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Bike pedal systems

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Knowledge level: Beginner

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Article posted: 05/03/2014

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Your pedals are the link between your bike’s engine, you, and the drivetrain, which, via your cranks, chain and rear hub, converts your efforts into forward momentum. Get this link wrong and you’ll not only be reducing your riding efficiency but also potentially making your ride uncomfortable and risking injury. Which pedal system is right for your level and style of riding though?

Flats

If your brand of pedals allow you to adjust the release tension, dial it right down while you’re learning. Take your bike somewhere free of traffic and just practice clipping in and out.

Pedals at their simplest, just platforms that you press with your feet. For town bikes, shoppers and short commutes, they have the advantage that you can ride in regular shoes. Some mountain bikers, BMX racers and trials riders use flat pedals as they like the stability of the wide platform and the ability to easily dab a foot down.

Flats can be good for novice mountain bikers who lack confidence on technical ability and don’t like the trapped sensation of clipless pedals on steep or challenging terrain. These flats will often have pins on them which are designed to penetrate the soles of specifically designed soft rubber compound shoes to improve stability and reduce the risk of slipping off the pedals.

Clips and straps

Many years ago competitive road cyclists realised that stiff soled shoes and being physically attached to the pedals improved the efficiency of their pedal stroke. Stiff soled shoes reduce energy losses from flexing and support the foot, helping to prevent sore spots developing and unnecessary strain to your feet. The reason for being attached to your pedals is not to allow you to “pull-up” but to facilitate pushing over the top of the pedal stroke and scraping through the bottom of it in a smooth and even way.

Metal toe clips and leather straps provided the method of attachment for professional cyclists right through into the 1980’s and you do still occasionally see them on the road. You will still see track riders using straps but this usually be in conjunction with a clipless system and is a “belt and braces” approach to prevent the rider pulling their feet out of their pedals due to immense forces track riders generate. The main disadvantage of clips and straps is that once you’re attached, disengaging quickly is very difficult and, on modern busy roads, this is a real problem.

Clipless pedals

Are so known because they lack the clips of the traditional clip and strap system. Confusingly though, people will refer to “clipping into their pedals” and you might also hear them called clip-in or step-in pedals. In 1984 the French company Look developed the first widely used clipless pedal system using technology from ski bindings. This used a cleat fixed to the bottom of the shoe that engaged with the pedal when you pushed down and forwards onto it. You could then disengage from the pedal by twisting your foot sideways. Bernard Hinault used this system to win the 1985 Tour de France and since then it’s been the template for most clipless pedal systems available. Clipless pedals and cycling shoes deliver a safe and efficient pedalling system and, for serious road riding, longer commutes and cross country mountain biking, should be chosen.

Road

On the road, as well as Look, there are a number of manufacturers, including Shimano, Time, Mavic and Campagnolo, that produce systems very similar to the original one used in 1985. They all use a fairly large plastic triangular cleat that gives a stable pedalling platform which disperses the fairly constant pressures of road cycling over a relatively wide area.

Although the cleats and pedals from the different manufacturers may look similar, they’re not cross compatible. Speedplay also offer a slightly different system where the pedal is effectively the cleat which clips into a specially designed plate on the shoe. Different materials are used to produce pedals at various price points, with the most expensive being lightest and made of carbon fibre and titanium and heavier cheaper ones produced out of injected plastic and steel. Many pedals allow you to adjust the tension for engagement and release and, especially if you’re a novice cyclist and unsure about clipless pedals, look for this feature.

Another feature to consider is float. Float is the amount of lateral movement a pedal and cleat allows before disengaging and is factored in as most of our legs don’t move up and down in perfect straight lines. Without float, you can cause injury provoking stress to your knees. Road pedal systems often colour code cleats to show the amount of float they offer. Road pedal systems are brilliant when you’re on the bike riding but, when you stop at a café or are forced to walk up a hill, you soon realise their major downside. The large cleats are a slippery and uncomfortable nightmare to walk in and, being plastic, soon wear down. You can get cleat covers that you can stash in your jersey pocket but for cycling that involves regular time off the bike, you’ll need a different system.

Mountain biking, cyclocross and commuting

Mountain biking often involves hike ‘n’ bike sections, in cyclocross you’re constantly on and off the bike, running up steep muddy banks and hurdling and, when you commute, there’s often a walk at one end or the other. Fortunately Shimano developed their SPD (Shimano Pedalling Dynamics) system which allows for smaller recessed cleats that are far more compatible with the demands of these activities.

Other brands, including Time, Crank Brothers and Ritchey, now also produce similar systems.They all use a far smaller metal cleat that is harder wearing and is sited below the level of the grips, studs or outsole of the shoe. Engagement and disengagement is similar to road systems but the pedals are often dual, or four sided in the case of Crank Brothers, for easier engagement and the act of clipping in and out also serves to clear mud or snow out of the pedal.

Float is also typically greater on this type of pedal. The main disadvantage is that, as the cleat is far smaller, there’s less contact area with the pedal and so pressure is higher. This can lead to uncomfortable hot spots on long rides where you’re exerting constant pressure on the pedals. This isn’t a problem for the more stop/go nature of mountain biking, cyclocross or commutes but, for long road rides, you’re better off with road specific pedals.

Riding with clipless pedals

Beginners are often put off by the idea of having their feet attached to their bike but becoming confident with clipless pedals takes hardly any time at all. Watch this video for tips on the technique of clipping in. If your brand of pedals allow you to adjust the release tension, dial it right down while you’re learning. Take your bike somewhere free of traffic and just practice clipping in and out. After 20-30 minutes of practice it’ll become second nature and you can hit the roads for real.

Find out how to set-up your cleats with fitting advice from Phil Burt, lead physiotherapist with the Great Britain Cycling Team and consultant physiotherapist to Team Sky.

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