For just about 25 years, most professional cyclists have used clipless pedals.  Greg LeMond won the Tour with them in 1986, which was a transition year for pedals and other technologies, thanks in no small part to LeMond’s pro-innovation stance.   Among other things, he introduced a streamlined time trial helmet, aero bars for time trials, and the aforementioned pedals.  For the prior eighty-three years at the Tour, riders had used toe clips to attach their feet to the pedals.  Their advantage relative to unattached feet lay in keeping the legs and feet in the same position on the pedals at all times, and in allowing the cyclist to add power to his pedaling by pulling on the crank during the upstroke, rather than just having the crank elevate a passive foot.

But toe clips had their disadvantages too.  A fixed enclosure for the front of the shoe was tightened or loosened by straps.  When adjustment was needed during the race, the riders had to reach down to manipulate the straps.  Further, there was always some vertical “play” in them; they did not provide a solid bond of the shoe to the pedal.  But then came the clipless kind, designed by the same companies that made ski boot fixtures.  The cyclist’s shoe has a metal or plastic cleat on the bottom that locks into slots on the pedal.  The shoe and the pedal are “as one.”  hence the grip is total, the lift is 100% of the upward pull of the foot.

The only problem is getting in and out of this shoe-pedal bond.  With the toe clip, one simply has to pull one’s foot backward to be out of the clip.  With the clipless pedal there has to be a quick sideways twist of the foot.  I grew up with no attachment of foot to pedal, clip or otherwise.  When I got back on my bike after years off, I began with the toe clip because it was the cheapest and most familiar kind of coupling.  it seemed to work pretty well.  I was not into power pedaling anyhow, and it was just simpler.

But technology has its lure.  Clipless pedals hold you foot in place so it doesn’t “drift” from side to side.  They also prevent excessive “float,” the toe turning in or out, knock-kneed or pigeon-toed.  This makes for a smoother, stronger, pedal stroke.   Of course we all have our natural postures and adjustments, to which clipless pedals must be coordinated.  If they’re out of sync with you, they can hurt your ankle and knee joints.

For me, though, the real problem was learning how to unclip quickly.  I developed what I guess were bad habits with my toe clips, always pulling out my right foot, and always at the top of the stroke.  With clipless pedals, you have to twist your foot out at the bottom of the stroke.  And the shoes do not detach as instantaneously as with toe clips.   So if you’re not paying attention you can find yourself in a situation of having to brake and unclip instantly, and if you’re in the wrong position the bike stops with you attached to it with both feet, and you just fall over.  The shoes do detach from the bike, usually, but only after you hit the pavement.  That, embarrassingly, happened twice to me while I was riding clipless.  So I went back to toe clips.

This winter when I set up my Coda Comp inside on the mag trainer I thought I owed it to myself to try again.  After all, the vast majority of cyclists use these things, so why shouldn’t I?  This old dog surely should be able to learn one measly new trick.  So I put a pair of the clipless pedals on that bike, got my old (but barely used) cleated shoes out, and am riding the mag trainer that way this winter.  Using the shoes feels easy on the trainer setup.  I can get my foot off the pedal instantly and smoothly, my feet feel great on the bike, no sweat.  But of course this bike is absolutely laterally stable.  If things go well for the rest of the winter, I will do some outside practice riding in the Spring.  Then we’ll decide.  No use rushing things.

I will report my progress as the project unfolds.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.

1 thought on “Clipless?

  1. Before I had clipless pedals I spent a couple of seasons riding with cleats & clips. These are what racers would wear before the introduction of clipless pedals and when the strap is snug you could not just pull your feet back to get out. Actually, what I’d be doing is every time I approach an intersection, I’d lean down and loosen one of my toestraps so I could get the foot out. Then, once under way again, I’d lead down again and re-tighten it. I wonder just how many cyclists still ride with these things because they are most certainly less safe than clipless. If in an accident, if snug they as likely as not will not let you separate from the bike which can among other things put additional strain on your ankles & knees and make it harder to get back up or out of the way quickly. The clipless will generally release in a case like this automatically.

    I don’t know if this suits your particular pedals but I sometimes feel more comfortable exiting by moving heels in rather than out. Anyway, I hope you stick with it. Getting used to them on the trainer sounds like a good idea. I think the benefits are well worth a no-speed topple every now and then.

    Do you have smooth-bottomed road shoes? If so, the other thing you’ll have to get used to is getting started and entering the second pedal while under way. Most road pedals are smooth on the bottom so that second foot may have tenuous grip on the still loose pedal. I much preferred my old Look-style Mavic pedals to my current Ritchey SPD system pedals. I may end up switching back to Look, I like the larger platform and that the pedals are rearward-balanced so that when detached they go nose-up making for easier entry. The Ritchey units I have are all about being small & light and are less comfortable and harder to enter. It is nice that the cleat is metal and a bit smaller though.

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