Essential Guide to Clipless Bike Pedals: How To Use Clipless Pedals, and Why You Need Them

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reviewed by Rory McAllister
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As a professional cyclist, I’ve logged countless miles on the bike and experimented with all the equipment combinations under the sun in the search for the perfect setup.

One thing that’s remained a constant on my bike, however, is clipless bike pedals.

If you’re looking to take your cycling game to the next level, clipless pedals are a very worthwhile investment. 

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll not only discuss the benefits (and some drawbacks) of clipless pedals, but we’ll also teach you the basics of how to ride with clipless pedals to show it’s not as intimidating as it might seem.

We’ll be covering:

  • What Are Clipless Bike Pedals?
  • 5 Reasons Why You Should Use Clipless Bike Pedals
  • Road Bike Clipless Pedals Vs Mountain Bike Clipless Pedals
  • Learn From A Pro: How To Use Clipless Bike Pedals in 6 Steps
  • The Importance of “Float” in Clipless Pedals
  • Key Clipless Bike Pedal Brands 

Let’s dive in!

Clipless Bike Pedals Guide: Title Image

What Are Clipless Bike Pedals? 

Before diving into the intricacies of clipless pedals, let’s clarify the apparent paradox in their name.

Clipless pedals are, in fact, pedals with clips.

The “clipless” term arises from the absence of the old-school toe clips and straps that were historically used to secure your feet to the pedals.

Instead, clipless pedals use a cleat system that attaches to your cycling shoes, creating a secure connection between your feet and the pedals.

Cinelli developed the first commercial clipless pedal in 1970 with the M71 model, but they weren’t popularised until 1984 when LOOK released their clipless bike pedal (based on ski bindings, which the company already manufactured).

A road cyclist on a white road bike climbs a steep hill using clipless bike pedals.

5 Reasons Why You Should Use Clipless Bike Pedals

#1. Efficiency and Power Transfer

Clipless pedals allow you to apply force throughout the pedal stroke, maximizing your power output. With traditional flat pedals, power is lost during the upstroke.

Furthermore, the secure connection reduces foot movement on the pedal, eliminating an inefficiency in power transfer from foot to pedal.

#2. Improved Pedaling Technique

Using clipless pedals encourages a more controlled and efficient pedaling technique.

You’ll develop a smoother, circular pedal stroke that reduces strain on your knees and improves overall riding comfort. 

#3. Enhanced Control

For mountain bikers, the secure connection between your feet and the clipless pedals provides better control over your bike, especially when navigating tricky terrain.

Clipless bike pedals on a Time road bike.

#4. Safety and Confidence

While it may seem counterintuitive, clipless pedals can enhance safety.

By firmly attaching your feet to the pedals, you’re less likely to slip off during challenging situations, providing increased confidence when riding. 

#5. Faster Speeds

On road bikes, clipless pedals enable you to achieve higher speeds, thanks to the efficiency increases and slight improvement in aerodynamics.

You’re very unlikely to see a serious road cyclist going without clipless bike pedals.

Road Bike Clipless Pedals Vs Mountain Bike Clipless Pedals

Two types of clipless pedals are primarily designed for specific cycling disciplines.

Within these types, various brands offer unique designs and features to cater to the diverse needs of cyclists. 

Road Bike Clipless Pedals

Road bike SPD-SL pedals against a white background.

#1. Single-sided clipless pedals

These pedals are the most common for road cyclists and have a cleat on one side, meaning you can only clip into them when they’re the right way up.

Ideal for road cycling, they offer excellent power transfer and efficiency. Brands like Shimano, LOOK, and Time produce popular single-sided road pedals. 

#2. Double-sided clipless pedals

These pedals have cleats on both sides, allowing you to clip in quickly regardless of the pedal’s orientation. They can be a little more user-friendly but are often slightly heavier than single-sided options.

Brands such as Shimano and Wahoo Speedplay offer reliable double-sided road pedals. 

Mountain Bike Clipless Pedals

Close-up of Shimano SPD-SL pedals on a grey background.

#1. SPD (Shimano Pedaling Dynamics)

Commonly used in mountain biking, SPD pedals are known for their durability and ease of use.

They have a two-bolt cleat system that provides ample support and control, especially when navigating technical terrain. Brands like Shimano, Crankbrothers, and Ritchey offer SPD-compatible mountain bike pedals.

It’s perfectly acceptable to use SPD pedals for the road too, but the added weight and reduction in stiffness compared to road bike cleat systems (such as Shimano’s SPD-SL) mean they’re not ideal for high-performance road cycling.

#2. Crankbrothers

Offering a distinct four-sided entry, Crankbrothers pedals are favored by many mountain bikers. They provide excellent mud-shedding capabilities, a valuable feature for off-road adventures. 

#3. Platform and hybrid pedals

For riders who want the option to ride with or without cleats, some brands like Shimano and HT Components offer hybrid pedals that feature a flat platform on one side and clipless functionality on the other.

These are popular among trail riders and enduro enthusiasts who have to clip in and out regularly.

A road cyclist rides a purple Cannondale bike at speed.

Learn From A Pro: How To Use Clipless Bike Pedals in 6 Steps

Making the transition from traditional flat pedals to clipless pedals might seem daunting, but with a bit of practice, it becomes second nature.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to get you started: 

#1. Choose the Right Shoes and Cleats

Select cycling shoes compatible with your chosen pedal system (road or mountain bike).

Attach the appropriate cleats to the soles of your cycling shoes as per the manufacturer’s instructions. 

#2. Adjust Your Pedal Tension

Clipless pedals usually have an adjustable tension system, which impacts how easy or hard it is to clip in and clip out.

Start with low tension for easier entry and exit, gradually increasing it as you gain confidence until you reach a happy medium between a secure connection and the ability to quickly and safely unclip in a pinch.

A cyclist practices using clipless bike pedals.

#3. Practice Off the Bike

Before hitting the road or trail, practice clipping in and out while stationary, such as on an indoor trainer. This helps build muscle memory and confidence. 

*Pro Tip*

Getting into the habit of clipping in and out with the same foot first is easy. However, it’s important to be comfortable clipping in and out with either foot first, especially in the case of an emergency stop. 

#4. Find a Safe Area

Start your first clipless rides in a safe, low-pressure environment, such as a parking lot, empty trail, or grass field, to get used to the pedals. 

#5. Clip In and Out

To clip in, align the cleat with the pedal and apply downward pressure. You’ll hear a satisfying click when you’re securely attached. 

To clip out, twist your heel outward. Practice this motion until it becomes instinctual.

*Pro Tip

It’s easy to get overwhelmed if you miss clipping in. If this happens, it’s important to remember to maintain speed and pedal a few times with the cleats unclipped before trying again.

A cyclist pauses having unclipped from their pedals.

#6. Unclip Before You Stop

The biggest fear of every cyclist switching to clipless pedals for the first time is that they’ll come to a stop at a traffic light, struggle to get the pedals unclipped quickly enough, and topple over sideways.

The best way to avoid this is to unclip before coming to a standstill.

Aside from emergency stops, you’re likely to have a short period of coasting and then gradual braking before coming to a complete stop. Use this time to unclip one pedal, so you don’t have a mad scramble in the final moment before coming to a halt and flopping over.

#7. Master the Speedy Unclip

In emergency situations or sudden stops, however, you must be able to release from the pedals swiftly. Practice this skill to ensure your safety, and eventually it will become second nature.

A cyclist with white cycling shoes on demonstrates "float" in clipless bike pedals.

The Importance of “Float” in Clipless Pedals

“Float” – sometimes referred to as “free float” or “float adjustment” – is a critical concept when it comes to clipless bike pedals.

Float is the degree to which your foot can pivot side-to-side on the pedal while clipped into it.

Float is measured in degrees and is crucial to achieving a comfortable and efficient pedal stroke. The higher the degree of float, the more lateral movement offered by the pedal. 

The advantages of float are two-fold:

  1. Knee Comfort: Having some float allows your knees to move naturally as you pedal, reducing the risk of strain and discomfort. This is particularly important for riders who have knee issues or are prone to knee pain.
  2. Reduced Hotspots: Float helps distribute pressure across your foot, reducing the likelihood of developing hotspots or pressure points during long rides. This enhances overall comfort and minimizes the risk of numbness or discomfort.

Different pedal brands offer varying degrees of float adjustment, allowing you to customize your setup to suit your riding style and body mechanics.

Be sure to check the float options available with the pedals you choose, and consider experimenting to find the optimal float setting that works for you.

A pair of white road bike shoes and cleats on a grey table.

Key Clipless Bike Pedal Brands 

Now, let’s delve deeper into some of the prominent pedal brands and their offerings in both the road and mountain bike categories: 

Road Bike Clipless Pedal Brands

  • Shimano: A stalwart in the cycling industry, Shimano offers a wide range of road pedals, including the SPD-SL series, known for its stability and efficient power transfer. Shimano also provides various float options to accommodate different preferences. 
  • LOOK: LOOK is synonymous with road cycling pedals, offering models like the LOOK Keo series. They are renowned for their lightweight design and large contact surface area for enhanced stability.
  • Time: Time pedals are known for their distinctive lateral float, which allows your feet to move side to side slightly. This can reduce knee strain and hotspots. The Time Xpresso series is popular among road cyclists. 

Mountain Bike Pedal Brands

  • Shimano (MTB): Shimano’s SPD pedals are the gold standard in mountain biking. They offer various options, including the popular SPD M520 and the high-end XTR models, catering to cross-country, trail, and downhill riders. 
  • Crankbrothers: Crankbrothers is known for its Eggbeater and Candy series, which provide excellent mud-shedding capabilities and customizable float adjustments. These pedals are beloved by mountain bikers for their durability and unique design. 
  • Ritchey (MTB): Ritchey offers reliable mountain bike pedals like the WCS XC and WCS Trail models. They are known for their robust construction and ease of maintenance, making them a favorite among riders who venture into challenging terrain.
Clipless mountain bike pedals shown close up.

Now you know all about clipless bike pedals…

Clipless bike pedals are a game-changer for cyclists seeking to elevate their riding experience.

While the learning curve may be steep initially, their efficiency, control, and safety benefits make them an indispensable tool for road and mountain biking. 

So, if you’re ready to take your cycling journey to new heights, consider investing in a quality pair of clipless pedals and embrace the world of secure and efficient pedaling. 

Remember, practice and patience are key when you’re first learning how to ride with them! 

With the vast array of pedal brands and models available, you have the opportunity to fine-tune your cycling experience to your liking.

Whether you’re a road cycling enthusiast chasing speed or a mountain biker navigating challenging terrain, there is a clipless pedal that is perfectly suited to your needs. 

So, go ahead and clip in for a smoother, more efficient, and more enjoyable ride!

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Jessy is a Canadian professional cyclist racing for UCI Continental Team Pro-Noctis - 200 Degrees Coffee - Hargreaves Contracting. She was a latecomer to biking, taking up the sport following her Bachelor of Kinesiology with Nutrition. However, her early promise saw her rapidly ascend the Canadian cycling ranks, before being lured across to the big leagues in Europe. Jessy is currently based in the Spanish town of Girona, a renowned training hotspot for professional cyclists.

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