Clipless Pedals. What Can You Expect As A Beginner?


One of the signs that you’re ready to up your game as a cyclist is when you explore the possibility of upgrading from platform pedals to clipless pedals. Let’s see what you need to be aware before you make the switch.

Clipless pedals attach to your shoes via a locking mechanism. This firm connection allows you to pedal up to 10% efficiently because you can exert force throughout the entire pedal revolution, including the upward stroke. Clipless pedals also prevent your feet from slipping off the pedal and can offer better control of the bike.

Clipless pedals make a noticeable difference on short bursts, climbing hills and on long rides. The clipping mechanism ensures that your foot always on the pedal with the ball for riding efficiency. The clip also prevents your foot from accidentally slipping off the pedal in wet weather.

Clipless pedals can be dangerous if you’re in traffic or on technical terrain without sufficient knowledge or practice. Clipping in and out need to feel natural before riding in traffic or off road with a clipless system. Thankfully, getting sufficiently good is quite easy for most people.

A study published in the International Journal of Sports and Exercise Medicine presents five cases where the inablity of being able to clip out in time resulted in muscoskeletal injuries (source), and encourages further studies on the correlation.

The Most Common Clipless Pedal Systems

A clipless pedal system is composed of three parts: the pedal, the cleats and the shoes.

In order to use clipless, the whole system needs to work together: pedals, cleats and shoes. Each clipless pedal type needs the matching cleats (the little metal plates that are bolted to your shoes). Cleats use either two or three bolts and to be able to mount them on the shoes you need shoes that have two or three holes.

The following are the most common clipless systems and the type of shoes the cleats can be mounted on:

SystemCleatsShoe type
Look (Road bike)Look cleats3 bolt
Shimano SPD-SL (Road bike)SPD-SL cleats3 bolt
Speedplay (Road bike)Speedplay cleats4 bolt proprietary,
3 bolt conversion kit available
Time Xpresso (Road bike)Time cleats3 bolt
Speedplay Frog (Mountain bike)2 bolt
Shimano SPD (Mountain bike)Shimano SPD2 bolt
Crank Brothers (Mountain bike)Crank Brothers cleats2 bolt, but best used with Crank Brothers shoes
Time ATAC (Moutain bike)Time ATAC cleats2 bolt
The most common clipless systems and their shoe requirement compared

Here, we’re going to focus on two of the most common types of clipless pedals among new riders are SPD-SL and SPD pedals. These acronyms both stand for Shimano Pedalling Dynamics because this is the most common platform and it was was developed by Shimano. The additional SL in road bike specific pedals refers to Super Light.

SPD-SL doesn’t just mean that the pedal is lighter than SPD pedals, but it’s actually an entirely different system.

SPD pedals require moutain bike specific shoes with recessed bolts for the cleats, and SPD-SL pedals require road specific shoes.

Road specific shoes have a snug fit that don’t allow your feet to move, except your toes. The portrusion of the cleats make these shoes extremely uncomfortable to walk in. Another important characteristic of SPD-SL pedals is that they can only be clipped in on one side.

Clipless road bike shoes are aerodynamically favorable, but uncomfortable to walk in.

SPD clipless shoes allow for more movement for the feet and they are also called walkable clipless shoes, since the cleats are recessed in the shoe sole. You can use SPD specific shoes to walk just like any other shoe.

SPD pedals are symmetrical and can be clipped in from both sides. There are some hybrid solutions in the SPD world, which offer SPD clips on one side and a platform pedal on the other side, in case you want to ride in shoes that don’t have cleats.

When you want to invest into clipless pedals you need to keep in mind that you will need to purchase an entire system: pedals, matching cleats and compatible shoes. This makes owing a clipless system considerably more expensive than using platform pedals.

Moutain bike specific clipless pedals are easier to clip into and shoes are easier to walk in.

Although SPD and SPD-SL are platforms developed by Shimano other manufacturers have also adopted them. You can buy both SPD and SPD-SL pedals and shoes from a wide variety of manufacturers. What you need to pay attention to is that the pedal and the shoe work with each other.

SPDSPD-SL
Commonly usedOn MTBs, Gravel bikes, Cyclocross bikesRoad bikes
Clip in mechanism locationOn both sidesOnly on one side
Shoes Can be worn for walking, commuting, hikingSnug fit. Not comfortable for walking.
Learning curveEasier to to get used toMore difficult to get used to

Riding clipless pedals in normal shoes is possible but it’s becomes very uncomfortable after just a few short minutes of riding. The main problem is that clipless pedals are made to perfectly match the cleat of the shoe and therefore the surface is uneven. The uneven pressure on the flat surface of your shoe sole causes foot pain if you want to ride them in regular shoes.

If you want the benefit of riding clipless but you want the option of normal shoes too, consider dual platform pedals, such as the Shimano PD-EH500 (available on Amazon) or its little brother, the Shimano PD-M3242 (also available on Amazon).

Pros and Cons of Clipless Pedals

As with everything in this life, there is a trade off. You win some and you lose some. Clipless pedals improve efficiency and they enable perfect positioning on the pedal every time, but not everything is perfect about them either.

Here’s a list of pros and cons when it comes to clipless and platform pedals.

Clipless Pedal PROsClipless Pedal CONs
More efficient ridingClipless pedals have a learning curve, which can range from a few hours to several months
Perfect foot position on the pedal every timeYou need clipless specific shoes and cleats for your bike
Foot doesn’t slip offHigher upfront cost than a platform pedal
Once confident on clipless, it provides great stability and boosts confidenceClipless systems need some maintenance
Pedal less likely to touch the ground when leaning in a cornerCleats wear out and need to be replaced
Foot firmly planted even on rough sections of the roadSPD-SL shoes can only be used for riding, but not for walking

How Long Does It Take To Get Used To Clipless Pedals?

Getting used to clipless pedals takes between a couple of rides to a month. More experienced cyclists tend to learn the skill quicker, while new riders take longer as they have other details to pay attention to. Having the right size shoe and the proper pedal setup is important for learning fast. After understanding the mechanics and being able to clip in and out for the first time, you need to practice so the clipping in and out motion both become second nature.

The most common problem new clipless users struggle with is clipping out in time when sudden adjustments are required or in an emergency situation where they could regain balance by touching the ground.

It takes about 1-2 months of regular riding before riding clipless becomes a part of your muscle memory. In this regard it’s similar to typing on a keyboard or playing a musical instrument. The more you practice the better you get at it.

How to Get Used To Clipless Pedals Fast?

Thankfully, there are some tricks you can use to get started fast.

  • Use multi-release cleats
  • Pratcice at a wall or a lamp post
  • Adjust pedal tension
  • Unclip with your dominant foot
  • Unclip before stopping
  • Scan the road
  • Set challenges for yourself

Use multi-release cleats

The best option for beginners are SPD pedals with multi-release cleats mounted on the shoes. While normal SPD cleats only release your feet when you rotate them sideways, multi-release cleats allow you to unclip in almost any direction other than perfect rotation. They are a cheap and easy solution to help you unclip in time, and they are readily available on Amazon.

Practice at a wall or a lamp post

This is almost a no-brainer. Before you can go for a ride, you need to learn the basics. This is best done when you’re sitting on the bike without it moving forward. You don’t need to worry about the traffic, potholes, red lights. It doesn’t matter if you can’t clip in or out.

Just lean against the wall and practice for a few minutes before you hit the road.

Adjust pedal tension

SPD clipless pedals have tension adjuster, which allows you to set how much force is required to unclip from the pedal. When the tension is set to the highest value, unclipping requires the most force. Professional riders and those who have acquired a lot of routine like this setting as it gives the most secure connection between the shoe and the pedal.

As a first-time clipless rider you should start with the lowest setting. This is ideal to learn the mechanics of clipping out. The pedal will release the cleats with a gentle outward twisting force. This is also a good setting if you have some knee problems, as the twisting force is a lateral force trasmitted trough your knees.

Keep in mind that double sided pedals have two tension adjusters on each pedal, one for each side.

Unclip with your dominant foot

When riding on normal platform pedals, you’ve probably paid attention that you always touch ground with the same foot first. This is your dominant foot. Whether it’s your left or your right foot, you should always unclip on that side when coming to a halt.

Unclip – Stop

The most common falls of new clipless users comes from not unclipping in time when coming to a full stop and losing balance while unclipping.

When you ride on platform pedals, you can come to a full stop and lift your foot off the pedal. Not so with clipless pedals. At least, not in the beginning. You anticipate coming to a stop by uncliping while still in motion. Give yourself 5-10 seconds to unclip before your bike stops moving in order to avoid falling over.

Scan the road ahead

Scanning the road ahead of you allows you to react to the road conditions a little bit sooner. This may just give you enough extra time to unclip when you need to come to a stop.

You can also invest in a bicycle mirror that allows you to monitor the traffic coming from behind. It gives you a more complete picture of what’s going on around you.

Do your own challenge

Setting challenges for yourself is a great way to practice what you’ve learned. As you’re gaining practice and confidence, it’s a good idea to etch the unclipping motion into muscle memory by picking up speed in a quiet area and setting a line or a spot to stop at.

You can also ask a friend to give you a signal in a random moment to unclip as fast as you can.

What Clipless Pedals Should a Beginner Use?

The easiest clipless pedal setup for beginners are SPD pedals on low tension with multi-release cleats. Whether you ride a road bike, a mountain bike, gravel bike or any other type of bike, and you want to get started with clipless pedals, this is a great combination.

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05/10/2021 01:57 pm GMT
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It is technically possible to mount both SPD and SPD-SL pedals on any bicycle, but road specific pedals are a little more finicky, and they are best suited for road riding. If your ride involves other than pure road riding, SPD pedals are probably the way to go.

Clipless Pedals In Different Scenarios

In case you still can’t decide whether a clipless setup is right for you here are some scenarios, where we can think together.

If you’re a beginner commuter in an urban area, then clipless pedals are neither a must nor do they give you much advantage. It’s important to learn to get confident on the bicycle with platform pedals before you can move to clipless. Regular stops at traffic lights and yielding to pedestrians means that you will be clipping in and out more often that you’d like to, and focusing on the basics is complicated enough for a first time commuter.

Once you feel confident in the saddle and you want to improve your pedaling efficiency, you may want to consider clipless, but many bike commuters never feel the need and they appreciate having the option to ride their bike in any shoe they want.

If you’re a road cyclist, even if a beginner one, but you ride on good quality roads with little traffic, buying clipless pedals makes sense. After the initial learning curve, you will be able to ride more efficiently, especially when it comes to climbs.

Most roadies who ride for health and fitness ride clipless, and many road bike commuters ride SPD clipless because of the benefit the shoes offer.

If you ride a gravel bike and you intend to do mostly for sport and recreation, then you can invest in clipless pedals although many gravel riders use platform pedals. Gravel bikes are similar in appearance to road bikes, yet they are best equipped with SPD pedals because they are easier to clip in and out even in muddy conditions. If the terrain you intend to ride on is particularly technical, make sure you have perfect balance and control over the bike with flat pedals before you move to clipless.

Many gravel riders who use their bike for touring or hobby rides prefer platform pedals because they are not tied to a certain type of shoe. They can ride even in sandals or flip-flops.

If you ride a MTB on rough terrain as a beginner, flat pedals make more sense than clipless ones. You need to be really a confident rider before you should move to clipless. Mountain bike riders on moderate terrain can take advantage of SPD pedals sooner since sudden stops are not too frequent and you don’t need to use your foot to touch the ground to maintain your balance.

Conclusion

Moving to clipless pedals requires a little forethought, and you need to weigh the pros and the cons before making the switch. If you’re happy with the learning curve, the potential falls because you can’t clip out in time, the fact that you need specific shoes and some maintenance, it may be a good idea to change.

If you feel insecure in the saddle, you want to know that you can touch the ground quickly, and you want every single shoe you own to be a cycling shoe, flat pedals are the way to go.

Don’t forget that riding your bike in itself brings you joy. So get on your bike and ride it!

Happy peadling!

Bike Commuter Hero

When it comes to Cycling to Work, SAM IS THE MAN because he doesn't just talk the talk, but he also walks the walk - or rides the ride, to be more precise... Come, pedal with me and be a HERO!

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