Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Good, The Bad and The Reality of Clipless Pedals

A little over a month ago I shared that I bought some new bike shoes. I had admittedly given up the sneaker-and-pedal-cage combo to try out the clipless bike cleat. In a post written in January of this year, I shared how I have been pretty comfortable with the pedal-cage option, as I have been using it for about 7 years for my mostly-commuting lifestyle.

With an invitation from a friend to join in some group rides, I felt like I wouldn't be taken seriously unless I made the change. I also feared that I wouldn't be able to keep up with other riders.  I was also really curious to try something new to see what all the fuss was about. How could I be so opinionated on something I had never really tried?

After about 6 weeks of use, I'm ready to share my reflections - the good, the bad and the reality - after making the switch.

1.  (The Good) They are inspiring me to ride - which has been a big surprise. This has been the single biggest and best surprise for my riding experience. I think I was over due for some inspiration, and having some new gear has seemed to do the trick. It helps that I feel more efficient, and I love the clicking sound the shoe/cleat make when clipping into the pedal. Maybe it's my little way of saying to myself "it's go time."

2.  (Okay, another Good) I am using new muscles. Yes, ones I didn't even know I had. My body apparently was using one set of muscles with the pedals and cages. Because it is using a whole other set with these babies. And I'm sore. But I like it. The new shoes are engaging my core, back and different leg muscles in a better, more efficient and more comfortable way. I'm pretty stoked because it results in a better riding experience for me. Because your foot doesn't move around very much in the shoe or on the pedal, the mechanics of completing a full pedaling revolution can be different. I'm loving it.

3.  (The Bad) They are a royal pain to walk in. Since they don't bend or have any tread, you can't walk more than 10 feet without feeling like you're going to slip or fall. You are also walking directly on the cleat, essentially wearing it down, grinding the metal on the pavement with each step. For as pleasing as the clicking sound the shoe makes as it snaps into place on the pedal, this sound is equally "nails-on-a-chalkboard" irritating.

4. (Yep, another Bad) They make falling over on your bike ridiculously easy. Wanna see a grown man tip over like a falling log? Or want to see a proud, strong athlete blush? While being clipped into your pedal helps with speed, stopping without falling over is the most difficult part of using this kind of pedal. Because the shoe is practically tied down to the pedal, the almost-thoughtless action of stopping on a bike takes forethought:  seeing the upcoming potential for a stop, planning the stop, the planning of which shoe to remove from the pedal, removing the shoe from the pedal, breaking and finally stopping. It's not impossible to master, but it does take some practice. (For the record, I have not fallen...yet. However, I KNOW that it's just a matter of time.)

5. (The Reality)  I love these babies for long-haul rides, but have no place in commuting. Here's my advice: If you love to ride for practical purposes, errand running, short trips around town, etc. stick with traditional pedals!

I have been thinking how I should adjust my daily commutes. I can see the benefits, fun and appeal of the clipless pedal for the long haul, racing crowd, but my everyday riding has undergone a temporary setback. This is well explored and explained in some recent books that are encouraging folks to just ride instead of getting caught up in the need for fancy, expensive equipment.

There are a variety of options I'm entertaining, and I'll let you know what I come up with. In the mean time, I'm interested to hear your opinions and experiences on pedals and changes versus clipless pedals. Looking forward to hearing from you!


  1. I think (4) is only true for very new users. Once you get used to clipless pedals, "getting out" becomes pretty much an instinct that you can do instantly without thinking. [And compared to old-style clips, they're infinitely more convenient to get out of...]

    The shoes aren't meant for lots walking, but at least the kind of clipless shoes I used to have (meant for touring, not for racing) had the actual clip parts a little embedded in the shoe sole, so they were basically normal soles, albeit quite stiff.

    The main pain for me was always just changing shoes, but clipless pedals are so infinitely superior from the perspective of riding that I was always eager to use them if I was going more than a few blocks and had someplace to stash my bike shoes (e.g. at work; if you're off to the movies, carrying around an extra pair of shoes can be annoying!).

    1. Miles, Thanks for your comments. You've got some great points. I'm still getting used to the shoes, so hopefully, eventually things will become second nature. I'm interested in what style/brand of shoe you recommend for everyday riding, as my current shoes are the racing style. I do like to promote the traditional pedal for most users, especially if they are starting out. I see it as one less obstacle to overcome, and remind folks that fancy equipment isn't necessary for staring out. However, upgrades and adjustments based on personal preferences are always a good move. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Another good thing is that I find that I get less fatigued because my feet stay on the pedal "sweet spot" with no effort or thought. However, I fell twice when I was breaking myself into the use of clipless. You forget to unclip, stop, and have the "aw nuts" moment before the helpless tipover. For the witnesses, my analogy is tipping cows. Now I have the confidence to use them for most long touring trips and training.

  3. Yes, pedaling in the sweet spot feels great and smooths the ride. I love the analogy, and the encouragement that it'll come together eventually.