Beginners Guide to using Bike Shoes & Click-in Pedals

Many beginners feel daunted by the prospect of riding in bike shoes with cleats and being “trapped” to the pedal for fear of falling off. However the advantages of using click-in pedals make it worthwhile overcoming your fears. In this article, we give all the good reasons why you should go for the click-in pedal systems.
Created: November 2012
Latest Feedback: November 2012

Terminology

What is now called a “click-in”, “clip-in” or “cleat” pedal system was originally called “Clipless”, and this term is also still used by those that were cycling in the 70’s and ‘80s. This can be confusing to newcomers because of the irony that you “clip” into them.

The explanation is simply history. The term “clipless” came into use because the pedals used prior to these had a cage attached into which you’d push the toe of your shoe. These are now referred to as "toe clips". You’d then tighten the cage around your shoe by tightening the straps on the side, which were secured with a clip. But in the ‘80s the invention of the quick-release pedal system negated the need for reaching down with your hand to clip in – hence the term “clipless” was used to describe the new pedal system.

The “clipless”, quick-release, click-in pedal system means that a rider wears specially designed bike shoes that have cleats attached underneath. These cleats lock into and release from a spring-locking mechanism on the pedal by the rider pushing down with the ball of their foot to clip in, or twisting their foot to release. The clipless pedal and bike shoe system has now been used widely throughout the world cycling scene for over 25 years and although improvements to materials have been seen, the concept of the design has remained much the same.

Advantages of Click-in Pedals & Bike Shoes

Click-in pedals offer far more advantages to cyclists over those using toe clips, so if you’ve never used either, go straight to the bike shop and get yourself sorted out with bike shoes, and a set of pedals and cleats.

There is no doubt that click-in pedals are safer. They are designed to release quickly and easily. Similar to a ski binding, when you place your shoe onto the pedal and push down, the cleat snaps into place securing it firmly. To unclip, your simply twist your heel away from the bike. The amount of force required to twist and detach can be adjusted so when you first start out, it can be set to a loose fitting, just like with ski bindings. Unclipping becomes second nature very quickly and you’ll soon feel confident to tighten up the cleats as the advantages of a firm cleat and stiff shoes will soon become very apparent.

In contrast, to achieve a good pedalling action with toe clips, your shoes would have to be strapped in tightly, making it much more difficult to start and stop. Using toe clips like this is certain to cause worse injuries if you fall as they don't release to take the pressure off your joints.

Wearing bike shoes rather than running shoes also provides a stiffer sole, which better supports the foot and evenly spreads the load & power. This means reduced foot numbness because you don't have to press as hard on the pedal. Another advantage is that the ball of your foot is held in the ideal position over the pedal axle. However, if you try to achieve this ideal position with a standard running shoe in a toe-clip cage system, your foot will tend to slip off the pedal.

The main advantage however, is that you can achieve a more efficient pedal stroke when using click-in pedals. When you learn how to maximise the full rotation of the pedal stroke by pulling up with your feet, your hill climbing ability will improve, as will your ability to pedal at a higher cadence and you’ll find yourself more efficient in the lower gears. This cannot be achieved with toe-clips unless you are prepared to be strapped in tightly, which would make negotiating traffic lights, roundabouts and other road hazards extremely dangerous.

All these reasons will lead to a significant improvement in your endurance but will also reduce wear and tear on your knees, helping you to enjoy your cycling for years to come.

Toe Clips are not the same!

Although the use of clipless pedal systems became popular in the mid 1980’s, some recreational cyclists still use the “toe clip” systems because they can be used with your regular running shoes and are cheap and appear easy to use. However, most people that do use them, don’t use them correctly. If you don't actually tighten up the clip on the side to lock in the shoe, then there's little point in using them at all. About the only thing the toe clip is doing in this case is helping your foot from slipping off the pedal.

The problem for a person who wants to improve their cycling speed, and endurance is that by using loose fitting toe clips your shoe will not be attached as tightly to your pedal as it needs to be to gain the increased power & efficiency you’re using them for, and they certainly can be a hindrance if you don’t put your foot into them at all, as the cage will spin and reduce the ground clearance of your pedal to the ground, meaning you’re more likely to catch the pedal on something and fall off. Toe cleats can be particularly problematic when running alongside your bike such as in the bike transition area of a triathlon where the cage can catch on the ground and trip you up so these should actually be avoided by triathletes for safety reasons.

Selecting Pedals & Shoes

Using the click-in pedal system means you’ll need to get bike shoes. There are two main styles of pedal/shoe systems:

Road Shoes/Pedals

Road shoes are stiff-soled & lightweight with a protruding cleat under the ball of the foot, (which makes walking difficult). A large range of good brands and styles are available in a range of prices. The more expensive road shoes feature carbon soles, ratchet strap systems, multiple adjustments, and leather uppers. Cheaper models are less adjustable, have plastic/nylon soles, velcro straps, & vinyl uppers.

However, it’s not all aesthetics and price. When buying road bike shoes you must ensure compatibility with the cleat system you wish to use. Some road shoes are drilled to accept both 3 and 2-hole cleat designs, but most will accept only one or the other. Shoes made for use with 2-hole systems cannot be modified to use a 3-hole cleat.

The most widely used pedal and cleat system used by Australian road cyclists is the 3-hole system where the cleat protrudes and walking is difficult. Shimano, Look, & Time are all 3 hole cleat systems, with Shimano being the most popular pedal choice. Speedplay is also a popular as it is a 4-hole system that offers more compatibility with different shoes. You’ll find various models across these brands with pricing based on weight. Expect to pay significantly more to save a few grams.

MTB Shoes/Pedals

MTB riders need to use a shoe with a recessed cleat. This enables the shoe to feature a rugged tread and you’ll have no problem with grip if you’re off the bike on slippery surfaces like mud and rocks. The most common MTB system is the Shimano SPD 2 hole system.

The SPD pedal is also what most gyms have fitted to the pedals of their spin/RPM bikes so if you enjoy indoor cycling you can improve your workout by taking your own MTB bike shoes with SPD cleats.

Riding with cleats

Everyone falls off a few times while learning to use the click-in pedals. After a few falls, your brain will have learnt how to avoid falling and you’ll have developed a new automatic response and you’ll have no troubles. Everyone does it, so can you.

It’s best to start by practising the basics on a grassy (but firm) surface to practice so you don't injure yourself or damage your bike. The first few points to practise are:

Straddle Start

(simulating taking off from the traffic lights). Straddle the frame (off the seat) as you stand with both feet on the ground on either side of the bike. Then practise starting off by putting first one foot onto the pedals and pushing the bike forward with the first downstroke. What you are aiming to achieve is a smooth take off clipping in each foot as you press down on the first downstroke. You might slip off the pedals the first time you try this if you apply to much pressure on the downstroke. Ideally, your starting foot will clip in as you make the first download stroke whilst simultaneously lifting your other foot off the ground. Try to clip in the other side as it does its first downward stroke too. Out on a ride, most riders will actually only unclip from one side at the lights and place only one foot on the ground in readiness for a smooth take off.

Side Mount

You also need to practise setting off from a standing position with two feet to one side of the bike. Will you swing your leg over, or will you step through? Which foot do you favour putting onto the pedal first?

Unclip & Halt

(simulating stopping at traffic lights). Ensure you do this by gradually reducing your speed so that you spend time practising your balance before you unclip & put a foot down. You may find that you will tend to favour one side, but practise both sides. At first, you’re likely to jerk too much as you twist to unclip, which if you don’t have enough momentum could unsteady the bike and tip you off. Practising will allow you to improve your balance at low speeds and work out how early you need to start thinking about uncleating. Tip: it is easier to learn this if you set your cleats loosely until you get the hang of it.

Triathlon Mount

If you’re a triathlete, you need to practise bike mounting as its done in a race situation, which is done after running a few hundred metres in your bike shoes (on either grass or bitumen), and then reaching the mount line, getting onto your bike and moving off as fast as possible. Make sure that you can click into each cleat without looking at the pedal. For beginners, it’s best to start with a stationery side start but once you’ve mastered this you should try to keep the momentum going by learning the Scoot Mount.

Scoot Mount

“Scooting” is riding with your inside foot on the pedal as you scoot with your back leg to get momentum and then swinging your back leg over the seat and maintaining balance whilst you start pedalling with both feet (including clipping in).

Shoeless Mount

Experienced triathletes will take the scoot mount one step further and actually have their bike shoes already clipped into the pedals so they run through transition in bare feet and then mount the bike. Specific “triathlon” shoes need to used to perfect this technique. After mounting the bike, placing their feet ontop of the shoes, they must quickly slide their feet into the open shoes and reach down to fasten the single velcro strap. Before dismounting at the end of the bike race, you reach down to unstrap the velcro and pedal the last few metres with your feet out of the shoe ready to dismount and run to transition.

Setup

Adjusting the position on the cleat on the shoe varies for each person, and it’s important to note that if you develop pain using cleats, then seeing a sports physio who specialises in bike set up is vital. There are often significant adjustments that can be made to a bike fit and shoe/cleat positioning that can greatly improve your comfort.

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Article Tags

Cycling, Bike Shoes, Bike Cleats, Beginner Cycling Tips, Buying Road Shoes, Triathlon Mount, Tri Clips, Tri-Clips, Cycling Gear

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