A comprehensive guide to clipless pedals and cleats

man in red tank top riding cycling on black road bike during daytime

Ditching the traditional pedals for clipless ones could be a stride towards a more efficient cycling experience. The term “clipless” might sound a tad contradictory, especially when the mechanism involves clipping into the pedals. This guide aims to demystify clipless pedals and cleats, shedding light on why they could be a worthy investment for your cycling adventures.

Stepping into Clipless Pedals: What Are They?

Clipless pedals are a type of pedal that affixes to your shoes, courtesy of a clever mechanism that locks into a cleat attached to the shoe’s sole. It’s a snug connection between your feet and the pedals, allowing for smoother pedalling dynamics.

The technology emerged during the 1980s to serve the racing cyclist community, aiming to replace the conventional toe clips. Despite the absence of an actual “clip”, the terminology ‘clipless’ has stuck around, creating a bit of a misnomer but becoming a standard term in the cycling world.

SPD pedal
SPD pedal

The Mechanism: How Do They Work?

Transitioning to clipless pedals involves a slight learning curve but is relatively straightforward. Push your shoe downwards and slightly forward onto the pedal, and voila, the cleat clicks onto it. To disengage, a simple twist or pull of your foot, depending on the pedal type, and you are unclipped.

Most cyclists acclimate to the clip-in, clip-out mechanism within a few hours or days. The initial apprehension is comparable to using a clutch pedal in a car; it soon morphs into second nature. A bit of practice against a wall or on a turbo trainer can speed up the familiarisation process.

Starting Off: Tips for Newbies

Embarking on the clipless journey can be less daunting with some practical tips. Engage in a few practice sessions of clipping in and out before hitting the roads. When you feel comfortable, perhaps venture out on soft grass to minimise the impact of any potential tumbles.

The UK traffic scenario suggests unclipping the left foot first as you halt, to avoid tumbling into traffic should you slip. Once your left foot is grounded, proceed to unclip the right foot. Practising this routine slowly will help cement the action, making it a breeze over time.

Look Keo Pedal
Look Keo Pedal

Investment: What’s the Damage?

Transitioning to clipless will require a small investment. Basic pedal sets hover around the £30 mark, while fundamental cycling shoes start at about £60. Splurging a bit more can fetch features like Gore-Tex lining for dry feet or stiffer soles for enhanced power transfer. Normally, a set of cleats will be included in the set of pedals that you buy as well.

Make sure that the cycling shoes you buy are able to fit your cleats. Not every shoe has holes for the 3 points of the SPD-SL/Keo cleats for instance. This is especially the case for a shoe with a recessed part for an SPD cleat.

Finding Your Fit: Which Type Suits You?

The choice between different pedal and shoe types hinges on your cycling penchant – be it commuting, racing, mountain biking, or touring. For instance, mountain bikers might find double-sided Shimano SPDs a solid choice due to the recessed cleats allowing comfortable walking. They’re certainly the choice when it comes to cyclocross as their mechanism is less affected by things like mud and the double-sided nature helps to get underway as quickly as possible after obstacles.

Recessed cleats are generally more beginner-friendly, providing a snugger fit and easier unclipping. They’re particularly favoured by touring cyclists as the cycling shoe doubles up as a regular walking shoe too. There are now quite a few fashionable options like the Adidas Velosambas that feature recessed SPD cleats. On the flip side, non-recessed cleats like SPD-SL and Keo are more common among road cyclists, and offer better pedal connection and power transfer. Albeit at the cost of walking comfort, particularly on cafe stop floors, and a steeper learning curve due to the one-sided interface.

Setting Up: Perfecting the Cleat Position

The cleat position on your shoes can markedly affect your comfort and pedalling efficiency. A neutral position, with the cleat beneath the ball of your foot, is a good starting point. Minor adjustments post a few short rides can help find the most comfortable position for your feet.

Bear in mind, that the cleat position might vary slightly between your feet. Personally I tilt my right foot cleat inwards a touch to off-set a weaker MCL from a previous knee dislocation. It’s a blend of trial and error, backed by short test rides to fine-tune the position. The effort invested in getting the setup right can pay dividends in the form of a comfortable and efficient ride.

A variety of cycling cleats, including Shimano SPD-SL, Shimano SPD and Look Keo cleats

The Verdict: Is the Switch Worth It?

For the casual city cyclist or the leisurely family trail rider, the clipless system might not present a game-changer. However, if your cycling jaunts involve more prolonged rides, hill climbs or a daily commute, transitioning to clipless pedals could unveil a realm of improved comfort, pedalling style, and efficiency.

Yes, it involves an investment of both time and money. Yes, there’s a learning curve. But once over that hump, many find the clipless system a transformative addition to their cycling experience, often wondering how they pedalled without it in the first place.

Subscribe to receive posts from ProCyclingUK.com