Drive My Bike


Understanding Clipless Pedals – Two Common Systems

It seems like a lot of people are searching for information on clipless pedals these days, so I thought I’d write a bit more about what I’ve learned recently. For this post, I’m going to explain two of the most common clipless systems available: “Look” and “SPD”.

Clipless Cleat Comparison (Look and SPD)

When I started shopping for clipless pedals I really had no idea what I wanted or needed, I just knew that I wanted some shoes that I could use both on my bike and on the spinning machines at our gym. I have learned a lot since then, and I settled on Shimano’s SPD system for my Trek mountain bike, which I use for commuting. At the same time I’m also watching over my friend Jake’s sweet road bike while he’s in Africa for a year, and his bike and shoes are based on the Look system, so I’ve also had a little experience with that lately.

Let’s talk about these two common clipless systems, Look (primarily for road bikes), and Shimano SPD (originally for mountain bikes, but now also found on road bikes).

In the picture above the Look system is on the left, and the SPD system is on the right. You can see that one of the biggest differences is that the Look cleat is much larger, probably three times the size of the SPD cleat.

Here’s what the Look pedal looks like:

LookPedal

Here’s a close up of the Look cleat and Look pedal next to each other:

LookCleatPedal

And here’s a side view of the Look system when it is clipped in:

LookClippedSide

Both of these systems operate almost the same when it comes to clipping in and out of the pedals. You begin to engage the pedal by hooking the front (toe side) of the cleat in the front of the pedal, and then you press down with your heel to make the cleat “clip in” to the pedal. To remove your shoe from the pedal, you push your heel to the side, rotating your entire foot away from the bike, which causes the pedal clamp to disengage from the cleat and “unclip”.

Here’s what the SPD pedal looks like:

SpdPedal

You’ll notice that this pedal looks similar to a non-clipless pedal. That is because it has a standard pedal on the other side, which allows you to use regular shoes as well. I chose this because I wasn’t sure how committed I was to riding clipless all the time, and I figured that in bad weather I would still be wearing my Neos overshoes and would need a regular pedal. I have to say that I like my clipless system so much that I’m not sure I would buy these double sided pedals again if I had it to do over. The “clip only” pedals are smaller, lighter, and double sided, so you don’t have to fumble around getting the clip right side up when clipping in. Of course clip only pedals would mean that I’d have to find some serious cold weather overshoes to fit over my clipless shoes, and those get expensive. The weather is pretty nice for now, so I’m figuring that I’ll cross that bridge later when the weather gets nasty.

Here’s a close up of the SPD cleat and SPD pedal next to each other:

SpdCleatPedal

And here’s a side view of the SPD system when it is clipped in:

SpdClippedSide

Again, unclipping the SPD system is done in the same manner as the Look system, by rotating your heel sideways, away from the bike.

So which system is better?

Unfortunately I can’t answer that for you, but the kind of bike you’re riding can help narrow your decision.

If you are primarily riding a road bike, then you might choose to use either system, although you’re probably more likely to come across a road bike with a Look system.

If you are primarily riding a mountain bike, then you’re probably going to choose Shimano’s SPD system. There are other mountain bike systems out there, but from what I’ve seen SPD is the most common.

If you find yourself riding both road and mountain bikes, and you’d like to have a system that can be used with both, then you probably want to go with the SPD system. That way you can buy a single pair of shoes, and use them with all your bikes.

There are other clipless systems out there, but I’ve focused on two of the most common systems. When I go to the spinning class at my gym the machines have double sided pedals, with Look clips on one side, and SPD clips on the other. While that works in the gym, a pedal like that would be too large and heavy, so it wouldn’t be very practical on a real bicycle.

Shimano makes a system for road bikes they call SPD-SL, and it is very similar to a Look system. Crank Brothers make their unique “Eggbeater” system (named for the way the pedals look) which is primarily aimed at mountain bikes. There are numerous other clipless systems available, but you’ll have to do your own research to decide what’s best for you.

When you purchase a clipless system, you’ll buy at least two things:

1) The pedals, which usually come with a set of matching cleats

2) The shoes, which will have a drilled panel on the sole designed to accommodate a certain kind of cleats. Some shoes can accommodate multiple types of cleats. Be sure they’ll work with the pedals you choose.

One of the best things to do would probably be to go to your local bike shop and spend some time with one of the knowledgeable staff members discussing your needs, and seeing what they recommend. I bought my pedals at REI, and the folks there were very helpful.

This post described the different systems, so next time I’m going to get into more detail about the different pedals and shoes that are available.

As I’m sure you can tell, I really like riding clipless now. I rode with normal shoes the other day, and it felt just plain weird, and I really missed the added power from clipping in. I’m sold on clipless pedals, and if you’re thinking about making the switch I hope this information will be helpful.

UPDATE: You can read more about clipless shoes in the next post here. You can read about installing cleats on your shoes here.

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Getting Started With Clipless Pedals
April 13, 2009, 1:37 pm
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I used to wear normal running shoes for all of my rides, and I thought that clipless pedals were overkill. Recently however, between taking a spinning class, and the recommendation of a friend, I decided to give them a try. Wow, what a difference!

TrekAtOffice

I started out on my biking adventure pretty casually. In fact, I wasn’t even sure this whole biking thing would “stick”. I figured maybe it was just a phase. Obviously, if you read this blog, you know that it wasn’t just a phase, and that biking has become a regular part of my life that I really enjoy.

Part of my casual start of biking was just wearing normal shoes to ride. My Schwinn Midtown that I picked up at Costco just had normal pedals. In fact, I’m not even sure I knew what clipless pedals were. I had seen the old school pedals with straps on them, and had heard that serious bikers wore special shoes, but I had no idea how they worked. Although, as I started to learn more about modern bicycles it wasn’t long before I started encountering this strange concept called clipless pedals.

Now, for those of you that don’t know much about clipless pedals, let me say that I really think the name is confusing. I think it comes from the old school pedals with cages and straps on them that were referred to as clips, but now we have modern “clipless” pedals that you “clip into”. Yeah, go figure. I guess “clipmore pedals” really doesn’t work… but it seems like it would make more sense. 🙂

Anyway, regardless of what you think of their name, I have now become a believer in a clipless pedal system. It all started when I decided to try taking a spinning class at a local fitness center. I immediately noticed that the bikes has clipless pedals, and that most of the “regulars” in the class wore biking shoes and clipped in during their workout. I guess the peer pressure kind of got to me and I started thinking about getting some biking shoes for the class. Around this same time I talked with a friend who has been bike commuting for a number of years, and when he found out that I wore normal shoes to bike, he strongly recommended that I give clipless pedals and shoes a try.

At this point, I was convinced, but then I began to price a clipless system and quickly realized it wasn’t going to be a cheap endeavor. I also figured it was a pretty big investment if I ended up not liking them. About this same time I got my annual dividend back from REI, as well as a 20% discount coupon. REI also had some pedals on sale, so I decided to go for it.

I went to my local REI, and they had a decent selection of shoes to try on, as well as some very knowledgeable and helpful salespeople. After trying on several different styles of shoes I decided on the Pearl Izumi X-Alp Seek shoe.

One of the things that was kind of overwhelming about clipless systems is that there are many different kinds of cleats to choose from. I didn’t really know anything about the different systems, but it seemed like I had seen Shimano SPD cleats mentioned a lot. The folks at REI confirmed that most spinning cycles had SPD pedals, and that SPD was a very common system. So when it came to pedals, I decided on the Shimano M324 Combo pedal which had SPD cleats on one side and a normal pedal surface on the other. Since they are double sided I can still ride them with normal shoes if needed. Here’s a picture of the shoes with the cleats installed, and the combo pedal.

CliplessShoesPedal

The next step in the journey was getting used to riding while clipped into the pedals. I had heard a few horror stories about people not being able to get unclipped when they stopped so they fell over. Several people even went so far as saying that “you will fall over, it is just a matter of when and how many times”. The friend who had recommended going clipless encouraged me to go ride around a field for a while and practice clipping in and out a whole bunch.

Well, I was so anxious to try my new shoes and pedals that I completely ignored that advice and decided to just try them on my Monday morning commute. I started out slowly, using the non-clip side of the pedals until I got up to speed, and then clipping in. Every time I had to stop I clipped out early, and made sure I was ready to stop. That first day was great, and I figured I had this thing all figured out. Well, it didn’t take long before I was humbled. After a couple of days I decided to run over to the grocery store to pick up a couple of things, so it was a casual trip, and I wasn’t riding very seriously. I got to a big intersection that really requires me to cross in the crosswalks like a pedestrian. When I pulled onto the sidewalk to push the “walk” button for the stoplight I got off balance and couldn’t unclip in time. I fell over “in slow motion” on the sidewalk! It was Saturday afternoon, so the intersection was full of cars, and I was embarrassed. My ego was the only thing that was bruised though, so I popped back up quickly, trying to smile and laugh at myself so that everyone knew I was okay. The funny thing is, I didn’t see anyone watching me, and I’m not even sure anyone noticed.

So, after all that, what’s the big deal about a clipless pedal system? I have to say that I didn’t “get it” until I tried them, but the difference is amazing. One of the best ways I can think of to explain the difference is that it is like you mechanically “become one” with your bike. Your feet and legs become extensions of the crank arms, and just like the push rods on a real engine, you can apply power through the entire circle of your stroke. I immediately noticed that I felt a lot stronger and more efficient. It was much easier to stay in a faster gear, especially when climbing. I also noticed that all of the muscles in my legs were getting a workout, not just my quads. In fact, initially this was uncomfortable, and I’ve been a bit sore, but I think this is much better overall because my legs are getting a more balanced workout.

If you’ve never thought about it, I would encourage you to give clipless pedals a try.

UPDATE: I wrote another post with more detail about clipless pedal systems here.