Beginner and Pro Tips for Using Clipless Bike Pedals
Cyclists rely on very few bike components as frequently as their pedals and cleats. Without thinking, they pedal thousands of rotations every ride, clicking their cleats in and out of the pedals time and again as they go.
Although modern “clipless” pedals have made seamless, smooth pedaling easier than ever, few cyclists give much heed to these crucial components. That lack of thought can lead to awkward and even dangerous mishaps on the road. A missed click-out here or a slow, awkward start there can cost you time or even land you flat on the pavement.
That’s why longtime cycling coach Darryl MacKenzie has a litany of tips for riders — both new and experienced. With a few best practices for choosing and using your pedals and cleats, you can ensure plenty of safe, smooth rides ahead.
Why You Should Think About Your Clipless Pedals
The truth is, you should start thinking about your cleats and pedals as soon as you get serious about riding. Different brands of cycling pedals come with distinct features, as well as definite pros and cons, and these will impact how you ride. Unfortunately, few riders consider these important features in advance.
“Many cyclists do little or no research on pedals,” says Coach Darryl. “They ask what to get at the bike store, and it’s done.”
In fact, that was his experience when he began cycling. He started out with Look pedals and hardly gave any thought to it for years. Then, in 1993, he won a pair of SpeedPlay pedals and gave them a try. He soon found them to be a perfect fit for his riding style and preferences, and he hasn’t looked back in 30 years.
Having made the switch, Darryl now marvels at how little thought cyclists give to this part of their ride. Modern clipless pedals, which allow you to click your cleats in and out quickly without a toe strap, offer plenty of advantages, but they’re not entirely natural to work with at first.
So, before you start working on the nuances of pedaling, be sure you understand the differences between pedal types and select the one that makes sense for you. We’ve covered this at length in our article, “The Pros and Cons of Different Bike Cleats and Pedals.”
Basic Pedal Tips for Every Beginner
Once you’ve sorted out the right pedals for you, you have to get used to using them on a ride. And here, Darryl doesn’t recommend winging it. Before you start pedaling, consider a few important beginner’s tips:
- The basics are the same. Despite the differences in pedals, the basics for clicking in and out are the same across the different brands, and you can’t tell the difference while you’re pedaling. In general, though, SpeedPlay and Shimano SPD varieties are better for faster click-ins.
- Practice makes perfect. Clicking in from a full stop is a little awkward at first. Resist the urge to look at your feet, and just start pedaling. As the pedal comes around, you can catch the pedal at the top and click in. Repeat this process until it becomes second nature.
- Think strategically when starting on a hill. When you’re starting from a stop on an uphill incline, it’s much easier to use momentum from pedaling than to try to push off from the ground. Start with your clicked-in pedal at the top and pedal from there, clicking your other shoe in as the other pedal comes around the top. If it’s an especially steep hill, you can pedal several rotations with only one foot attached to build momentum before clicking in with your second foot.
- Rotate out to get out. You click out of all pedals in the same way — rotate your heel away from the bike, not toward it. If you rotate inward, you risk catching your heel on the spokes.
- Click out early. If a stop is imminent, don’t wait until the last second to click out one of your shoes. Click out early so you’re ready to stop and put one foot down when needed. You can keep your unclicked foot loosely on the pedal in case you need to click in again.
Pro Pedaling Tips for a Safer, Smoother Ride
If you’ve mastered those pedaling best practices, you’re ready to learn some more advanced techniques to ensure a smooth ride. Here are a few extra pro pedaling tips from Coach Darryl.
How To Avoid Getting Stuck
Although it’s fairly easy to click out of your pedals, many cyclists make a crucial mistake that can make it much more difficult. If you try to click out while you’re at the top of your pedal stroke, you’re much more likely to get stuck because you can’t twist your leg far enough away from the bike.
Instead, always click out at the bottom of your stroke. With your leg fully extended, you’ll have a greater range of motion, allowing you to detach your cleat with ease.
How To Avoid Falling Over
To truly master the art of pedaling with clipless pedals, you have to learn how to stop smoothly. Many cyclists struggle to get this right and risk unclicking with one foot and falling over on the other side. One rider Darryl knew actually fell over three times on one ride in this way — and he quickly gave up on cycling.
Here’s the trick: You just need to turn the handlebars away from the foot you’re going to rest on the ground. So, if you unclick your right foot to set it down, turn the handlebars little to the left as you come to a stop. This will send your body’s weight toward the foot you’re setting down so you don’t end up falling in the opposite direction.
How To Avoid Foot Pain
There’s a lot to like about Shimano SPD pedals — especially how quickly they allow you to click in and get going. If you’re riding a lot of long rides, though, you may want to consider a change. The softer, more flexible soles of the Shimano shoes aren’t as good at distributing the pressure from the pedals across your whole foot, so you can easily get hot spots and pain where your foot touches the cleat.
Once you’re consistently riding more than two or three hours a time, Darryl recommends switching to a stiffer shoe and cleat combo. For extended road rides, you want a sole that won’t move more than an eighth of an inch if you try to bend it.
How To Get More Pedaling Power
This is really a pro bike fitting tip, and it will pay big dividends if you want to ride faster and climb better.
Here’s why: When your feet aren’t lined up directly under your knees when you pedal, you’re losing power with each stroke. Whether your feet are too far out or in, you’re not going to be able to pedal with quite as much strength. Think of it like a piston in an engine — you want everything at right angles to maximize efficiency.
To fix this issue, you simply need to adjust the alignment of your cleats on the soles of your cycling shoes. Loosen the bolts and adjust the cleats so your feet fit naturally under your knees when pedaling. (Hint: If your feet are too far in, you need to move the cleats toward the insides of the shoes so your foot will rest farther out on the pedal.)
Don’t Ignore Your Pedals
As you can see, there’s a lot to consider when it comes to cycling with clipless pedals. This critical piece of cycling gear shouldn’t be an afterthought. With a little foresight and planning, you can ensure you pedal with comfort and power and never risk an awkward landing when you come to a stop.
Want to learn even more about cycling shoes? We explore all the critical components and when they need replacing in this post.
For more insights from Coach Darryl, visit his website.
Photo by Pavel Danilyuk on Pexels