What Are Clipless Pedals?
Clipless pedals are a two-part system. Part one is the pedal itself which has a locking mechanism. Part two is a component called a ‘cleat’ which attaches to a specific bike shoe. The shoe can then connect to the pedal, giving the rider a solid connection with their bike. To disengage from the pedal the rider is required to move their heel outwards.
The Misnomer of Clipless
The term clipless is a bit confusing, you’re clipping yourself in to your pedals but it’s referred to as clipless? In actual fact it refers to the old style toe clips or cages, ‘Clipless’ is a reference to the fact these pedals don’t have toe clips or cages, you are going ‘clipless’ hence the phrase.
Types of Clipless Systems
There are really two main systems – SPD and SPD-SL. The SPD-SL system is more suited to out and out road bikes and racing. This system has a three bolt cleat fixing which protrudes from the sole of the shoe. It is generally combined with a very stiff shoe that has a smooth outsole. Although this system is not well suited to traditional touring I have referred to it here as it is preferred by some fast ‘end to end’ riders, credit card tourers and those participating in supported tours on lighter bikes.
The SPD system is considered best for mountain bikers and tourers. Shoes will have a medium stiff outsole and a deeply lugged sole. The cleat is recessed below the surface of the lugs. The recessed cleat means that you can walk around almost as you would in normal shoes. The same cannot be said for the SPD-SL system where a dismounted rider often does a good impression somewhere between that of an ice skater and a tap dancer!
Which Pedal design?
There are several different pedal designs. I personally consider the dual use SPD / platform model a really practical touring pedal. This hybrid approach combines the flexibility of a traditional platform pedal with the efficiency of a clipless system. It’s the only pedal that allows you to choose whether you ride clipped in or not, so it’s great if you want to just nip down the shop in regular shoes. It’s also an excellent transition pedal for anyone looking to ease into clipless riding.
If you don’t think there’s a need for the platform side, take a look at the standard Shimano PD-M540 SPD. I first used clipless pedals on my road bike. I took advice from my local bike shop who simply summarised “these are road bike pedals (SPD-SL) and these are mountain bike pedals (SPD). I therefore ended up fitting SPD-SL but I never got on with this system and I now ride with SPD on my road bike as well as my tourer. I found the SPD set up much easier to engage and dis-engage from and I can now use the same pair of shoes on both touring and road bikes. Maybe if I was racing I would opt for a stiffer, lighter shoe using the SPD-SL system but SPD is great for general road bike use and is no longer considered just a MTB/touring pedal. There are some really nice SPD pedals available that don’t have the clunky mountain bike look, designed specifically for use on road bikes.
With traditional pedals you have to maintain constant contact with the pedal throughout every rotation, and to do that, you have to apply a little bit of downward pressure. Even on the upstroke you are pushing ever so slightly downward just to keep your foot on the pedal.
With the clipless system, the riders effort is completely efficient. Not only can you pull up during the upstroke but you can fully commit to the down stroke. No matter if it’s chucking it down or how tired you are, your foot won’t slip from the pedal.
Clipless pedals for touring
I’m a big fan of the clipless system on all of my bikes but for different reasons. With the tourer it’s not about power transfer or being able to stomp out crank revolutions with confidence as it is on the road bike. On the tourer it’s about comfort, efficiency and maintaining good form, all are especially important factors for long distance comfort when riding day after day.
I had used my road bike ‘clipless’ for some years but only ever used flat pedals on my tourer. Late in 2013 I picked up a knee injury, a torn medial meniscus. Running was out out of the question, long or hilly walks were painful but riding my road bike wasn’t a problem at all. I was able to carry on with long day rides of up to a hundred miles problem free. I then attempted a weekend on the tourer but within twelve miles my injured knee was aching and I was forced to return home. I immediately thought this was due to riding the much heavier touring bike set up. After a cuppa and a re-think I swapped the clipless pedals from my road bike on to the tourer. I then attempted the trip again and rode seventy miles that same day and a further seventy miles the next day without any pain. It really hit home how important it is for a cyclist to get themselves positioned correctly on their bike and a clipless set up will keep you there and improve your pedalling form.
As a touring cyclist considering a clipless set-up I’d recommend that you begin by choosing the most suitable shoes for the type of tour you’re planning. You may not want to bring another pair of shoes on tour with you. If this is the case, you’ve already made your decision, you need SPD pedals, cleats and compatible shoes. This system has the cleats recessed within the shoe sole so you’ll be able to walk around as normal, put your tent up and go down the pub in your cycling shoes. In fact there’s such an array of SPD compatible footwear that no one will be able to tell that they’re cycling shoes, you can choose from SPD Sandals, trainers or even walking boots. There are also high performing carbon fibre soled shoes available if you think you’ll benefit from the added stiffness but as a tourer the most important factor is that you are comfortably secured to your pedals and are benefiting from the extra efficiency.
Once you have decided on your shoes, you will then need to purchase corresponding pedals. It is important to note that you cannot mix SPD shoes and cleats with SPD-SL pedals or vice-versa. Make your pedal choice based on your preference of either a compact design, platform design or a sleek and stylish mix of the two. The cleats are supplied with your pedals.
How to use Clipless pedals
Always refer to the manufacturers instructions to fit and adjust your new pedal system but one final point is the release adjustment. When you engage with your pedal, the cleat locks into it’s mechanism and a definite click is heard. To disengage you need to move your heel outwards, you’ll pass a point and your foot is free from the pedal. After many years of riding a bike without being attached to the pedals being clipped to them can be unnerving. It needn’t be, it ‘s just a case of getting use to the releasing action. Best advice is to start with the release tension at it’s easiest setting.
Practice with the bike in a turbo trainer if you have one if not, once on the bike lean against a wall or have someone support you. Repeatedly practice clicking in and twisting out over and over until your brain has associated the movement required and the nominated muscles are strong enough to un-clip you. When you’ve gone through the motions whilst stationary move out to a park or open bit of grassland. Whilst cycling practice un-clipping your weaker leg just before you come to a stop and then lean to this side. You are then ready to pedal off again with your strong leg. As you confidence grows test yourself by increasing the speed of your stop.
Has your foot unclipped unexpectedly during your practice? If so, you will need to increase the release tension, this is usually set by a screw on the pedal clearly marked with a plus and a minus, it is adjusted using an allen-key. In the years that I’ve been riding ‘clipless’ I’ve never unintentionally unclipped so not felt the need to have the release any stiffer than it’s minimal setting. If you feel as though you need to increase the tension go back through the stationary and grass ride practices.
If it becomes difficult to engage or disengage your cleats, the pedal may be clogged with mud and need cleaning. Clear out any debris with a small flat screwdriver and a stiff brush (a toothbrush is ideal) then check for any obvious signs of damage. Give the pedal a good scrub with warm soapy water, rinse, dry with towelling and add a drop of light lube to the clips on the pedal. Regularly check pedals and cleats for damage. If you start inadvertently un-clipping from your pedals you may need to replace the cleats, these can be bought separately.