Clipless Pedals: Why Are They Called Clipless?

By Rachel Lee
Published on
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Have you recently been wondering why you could ever want to “clip-in” to a “clipless pedal?” It sounds absurd, right?

But before diving into where the clipless pedal got its silly name, or what a clipless pedal even is, it would be valuable to at least explore all the options, which can seem complicated and confusing.

Starting with the basics of the pedal’s anatomy may help some.

The pedal is the single most crucial aspect of the cycling experience. It connects the rider to the machine. Without the pedals, there is no energy transfer from the cyclist to the bicycle. And neither can go anywhere without them.

There are three main components to the pedal:

1. The spindle
2. The body
3. The bearings

The body mounts to the spindle, allowing for rotation along the spindle axis. The bearings simply allow this to happen with minimal friction and heat build-up.

Types

There are several different types of pedals, depending on what variety of cycling you intend to do.

Platform pedals

You may be tempted to conjure up visions of a three-year-old’s tricycle pedal when thinking about platform pedals. But they have evolved considerably, even in the last few years.

For example, the Bontrager Line Pro MTB Pedal Set offers some high-tech features for the serious cyclist:

  • Tuneable traction pins to help avoid foot slippage
  • Sealed cartridge bearings
  • 6061-T6 aluminum body

Platform pedals are commonly used by commuters, recreational cyclists, and mountain bike riders. The large, flat surface allows for more freedom and maneuverability. Also, platforms are ideal for those who wear street shoes while riding.

Pedals with toe clips

These are platform pedals that have toe clips and straps to secure the cyclist’s shoes on the pedal without slipping off. The toe clip is a thin metal or plastic attachment to the front cage of the pedal.

The toe clip is shaped like the toe of a shoe and its function is to prevent a cyclist’s shoe from slipping off the pedal during the forward pedaling motion. It usually comes with a strap made of nylon or leather that holds the foot securely in place. The main drawback of this system is that the rider has to first loosen the strap when coming to a complete stop.

Some manufacturers still make pedals with toe clips. Wellgo currently offers a platform pedal set with a combination toe clip & strap, which is designed to increase pedal stroke efficiency. However, when it comes to the mainstream, most riders prefer clipless.

What exactly are clipless pedals?

This is the confusing part. A clipless pedal is one that excludes the toe clip and strap. But this does not mean that there is no clip mechanism involved. There is, and it is an essential component of this type of system.

Clipless pedals (a.k.a clip-in or step-in pedals) require a unique cycling shoe that has a metal cleat mounted onto its sole. A special mechanism in the pedal locks together with the cleat when the rider steps firmly on the pedal. When “clipped-in,” the foot is anchored securely to the pedal, and the result is a more secure, efficient pedal stroke.

Unlocking the shoe is more straightforward than with traditional toe-clip and strap combinations. A simple twist of the foot disengages the rider from the pedal, allowing the foot to make contact with the ground during a full stop.

Back to the name

The name “clipless” simply means there is no toe clip or strap to deal with. However, since pedal makers are still selling toe clips, they will always have first dibs on the word “clip.”

Of course, this creates a problem with naming the current “clipped -in” pedal design. The only option for manufacturers is to call these high-tech pedals “clipless.”

But this trend could change very soon, despite what anyone wants to call it. For example, if you were to search “clip pedals” on Amazon, the only thing that comes up on the first page, most of the time, are clipless pedals. Retailers are determined to make things easy for their shoppers, even if the cycling world refuses to comply.

What are the best clipless pedals to buy?

Unfortunately, with so many options to choose from, purchasing the right kind of bike pedals can be just as confusing as buying your first bike. With that in mind, you can narrow down your options by knowing what type of pedal goes with specific categories of cycling.

Road racing

This is an easy one. Only the best, top-quality clipless pedals get to join up with a fine-tuned athlete. Since efficiency is everything, and every ounce of energy has to be accounted for, the pedal has to match the rest of the elite racer in performance.

An excellent first choice may be the LOOK Keo Blade Carbon CR Road Pedal. Designed to be lightweight, aerodynamic, and adjustable, this latest edition from LOOK may be what you have in mind to gain an edge over the competition.

According to the manufacturer, “Using a carbon body lightens the weight of the pedal and provides an additional gain in stiffness for improved power transfer.”

If the price tag scares you, another alternative may be the SHIMANO PD-RS500, designed for less-experienced riders. Within budget, you get a quality name with quality features:

  • Durable stainless steel body plate
  • Easy Step-In / Step Out
  • Light Spring Tension
  • Extra-wide platform
  • SM-SH11 Cleats included

Casual riding

Ease of use is the most fundamental aspect to consider when searching for a pedal designed for touring or commuting, especially if you make frequent stops at traffic lights. Being able to clip in and out quickly is essential to safety and comfort.

Something similar to the Shimano PD-ED500 Road Touring Pedal may be just what you need. The main highlights include:

  • Two-sided entry, which makes clipping in easier without the need to flip the pedal or look down at it
  • Adjustable entry and release tension settings
  • Chrome-moly spindle and sealed bearing cartridge axle
  • Includes multi-directional release cleats

Mountain biking

For off-road riding, clipless pedals can have an advantage over platforms, especially during wet, muddy conditions. They keep the foot from slipping as well as provide better transfer of power.

The highly-rated Shimano M530 SPD Bike Pedals are a good choice for mountain bikers. Key features include:

  • Dual-sided for easy entry
  • Adjustable release tension allows for individual customization based on rider preference
  • Large platform area increases the shoe-to-pedal contact area for greater feel and efficiency
  • Set includes pedals, cleats, and cleat mounting hardware; fits most shoes with SPD-style, 2-hole mounts

If you do not mind paying the extra money, the Shimano Saint SPD M820 Pedals are ideal for the aggressive downhill rider. With a combination of a thinner pedal body for lower stack height and improved obstacle clearance, and a wider contact area for enhanced stability, Shimano offers the downhill or enduro cyclist the best of all worlds.

Triathlon

Shimano’s 105 SPD-SL Carbon pedals are not the lightest at 274g, but they are sturdy. Most of the weight distribution is in the back, so they hang at just the right angle for easy entry, which is a crucial factor concerning a triathlete’s transition time.

Tips for using clipless pedals

Be sure you are ready for your first try Check to make sure your shoes, cleats, and pedals are all compatible with each other. Some components are interchangeable with each other; some are not.

Next, adjust the float tension, so it is slightly looser than the factory setting, which will make it easier to clip in for the first time. You can always tighten it up after you gain experience.

Clipping in

Find a flat, grassy area for your first attempt. You may find this tip a bit comical, but if you are going to fall, you may as well land on a soft surface! Besides, you may have more confidence knowing that if you do take a tumble, you are less likely to get hurt.

Another idea is to hold on to a wall or other stationary object. You can even use a stationary stand to practice with before you get out on the road. No matter where you decide to try out your new pedals, it is highly advisable to be away from traffic, large crowds of people, or other major distractions.

Try clipping in your non-dominant foot first so your stronger leg can hold you steady and provide for a better push-off. After you get going, try clipping into the other side.

If this is uncomfortable for you, have only one side clipped in until you start to get a feel for it. At this point, there is no need to rush the process.

Once both sides are clipped in, and you feel comfortable, try riding for a few minutes just to get used to the feel of your new pedals. It is best, at this point, to unclip before slowing down completely.

Unclipping

Never try and come to a complete stop before unclipping. It is best to unclip your dominant side first since you can use it to steady you while slowing down. Only after making a complete stop, unclip the other side.

Also, it is easier to unclip when your foot is parallel to the ground. The cleats and pedal mechanism will align better, and it will be easier to disengage your foot.

Practice, practice, practice

Use a wall or fence to mount your bike for the first couple of times. Be patient with yourself. Ride slowly and get used to your new pedals.

It is better to take it easy at first than to be nervous out on the road. Before long, you will be tearing up the roads or trails with the more experienced riders.

Best of all, you will notice the increased level of performance with your new, clipless pedals. You may even wonder why it took you so long to make the switch!

See Also:
Clipless Pedals: Why Are They Called Clipless?
10 Essential Tools To Carry On Road Bike
How To Store A Bike Outside Without Rusting It

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