The Difference Between Flat and Clipless Bike Pedal Types
The difference between flat and clipless bike pedals is primarily the type of shoes you wear for each. Flat cycling pedals can be used with most shoes found in your closet, such as running shoes or tennis shoes. Clipless bike pedals, however, require a specially designed cycling shoe with a cleat to connect to the pedal.
Flat Bike Pedals
Flat pedals are easy to use, inexpensive and reliable. A flat pedal allows us to efficiently push on the bike pedals without much hassle. But pushing on the pedal is only half of the pedaling motion. We're also able to pull up on the pedal to complete the full circle pedaling motion.
On their own, flat cycling pedals can't be secured to our feet to ensure smooth pedaling. This is where a bike pedal with straps come into play.
Toe straps are used to tighten down your feet to the pedal to keep you in place as you ride your bike. Flat pedals and toe straps work great together to help you complete the full pedaling circle securely. This bike pedal with straps is typically made with two parts:
- The Toe Strap Cage: Made from steel, nylon or plastic, and easily attached to bike pedals with a few screws
- The Strap Itself: Made of leather or nylon, and includes a small tightening mechanism at the end of the strap to secure your foot
Why Use Toe Straps?
The purpose of using a bike pedal with straps is to keep the rider's foot from lifting off of the pedal on the upstroke, and limit the foot from slipping on the pedal. Toe straps allow the rider's power to be transferred to the bike to complete the full circular pedal rotation (more on pedal rotation below).
They are also easy to use, inexpensive, and allow us to wear our favorite shoes when riding. So, why buy clipless pedals and special cycling shoes? Read on to learn the answer.
The Flip Side of Flat Bike Pedals
While toe straps are adjustable and tighten to the foot, any bike pedal with straps made from leather or nylon will flex as you ride, causing your foot to move around or slip on the pedal.
Bicycling is a numbers game and every few centimeters of flex, let alone a big slip, can noticeably affect the transfer of your leg power to the bike.
Quick Note on Pedaling
We push on the pedals to make the bike move forward, but we also have the ability to pull up on the bike pedals. The circular pedaling motion or stroke has two basic motions: pushing and pulling, or power and recovery.
The pushing motion provides most of our power to move forward. If we take a look at the pedaling circle, we notice that about 50% of our forward movement comes from the power push, seen in orange.
The recovery phase, seen in blue, represents about 25% of the pedaling stroke, and the recovery/power phase, seen in green, represents about 25% of the remaining pedal stroke.
Summarizing Flat Bike Pedals
Flat cycling pedals can easily get us through the first phase of the pedal stroke, and are a fantastic option that really simplifies the idea of going for a ride. Just hop on and go.
However, flat bike pedals are not without their limitations. Even with toe straps to hold our foot on the pedal, the straps can flex and our foot can slip on the pedal, potentially disrupting our pedal motion or causing an accident.
Do we have options? Definitely. This leads us to review clipless pedals.
Clipless Bike Pedals
Clipless cycling pedals came into popularity in the mid-80s when Tour De France riders used them instead of the toe strap and flat pedal combo to achieve a more consistent pedaling motion.
Clipless bike pedals are very similar to ski binding in terms of function: a spring-loaded mechanism holds the cleat in place until the spring is released.
Cycling Shoes & Cleats
All clipless bike pedals, regardless of brand, require a cycling shoe that has a cutout on the sole of the shoe for the cleat. Cleat styles vary between brands, but the idea is generally the same: the cleat clips into the pedal's spring mechanism to create a strong connection that will keep your foot secure to the pedal until you kick out your heel.
There are four major cleat styles and brands: Look, Shimano, Time, and Speedplay. All brands are great in their own way, and readily available in your local bike shop or online.
Prices vary greatly between brands due in part to the type of materials used to build the cycling pedals. Typically, the price of the pedal goes up when the weight of the pedal goes down.
The term "clipless" is misleading because the cleat actually clips or "clicks" into the pedal. The name "clipless" came from the first flat cycling pedals that had "clips" attached to keep the rider's foot in place (see above section on Toe Straps).
When we pedal, the ball of our foot is placed over the middle part of the pedal known as the axle. This position leaves our heel out in midair.
With flat bike pedals, our heel is free to move left or right as we ride. You may notice on a flat road that your heels are pointed slightly inward or straight ahead.
Conversely, when you come to a hill or want to stand up and push on the pedals, your heels will move outward in reaction to your knees changing position. Or your heels might do the exact opposite and move inwardly when you get out of the saddle. Regardless of how you like to ride you can find a clipless pedal setup to suit your style.
The Clipless Advantage
Clipless cycling pedals allow you to control how much your heel moves based on the style of cleat you use. Heel movement on the pedals is known as float. Some cleats don't allow your heel to move at all, something that a track racer might prefer because they are looking for maximum stability as they do short fast sprints.
On the other end of the spectrum, some pedals, such as Speedplay Zero bike pedals, allow up to 15 degrees of heel movement, which is ideal for a wide variety of riders from racers to those with knee problems.
Most of us, from beginner to seasoned vet, might prefer and benefit from allowing our heels to float with some freedom toward the left and right, which allows our knees to fall into the most comfortable and efficient riding position as we pedal along.
Cycling Cleat Types
Depending on the brand, cleat float is available from 0 degrees to 15+ degrees. The difference in float is often indicated by the color of the cleat.
Let's take a quick look at Look branded cleats. Look's popular Keo model cleats are available in three colors that correspond to the amount of float for each cleat: black (0 degree float), grey (4.5 degrees float), and red (9 degrees float).
Road Cycling Shoes
The soles of road cycling shoes are usually rigid and made of plastic, nylon, or carbon. The rigid sole accomplishes two things: it decreases strain on your foot as you ride, and provides a platform to install your cleats on the road bike pedals. Cycling shoes come pre-drilled with holes in the sole of the shoe to allow the rider to attach their cleat to their shoe with a few small screws.
Road cycling shoes are great for comfort and efficiency while on a bicycle with road bike pedals, but are literally the worst shoes for use off the bike.
Even just a short walk in cycling shoes can often makes you feel like you're ice skating on pavement. It's doable, but it's more of a hassle than it's worth. So, it's best to just slip them off when you're not riding.
The MTB Pedal Option for Roadies
Maybe you don't want to take off your shoes just to step off your bike for a few moments. Some bicycle shoe brands offer rubber-soled shoes that accommodate cleats with an embedded metal plate and screw inserts set into the sole. Shoes like this with substantive grip are typically used for mountain biking.
Shimano SPD Pedals
Mountain biking shoes are infinitely easier to walk in than the typical road cycling shoe because of their thick rubber soles and tiny cleats. The cleat in the picture above is made by Shimano, and the Shimano SPD pedal and cleat system are one of the most popular pedals on the market.
Plenty of people use Shimano SPD road bike pedals and mountain biking shoes on their road bikes. The choice is yours and swapping out pedals is a matter of only a few minutes and a wrench.
Why Bother With Road Cycling Shoes?
Road shoes are lighter, which will mean less fatigue after hours of pedaling. Road shoes are also aerodynamic, and more like slippers whereas the mountain bike shoe is often like a trail runner, the perfect type of shoe for mountain biking and going off-road.
Frankly, road cycling shoes are worth the tiny hassle of learning to walk with them off the bike; you'll find road shoes are more comfortable and better suited for an on-road ride.
How to Use Clipless Bike Pedals
Clipless bike pedals take some practice, but the following steps will get you on the right track:
- Place the ball of your foot over the pedal and press down to engage the clip into the pedal until you hear a satisfying click.
- You are now "clipped in" to the bike pedals.
- To extricate yourself from these cycling pedals, simply kick your heel out and away from the bike.
Getting it right may some practice, and nearly every rider has or will experience the slow clipless pedal fall where you come to a stop, can't get your foot unclipped from the pedal, and then slowly, like an ancient tree, topple to the ground. But fret not, this will pass quickly and you'll figure out how to use your clipless pedals and wonder why you hadn't tried them sooner.
Bike Pedal Guide — Summary
The benefits of using clipless road bike pedals are huge. Not only do you maintain two constant and sturdy points of contact with your bike, but you are able to pedal much more efficiently as you attempt to complete the full circle of the pedaling motion.
That said, toe straps with flat bike pedals are easy to install, cheap and we've had just as much fun using the flat bike pedal with straps as a set of clipless pedals. Sometimes the old fashion flats are simply more fun.
Cycling pedals are very easy to swap out. In fact, everything on a bike is swappable. Bike pedals and tires are great first upgrades for your new bike (more on tires in a future post).