What Are Clipless Pedals?

The term “Clipless” seems odd in this context, considering that riders clip into clipless pedals! To clip into the pedals you push your foot down on the pedal; your foot is then locked into position. A short, quick twist outward and the shoe is released from the pedal.

This is a two-part system—clipless pedals go on the bike and matching cleats are installed on the soles of your shoes, enabling the shoe to lock into the pedal. The best part is that once the cleats are properly adjusted your foot STAYS in the correct place on the pedal all the time. You can’t use just any shoe, however, it must be a cycling shoe designed for cleats (more on that in a bit).

Clipless isn’t for all riders. If you’re going out for a casual ride on a beach cruiser, clipless would be totally impractical. If you’re riding seven miles to work on a road, hybrid or mountain bike, then this might be a great solution for you. The more you ride, the more crucial clipless is.

Having your foot in the proper place on the pedal is a big deal. If you’re using platform pedals, your feet are moving around constantly as you ride, no matter how hard you try to keep them in the proper place. Even with old-style toe clips, your foot may not be aligned on the pedal properly. Some folks have big feet (like me). I could never find toe clips big enough to give me a good fit on the pedal. The only way to ensure that your foot is consistently in the same position is by using a clipless system. When you’re clipped in you can also pull up on the pedals, along with the normal push down. This uses different muscles, which will give your “push down” muscles a little break. They also make the transfer of energy from your legs to the bike more efficient, owing in part to the stiffness of the shoe’s sole. It’s also more comfortable for your feet since they don’t have to continually keep working to keep themselves properly placed on the pedals.

Some riders considering clipless pedals are uneasy about them. The typical concern is that they’ll forget to unclip at a stop, then fall over. Yes, this might happen to you, but it’s not common.

Here’s a big tip—when riding on a hill with clipless pedals, remember that once you stop pedaling the bike will very quickly stop moving (varying upon the amount of incline)! You learn quickly to anticipate this on hills. Going downhill, or on the flats, this isn’t a problem. You’ll stop pedaling, you continue to coast along, simultaneously braking while unclipping your foot, finally braking to a stop and putting your foot down. Easy. It becomes second nature pretty quickly. Another tip: slow way down as you approach a red light, then you may not have to unclip at all!

There’s a price to pay (literally) for a clipless system. You’ll need shoes ($125-$300) and pedals ($50-$350). Don’t let the extreme range of prices deter you. The least expensive versions of either are quite good. Spending more money gets you lighter components, but unless you’re in a hot contest with your cycling mates, this is not so crucial!

Entry Level Clipless Gear

This is the clipless gear we recommend for riders either on a budget or still “on the fence” about the whole clipless thing. A great starter pedal is the Shimano M520 SPD (see photo). The MSRP is $45. You can’t beat the value! I like the double-sided feature, wherein the pedal is ALWAYS right side up.

Shimano and others also make pedals that are weighted heavier on the bottom, such that the clip side is always up. I’m just a little leery of this approach. I much prefer the “guaranteed to be right side up,” double-sided pedal. Yes, this is a mountain bike pedal, but many entry-level riders use them on the road. It’s a fine pedal at a great price.

The shoe I like for entry-level clipless is the Specialized Sport MTB. It retails for $100, and because it fits SPD pedals, the cleat is recessed. This makes the shoe a pleasure to walk on, avoiding the “click, clack” that wearers of road shoes usually experience. I walked back a half-mile to the shop one day with a flat tire. No problem if you’re wearing shoes like this.

It’s worthy of noting here that if you buy an SPD pedal, you’ll have to buy a mountain bike shoe to maintain compatibility with the pedals. Road shoes generally have a different bolt pattern, one that’s incompatible with SPD pedals.

More Advanced Clipless Gear

Once you’ve gotten to the point that you’re really committed to clipless, you’re ready to move on to lighter shoes and pedals. You know what means, right? In cycling, lighter means faster (also more expensive). First, the pedals. The pedals of choice these days for experienced riders are Speedplay. I know maybe 75 seriously fast riders. Seems like all of them are using Speedplay. They’re very distinctive looking pedals, occasionally called “lollipops.”

Speedplay pedals come in many models. One model is specifically designed for riders new to clipless, called “Ultra Light Action.” The intention is to make it VERY easy for riders to unclip. These pedals are NOT recommended for aggressive riders or for competition. Aggressive riders need clips that are harder to disengage so that their feet do not unintentionally unclip during a particularly aggressive move (this would be bad). The Ultra Light Action pedals come in a number of versions, at varying prices. You can get Ultra Light Action pedals in stainless steel, or titanium, for example.

Many experienced riders get the Speedplay Zero Titanium pedals ($335). Note: due to their lightness, Speedplay recommends the Zero Titanium pedals for riders 185lbs and lighter. Speedplay pedals are also very light. As “rotating weight” pedals share the same weight reduction importance as shoes and wheels, which is to say that weight reduction is very important for these items.

Road shoes don’t have recessed cleats like the mountain bike shoes. Road cleats stick out from the sole of the shoe. This makes walking in these shoes somewhat awkward. Some cleats have rubber covers that can be put on after you’re done riding, reducing this awkwardness somewhat. The covers are easy to lose. Most riders don’t seem to use them. This problem may have been eliminated. Speedplay has come up with Zero Aero Walkable™ Cleats ($55-$65), which make it much easier to walk while wearing cleats. These new cleats come with integrated, rubberized covers, which remain on the cleats as you ride. They even improve the aerodynamics of the cleats. These cleats are much more comfortable when walking.  The Zero Aero Walkable™ Cleats are compatible with all models of Speedplay Zero Pedal Systems.

Specialized makes superior cycling shoes. My understanding is that 2/3 of the Tour de France riders wear Specialized shoes (considerably more than the percentage of Tour riders on Specialized bikes). Their top of the line shoe, the S-Works 6 ($400) is not only light, but very aerodynamic. It’s brand new and will be available soon. Reducing the aerodynamic drag of the shoes makes it easier for riders to move forward through the air. A little bit of extra aerodynamic improvement in each piece of apparel adds up to a big advantage.

There are many other models of shoes offered by Specialized, and others. As with pedals, increased cost typically results in a lighter product. Because they’re “spinning weight” both shoes and pedals are particularly important to keep as light as practicable (as are wheels). Just like buying a bike, however, you have to decide how much “light” makes sense for you!

If you’re sitting on the fence, ask around. If you have any cycling friends that are riding clipless, ask them if they’d ever go back? I can’t imagine that many would give up their clipless pedals!