When you’re cycling, your feet push the pedals around in circles thousands of times per hour. So it’s worth finding which pedals and shoes suit you best.
You can cycle to work in anything from sandals to carbon fibre racing shoes. Whatever you wear, you want to be able to pedal comfortably and efficiently, with little risk that your feet will slip off the pedals by accident – or be stuck there when you suddenly need to put a foot down at a junction.
There are essentially four pedal types, albeit with many sub-divisions: flat pedals; pedals with straps; clip-in pedals that require shoes with a special cleat on the sole; and combination pedals, designed for a cleated shoe on one side and a normal shoe on the other side.
Flat pedals (‘flats’) are platforms a bit bigger than a deck of playing cards. Their biggest advantage is that they can be ridden in any footwear you can walk normally in. So you can hop on your bike and ride regardless of what’s on your feet. Setting off is also simpler because you don’t have to fuss with fitting feet into straps or cleats into clips.
Your foot isn’t retained on a flat pedal; you can just lift it off. This is great when you need to put a foot down in hurry as it reduces the risk of falling. It makes flat pedals the most practical choice for casual cycling, stop-start commuting, and challenging mountain bike terrain.
The flip-side is that your foot can slip off the pedal more easily, particularly when it’s raining or if you’re pedalling at a high cadence. Most flat pedals have serrated edges or studs to press into your shoe sole for grip. Those meant for mountain biking have prominent metal pins. These grip soft-soled mountain bike shoes and most trainers very well but can scratch smart shoes (or shins!).
You can place your feet however you like on flat pedals – forward, centred, rearward, twisted inwards, twisted outwards… You’ll naturally adopt a position that you find comfortable so you’re unlikely to suffer any aches and pains. Some flat pedals come with reflectors, a legal requirement for night cycling, and most will be pre-fitted with them.
Cheaper flat pedals have a plastic body and a plain bearing. More expensive ones have an aluminium body and ball bearings. Expect to pay from £10 upwards for basic plastic pedals or from £30 for aluminium ones – double or triple those prices for mountain bike versions with pins.
For those who want something specialist though, flat-pedal mountain bike shoes cost around £70 and up.
Pedals with straps
Toe-clips and straps were invented to keep whirling feet in place on flat pedals, because early bikes had no freewheel. If the wheels were turning quickly, so were the pedal cranks. Racers continued to use toe-clips and straps up to the 1980s, usually with special shoe plates that slotted into gaps in the pedal bodies.
Today, toe-clips and straps are an alternative to clip-in pedals. They provide foot-on-pedal security for riders who prefer flat pedals and normal footwear, particularly those who want or need to pedal at high cadences, such as fixie riders. They comprise a toe-clip that attaches to the front of the pedal and an adjustable strap that goes over your instep (and through a loop on the toe-clip). Your foot can’t slide forward and can’t be lifted up off the pedal; you have to slide it backwards out of the toe-clip.
Practise doing this before riding to work, and leave the straps loose to begin with so you can get your feet out more easily. You can use toe-clips without straps – there are smaller ‘half clips’ designed for this – but your feet aren’t held as securely.
As well as traditional toe-clips and straps, there are wider pedal straps designed to be used without clips. These allow more fore-and-aft foot adjustment and don’t limit footwear to ‘whatever will fit in the clip’. Otherwise they do the same job: keeping your foot on the pedal and allowing you to pull up a little.
The weight of a toe-clip and/or strap will make the pedal hang upside down when you remove your foot. You get used to flipping it over and sliding your foot in but you can set off from the traffic lights without doing so if need be.
Plastic toe-clips cost about £10 a pair, steel ones typically £10-£20. Toe-clip straps cost around £5 a pair for nylon ones or up to £20 or more for leather. Special wide pedal straps that don’t use toe-clips are about £30 a pair. If you have flat pedals already, you can probably fit toe-clips and/or straps, but check with your local Cyclescheme retailer if you’re unsure. You don’t need special shoes – that’s the point.
Clip-in pedals are confusingly also called clipless pedals as they don’t use toe-clips. But you do clip in. They dominate cycle racing because you don’t want to slip a pedal when you’re sprinting. There’s also evidence that when you’re sprinting – or charging up a hill – clip-in pedals allow higher peak power outputs. This matters for racers. For commuters, it doesn’t.
Clip-ins can nevertheless work fine for commuting as long as you avoid ‘road style’ clip-ins with a cleat that sits proud of the sole. For anything other than pedalling, such shoes are awful. It’s hard to walk in them – and very easy to fall on smooth or slippery surfaces. It’s fiddly to engage the cleat with the (usually) single-sided pedal when you’re setting off, something that stop-start commuters do a lot.
The clip-ins that do work for commuting are the mountain bike variety that use a much smaller cleat that can be recessed into the sole. Because the cleat is recessed, you can walk almost normally. The matching pedals are double-sided, making it much easier to clip your foot in place when setting off. The cleats are more durable because they’re made of metal rather than plastic and because they don’t get worn away on tarmac/pavements.
Shimano’s SPD system is the best-known of the mountain bike clip-ins. There are others – such as Crank Brothers and Time ATAC, both of which offer better mud-shedding and more ‘float’ (side to side and rotational foot movement) – but SPDs are a good starting point, specifically the Click’r variety. Shimano Click’r pedals use a lower-tension spring so it’s easier to get your feet out.
You’ll topple sideways like a felled tree if you can’t get your feet out of clip-in pedals when you stop. Most riders new to clip-ins do this at least once. You can’t lift your foot up or even back; you have to twist your heel outwards to release the cleat from the pedal’s sprung jaws. Eventually this becomes second nature. To begin with, practise clipping your feet in and out while sitting on your bike and leaning against a wall. Then try it on roads with little or no traffic. For your first week or two of commuting, release one foot as you approach potential stopping points.
A significant disadvantage of clip-in pedals is that, unless you have combination pedals (see below), you can only ride that bike in your cleated shoes. Another issue is that your feet are locked into position, which can create or exacerbate knee and hip problems if the cleats aren’t set up correctly for you. Any discomfort is a sign that you need to switch to pedals with more float and/or book a bike-fitting session.
A pair of clip-in pedals, including cleats, will cost from about £40. Clip-in shoes are around £75 upwards per pair. Shoes can be fitted with any brand of cleats as long as the ‘bolt pattern’ matches: two bolts for small, recessed cleats like SPD; three-bolts (usually) for large, prominent ‘road’ cleats.
With combination pedals, you don’t have to choose between flat pedals and clip-ins. You get both: one side is a flat pedal surface, the other a clip-in. Combination pedals are a good solution for a bike that you want to ride clipped-in some but not all of the time.
Combination pedals are only available for Shimano’s SPD system, including the easier-release Click’r version. Most SPD shoes are designed for a recessed cleat (although some road-style shoes can be fitted with two-bolt SPD cleats, in which case they’ll sit proud of the sole). That means you can also pedal on the flat side of the pedal in your cleated shoes, which is handy when setting off. Unlike most clip-in pedals, combination pedals generally come with or can be fitted with reflectors.
Combination pedals cost from about £60 per pair. The shoes cost the same as other clip-in models. You can, of course, also ride in your trainers or work shoes.
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