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Bike Pedals: How to Choose and Use


When choosing bike pedals, first think about the type of riding you’ll be doing. Will you be road biking or mountain biking? Are you looking for the pedaling efficiency of clipless pedals, or the ease and maneuverability you get with platform pedals? Perhaps you want the benefits of both.  

If you decide on clipless pedals, be sure your pedals, cleats and shoes are made to work as a system. You can shop for either the shoes or pedals first, just keep shoe-pedal compatibility in mind as you decide. Cleats may be sold with the pedals or separately.

For more information, see Bike Shoes: How to Choose.

Shop REI’s selection of bike pedals.

Video: How to Choose Bike Pedals

Types of Bike Pedals

Platform Bike Pedals

These "flat pedals" are the ones you probably had on your first bike. They provide a stable surface to support your feet on both sides and can be used with nearly any shoe. They are not intended for use with clipless shoes.

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.

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

Shop for platform pedals.

Pedal Toe Clips and Straps

Toe clips (also called "toe cages") are small frames that attach to the front of platform pedals and surround your toes. They allow you to pull up with your foot in the pedal stroke as well as push down.

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.

Shop for pedal toe clips.

Clipless Bike Pedals

"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 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.)

The system works by mounting a small plastic or metal cleat on the sole of your shoe that snaps into a set of spring-loaded "clips" on the face of the pedal.

Clipless pedals provide a high level of control while riding fast or executing moves like hopping up on to curbs or over logs. Your feet won’t bounce off the pedals as you apply power or while riding through the bumps.

It can take some practice getting in and out of clipless pedals, but once you get the hang of it, they’ll feel like second nature.

Quick Overview: Here are the most popular clipless shoe pedal attributes:

Mountain Biking,
Casual or Touring
Road Biking
Pedal style
2-hole (SPD, crankbrothers, Time styles) 3-hole (Look, Time or SPD-SL styles)
Shoe outsole
Lugged Smooth
Shoe sole
Very stiff
Cleat style
Recessed into sole
Protrudes from sole

Mountain Bike Pedals: Clipless pedals for mountain biking feature cleats with a 2-hole design. 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.

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 crankbrothers and Time have developed similar systems that work on the same principles.

Shop for mountain bike pedals.

Road Bike Pedals: Clipless pedals for road biking often feature cleats with a 3-hole design. This is often called a "Look" type cleat (after the company that pioneered its use) or the newer SPD-SL system. These cleats are larger, made out of plastic and protrude farther from the sole of the shoe than a comparable 2-hole design.

The advantage of a 3-hole design is that the larger cleat is able to spread the force 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 of pedaling a road bike.

If you’re a more casual rider or are on and off your bike frequently, you may opt for a 2-hole cleat system instead since it allows easier walking and entry/exit.

Shop for road bike pedals.

Clipless/Platform Bike 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.

Bike Pedal Features

Pedal float: When you step on a cleated bike 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.

Multiple-release cleats: Most cleats that come with pedals 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 lateral-release cleats. Multiple-release cleats are typically sold separately from pedals.

How to Use Clipless Pedals

Using a clipless pedal system takes some practice. To disengage your shoe from the pedal, simply twist your foot, starting by pressing or turning your heel outward, away from the bike. At a certain point, 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.

While learning how to use clipless pedals, find a level, grassy field for practice. You may fall a time or two while learning, and soft ground can help prevent injuries. Optionally, you can practice clipping in/out while on a bike trainer or by having a friend hold your handlebar.

Tip: Develop the proper muscle memory by getting in and out of each pedal 50 to 60 times. With this number of repetitions, your legs will begin to be trained to do the right thing without you having to think about it.

Bike Pedal Maintenance

Clipless Pedals

If it becomes difficult to engage or disengage your cleats, the pedal may require cleaning and lubrication. First look 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, check with your local REI bike mechanic.

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.

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