Take the Plunge this Summer: Go Clipless
Remember when it was a time for great adventures and trying new things and re-inventing yourself a bit? It still can be! This year, try upgrading to clipless pedals for a whole new (and better) ride that can take you further than you thought possible.
LINGO + GEAR
Let’s just get this confusing bit out of the way right off the bat.
Cleat: The metal part of the shoe that attaches to the pedal.
Bike shoe: Typically this is a shoe that has a mount for cleats, but you need to make sure before you make your purchase. There are a few models of shoes out there called bike shoes because they grip onto a pedal nicely or have other features that make them a good option for biking. If you want to ride clipless, you need a bike shoe that has a cleat mount plate.
Clipless pedal: This refers to the type of pedal that a cleated shoe attaches to.
Clip in: Ride with clipless pedals. “But they’re called clipless….” I know. It’s confusing. Clipless simply means having a shoe attached to the pedal, but not using toe clips, also known as cages.
Clipless pedals are the best option for longer rides. They give you a huge advantage by optimizing the entire circle of your pedal stroke (as opposed to just pushing down). By spreading the work between muscle groups, your legs are less tired and much more efficient. In other words, you can ride longer, faster and easier with them – pretty great for a small change.
You’ll need to buy a pair of special shoes, a set of cleats and the pedals. Your local bike shop can help you decide which options are best for your riding style. Luckily for you, there are many options in brands and shoe types. You can even buy a sandal to rock that summer feeling.
You can choose a pedal that is for riding only with cleats or one that has a flat side for street shoes. These flip flop pedals are a perfect option for people who both ride the distance and like to ride in style. You don’t have to switch out your pedals based on what you’re wearing or what type of riding you’re doing. A quick run to the corner store is no big deal.
DIFFERENT PEDALS – DIFFERENT STROKES
I recommend starting with a mountain-style pedal. This is double sided so it’s easier to get into and the cleat is recessed in the sole of your shoe. This means you can walk normally (unlike the road style which are meant mostly for only being on the bike) and you can run errands or pop into the gas station, piece of cake. As an initial investment they also tend to be a little less expensive than the road style.
Once you’re experienced with riding clipless, or if your main motivation is to only go the distance or race, you may want to choose a different pedal system. Talk with your local shop about the options to find what’s right for your needs.
BUT WON’T I HAVE TO WEAR UGLY SHOES?
Not necessarily. It depends on what type of clipping in you want to do and which system you use, but there are a growing number of stylish shoe options that fit cleats.
For men, DZR makes a very attractive shoe. Women can wear them too, but they’re sized for men’s feet, which tend to be wider and larger. Shimano makes a few options. Masculine shoes definitely dominate the casual bike shoe department, check out this Guide to Stylish Clipless Shoes.
BUT WON’T I FALL?
Yes, you will. But maybe only once.
Many, many people avoid clipless because they think it will be too hard to free their foot. Be not afraid. You release like a ski binding — a small, easy twist of your foot and you’re free.
If you’re pretty nervous about this venture, choose a multi-directional (vs. omni-directional) cleat. These allow you to release your foot by tilting your ankle to the side or twisting your foot. Having additional release directions means you’re less likely to get your foot stuck in a panic – nearly any way you move your foot will release the shoe.
Ask the shop to install your cleats on your shoes and your pedals on your bike. Ensure they adjust the pedal tension to the loosest setting. Hop on one of their stationary bike trainers so you can practice clipping in and out in until you’re comfortable trying it on the road. You can also practice while holding onto a sign post, telephone pole, playground equipment, etc.
The lowest tension setting can be so loose that a big bump will knock your shoe out of the pedal. As you become more comfortable being clipped in, you can adjust the tension for a snugger fit.
Major disclaimer: Most people fall while learning – almost always at a sudden stop putting the foot down in a panic. Practicing in a stationary trainer first will help prevent this, but it still sometimes happens.
Ask your friends or folks at the bike shop who already ride clipless about their one fall. Everyone has a story. Mine was on Germantown Road with a line of cars building up behind me, so I decided to pull over to let them by. I was tired, forgot I was clipped in and… promptly tipped over from the shoulder into the road. Luckily, the cars were already slowed behind me when I signaled my exit. Now drivers were stopped completely (so much for trying to help the flow of traffic) and hanging out their windows to see if I was okay. Because I didn’t reach my arm out to catch my fall (never do this — it’s how you break your arm or wrist) I rolled cleanly and lightly onto my thigh and shoulder and was only slightly bruised. However, I turned about sixty shades of red as I tried to wave traffic on from the ground.
TAKE A DEEP BREATH, DIVE IN
Moral of the story: falling usually only happens once and rarely do you have much injury beyond a bruised ego.
Luckily for me when I fell, no one knew me or cared to remember, so it quickly became a brief moment in the past. My summer of clipless pedals was a summer of new accomplishments on my bike. Since then, my clipless pedals have helped me go new places I never thought I could – forests, mountaintops, bike tours and beyond. They were the little change that made the biggest difference in my relationship to my bike.
So take a deep breath and dive in. You won’t regret it!
Tori Bortman is a bike mechanic, educator, consultant and the owner of Gracie’s Wrench.