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Pedal Choice: Clipless Pedals?

By Mary Paterson

What Are Clipless Pedals?

Choosing pedals: clipless pedalsChoosing pedals can be overwhelming and confusing. The purpose of any pedal is to transfer power to the bike. Should I try clipless pedals and if so which type? To start with, the name “clipless” pedals makes no sense at all because we ARE clipped into the pedals. They really should have called them “clipped in” pedals. The name originates from when they replaced the old style “toe-clips” and straps. The shoe fit into a clip, and a strap was pulled tight over the shoe to keep the foot in place. This madepedaling more efficient. However, these were death traps because you had to reach down to loosen the strap to get your foot out. Not great for quick escapes.

Hence the invention of the “clipless” pedal system in the mid 1980s, in which  a clip or cleat on the bottom of the shoe attaches the shoe to the pedal. A simple kick out or in of the heel and you are out in milliseconds. Definitely a safer system.

Benefits of Clipless Pedals

  • Directly transfering more energy from the rider to the bike throughout the pedal stroke improves efficiency, especially on the up stroke when you can actively pull up or unload the weight of the opposite leg. This is most beneficial when climbing out of the saddle and accelerating.
  • Muscles work together more efficiently in a smooth circular pedal stroke
  • Improved safety and contro—you don’t have to worry about your foot slipping off the pedal
  • Your feet are always secured in the same position on the pedal
  • You can bunny hop over rocks, logs and on to curves

Risks of Clipless pedals

  • Not disengaging in time and falling over
  • Improper cleat position can lead to a knee injury

Should I Get Clipless Pedals ?

I frequently get asked the question, “Do I need clipless pedals ? “Will I be able to get in and out of them without falling over?” Being attached to a bike can be a very scary experience for many novice cyclists. So my answer is that you don’t need them for recreational riding. Clipless pedals have advantages, but for a nervous novice cyclist they can be dangerous, and add a lot of unneeded stress to a ride. You should be comfortable on your bike, paying attention to the road in front of you and enjoying the experience.

However, if your ride includes a lot of hills, or some day you become more serious about cycling, then you may want to consider giving them a try. But first you should make sure you are comfortable getting on and off your bike with just one foot touching the ground. It is a disaster waiting to happen if you invest in clipless pedals before you’re comfortable doing this.

Types of Clipless Pedals

You can choose from many different choices of clipless pedals. They can be divided in to two different categories—mountain and road bike pedals. Each pedal system comes with a specific style of shoe and cleat.

Mountain Bike Pedals

mountain bike pedalsMountain bike pedals have a small metal cleat recessed into the sole of the shoe. They were originally designed for mountain bikers who need to get on and off their bike quickly and walk on uneven terrain. They are also very practical for touring and commuting, but can be used with any type of bike, including a road bike. If you plan on doing a lot of walking off your bike, these pedals are for you.


  • Recessed cleat allows you to walk around comfortably in your shoes.
  • Shoe is more like a hiking/walking type shoe. The softer and more flexible rubber sole makes walking more comfortable.
  • Dual- or multi-sided pedal makes it easier to clip in.
  • You can still pedal across a busy intersection without being clipped in, making them safer.


  • Cleat is small, reducing the surface contact area. This can make your feet uncomfortable or numb from the localized pressure.
  • The shoes’ flexible soles can cause foot fatigue.
  • The flexible sole absorbs some of the power being delivered to the pedals.
Road Cycling  Pedals

road bike pedalsA larger plastic or metal cleat mounts onto the surface of the bottom of the shoe.

Used for road cycling and longer rides. If you are more serious about speed and efficiency, these are a good choice.


  • Larger cleat distributes the pressure over a wider area on the bottom of the foot, resulting in reduced foot pain, numbness, and fatigue.
  • Increased surface area and a stiffer-soled shoe increases power transfer.
  • Generally a lighter shoe.


  • The exposed cleat makes walking uncomfortable and precarious.
  • Most are one-sided, making it harder to clip in. You often need to look down and kick at a pedal to locate and properly position the platform to clip in.
  • The cleats get worn down from walking on them and need to be replaced regularly. There are cleat covers you can put on some cleats but they can be a pain to put on and off every time you get off your bike.


Proper cleat placement is essential. When clipless pedals were first introduced, the incidence of knee injuries skyrocketed. This was because you were literally glued to your pedals. Even though cycling is a fairly linear motion, there is a certain amount of side to side movement of the legs as you go around the pedal stroke. The hip and knee joints are not hinge joints, they are ball and socket joints. Therefore you need float, or free side to side-play within the pedals to allow the legs to go where they want to go, to follow their natural path. If the cleats are set in the wrong position and do not have enough free float, they can cause a twist though the ankle, the knee, the hip, and the back. With repeated motion, this can lead to an injury.

How much float a cyclist wants is a personal preference, but as a general rule of thumb a minimum of 6 degrees is preferred. If you have any hip or knee problems or tightness, you should have a minimum float of 9 degrees.

Stay tuned! Next month I’ll cover pedal choices and clipless tips for novice cyclists.

Mary Paterson is a physiotherapist and a certified bike fit professional. An avid road and mountain cyclist, Mary has over 19 years of sports medicine experience. Her business, Bike 2 Body, offers physiotherapy and bike fitting for cyclists.

Mary brings her medical knowledge of sports injuries and biomechanics to the diagnosis and treatment of cycling injuries and applies them to the ideal bike fit.

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3 comments to Pedal Choice: Clipless Pedals?

  • hello mary–thank you for an informative article. i disagree with the cleat covers being a hassle. like anything else, the more you use them the easier it becomes…especially when it transfers to $$$’s saved on not having to replace the cleats!! wish you lived in montana so’s we would have access to such great sports medicine knowledge.

  • Barb Hobe

    Mary – I enjoyed reading your article. I do not understand float: How do I measure this? I have SPD with mountain shoes. Many thanks! Barb

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