The single best upgrade you can make to your bike - and it seems, one of the areas of the most confusion - is a clipless pedal and shoe system. Since this is the time of year that many of us look forward to what we want to improve on for next year and begin researching new purchases, I'm going to use this entry to my blog to offer some advice and helpful hints to those who are looking to add a cliples pedal system or upgrade what you're currently using.
First - the terminology. Like a few other areas of our sport, this one uses some jargon that is a little confusing. here's a quick glossary of terms to help our discussion make a little more sense:
-Clipless: Why do we call them this and then refer to engaging our shoes and pedals as "clipping-in"? Well, before this system was introduced in the early 1980's, the popular shoe and pedal systems involved metal cages and leather straps which were attached to the pedals and came up over the shoe to hold it securely to the pedal and offer improved power-transfer. These cages and straps were called "toe-clips" Some shoes also had "cleats" screwed onto them to hold them in place further. The new system; based on a ski binding, did not use the "toe clips" to secure the shoe to the pedal, but instead relied solely (pardon the pun) on a cleat. They came to be known as "clipless" pedals.
-Cleat: A plastic or metal piece which is screwed onto the bottom of a solid-soled cycling shoe. The cleat is designed specifically to work with a certain pedal system and to attach via a certain "drilling pattern" - most likely a 2- or 3-hole pattern on the bottom of the shoe. Cleats may also determine how much - if any - "float" your pedal system provides. Cleats wear out and occasionally need to be replaced. Cleats are always provided with new pedals so as to prevent compatibility issues. Although, be careful - not all cleats/pedal systems are compatible with all shoes. Consult a bike shop if you have any questions.
-Float: A poorly aligned cleat or a pedal stroke which does not naturally follow a straight line can cause painful and harmful "loading" of the knee joint. To compensate for this - most clipless pedal systems provide an ability for the cleat to freely move or rotate (depending upon the system or cleat used) while still engaged to the pedal. Different pedal systems employ different methods of providing float - and float in different ways. Some also have adjustable amounts and types of float. If you have sensitive knees, past injuries, or do not know what is best for you, it is important to consult with a knowledgeable, helpful and friendly bike fit professional to determine which system is best for you. Not everyone knows and understands the nuances between different systems and how they may impact your bike fit and pedaling stroke. Choose carefully.
-Clipping-in/out: The act of engaging or disengaging from your pedal system
-Recessed Cleat: The type of shoe/cleat interface most commonly found on mountain bike shoes which sets the cleat within a treaded sole to easilly allow walking. This design is preferred for mountain biking because of the occasional need to dis-mount from the bike and hike or run short distances. Also favored by students for "spinning"/indoor cycling classes and by riders who frequently stop while on rides to socialize and re-fuel at rest stops - this style of shoe is supremely easier to walk in than other types of shoes and offers much better traction on tile or wood floors. These shoes do however require the use of a smaller cleat which may not be as comfortable for longer rides without shoes with very stiff soles due to their smaller "platform size". All clipless mountain bike pedal systems use cleats which can be mounted on recessed cleat shoes.
-"Look-style": The French company which popularized (but did not invent - and Time was the innovator) the clipless pedal, Look is the industry standard. This term refers to several pedal specifications: A larger, triangle-shaped cleat that connects to the shoe via a 3-bolt pattern and a pedal with single-sided engagement (as opposed to double-sided or multi-sided) with a spring-loaded retention device at the rear of the pedal which, frequently, is adjustable. Since Look is the industry standard - this is also the most prevalent pedal style - used not only by Look, but also Shimano, Campagnolo, Ritchey, Wellgo, and many nameless others for their road bike pedals.
-Stack Height: This is the term; when referring to pedals, commonly used to describe the distance from the pedal axle, or spindle, to the sole of the shoe (when discussing only pedal systems) or bottom of your foot (when discussing shoes and pedals). A lower stack height is usually best as it requires less effort to stabilize your foot on the pedal and therefore delivers power more effectively to the drivetrain (incredibly over-simplified explanation!). Different pedal systems and shoes have different stack heights. Speedplay and Time pedals are notorious for their low stack heights and supreme power transfer.
-Platform Size: This refers to the total area or "footprint" of the pedal and cleat surface. This is most important on road bike pedals as a larger platform size offers a more stable, more comfortable, more supportive surface for pedaling. A recent "hot topic" in pedals - many companies have adjusted their designs to improve actual or perceived platform size. This is why it is important to consider the size of the total platform - the cleat and the pedal - and not just one or the other as it is often hard to compare just by looking at only one component. Example: Speedplay road pedals are among the smallest in the industry - but because of the size of their large and supportive metal cleats they have nearly the largest total platform size and many find them very comfortable. Shimano SPD-SL pedals also offer a very large platform.
Now, on to the pointers. Most importantly, a good bike shop should not only patiently help you find the correct shoes and pedals for you - but then should install your pedals and cleats, make sure they are adjusted properly, and teach you how to use them. (The latter two services are, unfortunately, exceedingly rare.) It is common for riders to tell new clipless pedal users all kinds of discouraging things about falling, crashing, and being embarassed. It is my feeling that the probability of these kind of occurances can be greatly reduced if not eliminated if the above steps are followed. In fifteen years of riding clipless pedals, on and off road, my pedals have never caused me to crash or fall, because I was properly instructed on their use first. Oh, I've crashed, fallen, and been embarassed - but only because I was doing something stupid! :) So, the advice here is: when you're ready to take the next step or upgrade your pedals - bring your bike so we can help you. Additionally, many pedal systems have different stack heights and require an adjustment to seat height and orientation. It's hard to make that adjustment if we don't have your bike!
Choosing shoes is the first thing you should do. The shoes are what will determine the comfort and performance of your system. Shoes also dictate what pedal systems are open to you because mountain bike shoes and recessed cleat shoes will not work with most road pedal systems, but some road shoes will work with mountain bike pedals. However, don't choose a shoe because it works with the pedal system you want to use - this is backward thought. If you wore your pedals on your feet, it would be correct. But, you don't - and a pair of shoes which is not proper for your riding habits or is uncomfortable is much more unpleasant than discovering that you'll need to use a different pedal system than you had originally thought.
The most important quality of shoes is comfort. Shoes should fit liberally and not bind or crowd any part of your foot - especially the toes. Shoes that are too tight will cut off circulation and create problems with numbness or hot-spots and pressure-points in your foot. Also, tight shoes do not allow for using heavier socks for winter riding. A shoe should allow you to easily wiggle your toes and have a slightly roomy fit; similar to running shoes. When trying on shoes, bring or wear socks that are similar to what your wear when you ride as this will make it easier to determine correct fit.
The stiffness of the sole of the shoe is an often overlooked comfort-quality. A stiffer sole is much more comfortable on long rides as it doesn't flex with every pedal stroke creating hot-spots or pressure-points. Carbon fiber soles or shoes with carbon "stiffening plates" are generally the stiffest. However, a stiff sole like the ones found on many "racing" shoes is not as easy to walk in - so keep that in mind when shopping if you want a shoe that walks easilly.
Now, this gets more complicated and you're bound to have some questions or concerns that I can't neccesarily address here due to space and attention span constraints (mine, not yours...). So, if you aren't certain what you need after reading, be sure to consult with a professional at a bike shop or leave a comment.
For beginners, the most important thing is ease of use. This is one area where many of us get ourselves into trouble and create problems by listening to our ego and getting the pedals we want rather than the ones we need. It's tempting to use the same system as our favorite pro or respected local expert - but they may not be right for us individually. Some pedal systems are really better left to experienced riders - however; just because you're new to clipless pedals doesn't mean you can't have high-performance pedals. Pedals that are universally easier to learn on have the following features: double- or multi-sided entry and widely adjustable or "light" entry and release tension. Speedplay Light Action and Frog, Shimano SPD M series, Time ATAC, and Crank Brothers pedals offer these features throughout their line and are high-quality, high-performance pedals which are not likely to require an upgrade as you progress as a rider. Look Keo, Time road (iClic and RXS), Shimano SPD-SL, and Ritchey Prologue pedals are examples of great single-sided pedals that may - depending on the model - posess some of the other features mentioned above.
Other factors to consider are the amount of float the pedal provides, the total platform size, the stack height, and the serviceability of the pedal's bearings and body. These are important as they will determine how well the pedals match your objectives and how long you can expect to use them. Most of all - be doubly certain your shoes will accept your choice of pedals. It's a serious bummer to discover that there's a compatibility issue and you'll have to return one or the other (or worse that you can't return one or the other). Again, seek the advice of a professional to avoid such a frustrating experience.
Other things to consider...It is also important for the professional helping you with your choice of shoes and pedals to know whether you have a history of knee problems or other conditions that may limit flexibility or range of motion. While it is important for everyone to have their cleats installed and aligned properly, the wrong pedal system and/or an incorrectly installed cleat can exacerbate existing knee trouble or create new problems. Also, bike fit is almost guaranteed to change when you adopt a new pedal system. A qualified professional will make certain your fit is adjusted properly to your new pedals. Different shops offer different services to insure that you are set up correctly on your pedals and a helpful, qualified professional will offer the tools and services at his disposal to make sure you have the best experience possible with your new pedals. This service is often referred to as a "cleat fitting" and should include not only positioning of the cleats on the shoes, but dynamic assessment of your riding position as it relates to your pedals and cleats.
As always, if you have any questions or need other help, don't hesitate to leave a comment.
Thanks for reading.