Clip-in pedals are, confusingly, usually called clipless pedals. That's because they don't use toe-clips, the other way to keep feet on pedals. Instead, a cleat on the bottom of the shoe clips into spring-loaded jaws or bars on the pedal.
There are a couple of advantages. You can pedal more effectively through the crank's rotation rather than simply stamping down. You can even pull up. And your foot won't slip off the pedal by accident. The main disadvantage is that you need dedicated shoes with cleats.
Those with most to gain from clip-in pedals are longer-distance commuters, cyclists whose commuter bike doubles as their weekend road/mountain/touring bike, and riders of fixed-wheel bicycles. If you're riding short distances in normal clothes, conventional flat pedals are generally more convenient.
Clip-in pedals come in two types: those aimed at road racers, which require shoes with a large projecting cleat; and those aimed mostly at mountain bikers, which use shoes with a recessed cleat. A bigger, projecting cleat gives tiny improvements in sole stiffness and power transfer when pedalling but makes walking precarious.
Recessed cleats enable you to walk normally, so are a better option for most commuters. As the pedals are double-sided, it's easier to engage your feet when you set off from the traffic lights. And you can get shoes that look smart enough to wear at work.
There are five main systems for recessed-cleat pedals and they're not compatible with each other. But you get the cleats with the pedals and they all attach to the shoes in the same way, with two small allen bolts, so you won't have 'incompatible shoes'. (Not unless you get road-specific shoes designed for projecting cleats.)
Shimano SPD pedals (www.shimano.com) are the most popular and – in part because other manufacturers also produce them – the cheapest. Prices start at about £20. There are lots of designs, including ones with a platform around the pedal body for better foot support, and ones with a cleat on one side and a flat pedal on the other so that you ride in any footwear. SPD pedals have adjustable spring tension for easier or firmer entry/exit.
Time Atac pedals (www.time-sport.com) are quite popular with mountain bikers because their parallel retention bars do not clog up with mud. On road that's not an issue, although they do provide a good amount of lateral and angular float (see below). Prices start at about £45.
Crank Brothers pedals (www.crankbrothers.com) use non-adjustable retention bars in four-sided design that's never the 'wrong' way up. Their most minimalist pedals are called Eggbeaters as that's what they look like. They're light and offer plenty of angular float. Prices start at about £45.
Speedplay Frog pedals (www.speedplay.com) are unusual in that the spring mechanism is in the cleat rather than the pedal. The cleats are thus a bit bigger. Their major benefit is that they offer excellent angular float. The disadvantage is price, which starts at about £100.
Bebop pedals (www.bebop.com) are similar to the Speedplays in that they have the mechanism in the cleat. Here too you get plenty of angular float – at a price. They start at £75.
Set up and float
Shoes for recessed cleats usually come with a rubber cover over the cleat area, which you'll need to cut away. That will reveal two channels with screw holes in them. These screw holes are in a plate that can be moved back and forth. You want to get the cleat under the ball of your foot before you tighten the screws firmly. This will take trial and error. A little lateral adjustment is also possible.
Some adjustment is possible on the rotational angle of the cleat. The default is pointing straight forward, but some of us pedal with feet or knees in or out and will need to adjust the cleat angle to allow comfortable pedalling. The less float the pedals have, the more critical it is to get the cleat angle correct.
'Float' is foot movement. 'Lateral float' is side-to-side movement, so you can move your feet in towards the bike or away from it. 'Angular float' is the number of degrees that you can twist your foot. If you can move your foot freely through 15 degrees, your foot can easily find its most comfortable angle as you ride. If there's no float, or not very much, the cleat position will dictate your foot position and the way your knee bends.
While it's worth noting that some cyclists prefer the more solid feel of pedals with little or no float, if you suffer with knee pain while cycling, it's well worth investing in pedals with plenty of float. Never persist with any set up if it gives you knee pain. You need to move – or change – the cleats.
Clip in, clip out… not that way!
You tread the cleat down onto the pedal to engage it. This forces the sprung jaws or bars apart and lets the cleat click into place. To release your foot, you twist the heel outwards. Different pedals require different amounts of force to engage or release, and some are tough for slighter, less powerful riders. Shimano SPD pedals, adjusted to their slackest setting and used with the optional 'multi-release' cleats (marked 'M'), are the easiest to get your feet out of.
Do acclimatise yourself to your pedals before heading out into traffic. You will try to lift your foot up off the pedal to get a toe down at the traffic lights. Clip-in pedals will not allow this and you may end up lying down still attached to your bike! Tell yourself 'heel out' as you slow towards a stop, and maybe unclip one foot in readiness. It will soon become second nature.
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