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Cycling, Gear

Bike 101: Clipless Pedals

In conversations about cycling, I hear a lot of feedback from runners and triathletes who are hesitant to get on their bikes because they’re afraid of clipless pedals. Fear of falling, fear of being stuck, inability to clip in, you name it. And those fears aren’t without grounds. Why do you think recreational riders use flat pedals or clips? Exactly.

So why bother if they’re so scary, you ask?

With clipless pedals, you have a smoother stroke and transfer more power directly to your bike, which means less wasted energy. You’ll never experience your feet flying off in all directions — like I always do on spin bikes because I don’t have SPD cleats — and you’ll find hill climbing — and fun descents — to be much easier. And yeah, they’re hard at first, but they’re not impossible to master. What’s the secret?

PRACTICE. Time in the saddle. PRACTICE.

That sounds obvious and unhelpful, I know. But the only way to get comfortable with clipping in, riding and clipping out is to do it over and over and over. I’ve had my bike since I was 16 — my dad tried to get me into cycling to stay in shape as I suffered stress fracture after stress fracture during cross country — but was hesitant to ride on a regular basis because I was unsteady and unsure of my ability to avoid crashing. I took the bike off to college and signed up for the Duke cycling team, but I’d never been in such a large group or ridden on hills or battled traffic or conquered more than about 15 miles, so a few rides and I was done. Ray — who now rides for NCVC — tried to get me to ride with him when we were interning in Atlanta, but after he dragged my sorry butt through 20 miles, I wanted nothing to do with that bike. So my Specialized gathered dust in my parent’s garage. Until last summer.

I think it’s safe to say that the reason I didn’t get into triathlon sooner is that I was scared of all of the above. But when I signed up for the DC Tri last year, I had my parents bring the bike up during a visit, knowing I’d have to conquer that fear if I wanted to finish that race. And I did. With lots and lots of practice.

Here are a few things to consider when taking the clipless pedal plunge:

Pedal choice. This is a very personal preference and should not be taken lightly. Talk to the folks you trust at your bike store about the options available, weigh the benefits of each and possibly test drive more than one set. That said, I use Speedplay Zeroes on both of my bikes and absolutely swear by them. Here’s why.

Unlike other pedal options, Speedplays have dual-sided entry. This means you can clip in to either side of the pedal and don’t have to worry about whether it’s facing up or down. If you’re using any other system, often the weight of the pedal will spin it the wrong way, and you’ll have to look down to ensure you get your foot in the right place or get very comfortable with feel of finding the right spot. I had entry-level Look pedals on my road bike until about a year ago and was always frustrated over this. It also made me unsteady — because I had to concentrate so hard on getting my foot in, I couldn’t pay attention to where I was going.

Most pedal systems have a toe-to-heel entry, meaning you point your toe forward and down so the pedal and cleat meet, followed by the rest of your foot. With Speedplays, all you have to do is step down. It’s a strange feeling, especially if you’re used to the toe-to-heel thing, but this coupled with the dual-sided entry make clipping in easy and seamless.

What about clipping out? With the Zeroes, you have the option of varying degrees of float, which means your heel can rotate around without popping your foot out of the pedal. Some people hate this, others love it. I’m in the latter camp, but I’ve found that it makes the pedals slightly less sensitive to clipping out. Basically, you just have to twist your foot a little bit harder laterally before it pops.

Disclaimer: The Zeroes, when brand-new, are stiff and pretty challenging to clip into (and sometimes out of). If you can, put your bike on a trainer and practice. The cleats will loosen after a few uses and you’ll be good to go. Also, Speedplay did not give me free stuff to write this. I wish.

Open road. The last place you should experiment with clipless pedals is anywhere you find cars. You need a spot uninterrupted by traffic or a lot of stops. This could be a parking lot or a rural highway or a loop of some sort. In D.C., it’s Hains Point (except during the height of tourist season). In Savannah, I rode laps around the military base. Basically, you need a place where it won’t matter if it takes you a few hundred yards to get out of your pedals. As I was getting back into this, I would drive to Hains — I know, I live 2 miles away — to avoid riding through traffic.

Take a class. Tri clubs, bike shops and other enthusiast groups often will offer clinics on cycling basics. This is a good opportunity to practice with your pedals and other handling skills, as well as get some experience riding in closer proximity to others. In D.C., Sport + Spinal has regular events like this. If this isn’t an option, ask your bike shop staff to give you a lesson. In my opinion, they shouldn’t send you out of the store with a product you’re not comfortable using.

Clip out early and often. It’s okay to practice with your pedals even when you don’t have to stop. As you’re riding — again, where you don’t have to worry about cars — practice getting your feet out and then back in while moving. Or designate certain points as mock stops. When you’re faced with an actual stop sign or a traffic light or another obstacle, give yourself plenty of lead time to unclip. I still do this sometimes — if I see a red light ahead or I’m behind a group that’s slowing down, I’ll go ahead and get out of my pedal just in case I have to stop. As you get more comfortable, you’ll adapt to doing this quickly and at the last minute.

Ride with someone more advanced. Riding in groups can be scary, and even more so when you’re clipped in and can’t always predict if the person in front of you or beside you is going to stop quickly. As I slowly adapted to riding in traffic with a lot of stop-and-go, a big bonus was having an advanced cyclist who could ride slightly ahead and warn me if there were cars coming or a stoplight was changing or we were turning, giving me plenty of time to unclip, slow down and stop. As you practice riding with just one person who is patient with you, you’ll eventually be brave enough to ride with others.

Obey the rules of the road. This is obvious. Don’t be an idiot.

Just do it. Get out there. You’ll be glad you did.

I’ll leave you with one story — not to scare you, but to demonstrate that this whole pedal thing can be mastered. When I bought my road bike almost eight years ago, the guys at the shop set me up on the trainer to practice clipping in and out. After I’d mastered that without the added challenge of actually balancing and staying upright, we ventured into the parking lot to make sure I had it under control. I wasn’t sure which side to clip in first, so the guy was like “Oh, well, I do my left foot, and since you’re right-handed that makes sense.” Sure, I thought. I picked up my left foot, placed it on the pedal and BAM. I fell right over and sliced open my right calf on the front chainring. Blood everywhere. I still have the scar. Now I ALWAYS clip in my right foot first and unclip with my left when stopping. It’s a balance thing — I don’t know if it’s just me — I naturally lean to one direction and will fall over if I can’t put my left foot down. Lesson learned! Do what feels right for you, and don’t listen to anyone who tries to tell you otherwise. You’ll be a master in no time.

Good luck!



10 thoughts on “Bike 101: Clipless Pedals

  1. I was so scared of the clipless pedals and held off on getting then until a couple of months ago! But, now I love them and it makes riding so much easier 🙂

    Posted by Sarah | July 18, 2011, 9:39 AM
  2. I also always unclip my left foot to stop. I have no idea why, but if I try to unclip my right foot, I’ll fall down. And I clip my right foot in first. And I love my speedplay zeros, so I guess we are basically the same. 🙂

    I also usually ride in traffic (while commuting) with one foot unclipped in case a car/person suddenly decides to be a fuckass.

    Posted by katie | July 18, 2011, 9:58 AM
  3. I have always been pretty nervous about getting new pedals but after reading some great posts I think I might make the switch

    Posted by Shannon @ Mon Amour | July 18, 2011, 10:07 AM
  4. I had my first experience with clipless pedals a few weeks ago and I was terrified! Now, after a few epic falls, I am way more comfortable with them (but even more comfortable letting myself fall and popping back up!). Loving the way the bike feels with them!

    Posted by Jessica | July 18, 2011, 10:29 AM
  5. Can’t remember the number of times I injured my pride by coming to a stop sign and tipping over as I frantically tried to get out of my pedals.

    Posted by Jon | July 18, 2011, 3:59 PM
  6. Ugh, I have the kind of pedals that have to be facing up to clip in, and the weight makes them face down…it drives me INSANE. I realllly need to switch, I just have been putting it off because I don’t want to buy a new set of shoes, clips, AND pedals, but before I do another longer tri it NEEDS to happen:).

    Posted by Erin @ untilyoutri | July 19, 2011, 12:11 AM
  7. Thanks for this post. I’m a cycling/triathlon newbie and have been hesitant to step up to clipless pedals. Now I see that there’s really no reason not to upgrade – it’s just a mental hurdle.

    Posted by traintotri | July 19, 2011, 1:40 PM
  8. Ah, this is so helpful! My bike (which I haven’t ridden in about 7 years) is all sorts of wrong. Come to the west coast so I can pay you to be my coach, k? 😉

    Posted by Page | July 28, 2011, 4:54 PM
  9. Wish I’d read this before now. I just took my bike back to the shop to get ‘normal’ pedals put on instead of the clipless pedals I bought when I bought the bike a few months ago. I just couldn’t get the hang of it I’m so uncoordinated… Didn’t even venture out of the back yard. Even bought a training stand so I could practice stationery. I will keep the pedals though and try them again once I get through the mini-triathlon I’m doing in October. For now, I just need to get out on the road and log some kilometres. Great post. Thanks. You gave me hope that maybe I will eventually master them.

    Posted by HeatherH | August 6, 2011, 9:50 AM


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