Saturday, 25 June 2011

10 Tips - Clipless Pedals for Beginners

You've researched your new bike, your kit, helmet, glasses and are ready to look like the new Bradley Wiggins.  Happy as larry, you buy it, then someone mentions pedals to you and opens up a whole new world of research pain.

As a new road cyclist, the idea of clipping your feet to the pedals - at first - sounds a little alien.  Visions of falling off at junctions scare most people, but this is mostly a myth.  It sometimes does happen, of course, but is an exception more than the rule.

So, this blog is intended to short cut you to your options for clip pedals.  Basically, there are two popular pedal brands that most places stock.  Look and Shimano.  There are other pedal brands like Speedplay and Time, however for a beginner I suggest you stick with Look Keo and Shimano SPD as your first choice of pedal.

Look Keo Pedal - around £39.00

Shimano PD-R540 SPD Pedal - around £35.00

There are three elements to the pedal system.  The shoes, the cleat (the thing that attaches to the shoes) and the pedal (which the cleat clips in to).  Nearly all shoes are compatible with Look or Shimano pedals, check before you buy though.  If you look underneath the shoe on the sole, you'll see a series of holes, which are the mounting points for the cleats onto the shoes.

Look Keo Cleat

Shimano SPD Recessed Cleat 
Shimano Exposed Cleat
There isn't a huge difference between the two pedal systems in terms of the output they will give you as a beginner, it's more about the idea of being "clipped in" to give you greater power transfer, up to 30% more by being able to pull up on the pedals as well as push down.

Cleats are consumables, that is, they require replacing from time to time.  Although I'm a Look user myself, one observation I have is that the cleats wear quite quickly, particularly if you walk on them (at the cafe stop) and at £15 a pop to replace, they're not cheap.

Shimano recessed cleats have a reputation for lasting longer, however they are a bit more fiddly to clip in as a new rider.  The advantage is that you can walk on them without appearing like an ice skater when off the bike, shoes tend to be more like walking shoes than road cycling shoes, so they're good for hybrid bikes or the commute to work.
Typical Road Cycling Shoe

Getting going with cleats is all about building confidence.  In two years, I've never fallen off my bike due to not unclipping in time.  I've seen others do it, but they tended to be new riders out for the first time.  It's all about practice!

Here's some tips for you

  1. Buy a cleat with "float".  What this means is that the shoe can move a few degrees in the pedal, it won't feel as tight and the unclipping process is easier.  Buy Look "Grey" cleats, rather than red for your first pedals.
  2. When setting off, always use the same lead foot.  Whichever is best for you.  Lift the pedals up to around the one 'o' clock position, clip that pedal in and push off first, before attempting to clip your other foot in.  I'm right handed and always lead off with my left foot.
  3. When stopping, always unclip the same foot first.  This programmes your brain so that it becomes like a routine.  You brake, you stop, same foot comes off and steadies you.  It's when you don't have that drilled routine, that panic ensues and you're lying in the road.  I always unclip with my right foot, so that I can lead off with my left (see above).
  4. Practice against a wall.  Seriously, find a wall and just practice clipping in and clipping out.
  5. Make sure your pedal axle is right underneath the ball of your foot.  Don't tighten the cleat up until you know that the ball of your foot is aligned underneath, that's one of the key contact points.
  6. Make sure your knee is aligned over the pedal axle.  Use a plumbline to drop down from the knobbly bit on the outside of your knee down through the pedal. If it doesn't go through the axle, then adjust your saddle fore/aft.
  7. If the dealer offers to fit your cleats for you - take them up on it.  Poorly fitted cleats can lead to pedallng inefficiency and injury.  There are plenty of places that will fit them properly for a charge.
  8. Shoes.  Try them on.  Many shoes require you to go up a size.  Italian shoes tend to be narrow, so if you've got wide feet, you might end up with blisters.  I purchased Specialized shoes as my feet are quite wide and they tend to be more generous at the front.
  9. Replace your cleats when worn.  If you don't you'll find your feet flying out of the pedals on the upstroke, which increases the chance of accident.
  10. Make it second nature.  Clipless pedals are essential if you are to really benefit from road cycling.  You'll go faster with them and that's motivation in itself.  Keep practicing, so that it becomes an instinct to clip and unclip.


  1. Phill interesting article, tho I would disagree re speedplay not being suitable for beginners. I've put a number of 1st time clipless pedal cyclist on them and have been easy to get used to as they are double sided and even easier if you start with the light action ones.

    also good if you've got dodgy knees like me.

    Also grat blog site.


  2. Dave,

    Thanks for the comment about Speedplay, I know a lot of people rate them. I've never used them personally, so great to hear that they're suitable for a beginner and worthy of consideration.

    Appreciate the blog feedback too!

  3. Just a quick comment reply to Dave Hart above - Speedplays are generally very very expensive as compared to normal Look or Time clipless systems. Although they ARE good for beginners, most wouldn't be able to afford that sort of price range when starting out. Just thought I'd point that out...Great post Phil!

  4. All good except tip number 6 doesn't make a lot of sense, perhaps more explanation needed.

  5. If your just starting out with clipless, it might be worth teaching yourself to clip in the left foot last when pushing off and uncliping it first when stopping, this way you will always be leaning away from the traffic.

  6. Re; point 6. I'll do a separate blog posting on this in the future, re-reading it I can see it needs some further detail - Phil

  7. Glad you mentioned starting with the grey Looks rather than read. I'm just starting out and found that the reds gave so much freedom to twist without coming that I couldn't unclip even when stationary and holding on to a wall! I've just got some greys and hopefully they'll work a bit better.