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A Guide To Bike Pedals

by Dragon Bicycles

A Guide to Bike Pedals 

Bicycles pedals are available in two basic styles, flat and clipless.  The major difference between flat and clipless pedals is the way your shoe interacts with the pedal. 

Flat Pedals

Flat pedals can be used with most shoes found in your closet. 

Clipless Pedals

Clipless pedals require a cycling shoe with a cleat to connect to the pedal.

Flat Pedal Details 

Flat pedals are easy to use, inexpensive, and reliable.  A flat pedal allows us to efficiently push on the 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 pedals don't have a way to secure our foot to the pedal to be able to complete the full pedal circle. This is where toe straps or "clips" come in to play.

Toe Straps

Toe Straps keep your feet in place as you pedal, and can be tightened down to secure your foot to the pedal.

Flat pedals and toe straps work great together to keep your foot secure and allow you to complete the full pedaling circle.   

Toe Strap Build

Toe straps are typically made of two parts: a cage and strap.  

The cage can be made from steel, nylon, or plastic, and is easily attached to the pedals with a few screws.   

The strap can be made of leather or nylon, and includes small tightening mechanism at the end of the strap to secure your foot.

Why Use Toes Straps?

The purpose of the toe strap 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).

Toe straps are easy to use, inexpensive, and we can wear our favorite shoes to ride. So why buy clipless pedals and special cycling shoes?

The Flip Side of Pedals

Toe straps are adjustable and tighten to the foot, but the 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, even a few millimeters, let alone a big slip, can effect the transfer of your leg power to the bike, something you'll notice as you ride.  

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 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 Flats 

Flat 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 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 Pedals

Clipless pedals came into popularity in the mid 80’s when Tour De France riders used them instead of the toe strap and flat pedal combo to achieve a more consistent pedaling motion. 

Clipless 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 pedals, regardless of brand, require a cycling shoe that has a cutout on the sole of the shoe for the cleat.

The cleat attaches your shoe to the pedal for a very strong connection, and is secured by a spring-loaded mechanism in the pedal.  When you're ready to exit the pedal, just kick out your heel, away from the bike.

Clipless Overview 

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.

Clipless Brands

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 pedals.  Typically as the weight of pedal goes down the price of the pedal goes up. In fact, that idea tends to apply to all things bicycling. 

Clipless?

The term "clipless" is misleading because the cleat actually clips or "clicks" into the pedal.  The name clipless came from the first flat pedals that had"clips"attached meant to keep the rider's foot in place (see above section on Toe Straps).  

Pedaling Dynamics

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 pedals our heel is free to move left or right as we pedal. You may notice on your next ride that on a flat road 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 maybe you heels do the exact opposite and move inwardly when you get out of the saddle: don't worry, there's a clipless pedal setup for you.

The Clipless Advantage

With clipless pedals, you control how much your heel moves by 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 the Speedplay Zero pedals, allow for a lot of heel movement, up to 15 degrees, 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 left and right, which in turn allows our knees to fall into the most comfortable and efficient riding position as we pedal along. 

Cleat Styles

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: decreases strain on your foot as you ride, and provides a platform to install your cleats. 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. 

Efficient Comfort

Road cycling shoes are great for increasing the efficiency of your pedaling and comfort while on the bike, but are literally the worst shoes for use off the bike. 

Even just a short walk in cycling shoes often makes me feel like I'm ice skating on pavement, it's doable but often more of a hassle than its worth.  I just slip off my shoes when I'm off the bike.

The MTB Pedal Option for Roadies 

But 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 

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 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 cycling shoes really are the better platform to use on a road bike over a mountain bike pedal on a road bike. Why? 

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 more comfortable and better suited for an on-road ride.

Using Clipless Pedals  

Basic use of the clipless pedal system is to 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 pedals. 

To extricate yourself from the clipless pedals, simply kick your heel out and away from the bike. 

Clipless pedals take 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.

Pedal Guide Summary 

The benefits of using clipless 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 pedals are easy to install, cheap, and we've had just as much fun using the flat pedal and toe straps as a set of clipless pedals. Sometimes we have more fun with the old fashion flats.

Forever Yours

Bicycle 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).  

Thanks for reading, best wishes for an easy winter. 

Safe riding,

Dragon Bikes

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