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How I Kicked My Fear of Cycling Shoes

Clipless bike shoes (a bit of a misnomer, since you actually clip into them) tend to be loved by those who wear them and feared by practically everyone else. Today’s guest blogger, REI senior copywriter Steve Burke, tells the instructive story of how he made the transition from sneakers to bike shoes.

I was 13 miles into my commute home when a cyclist coming the opposite way on the bike trail lost control. If it had been my lucky day, he would have swerved right and crashed onto a soft patch of grass.

Instead, he swerved left and headed straight for me. In the second I had to react, I tucked my head down and shot out my arms…

bike-commuting

Three months earlier, I had been talking to a coworker about cycling shoes. Chris was the undisputed bike guru in our office. Everyone went to him for advice. As he was talking away about the increase in power you gain when your shoes are attached to the pedals, I was thinking of one of my biggest fears about bike shoes—not being able to unclip the shoes, especially in an accident.

I’ve done plenty of cycling in my time. After college, I spent 2 months bike touring France and Spain on a Peugeot rigged with panniers. I also had a 12 year car-less stretch, when I relied almost solely on my Cannondale mountain bike to get everywhere in all kinds of weather.

But I had done it all using trail shoes and pedals with baskets (a.k.a. toe clips). It was never with the real deal, bike shoes that clipped into special pedals. They belonged to the more serious side of the cycling world, a world that included sleek racing bikes, spandex, carbon fiber forks, bike jerseys bursting with color and, yes, shaved legs.

I asked Chris, “So if I have an accident, will the shoes automatically disconnect from the pedals?”

“They come right off. Watch this.” Chris’ cube was filled with a collection of fenders, derailleurs, ultra-thin racing tires and other assorted bike gear. He found a bike shoe and clipped it into a pedal. Then he twisted the shoe slightly, and ‘click,’ it disconnected.

Bike shoe and pedal

I tried it myself. After clicking the shoe into place, I tried pulling it off. It wouldn’t disconnect. I pulled harder.

“You have to twist it to the side,” Chris said. “That’s what you do when you come to a stop on your bike. Twist your heel out to the side, and the shoe comes right out of the pedal. It’s super simple.”

I considered the bike accidents I’d had and how there wasn’t really time to think about things like twisting both feet to the side. “So what if I don’t have time to twist both feet to the side?” I asked.

“There has to be enough tension to keep the shoes connected while your pedaling hard, so it takes more force to pull them straight out. But they will in an accident,” Chris said.

He helped me pick out a pair of Sidi Dominator 5 shoes and crankbrothers Candy pedals. They were wide enough to pedal with regular shoes, so I could still shoot down to the corner store while wearing sneakers if I wanted.

Because bike shoes have a stiff sole, it’s a little awkward walking in them but the Sidis had hard pads around the edges of the soles for stability. The pads also prevented the cleat under the forefoot from making contact with the ground (the cleat is what clips into the pedal). The design lets you do a little walking around when you’re off your bike (not all bike shoes are set up that way though, so check if that’s a feature you want).

The real test lay ahead of me. I brought my bike outside and attached the new pedals. Then I found a wall I could lean against as I tested the whole setup. It took a few moments of sliding the front of the shoes over the pedals before the cleats found their place and clicked in firmly. When I turned the heels out to the side, the shoes unclipped just as promised.

Bike shoe

I spent about 20 minutes pedaling the bike around the parking lot, practicing over and over again until it came naturally. Unclipping the shoes was easy, but finding the right place to press the shoes onto the pedals and click in required more work before I could do it by feel, without looking down at the pedals.

It didn’t take more than a couple of weeks of commuting to feel confident in the shoes. Unclipping them as I approached a traffic light became automatic. And I noticed an increase in power. The “shape” of my pedaling changed from a vertical push down to a circular motion where both legs were exerting constant force on the pedals, one leg pushing down while the other was pulling up.

During the first 3 months, the riding went well. All my questions and concerns about wearing bike shoes were answered. Except for that last nagging doubt. Would the cleats unclip from the pedals if I were in an accident?

clipless-commuting


Which takes me back to that unlucky bike commute home. I’d guess that the other cyclist hit me at about 10 mph. I had slowed down to maybe 5 mph. My memory of the accident skips the actual impact, and picks up again with me spread flat on my back.

The shoes had indeed unclipped from the pedals. My bike lay several feet away. Ironically, it was the other guy’s bike that lay on top of me, and he lay on top of it. He slowly pulled himself off the pile before removing his bike and helping me up.

We checked ourselves for damage. He was apologetic and escaped almost without a scratch. I had a cut here, a bruise there and a bloody lip that would require a few stitches. With some minor repair, my bike would be fine, but looking down at my shoes I saw that the brunt of my slide sideways on the asphalt trail had been suffered by my right shoe. The smooth black ratchet handle on the top strap had been scraped up pretty good, but it still functioned just fine.

Ah well, another commuter scar, another story to tell. I’m sold on bike shoes now and am still using my Sidis on a regular basis.

How about you? Do you use clipless shoes? How did your transition period go?

For more information, see the REI Expert Advice article, Bike Shoes: How to Choose.

Posted on at 11:30 AM

Tagged: Road Cycling, bike commuting and bike shoes

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Anand The Great

Very informative

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BillSquared

Great article. When I convinced my wife to go clipless we started off by replacing only one pedal, so she always had one foot free in case of panic. Didn't stop her from falling entirely, but did minimize it.

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