Switching to clipless pedals

Clipless — or, more accurately, clip-in — pedal systems have been used by most serious cyclists since Look applied step-in ski-binding technology to bikes in 1984. Then Bernard Hinault rode it to Tour de France victory in ’85 and there was no going back.

Once you too have experienced the efficiency of having your foot fixed on the pedal throughout its cycle, you’ll be hooked. But switching can be intimidating, so our colleagues at BikeRadar asked British Cycling qualified coaches Andy and Jacqui Cook for help.

Different types of clipless pedals and shoes

Most shoes and pedals fall into two categories: road (such as Shimano SPD-SLTime and Look), which use a three-bolt system, and off-road (such as Shimano SPD, Crankbrothers and Time A-Tac), which use a two-bolt system.

There's also a four-bolt system as used by Speedplay, but this goes a slightly different route: the locking mechanism is contained in the cleat, rather than the pedal.

SPD vs. SPD-SL pedals

The big benefit of two-bolt systems like Shimano SPD, as used by mountain bikers, is that you can walk easily in the shoes because they have recessed cleats. This makes them popular with beginners, commuters and touring cyclists.

The shoes usually have some grip in the sole, but they aren't quite as stiff as a three-bolt system. They do deal with mud and muck well though.

By comparison, road shoes are much harder to walk in because the three-bolt cleats used by Shimano SPD-SL and others stick out from the bottom of the sole. You'll need to practice walking with your weight on your heels, or you'll grind away the delicate (and expensive) cleats quickly.

Oh, one final point — there's nothing stopping you from fitting MTB pedals to your road bike, if you'd prefer. It means you can use MTB shoes with recessed cleats, and many people do it.

How to use clipless pedals

You clip yourself into the pedals by sliding the front of the cleat under the catch on the pedal and pressing down hard with your heel. When you clip in you should both hear and feel the engagement.

To release your foot, twist your heel out to the side. With some practice you'll be able to do this consistently.

The best way to practice is to start by leaning against a wall, clipping in and out of the pedals until you get the hang out it. Then progress to a quiet road or better yet, a smooth, grassy area.

Beware of sudden stops if in an urban area, such as junctions, narrow streets (where traffic is reduced to a single lane) and traffic lights. You'll find that it's best to unclip your feet before you reach junctions and traffic lights.

And don't worry if you do fall off as you get used to using them. It's happened to the best of us!

8 tips for using clipless pedals

1. Try double-sided pedals first

If you’re nervous of full-on roadie pedals and you’re primarily a commuter, we’d recommend pedals that you can clip into from either side — double-sided pedals.

Pedals that you clip into on one side but have a flat platform on the other are also handy if you would like to also sometimes ride in ‘normal’ shoes.

2. Slacken off the spring tension

“Before you jump on your bike,” says Andy, “don’t forget to first slacken off each pedal’s spring tension as far as it will go, so it’s as easy as it can be to clip out when you need to.”

3. Practice unclipping while holding onto a fence

“Don’t try unclipping both feet at the same time,” says Jacqui. “And if you’re at all unsure, practice unclipping while holding onto a fence, or in a doorway or narrow hallway. Try to use a quick, clean, positive outwards swivel of your heel rather than a gradual, slow movement.”

4. Touring or MTB shoes are great for stop-start commuting

Your shoe choice will be dictated by the type of pedal you go for.

“A touring or mountain bike shoe with a knobbly sole makes a great commuting choice,” says Andy, “because you can apply pressure on the pedal without fear of your foot slipping off, no matter how the pedal happens to be aligned.”

This is particularly handy if your ride means you need to keep clipping in and out at traffic lights.

5. Don't walk too far in road shoes

If you intend to do some walking in your cycling shoes, a mountain bike/tourer-style shoe almost always has a recess along the middle of the sole for the cleat, so it won’t skid noisily on the floor.

The recess also helps guide your cleat into place.

6. Keep an eye on cleat wear, particularly if using Look

If you’re using Look-style pedals, keep an eye on cleat wear in your shoes.

“You’ll wear it so thin that a big effort such as a climb will snap it,” says Andy. “Most cleats have wear markers, and you can get cleat covers for easier walking too.”

7. Keep it clean

Don’t forget to look after your clipless system — a lack of maintenance could stop you clipping in or out smoothly and cause a fall.

Beware of getting your pedals clogged with dirt too.  

8. Check the lugs

If you’re having trouble engaging the pedal, check the lugs on your shoes aren’t getting in the way.

You may need to cut back some of the rubber around the cleat with a Stanley knife for added clearance.

Can't decide which system to use? Read this article by our BikeRadar colleagues on how to know if you're on the right pedal system.

And remember that if you've tried using clipless pedals and come to the conclusion that you don't particularly like it, that's fine too. Read this article, which presents a case for the exact opposite, i.e. riding free with flat pedals.