Cycling basics: Clipless pedalsIncrease your speed and efficiency by swapping your pedals

Clipless pedals. It's a contradiction isn't it? In a sense, clipless pedals are anything but clipless, since the feet of the rider using them is quite literally directly connected or "clipped in" on the bike.

That might sound dangerous but the reality is that clipless pedals allow a rider to have a more efficient pedal stroke and allow for improved power transfer compared to the old clip and strap-style pedals.

One of the most cost effective and best ways for a cyclist to improve performance is to upgrade to a clipless system, that meaning pedals, cleats and stiff-soled cycling shoes.

Whose big idea was it anyway?

French ski binding manufacturer Look developed the first clipless pedals in the early 1980s. The design is simple -- a spring-loaded platform grips a cleat mounted to the bottom of a cycling shoe.

To "get in," the cyclist navigates the ball of the foot (where a cleat is mounted to the bottom of the shoe) and applies pressure until the spring loaded jaw of the pedal engages and holds the foot in place. When the cyclist rotates the foot outward, the clamp mechanism frees the cleat and the foot disengages.

It takes time and practice but the engage/disengage operation becomes second nature after a while.

Perfect circles

The direct connection to the pedal and proximity of the foot to the pedal axel of a clipless system enables a cyclist to pedal in a more round pattern -- applying power on both the down and upstroke of the pedaling motion.

Over time the cyclist becomes more efficient and flat or "dead" spots in the pedal stroke are eliminated. Once the cyclist masters the art of the pedal stroke and movement efficiency, power application is improved and the cyclist can go faster, longer with less effort.

It's gotta be the shoes

Using a clipless pedal system requires that a cyclist use specially designed cycling shoes (on- or off-road specific) with a drilled sole plate onto which cleats are mounted. Deciding which type of shoe to employ is use-specific.

A road shoe has a smooth bottom to permit attachment of a larger platform cleat which makes walking difficult off the bike. An off-road or mountain bike style shoe has a lugged sole. Cycling shoe prices vary wildly. A basic mesh and synthetic leather model may cost around $75. A super light custom leather and carbon fiber job can run in excess of $800. Really, it all depends on what the cyclist intends to use the shoes for and the depth of her pockets.

Evolution of the clipless species

The introduction of clipless pedal systems by Look and Shimano sparked a tremendous amount of development by other companies. Enter the complicated market of pedal and shoe shopping.

While it goes without saying that you frequently "get what you pay for," there are pedals and shoes out there that are better suited to a particular rider's style, application or specific biomechanical issues.

Road pedal systems

Look: The one that started it all. Look road pedals utilize a large triangular hard plastic cleat that interfaces with a spring loaded rear clamping mechanism. In the past Look pedals were notorious for being heavy, albeit simple in design, and ease of entry. Newer models employ composite body parts, titanium spindles and adjustable float and q-factor mechanisms. Look pedals are simple to maintain and the bearings last forever.

Speedplay: Triathletes rave about these super light lollipop shaped power platforms for the road. They are indeed light and offer a tremendous amount of lateral float. Float is a good thing for those with biomechanical problems with knees, hips or ankles but the float is a detriment to efficiency.

Lateral float encourages superfluous movement at the foot which translates directly to wasted energy during the pedal stroke. The cleat is a large rectangular platform made of a combination of steel and hardened plastic which allows for simple in and out.

There are several models to choose from and price is directly related to materials used for the pedal spindle including cromoly, stainless steel or titanium. The cyclist should also check shoe compatibility before purchasing Speedplays, though an adaptor is usually available to fix any problems. Maintaining the pedals can also be time consuming since Speedplays use a complex bearing and grease port system.

Time: Time has recently redesigned its road pedals, using more carbon and titanium to lighten the load. The cleat is a large triangular plastic piece that is difficult to walk on but easy to engage and disengage. Float is adjustable and the pedal is simple to maintain. Models vary in price depending on axle material -- steel, titanium or magnesium.

Shimano Dura-Ace and Ultegra: The boss himself was instrumental in the redesign of Shimano road pedals. With Lance's input, Shimano developed the triangular cleat and super light Dura-Ace model that is similar in function to Looks road pedal. The Ultegra pedal is a step down and slightly more weighty, but just as road worthy at a lesser cost. Simple in and out, simple maintenance, no funky colors.

Some lesser-known pedal systems that are also worth exploring include Coombe, Keywin, Ritchey, Crank Brothers Quattro and the m2.

Reprinted, courtesy of Windy City Sports Magazine. For more articles and information for Windy City Sports, please visit

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