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To clip or not to clip

26 June, 2011

While not quite life and death, the decision to clip in to your pedals can make a significant difference to your riding. Rowan Lamont gently introduces the idea.

Photos by On Track Images.

For many people the very notion of attaching their feet to their pedals seems like a crazy idea that could only lead to danger and catastrophe. Yet more and more riders convert to clip-in pedal systems and couldn’t dream of going back to toe clips or the platform pedal.

Clip-in pedals (perversely also known as ‘clipless pedals’) are the combination of special bike shoes with cleats in the sole and clip-in pedals. The two mesh together like a miniature ski binding. The cleat is screwed firmly to the sole and the pedal has a small spring mechanism incorporated into it. When you place your shoe onto the pedal and push down, the cleat snaps into place holding it fast. Your feet are then attached securely to the bicycle, until you twist your heel away from the bike and detach again.

The advantage is that the ball of your foot is held securely in the ideal position over the pedal axle. You’ll also find you can pull up on the pedal as well as push down, which makes for a much smoother pedalling style and greater efficiency. You quickly get used to this and miss it when you ride on platform pedals. Additionally, bike shoes have a stiffer sole, which supports the foot, prevents excess bending and spreads the load through the foot.

If you are new to clip-in pedals it is worth spending a little bit of time getting used to the new action of twisting the heel to release from the pedal. It is not unusual to have one or two low-speed topples in the early days of familiarisation. This will almost certainly happen at a set of traffic lights and in front of a crowd of bemused on-lookers! To save a red face and bruising, practice snapping into and out of the pedals whilst sitting on the bike and leaning against a wall. Once you are comfortable with how this feels, try riding around on some soft grass. Before long clipping into the pedals becomes automatic and twisting out of the pedal is second nature, you won’t realise you’re even doing it.

Way back in 1895 the first patent was lodged for a device that mechanically attached a cyclists shoe to a pedal giving rise to the ‘clipless pedal’ named such as they made redundant the toe cage or ‘clip’. This new and innovative clip-in pedal went through many styles and iterations before the technology became reliable. Like many advances in technology clip-in pedals were first seen on the race circuit in the mid 1980s before becoming popular in the wider bicycle community and diversifying into the many varieties available now.

Clip-in pedal systems fall into two camps, those with the cleat recessed into the sole and those without any recess. The first – generally called a mountain biking shoe – is preferred by mountain bikers, commuters and recreational riders because the sole has a little bit of flex so that it is comfortable to walk in and there are large treads to grip onto the ground. The second –road shoes – is preferred by road riders who plan to do very little walking but lots of riding, the sole is very rigid and they seldom have any tread. This really helps pedalling efficiency and reduces weight, but they are awkward to walk in because the cleat comes into contact with the ground and the sole has no flex making you waddle like a penguin!

Keo are a kind of road pedal from the Look brand. Note they are single-sided and have a larger cleat platform.

Pedals that take recessed cleats tend to be double sided, so you can clip in to either side without having to flip the pedal over. Generally the road style pedals are one sided, which can be a little bit more fiddly to clip in to. However, the larger cleat of road pedals provides a larger pedal area to support the foot which means you feel like you are standing on a nice big platform.

Clip-in pedals do require some investment, as you have to buy not just the clip-in pedals but the special shoes as well. The shoes can be as flamboyant as you like – should you want to walk into work a scream “I am a bicycle rider” – but there are also more subtle varieties that are more inconspicuous, some could even be mistaken for sneakers.

If you are prepared to shop around buying a set of clip-in pedals and cycling shoes together can start at around $150 and go up from there depending on the quality of the parts and whether you need them for a specific type of bicycle riding. As the price increases so the quality of bearings and material improves, and the weight drops.

There are combination pedals that are worth keeping an eye out for. These have a clip-in mechanism on one side and a platform on the other. They are a nice compromise for those who might want to still wear their everyday shoes for a quick trip to work and the shops, but enjoy the efficiency of riding with clip-ins when they go for a longer ride on a rail trail or with friends.

Combination pedals have a clip-in mechanism on one side and a platform on the other. These use the Shimano SPD mechanism, which is a very common variety of general purpose clip-in pedal.

Overall, clip-in pedals might seem daunting at first but it is worth persevering and getting used them. They will make your time on the bike much more efficient and more comfortable in the end.


  • Spud – Familiar name given to SPD’s Shimano Pedalling Dynamics, one of the most popular types of clip-in pedals.
  • Egg Beater – A style of pedal generally preferred by mountain bike riders made by Crank Bros, guess what it looks like an egg beater!
  • Cleat – The plate you fasten to the sole of your shoe that clips into the pedal.
  • Platform – Some clip-in pedals have a plastic or metal surround with the mechanism recessed inside. This helps to support the shoe and give the rider something to stand on if they don’t engage the cleat.
  • Spring tension – The amount of force required to engage, or disengage the cleat can be adjusted by changing the spring tension in the mechanism.
  • Waddle – The funny walk you do in road shoes or other shoes without recessed cleats.
  • Flats – Pedals that have no mechanism or toe clip, they have a platform and are simply flat.

Brands to look out for




Crank Bros

Speed Play

See them in action

Tip – Straight legs for better pedalling

The right seat height gives the most efficient pedalling. Your leg should be straight when you’re sitting on the seat and pedal is at the lowest position. It shouldn’t be a stretch and your knee should be locked back – your leg should be comfortably straight. You should not be able to touch the ground when you sit on the seat.

You push the pedal with the ball of your foot, so any adjustment should achieve this position and/or start in this position.

This post is for day 27 of Ride On‘s June riding challenge.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Allan Garbutt permalink
    9 November, 2011 4:54 pm

    I agree. One of the best investments in efficiency any cyclist can make is a clip/pedal system. I have read of some studies that showed a 30% improvement in cycling efficiency. I was at first uncomfortable, but would now cycle no other way, even for short trips. There were the inevitable mishaps, but these are managable. There is nothing more disconcerting than falling to the right whilst trying to get your right foot from the pedal. To have your feet held at the right angle and position is of huge benefit.

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