How to use clipless pedals

Don't be scared of making the switch to a more efficient pedal system

Clipless — or, more accurately, clip-in — pedal systems have been used by most serious cyclists since Look applied step-in ski-binding technology to bikes in 1984. Then Bernard Hinault rode it to Tour de France victory in ’85 and there was no going back.

Once you too have experienced the efficiency of having your foot fixed on the pedal throughout its cycle, you’ll be hooked. But switching can be intimidating, so we asked British Cycling qualified coaches Andy Cook and his wife Jacqui for help.

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Different types of clipless pedals and shoes

Switching to clip-in road pedals can be daunting but it'll pay off in the long-run
Switching to clip-in road pedals can be daunting but it'll pay off in the long-run

Most shoes and pedals fall into two categories: road (such as Shimano SPD-SL, Time and Look), which use a three-bolt system, and off-road (such as Shimano SPD, Crankbrothers and Time A-Tac), which use a two-bolt system.

There's also a four-bolt system as used by Speedplay, but this goes a slightly different route: the locking mechanism is contained in the cleat, rather than the pedal.

Mountain bike cleat systems like Shimano's XT pedals require two-bolt SPD cleats
Mountain bike cleat systems like Shimano's XT pedals require two-bolt SPD cleats

It's important to note that three-bolt systems aren't necessarily compatible with each other, and neither are the two-bolt systems.

For example, you can't use Look cleats with Shimano pedals, so check for compatibility before you buy.

Neither are three-bolt systems like Shimano SPD-SL road pedals compatible with two-bolt Shimano SPD shoes, even though they're made by the same company.

SPD vs. SPD-SL pedals

You need to make sure your cleats are compatible with your shoes
You need to make sure your cleats are compatible with your shoes

The big benefit of two-bolt systems like Shimano SPD as used by mountain bikers is that you can walk easily in the shoes, as they have recessed cleats. This makes them popular with beginners, commuters and touring cyclists.

The shoes usually have some grip in the sole, but they aren't quite as stiff as a three-bolt system. They do deal with mud and muck well though.

By comparison, road shoes are much harder to walk in as the three-bolt cleats used by Shimano SPD-SL and others stick out from the bottom of the sole. You'll need to practice walking with your weight on your heels, or you'll grind away the delicate (and expensive) cleats quickly.

Oh, one final point — there's nothing stopping you from fitting MTB pedals to your road bike, if you'd prefer. It means you can use MTB shoes with recessed cleats, and many people do it.

Cleat setup: road pedals

A good bike shop can help you fix the cleats to your shoes. If you do it yourself, start by positioning the cleat underneath the ball of your foot, and make sure it's on straight.

After you have both cleats on, hop on your bike and lean against a wall or a doorway where you can’t fall over, and pedal backwards for a few minutes. At this point you can adjust the fore/aft of the cleats and even your saddle height to get comfortable.

A piece of paper can help you dial in the angle of your cleats perfectly
A piece of paper can help you dial in the angle of your cleats perfectly

If you need to change the angle — if your feet naturally point inwards or outwards and you can feel some discomfort — sit on the edge of a table with your legs dangling off the side, your shoes resting on a rectangular piece of paper, with the edge perpendicular to the table.

Draw around your shoes, then place the cleats on the outlines so they’re still square to the table edge. The angle between the centre line of your shoes and the edge of the paper (centre line of cleat) is your cleat angle.

Cleat setup: mountain bike pedals

Try to keep both cleats and pedals clean and free from grime
Try to keep both cleats and pedals clean and free from grime

With mountain bike cleats, you can position the cleat in three directions: fore and aft in relation to the axle, as well as the angle in relation to your shoe.

Tighten down the bolts just enough to keep them firmly in place. Try not to let them dig into the sole of the shoe, because the indentations left will make fine-tuning harder — carbon soles are more resistant. Don’t use any grease just yet.

With your shoes back on, balance yourself against a wall and clip in. Your legs should hang naturally down, without any noticeable stress on your joints.

Check how much float there is to either side — the amount of lateral movement before the cleat disengages — to ensure it’s even. If there’s any discomfort, adjust the cleat until everything feels good.

If you’re fitting cleats to a new set of shoes, you’ll need to spend some time finding the optimal place in which to position them.

With your riding shoes on, but without any cleats fitted, sit on your bike and hang your right foot down in a natural pedalling position. Mark a spot on the sole of the shoe to show where the cleat sits in the fore and aft relation to the axle.

Roughly speaking, the cleat should sit under the ball of the foot.

How to use clipless pedals

Practice clipping in by holding onto a door frame or furniture first
Practice clipping in by holding onto a door frame or furniture first

You clip yourself into the pedals by sliding the front of the cleat under the catch on the pedal and pressing down hard with your heel. When you clip in you should both hear and feel the engagement.

To release your foot, twist your heel out to the side. With some practice you'll be able to do this consistently.

The best way to practice is to start by leaning against a wall, clipping in and out of the pedals until you get the hang out it. Then progress to a quiet road or better yet, a smooth, grassy area.

Beware of sudden stops if in an urban area, such as junctions, narrow streets (where traffic is reduced to a single lane) and traffic lights. You'll find that it's best to unclip your feet before you reach junctions and traffic lights.

And don't worry if you do fall off as you get used to using them. It's happened to the best of us!

8 tips for using clipless pedals

1. Try double-sided pedals first

If you’re nervous of full-on roadie pedals and you’re primarily a commuter, we’d recommend pedals that you can clip into from either side — double-sided pedals.

Pedals that you clip into on one side but have a flat platform on the other are also handy if you would like to also sometimes ride in ‘normal’ shoes.

2. Slacken off the spring tension

“Before you jump on your bike,” says Andy, “don’t forget to first slacken off each pedal’s spring tension as far as it will go, so it’s as easy as it can be to clip out when you need to.”

3. Practice unclipping while holding onto a fence

“Don’t try unclipping both feet at the same time,” says Jacqui. “And if you’re at all unsure, practice unclipping while holding onto a fence, or in a doorway or narrow hallway. Try to use a quick, clean, positive outwards swivel of your heel rather than a gradual, slow movement.”

4. Touring or MTB shoes are great for stop-start commuting

Your shoe choice will be dictated by the type of pedal you go for.

“A touring or mountain bike shoe with a knobbly sole makes a great commuting choice,” says Andy, “because you can apply pressure on the pedal without fear of your foot slipping off, no matter how the pedal happens to be aligned.”

This is particularly handy if your ride means you need to keep clipping in and out at traffic lights.

5. Don't walk too far in road shoes

If you intend to do much walking in your cycling shoes, a mountain bike/tourer-style shoe almost always has a recess along the middle of the sole for the cleat, so it won’t skid noisily on the floor.

The recess also helps guide your cleat into place.

6. Keep an eye on cleat wear, particularly if using Look

If you’re using Look-style pedals, keep an eye on cleat wear in your shoes.

“You’ll wear it so thin that a big effort such as a climb will snap it,” says Andy. “Most cleats have wear markers, and you can get cleat covers for easier walking too.”

7. Keep it clean

Don’t forget to look after your clipless system — a lack of maintenance could stop you clipping in or out smoothly and cause a fall.

Beware of getting your pedals clogged with dirt too.  

8. Check the lugs

If you’re having trouble engaging the pedal, check the lugs on your shoes aren’t getting in the way.

You may need to cut back some of the rubber around the cleat with a Stanley knife for added clearance.

This article was originally published in Cycling Plus magazine, available on Apple Newsstand and Zinio.

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