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New to cycling? Here's a lesson in clipless pedals

The Look style has a wider platform. Many riders think 
this gives them more power 
and reduces foot “hot spots.” Local bike shops often will put you on a bike trainer and let you try different types of clipless pedals.
Published Sep. 3, 2015

New bike riders often have reservations about riding in groups or on bikes with skinny tires. But what may vex them the most are clipless pedals, especially when you are supposed to clip in and out of them. Why call them "clipless" pedals?

Good question. Before ski bindings maker Look developed the new generation pedals in the mid-1980s, racers used flat pedals with a strap that bound a band of metal, called a toe clip, to their foot and pedal. A spring-loaded device loosened the strap to free the foot. So, as the new pedals did not have a toe clip, they became known as clipless pedals. Tour de France winners Bernard Hinault and Greg Le-Mond were the first pros to use them, and the rest of the peloton soon followed.

New riders needn't fear them. Yes, you're locked into the pedals, but it's actually far easier to release your foot than it was with the old toe clips, requiring just an ankle twist. In fact, some are harder to get into than out of.

Clipless pedals are the way to go for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that they are safer than riding flat pedals without toe clips, according to Ted Lee of St. Pete Bicycle & Fitness. "With flat pedals, you run the risk of slipping off the pedal, and you can't hop as easily over potholes in the road," said Lee, a former road and mountain bike racer.

I also find clipless pedals give you another secure balance point. When you're clipped in, your feet become another way of subtly controlling your bike.

New riders initially are more worried about pulling an "Arte Johnson." (Johnson's Laugh-In TV show character would pull his tricycle to a stop and fall over.) But getting out of clipless pedals takes just a little practice, and if you ask, most stores will gladly put you on a bike trainer so that you can get a feel for them.

At Trek Bicycle Store of St. Petersburg, manager Anne Fidanzato said she will often tell someone who buys a road bike for the first time to wait as long as six months before getting clipless pedals to ensure they have ample time to become comfortable controlling their new bike.

She also points out another reason to consider clipless pedals: the ability to adjust for different leg lengths. "When I put shims under one of my cleats, it got rid of my hip pain," Fidanzato said.

Clipless pedals come with cleats that screw to the bottom of your cycling shoe. (Yes, you need to buy shoes that are drilled to accept cleats, which are available in styles with two, three or four holes.) Cleats can be adjusted to fit the mechanics of your body, especially the leg stroke. They wear out eventually, and replacements run $25 to $55, depending on the style and material.

Most cleats can be adjusted fore and aft and side to side, as can the force required to release the pedal. If they're too easy to release, they may disengage when you don't want them to.

Float, which is the degree to which your foot can swivel in the pedal without disengaging, also must be considered. It is thought that a little float can help riders avoid knee pain that may develop if the foot is ridged on the pedal.

There are three basic types of clipless pedals:

• The Look style, adopted by Shimano, Time and other manufacturers, has a wider platform that many riders believe gives them more power and reduces foot "hot spots" that can develop during a ride. Only one side of the pedal can engage.

• Speedplay pedals are small "lollipops" that have the most float and allow you to engage the pedal from either side, making them easier to get in and out of. Speedplays allow you to lean more into a turn without the pedal scraping the road surface. I had them for years before switching to Shimano pedals about a year ago. The hot spots I experienced went away with the Shimano (Look-style) pedals, but I'm still a bit spastic getting in them.

• The other type of pedals, often called SPDs, are for mountain biking. They, too, are double-sided, and they reject dirt and mud better but have a smaller platform. Their biggest advantage is that the cleats are recessed in the shoes, making them easier to walk in. Mountain bike shoes are often softer and more flexible. I've seen many road bike riders use SPDs for that reason.

If you've never used clipless pedals, the best way to buy them is through your local bike shop, which will let you try different types and make the necessary adjustments to properly mount the cleat to your shoe, taking into account your foot structure. You may need to adjust your saddle height, too.

Clipless pedals range from $69 to $350, according to Lee, but as Fidanzato points out, the difference is that the cheaper ones weigh more and that the more expensive ones have better bearings.

But they can wait until after you've had your first Arte Johnson moment. We've all had them — and sometimes still do today.

Bob Griendling is president of the St. Petersburg Bicycle Club and a member of the Mayor's Bicycling and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. Contact him at bob@griendling.com.

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