless pedals may seem like overkill, or even a little intimidating.  Do a quick on-line image search for ‘clipped in bike pedals’, and you’ll see all kinds of people down on the ground, rolling around in pain, but still attached to their bikes.

But as with many things, practice (again!) makes perfect, and the long term benefits of using clipless pedals, to me, outweighs the potential risk of falling over at a stop sign because you forgot to unclip.

What I Recommend

Platform pedals are for kids.  If you plan on doing any riding, other than going to get ice cream, then I recommend getting either toe clips, or clipless pedals.

For trail riding, I recommend starting with toe clips for the advantages detailed above.  You can wear normal shoes with toe clips; you don’t need special cycling shoes.  And you can keep the straps loose as you’re getting accustomed to them, to reduce the risk of falling.

I found I was more comfortable to start with toe clips on the trails, where your reaction time needs to be quite quick.  Over time, if you do longer, more intense trail rides, you’ll likely want to switch to clipless for their added security and power gain.  But I still have good friends who stick with toe clips for their weekend casual trail riding.

For road riding, I recommend getting right into it with clipless pedals.  Unlike with trail riding, where you may need to make many sudden stops or slow-downs, you should generally have some warning that a stop sign or traffic light is coming up on the road.

Many experienced road riders will automatically unclip one foot while coasting to a stop, ready to either clip back in if the ‘all-clear’ signal is given, or to lean over and take a little breather if not.

And besides, let’s be honest, other roadies will take you more seriously if you go clipless…

For a few years, I owned just one pair of clipless pedals – hybrids – and switched them back and forth between my road and trail bikes.  This was the proper budget-conscious plan of action at the time, but I enjoyed my riding much more, after getting a second pair of clipless pedals for the road.

Hope that helps provide a basic outline of types of pedals and their benefits.  Feel free to ask any questions you may have in the comment box below.

Keep reading, and keep riding!

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