How to Choose Clipless or Flat Bike Pedals

How to choose bike pedals

Pedal shoppers usually fall into one of several groups: 1) Those making the switch from flat to clipless pedals, 2) Those who are outfitting a new bike (many new road bikes do not come with pedals), or 3) Those upgrading from one shoe-pedal system to another. Here's what to consider when shopping.

Who Needs Clipless Pedals?

If you ride using flat (platform) pedals, you've no doubt seen riders zipping by you with their feet firmly anchored to their pedals and wondered if that might be a wise choice for you. Fear not, bike shoes and clipless pedals are part of a natural progression to make your riding more efficient and less tiring.

Cycling shoes are usually paired with a compatible pedal to hold your feet securely on the bicycle. The so-called "clipless" shoe-pedal combination offers unmatched control with a minimum amount of your pedaling energy lost before it reaches the rear wheel.

You can start your shopping process with either shoes or pedals. Just make sure you keep shoe-pedal compatibility in mind as you decide. For information about bike shoes, see the REI Expert Advice How to Choose Bike Shoes article.

The Misnomer of Clipless

"Clipless" is admittedly a confusing name for these pedals since you actually "clip in" to the pedal's cleats much like you do with a ski binding. The origin of the name goes back a few decades when pedals with "toe clips" were a cyclist's only choice for improved pedaling efficiency. The then-new clipless pedals dispensed with toe clips by offering a direct attachment between shoe and pedal. For better or worse, the clipless name has lived on ever since.

There is a brief-but-necessary learning curve associated with clipless pedals. For tips, see below for our How to Use Clipless Pedals video and text.

Quick Overview

In a hurry? Here's an overview of the most popular shoe-pedal attributes:

Road Biking Mountain Biking, Casual
or Touring
Clipless pedal style 3-hole (Look style) 2-hole (SPD style)
Shoe outsole Smooth Lugged
Shoe sole Very stiff Stiff
Cleat style Protrudes from sole Recessed into sole

For a closer look at your options, read on.

Non-clipless Pedal Options

Platform pedals

Platform Pedals

These "flat pedals" are the ones you probably had on your first bike. The most basic pedal system, they provide a wide stable surface to support your feet on both sides. They are not intended for use with clipless shoes.

Technology, however, has not left the platform pedal untouched. New versions use lightweight materials, sealed bearings to keep out moisture and grime, and even replaceable pins on the surface for increased grip in slippery situations you might encounter on the trail.

Many downhill mountain bikers prefer this type of pedal mated with a specifically designed shoe. This combination provides ample grip and control while remaining the easiest to get off of in the event of a crash. While clipless pedals will release in the event of a crash, platform pedals may give you the confidence to help avoid a crash.

Toe clips and straps

Toe Clips and Straps

Toe clips (also called "toe cages") are small frames that attach to the front of a platform pedal and surround your toe. They allow you to pull up with your foot in the pedal stroke as well as pushing down, effectively doubling your efficiency. With the addition of an adjustable strap that threads through the top and bottom of the clip (encircling the ball of your foot), you have a basic retention system that is lightweight, affordable and durable.

Using toe clips requires righting the pedal first as the weight of the system causes the pedal to hang upside down. This is achieved with a quick flick of the toe. To remove your foot from a toe clip you simply pull it straight back.

Shop REI's selection of pedal accessories .

Dual pedals

Platform/Clipless Dual Pedals

This hybrid approach combines the flexibility of platform pedals with the efficiency of a clipless system. It's an excellent transition pedal for anyone looking to ease into clipless. While most folks thinking of clipless pedals go "all in" or not at all, these offer an alternative for those who don't always ride with a cycling shoe.

Clipless Pedal Options

Clipless pedals are the most advanced pedal-retention system on the market. The system works by mounting a small plastic or metal cleat on the sole of your shoe. This cleat then snaps in to a set of spring-loaded "clips" on the face of the pedal.

Clipless pedal benefits include:

  • You can pull up and push down during the pedal stroke for maximum energy efficiency.
  • It offers a high level of control while executing moves like hopping up on to curbs or over logs.
  • Improved safety: Your feet are not able to bounce off the pedals while riding through the bumps and will not slip off as you apply power in rain or snow.

Mountain bike pedals

For Mountain Biking

The most versatile MTB clipless pedal system is the 2-hole cleat design . It can be used for all types of riding including road cycling, mountain biking, touring or commuting. The recessed cleat option when paired with some shoes also makes walking easier (and less noisy).

The 2-hole design is often referred to as the "SPD" system (short for Shimano Pedaling Dynamics). Shimano was one of the first companies to develop this system and continues to be a leader in the market today. Other manufacturers (like Crank Brothers' Candy pedals and Time's ATAC system) have developed very similar systems that work on the same principles.

For both mountain and road bikes: Screws are placed through the 2 holes securing the cleat to 2 tracks or slots in the bottom of a compatible shoe. This lets you slide the cleat back and forth slightly to achieve the proper angle and placement for maximum comfort and ease of engagement to the pedal.

Ideally, the cleat is mounted directly under the ball of the foot but that may not be the most comfortable position for every user. You can experiment to find the ideal position to engage the cleat most easily and pedal with the most comfort. The lateral or "twist" adjustment on the cleat allows them to be set to accommodate different pedaling styles. Some people pedal with their toes slightly inwards; others have them pointing straight ahead; still others have their heels farther inboard than their toes.

Road cycling pedals

For Road Cycling

Road cyclists most often use a 3-hole cleat design . This is often called a "Look" type cleat, after the company that pioneered its use. These cleats are larger, made out of the plastic and protrude farther from the sole of the shoe than a comparable 2-hole design. Other companies have since developed 3-hole cleats, such as the Shimano SPD-SL design.

The advantage of the 3-hole design is that the large cleat is able to spread the force load being applied to the pedal over a wider area. This reduces pressure on the connection points and allows a secure connection during the high stress loads that pedaling a road bike very hard can create. If you do not push your road bike to the edge of its performance envelope, you may opt for a 2-hole cleat system instead since it allows easier walking.

Shoe cleat configurations

Pedal Float

One final consideration is pedal float . When you step on a cleated pedal, the cleat locks into the pedal's mechanism and is held firmly in place. Float refers to the amount of angular rotation allowed to the foot on the pedal. A few systems hold the foot at a fixed angle; others allow fixed amounts of float and a few allow customizable ranges of float. This largely becomes a personal preference as you become a more experienced rider.

Tip: Cyclists with knee issues should use cleats with built-in float.

Multiple-release Cleats

Most cleats release laterally. The so-called multiple-release cleat is very similar to these models except that it releases a bit more easily and at slightly increased angles (your heel can move outward or inward and slightly upward as well). The differences are subtle. The bottom line is that they do seem to be somewhat more forgiving than their lateral-release cousins.

Reminder: Be sure your pedals, cleats and shoes are designed to work as a system.

How to Use Clipless Pedals

The barrier most people encounter when using a clipless system is that engaging and disengaging your feet from the pedals takes practice. To disengage your shoe from the pedal, simply twist your foot, starting by pressing or turning your heel outward, away from the bike. When you reach a certain number of degrees the clip system disengages and your foot releases from the pedal. This motion is simple to learn, but it must be practiced to develop muscle memory and confidence in the process.

A note of caution: While learning how to use your clipless pedals, it is recommended that you find a level, grassy field for practice. It is possible you may fall a few times while learning, and soft ground can help prevent injuries. If you are unsure of the process, a bike specialist at your local REI store will be happy to show you how to use your new pedal system. Another option, if available to you, is to practice clipping in and out while on a magnetic or fluid bike trainer.

Tip: To develop the proper muscle memory for clipless pedals, try getting in and out of each pedal 50 to 60 times. Once you have achieved this number of repetitions, your legs will begin to be trained to do the right thing without you having to think about it.

Cleat Compatibility

Cleats are bolted to bottom of the shoe but must also match the pedals properly if they are to engage and disengage safely. For this reason, cleats are supplied with the pedals and not the shoes.

To create a full clipless pedal system, you need 1) Shoes that are drilled to accept the kind of cleat you are buying, and 2) Compatible cleats and pedals (which are sold together). If you wear out your cleats, replacements are sold separately.

Proper positioning of the cleat on the shoes is necessary for the correct functioning of a clipless pedal system. An incorrectly positioned cleat and/or pedal-release tension can cause release issues and knee pain. If you have any questions, consult with your local REI store or other reputable bike shop for help.

Pedal Maintenance

Clipless Pedals

If it becomes difficult to engage or disengage your cleats, the pedal may require cleaning and lubrication. First inspect the pedal for obvious signs of damage. If you do not find any, give the pedal a good scrub with warm water to remove any mud or debris. Let the pedal dry and add a drop of light lube to the clips on the pedal. Remember to lube both sides if you have a dual-sided system. If you are still having trouble getting in or out of your clipless pedals, check with your local bike mechanic for solutions.

Tip: If you do not own a cleaning brush kit, an old toothbrush makes an excellent tool for cleaning pedals.

Toe Clips

These are relatively maintenance free. Occasionally give a dab of light lube on the buckle of your toe-clip strap. You should also check the mounting nuts for tightness—they can manage to work themselves free.

Shop REI's selection of bike lubricants .

Cycling Pedal FAQs

Q: What should I shop for first: shoes or pedals?

A: Shoes traditionally have been the first step for those making the transition to a clipless pedal system. Recently, however, pedal choices have expanded to the point where we now feel that you may want to consider the pedals first. For example, many road commuters now prefer a 2-sided MTB pedal for ease of entry. Pedals must suit your riding preference and type of bike, and their features and benefits are perhaps more significant than those offered by shoes. Once you find a suitable pedal, you can then consider cycling shoes based on their pedal compatibility, comfort, features and price.

Q: Are there entry-level clipless pedals that may be easier to use than others?

A: Most clipless pedals function in the same way. They have adjustable spring tension to make it easier or harder to click into the pedal with the cleat. However, dual-sided pedals make it easier for beginners to clip in to whatever side of the pedal your foot lands on. Some beginners also like a bit more platform around their clipless pedals so that they have something to stand on even if they are not able to clip in right away when starting off.

Q: Is pedal installation as simple as unscrewing the old ones and screwing in the new ones?

A: Yes. In most cases, you can use a pedal wrench or a thin-headed crescent wrench to loosen old pedals and install new ones. Pedals feature opposite threads so as not to unscrew while you ride. To loosen your pedals, put the wrench on the spindle and the handle of the wrench facing up. Grab the crankarm in one hand and the wrench in the other and rotate the wrench handle towards the back of the bicycle. The new pedal spindles are marked with an "L" and an "R" to let you know which pedal goes on which side. These directions assume you are sitting on the seat riding the bike (often referred to as "rider's right" or "rider's left"). Simply thread the pedals in by hand and finish tightening them with the wrench. If you have any problems, consult your local REI store or other bike shop for help.

Q: Why do clipless pedals range from $50 to $300 or more? What are the differences?

A: As clipless pedals rise in price, many small but significant changes take place. The pedals become lighter, they use more advanced materials for both strength and durability, their bearings are longer lasting and the aesthetics become more important. If you plan to ride lightly and not very often, a less expensive pedal should be sufficient. If you ride regularly in demanding conditions, a more expensive pedal may offer better value in the long run.

Q: When do cleats need replacing?

A: Cleats need replacing if they are worn to the point when disengaging from the pedal happens inadvertently. They must also be replaced if they break or crack since damaged cleats may not function properly or even fail unexpectedly. Avid riders may need to change cleats as often as once per year. Casual riders can have cleats last up to 5 years before they need to be replaced.

Q: How do I find a compatible replacement cleat?

A: Finding a replacement cleat is pretty easy at REI or other bike shops. Cleats match the pedals, so be sure to know which pedal you have before you go cleat shopping. There is often only one choice for the proper replacement cleat for your pedal. If you're unsure how to identify your pedal, bring your shoes to REI or another reputable bike store or take a picture of the pedal and cleat and a bike specialist will be able to help you identify the correct replacement.

Cycling Shoes

If you haven't done so already, consider your shoes.

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By Ed Snyder

Read Author Bio

Last updated: April 2010

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