Getting Started: Road Bike Pedals

When I was younger the only bike pedals available were the flat or platform pedals. Riding a bike was simple, get on and start pedaling. You come to a stop, you step off the pedal and stand on the ground. I did this for decades. Until my first ride on clipless pedals. I came to a stop, I tried to slide my right foot off of the pedal like always. But my foot wouldn’t move. In that motionless moment, I thought to myself that this is going to hurt.Luckily I plopped over in the grass next to the road.Falling over with your feet stuck in your new clipless pedals happens to everyone within the first few rides. It’s a rite of passage.

Clipless pedals
Clipless pedals are a big upgrade for a cyclist over platform pedals. They allow you to pull up on the pedal as well as push down. These pedals effectively double your efficiency. You can engage your hamstrings, glutes, hip flexors and lower back muscles as well as your quadriceps.I found myself going 2 miles per hour faster the week I first put on my Speedplay pedals. Also, I can pedal with just my hamstrings which will give my quads a short rest.
The term “clipless” pedals is confusing since you have to clip into and out of these types of pedals. Prior to the mid-1980’s cyclists used toe clips or toe cages as an early attempt at increasing pedal efficiency. You secure your shoes into the toe clips with leather straps and you may not be able to get them out in the event of a crash, making them more dangerous than clipless.
In 1984, the first successful clipless pedals by Look appeared based on the downhill ski binding concept. The cyclist clips in toe first then steps on the pedal to complete the clip in. To release your foot you simply turn the heel of your foot and at a preset angle the pedal will release. Or in the event of a crash, or some other situation, your shoe can break free. I’ve been able to rip my shoe off of my pedal when I had to suddenly stop, without turning my foot to properly clip out. The dominant clipless pedal manufacturer, Shimano introduced its first clipless pedal in 1988, based on the Look design. Time, a French pedal manufacturer, introduced the first clipless pedal with float the same year. Float allows your foot to move side to side slightly so that your leg is not locked in one position potentially hurting your knees. Pedal technology has largely remained the same with improvements with weight and durability over the years. Speedplay has produced an innovative design uses a double sided pedal that allow the rider to clip in on either side of the pedal. I have been riding with Speedplay pedals for over 10 years and I love the fact that I can clip in on either side of the pedal, so I barely have to look at my pedal as I get going again.

Advantages of Clipless Pedals
With platform pedals, you can really only engage your quadricep muscles pushing down on the pedals from the one o'clock position to six o'clock. By connecting your feet to the pedals, you can push and pull on the pedals throughout the turn of the pedal. I think of it as turning circles with my feet rather than just pushing down on the pedals. You will use other muscles, including your hamstrings, gluteus maximus, hip flexors and lower back muscles. By using other large muscle groups, my quads are not as tired after long rides, even century rides.
Using clipless pedals you can  push the pedal over the top of the circle using your quads, by extending your legs in a kicking motion. On the downstroke, you push the pedal, again using your quads. Then near the bottom, at 5 o’clock you can pull back on the pedal, using a motion like scraping mud off of the bottom of your shoe. Then from 7 o’clock to about 11 o’clock you use a combination of your hamstrings, hip flexors, and abs to pull up on the pedal. Since your other leg is doing the opposite the efforts support each other, making turning the cranks easier.

3 Things to Look For While Shopping For Clipless Pedals

When go look for a pair of clipless pedals, there are 3 things to consider, float, compatibility and maintenance of the pedals. Float is the amount of freedom that your foot has while connected to the pedal. You can pivot your heel at a set amount of degrees before you clip out of the pedal. The float prevents your foot and leg being locked in only one position which could be bad for your knees. Each manufacturer has a different set angle of float and many pedals can have the float adjusted. Compatibility with your bike shoes can be an issue. Shimano and it Shimano Pedaling Dynamics, or the SPD system, introduced in 1990, dominates pedal systems, therefore most bike shoes are designed to be “SPD compatible”  with three bolt holes in the sole to accommodate the SPD cleat. Other pedal systems may or may not need adapters to attach the cleat to the shoe. For example, SpeedPlay has a three-hole adapter plate to attach to the shoe and the cleat attaches to the adapter plate with 4 more pedals. Most people want to perform as little maintenance as possible. Speedplay pedals require more maintenance than other pedals. The spindles need to be lubricated every 200 miles or so. (You don't need the special tool to lube Speedplay pedals, by the way, a baby medicine syringe will do just fine). Other pedals require annual maintenance.

Top 5 Road Bike Pedals

Pedal System
Float, degrees
Weight, g
70 / 118 each with 3 hole adapter
100 each
Free Float

Road clipless pedal cleats, unlike mountain bike cleats, are not recessed into the soles of the shoe. When walking around you will clop around like a shod horse. The cleats along with the smooth soles of your road shoes can be slippery, especially on wet hard surfaces. And walking around will wear down the cleats and sand and dirt can clog up the cleats.