Welcome to the Keeping the Rubber Side Down Skills Corner, where making mistakes is encouraged and the ability to laugh at yourself is required. Since this is a beginner-friendly column, we are going to start with one of the most basic road (and sometimes mountain) skills that many cyclists might not even think of as a skill anymore. If you are ridiculously intelligent and/or you read the title of this post, you will of course know I’m talking about…
Using clipless pedals, or “clipping in” is a technique that becomes second nature for experienced riders but can be a huge challenge for those new to the sport. I can tell you from personal experience that most of this challenge is all in your head. Although a little tricky at first, the actual motions required to snap in and out of your pedals are simple and straightforward. It is just a matter of practicing, thinking ahead, and becoming comfortable with the sensation of being connected to your bicycle.
Read on for some reasons why you should “clip-in,” if you don’t already, and some pointers for first time clipless pedal users.
Why Should You Use Clipless Pedals?
- Efficiency. Clipping in allows you to pedal in a smoother, more efficient circular motion rather than the up and down motion of a platform pedal. This enables the rider to increase his or her cadence (the rate at which you turn your pedals) and use a lower gear which in turn reduces wear and tear on your body.
- Power. Using clipless pedals allows your legs to work together instead of against each other. As you push down on the pedal with your left foot, you no longer need to expend energy to maintain contact with the right pedal as it comes up. Clipless pedals also allow you to engage more muscle groups throughout the entire pedal stroke and distribute the workload.
- Float. Clipless pedals have varying levels of engineered float, something that is not possible with a platform pedal. Float allows your cleat to move within the pedal to relieve stress on your joints and reduce fatigue.
- Safety. Pedals with toe clips can be rather dangerous. If the strap holding your foot in place is tightened enough to be useful, you will have to reach down and undo the buckle every time you want to stop. Clipless pedals allow you to get out of your pedal with a simple twist of the foot.
Now that you are sold on the benefits of riding with clipless pedals, be sure to check out the wide selection of road and mountain clipless pedals available at Art’s Cyclery. Cleats are included with every set of pedals.
Tips for Clipping in for the First Time
Before You Ride
- Learn. Figure out how to operate the engagement mechanism on your chosen brand of pedal. For most pedals you slide the nose of the cleat in first and then press down with your heel to clip in. To release, keep your foot flat and rotate your heel away from the bike. Check out our video on installing clipless pedal cleats and more in the Art’s Cyclery learning center.
- Release some tension. Many pedals have adjustable tension built in. Set your pedal release tension as loose as possible while you are learning. You can always increase it later when you become a professional sprinter. Some great pedals for beginners with low tension are the Look Keo Easy and the Look Keo Flex.
- Practice. Practice in the following ways to gain confidence clipping in and out of your pedals.
- Put on your cycling shoes and straddle your bike with both feet on the ground. Practice clipping in and out multiple times with one foot while keeping the other foot firmly planted. You can practice on a rug, in a grassy field or another soft surface to keep from sliding around.
- Use a stationary cycling trainer to get the feeling of having both feet clipped in at the same time.
- Try leaning against a counter to maintain balance and clip in and out with each foot multiple times.
- Push to start. Stand over the bike and clip one foot in. I like to clip my more dominant right foot in first because I am more comfortable using it for the initial push forward.
- Make it easy. Make sure you are in a medium gear so you can gain some momentum from that initial push without spinning out or making it too hard to pedal. Try the big ring in the front and one or two down from your biggest cog in the rear.
- It’s all about momentum. With your left (or less dominant foot) on the ground and your right foot (or more dominant foot) clipped in, rotate your clipped in pedal to the 12:00 position and push forward. Make sure to get enough speed to maintain balance while you clip your other foot in. Most “zero-speed falls” are caused by losing this momentum while you are still futzing with clipping in your other foot. You may try practicing on a slight decline to make maintaining speed easier.
- It still works. Remember that if necessary you can still pedal with the foot that is not clipped in to keep momentum and give yourself time to get into the pedal. You can also back pedal and then push forward again with that dominant foot to maintain some speed.
- Do a flip. Finally, if you use pedals with one sided entry, the pedal may rotate in a way that makes it hard to clip in. Practice flipping the pedal over with your toe to set it up for re-entry. Eventually you’ll be able to do it without even looking!
- Don’t forget to unclip. The single biggest problem for first time users of clipless pedals is that they forget to unclip! Just be conscious of your situation, use a little forethought and you’ll be fine. No more road flat pedals, you’re in the big leagues now.
- Choose a foot. Before you start riding, think about which foot you want to unclip when coming to a stop. It is most likely going to be that second foot that you clipped in when mounting the bike initially, so the left foot for me. You should never need to unclip both feet unless you’re done riding.
- Unclip. By this point you should already be well versed on how your pedals work and the motion required to unclip. For most pedals, keep you foot flat and twist the heel outwards. Try not to panic and jerk upwards.
- Unclip early. While you’re still learning, make sure to unclip earlier than you think is necessary and coast to a stop. You can slowly shorten the gap between unclipping and the actual stopping point as you grow more comfortable.
- No tip toes. Don’t try to remain seated in the saddle while straining to put the toe of your foot down. As you come to a stop, stand up on the clipped in pedal and lift your butt off the saddle. Doing so will lower your center of gravity and drastically improve your balance.
- Lean the right way. Remember to always lean your body towards the foot that you unclip. A helpful trick is to turn the bars away from the side you want to lean. The bike will lean in the opposite direction of where it is pointed. For example, if I unclip my left foot then I will come to a complete stop and steer the handlebars slightly to the right while leaning left to put my foot down.
- Put your foot down. Now you can finally place your free foot squarely on the ground before waiting patiently to start the whole process again.