When I got my recumbent, the tech who prepped it for me mentioned clipless pedals as a defense against “leg suck.” Google that term for the grisly details, but do it on an empty stomach.
Briefly, it’s when you’re riding along and your foot slips off the pedal, falls down, hits the pavement and your entire lower leg is folded up and dragged beneath you, towards the back of the bike. Later, I discovered that to be an overrated danger. But I was new to recumbent riding, so I got a pair of clipless pedals.
When I first started riding with them, I found it weird and unsettling having my feet attached to my bike via what are essentially modified ski bindings. Check that, I found it almost unnerving, and embarrassing, the first time I came to a stop, forgot to un-clip, and fell over.
However, as with all things, as I have continued to use them I have become more comfortable and less apprehensive. I can’t say I never experience an elevated heartbeat when I slow down and have to calculate whether an upcoming traffic situation demands an un-clipping. I can say that, for me, the advantages of clipless pedals outweigh those rare nervous moments.
The key benefit of clipless pedals is that you can pull up on one pedal while pushing down on the other, allowing you to put much more “mettle to the pedal” for speed and energy savings. There is some debate about whether bicyclists actually pull up on the pedal as they ride along at their normal cadence, but there isn’t any doubt in my mind that the ability to apply power to both pedals really helps in those instances when you need to speed up really quickly.
This is also an important advantage when climbing hills. The additional power means you can sometimes delay, or eliminate entirely, having to bail off your bike and walk it up the hill.
Since your feet are fixed, they do not slip around on the pedals, like they will do sometimes when you’re riding in inclement weather and the pedals get covered with ice and snow or water and mud. And on rough roads, your feet won’t bounce off the pedals and cause your legs to flail around like a slapstick comedy routine.
Clipless pedals come in two general system types: “walkable” and “road.” I like walkable systems because they recess the cleat up inside the sole of the shoe, so you can hop off your bike and walk around in them, sort of. Road systems mount the cleat on the very bottom of the shoe sole, so walking in them is like walking with a bunch of beer bottle caps stapled to the sole in the area of your forefoot.
Since I wanted to be able to hop on the bike for a short ride without having to go through the trouble of changing into bike shoes, another criteria I had for a clipless pedal was that it could be used with regular shoes. This means the pedal needs to have the clipless mechanism on one side, and a regular platform on the other. Without that arrangement, the tiny pedal — and the clipless mechanism atop it — will dig into the sole of your shoe for exquisite discomfort. Shimano Multipurpose SPDs are the only clipless which have this platform/mechanism option. I have both models: the PD-A530 SPDs and the PD-M324 SPDs.
Although you can get your pedals on-line, I recommend you do visit your favorite bike shop to acquire them. Not only will they have advice on which brand of pedals to buy, but the bike shop techs will usually mount the pedals on your bike, and adjust them for you, for little or no extra charge. This is important, because an improperly adjusted set of pedals can either un-clip unexpectedly or be difficult to release at all.
If you decide to purchase, install and adjust your SPD pedals yourself, I’ve got some tips for you:
- Read the instructions carefully, all the way through, before you start.
- There are two types of SPD shoe cleats: single- and multi-directional release. Singles only un-clip when you rotate your heel directly outward more than about six degrees, multi-directionals release when you rotate your heel more than six degrees in almost any direction. Some cyclists who mash their pedals pretty hard claim that multi-directional pedals may pop out if you pull up too hard. Since I don’t ride like a racer with my multi-directionals, I don’t seem to have that problem. I suggest that newbies try multi-directionals first, and then move to singles if they have problems.
- When you’re removing the left pedal to replace it with your new clipless, remember that it is reverse threaded; if you try to remove it by turning it counterclockwise, like a regular bolt, you’ll only succeed in tightening it down further.
- Begin the pedal adjustment by backing off the tension bolt to the lightest setting, if your shoe begins to pop out of the pedal when you’re not pulling up very hard, then cinch it down to a little higher tension.
- If you’re all by yourself when you’re adjusting the pedal tension, put your bike in a doorway so you can keep yourself vertical with your hands while you’re testing your clipping-in and un-clipping.
If you’re on a budget with regard to bicycling accessories, the price of going clipless may be a real show-stopper. A decent pair of quality SPD pedals and shoes is going to set you back about $200 US. Some folks may not be able to justify the gain in performance with the cost.
My only big problem with bike shoes is that “walkable” doesn’t necessarily mean “walk friendly.” Walkable typically means when you dismount and walk, you won’t be sliding, slipping and clacking around on the floor as if you have a set of deformed ice skates bolted to the bottom of your shoes. I don’t think the shoes are meant to be used for strolling around the shopping mall, they’re usually much too snug to be comfortable for very long.
As a matter of fact, I think some SPD-compatible bike shoes are nothing more than road clipless shoes modified to work with SPD cleats; the soles are far too narrow to be adequate walking shoes.
I have a minor beef with the design of bike shoes: they usually look like they’re part of a costume collection for a cheap science fiction movie. Even if I could walk around in them, they are so ugly… if I had any fashion sense it would be offended!
That being said, I’m testing a pair of SPD compatible shoes from an outfit called DZR which seem to be quite good for extended walking. And they look like a pair of normal shoes! I’ll be back with a full report in a little bit.
BluesCat is a resident of Phoenix, Arizona, who originally returned to bicycling in 2002 in order to help his son get the Boy Scout Cycling merit badge. His bikes sat idle until the summer of 2008 when gas prices spiked at over $4.00 per gallon. Since then, he has become active cycling, day-touring, commuting by bike, blogging (azbluescat.blogspot.com) and giving grief to the forum editors in the on-line cycling community.