Do You Want to Go Clipless?

Published on 05/13/2023 · 9 min readEver thought about going clipless? Cycling Expert Jared Fontaine goes over what clipless pedals are, their benefits, and why it might be time to make the shift.
Jared Fontaine, Cycling Expert
By Cycling Expert Jared Fontaine

Photo by Simon Connellan

Have you seen road cyclists and mountain bikers flying by you on the road? If so, it might be time for you to upgrade to clipless pedals. Clipless pedals are pedals that mechanically attach you to the bike, just like ski shoes.

Before Greg LeMond—the only American to officially win the Tour de France—made clipless pedals popular in the 1980s, road cyclists used clips or straps that would hold the foot in place. Since these new pedals replaced the clip or strap with a mechanical component at the bottom of the shoe, they were appropriately called “clipless.”

I became a cyclist over ten years ago; my first bike as an adult was a Gary Fisher Trek Dual Sport. Unlike many other experts, I came to cycling by myself, not straight into racing or watching the Tour de France. I simply noticed people riding their bikes to work on the Washington and Old Dominion bike trail in Northern Virginia outside of Washington, D.C., and thought to myself that I could save 10 dollars a day commuting on public transit.

So, I bought a bike and fell in love with cycling; however, road cyclists with their clipped-in cycling shoes would pass me easily. I could not keep up. I went to the bike shop and asked about thinner tires, Lycra suits, and more. The experts there told me that I could go much faster with the setup I have by using clipless pedals.

You are probably in a similar place like I was, looking for more speed and trying to repair your ego when road cyclists easily pass you on your commute or out on the mountain bike trail. We will dive into the benefits of clipless pedals and shoes.

3 Benefits of Clipless Pedals

Photo by Dmitrii Vaccinium

1. More Power

You will notice you can put more power to the pedals. With a flat pedal, you can only put power into the pedals on the downstroke. With clipless pedals, you can produce power with more parts of the stroke. This is really noticable in both climbing and sprinting. When you are climbing, you can focus the 6- to 8-o’clock part of the stroke of the pedal and smooth out the pedal stroke. The way to do this is by acting like there is gum on the bottom of your shoe that you are trying to strip off. You will feel your hamstrings and calves working to produce more power.

Soles of walking shoes are designed to flex and absorb impact when you are walking, which is good for your knees and helps prevent injuries. However, cycling shoes are designed for being efficient on the bike. They have stiffer soles to transfer more power into the drivetrain. Also, dedicated cycling shoes are much lighter and fit more snugly to the foot, so you can have more power transfer and control of the bike.

When you are springing or riding out of the saddle, you can drop your body weight on the pedals and pull up on the pedals to get more power when you are sprinting to the finish line or accelerating out of the saddle. When I am climbing, I pull up on the handlebar with the same side as the downstroke and push down with the pedal, as though I have a board that I am trying to break with my foot. You can do this without worrying about your foot slipping off, and it is great for riding up a steep climb or attacking. This leads to the second benefit.

2. More Control

When you are clipped in, you have more control of the bike. The primary way you control your bike is by shifting your weight around the bike. You are the heaviest part of the bike, so clipless pedals will completely change the direction of the bike. This is evident in rough terrain, especially mountain and gravel riding. No matter what happens, your feet are attached to the bike. If the bike hits a massive bump or rocks in the road, your feet will not go anywhere unless you want them to. Many times I have descended a mountain on my road bike going 30 miles per hour or more and hit massive potholes; however, I did not crash, partly because my feet were securely attached to the pedals and they did not fly off.

Having clipless pedals is more important in mountain biking and gravel riding, since you will encounter rougher terrain. You won’t have to worry about your feet flying off, especially if you are riding out of the saddle and hit a rough path of the trail. Moreover, you can more easily maneuver the bike by shifting your weight around — mountain bikers do this all the time in downhill mountain biking with wheel placement. You can pull up a little to hop your rear wheel over very technical terrain.

3. Bike Fit

Also discussed in my article on bike upgrades, one of the best ways to upgrade your bike is to get a professional fit. Your pedal is one of the most important areas of the bike since that is where the power is transferred. Foot placement can dramatically affect your performance and your knee and leg health. This way, you’ll know that when you are clipped in, your foot is always where your professional fitter placed it. Float (the amount of side-to-side movement before the pedal unclips) can be adjusted to allow for more forgiveness. We will talk more about float in the next section.

How to Get into Clipless Pedals

If you are coming from spin class or riding a hybrid, you should start with a mountain bike pedal like the Shimano Deore XT. That is the same pedal that I started out using. Mountain shoes and pedals are the best way to get into clipless pedals.

Reasons to Use Mountain Bike Pedals

1. They have dual-sided engagement Road shoes are harder to get used to because you can only clip in one side. They are designed like this so you can get a larger pedal body to increase power transmission and decrease hot spots on the foot. Therefore, you have to spin the pedal around to make sure you engage the right side. An advantage of mountain bike pedals is that you can clip in on both sides.

2. They are more walkable

Mountain bike shoes are designed with more walking in mind since mountain bikers/gravel riders have to walk more often to get over an obstacle. The Giro Chamber II MTB shoe is a great example of a shoe. Thus, more recreational mountain bike shoes look like regular shoes that have a less stiff sole, are roomier, and have rubber tread to give you traction when you are walking. The cleat is recessed into the shoe, so you are not walking on the cleat.

Road shoes are designed for maximum power transfer efficiency and are lightweight with little to no regard for walking. You should keep walking to a minimum with these because you will be walking on the cleat, which can damage it. Moreover, you will need to do the road cycling “duck walk,” which looks very weird. Also, the bottom is full carbon with a small rubber grip on the heel, making it very easy to slip, especially while getting your latte at the coffee stop.

3. They are easier to clip in and out Shimano mountain bike cleats come in different colors: black and silver. The silver cleat is best for beginners because it releases when you twist your heel in all directions and the cleats will disengage with less movement so you can take your foot off the pedal much faster. The black ones, and most road pedals, only release when you twist your foot away from the bike. Also, you get more float with the silver cleat, six degrees, which is best for your knees. The black ones have only four degrees of float.

4. They have spring tension adjustment With an Allen key, you can adjust the spring tension on the pedal that holds the cleat. When you are a beginner, you can loosen the tension to make it easier to unclip. Then, as you become more confident with clipping in and out, you can increase the tension so you don’t unclip if you are sprinting really hard.

5. They offer protection Mountain bike shoes have more protection in the toe box in the event of a crash or if a rock flies up from the front wheel and hits you — that really hurts. On the other hand, many road shoe uppers are paper-thin for the lightest weight possible.

6. They clear mud and snow If your mountain bike cleat gets muddy or snow gets inside the cleat, the pedal will more easily shed the debris than a road pedal will, which is good for beginners. If you are an intermediate rider who has used mountain bike pedals or you own a Peloton that uses road pedals, then a road shoe and pedal system would be best for you.

Reasons to Use Road Pedals

1. They are lighter

When you are racing or looking for performance, having lightweight shoes really helps. Most road shoes are very lightweight, half a pound or less, which means less weight to spin around to move the bike. Some cycling shoes weigh less than 200 grams a pair. Also, the pedals and cleats are much lighter with some pedal models, such as the LOOK Keo Blade Carbon pedal that weighs less than 120 grams for a pedal, whereas mountain bike pedals can easily weigh 300 grams or a lot more.

2. They have better foot retention Most road shoes use BOA or some other type of retention system to keep the foot snug next to the pedal. All motion by your foot goes toward moving the pedals. You can see road cycling racers tighten their shoes before a sprint to get every bit into their effort.

3. They have stiff soles and larger cleats Many high-end road shoes have full-carbon soles to make them as light as possible while also being stiff. When you are pedaling, you don’t want the sole of the shoe to flex during hard efforts such as sprinting or accelerating. Moreover, you have a larger pedal body to transfer power and decrease hotspots (when you can feel the pedal on the foot).

4. They are aerodynamic Road shoes have fewer straps, grips, and retention systems that catch the air. Some road pedals are designed to be more aerodynamic, too. They are perfect for a triathlete, road racer, or anyone else who wants to go fast.

5. They are stylish Road shoes are VERY stylish and road-cycling culture revolves around really cool, stylish shoes that match the kit. If you are riding with a group and you have super clean, stylish shoes that match your kit, you will get props.

Hopefully, this article has helped you decide whether or not you want to go clipless. Even if you don’t decide to go clipless, remember that riding is always better than walking!

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