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Getting started with clipless pedals: Advice for first time users...

I have been using clipless pedals since the early 90's -  they have become second nature to me and I'm happy to share my experience. I wrote this article several years ago when a lady friend asked me about them. It is by no means a comprehensive manual - a mere collection of my thoughts really. My friend went on to use them herself quite successfully, and when I found it languishing on my hard drive one day, I decided to post it here in the hope that others may also find it useful.

First, let's answer a few questions - why are they called "clipless" pedals when you have to "clip" into them? It's because they don't have the classic toe-clips with leather straps and buckles.

Why use them? Because you can use a lower gear and pedal at higher cadences with a more efficient circular pedalling motion rather than an up-and-down action. This reduces wear and tear on your knees and reduces muscle fatigue, improving endurance.

Also as I recently been reminded, clipless pedals can help prevent knee pain by allowing a certain amount of float or rotation of the lower limb which helps to relieve stress on the knee joint during pedaling.

Why are they better than toe-clips? Well, they are safer - they release quickly and easily. To achieve a good pedaling action with toe clips your shoes have to be strapped in tightly, making it much more difficult to start and stop. And they can cause injuries if you fall as they don't release to take the pressure off your joints.

Reader feedback: I would add another advantage, for those of us on recumbents, you will often have reduced foot numbness using clipless; you don't have to press as hard on the pedal to maintain foot position. And for those on low racer recumbents and most trikes, clipless are darned near mandatory. If your foot slips off on one of these bikes, there's a chance you'll catch your foot on the ground and can break bones.

Before you start
You will need to obtain a set of clipless pedals and a pair of cycling shoes, setup with correctly placed cleats. Your LBS can advise.

The are two main types of pedal/shoe systems. Road bike systems use a stiff-soled lightweight shoe with a protruding cleat. These are difficult to walk in and so are not very suitable for touring.

A warning - road cycling cleats can be very slippery on hard surfaces. Walk like you're on ice, and put your foot down squarely when dismounting.

MTB pedal/shoe systems use a sole similar to a stiff hiking shoe, and have a recessed cleat and a rugged tread for grip on slippery surfaces. The most common of these MTB systems is the Shimano SPD.

Some General Advice
First - while you are learning, you will very likely fall down. When you come to a halt but forget to unclip, when you put your foot down and it slips away from you, when you start off and can't get your cleat to clip in. We've all done it at some time, so don't let it faze you.

Go to a park or grassy area to practice, so you don't injure yourself or damage your shiny new bike.
Ride on top of the pedals wearing running shoes to get used to balancing the bike before you attempt the clipless pedals. It's also a good idea to practice balancing your bike at low speeds. And try balancing while standing on the pedals, you should find this position more stable than the seated position at low speed.

If your saddle is adjusted to the correct height, you won't be able to reach the ground while seated. Trying to tip-toe will inevitably result in an embarrassing fall. If you are struggling, try lowering your saddle temporarily, but don't forget to reset it once you get used to the new pedals.

Most clipless pedal have adjustable release pressure, and while you are getting used to them, the pedal release pressure should be set lightly so it's easy to unclip. You can tighten them later if necessary - when you are ready to join the sprint.

Before you start, decide which foot you are going to put down to dismount. It's surprising how many people don't know this, but it's something you never think about when you use platform pedals. I usually put my left foot down (we ride on the left, Down Under), but some prefer to use their right foot to allow for the camber of the road. I've even seen some people unclip both feet but I don't recommend this practice as it's very de-stabilising.

Practice, practice, practice the action to unclip - for most pedals you need to rotate your heel away from the bike to release them. This requires quite a deliberate action so make sure you are comfortable with it before you start.

Getting on
Clipless pedals are designed to hang down at the back, so you can hook the front of the cleat in, then press down to engage the rear of the cleat. When the pedals are new they may be a little stiff and not hang correctly, but they will loosen up quickly with use.

To start off with clipless pedals you clip in one foot, push away, and once rolling, clip in the other foot. You have to get this done while you still have enough speed to maintain balance. This what causes beginners the most problems, as they can't get clipped in quickly. You can practice this while stationary by sitting on your bike with the support of a fence, pole, wall, or someone to hold you. Practice until you can do it without looking at the pedal.

It's important to choose the correct gear to start off in. Too high a gear requires too much effort to get rolling, but too low a gear means you don't get up enough speed to maintain your balance while you clip the other foot in. A slight downhill slope is an aid when you are learning. Even for experienced riders it can be difficult to start on an uphill slope, so avoid them if you can.

First make sure you have enough clear space ahead of you to get clipped in. OK, so get on your bike and clip into your pedal. When you are ready to go, push firmly down on the pedal to get rolling. Don't try to push away with the foot on the ground, your cleat may very likely slip on a hard surface. Once you are rolling and have the bike balanced, raise your foot and clip in. You will probably want to look at the pedal, but it's actually easier (and safer) if you don't look.

I prefer to do all this while standing, it keeps the centre of gravity low so it's easier to balance. Others prefer to do it seated, it's up to you.

If you can't get cleat to engage, back pedal and take another stroke to keep you rolling, or put your foot on top of the pedal for a stroke or two while you build up speed. Be careful doing this though - your shoe may easily slip off the pedal if you apply too much pressure.

Getting off
Dismounting ought to be easy, but it still causes problem for beginners. Most commonly, you forget to unclip. You need to plan ahead when you are going to stop, and unclip well before you loose the speed needed to maintain balance.

When you are not expecting the stop - when the traffic lights change or to avoid some hazard, you'll have to get unclipped quickly. This relies on your reactions so you need to practice unclipping until you can do it automatically. Try to read the way ahead and be alert for unplanned stops.

Learn to rise off the saddle, standing on the clipped in pedal just as you stop, this lowers the centre of gravity, so you are better balanced - then you can place your free foot squarely to the road, leaning the bike over at the same time.

Think it sounds complicated? Well, yes it does. But within no time at all you'll be able to mount and dismount without even thinking about it.

Have a good ride!
A final thought - if you are really struggling to come to grips with your clipless pedals, there are pedals such as the Shimano A530 which have a SPD clipless mount on one side and a flat platform on the other. It's easy to get up to balancing speed using the platform side then you flip them over and clip in.

And the Shimano M545 is double-sided but has a large platform and is very easy to engage. It's best to use the silver SPD SH56 multi-release cleats in conjunction with these pedals.

41 comments:

  1. Hi, thanks for the info. I'll start soon using clipless pedals soon..

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    1. Glad you found it useful. If you have any questions when you start, please feel welcome to ask...

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  2. Hi. Found this article as I'll be using clip less the first time tomorrow. Wish me luck!!

    ST, Dublin, Ireland

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    1. Hehe - may the luck of the Irish be with you...

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  3. Just purchased SPD A520s and Pearl Izumi All-Roads. The shoes fit so much better than the cross-trainers I use currently. Spent about an hour in the backyard practicing clipping in/out while leaning on the back step. The "Oh Dear God, I'm attached to the bike!!" feeling does take hold even though I knew I was. Ha. Definitely disconcerting but even after an hour I was more comfortable with it. Going to try a short neighborhood ride tomorrow. Great advice!!

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  4. I tried clipless pedals for the first time yesterday - managed to get home through the traffic OK but this morning not so lucky as I was forced too close to the kerb by a driver and had to stop suddenly...and promptly fell over. I was told fallng off is inevitable and I guess it's true!
    But a word of advice please for a beginner, where should the pedal be when one is trying to unclip? I'm trying with it at the lowest point of the circle, any pointers as to whether that's the most sensible place?
    Also, I would also endorse the advice about trying the flat sided/clipless pedal arrangement. Not only does it give you the option to not clip in in traffic, it also means you (or anyone else) can ride your bike with ordinary shoes/trainers...handy for popping down to the shops!

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    1. Hi John, I think the low pedal position is easiest to achieve a positive rotation of the heel to disengage the cleat. But in your traffic situation there was likely not much time to think about it, so better just to rotate whatever the position.

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  5. I was a little concerned when getting my first SPD-SL cleats but I went 500 miles before having 'a moment' and that was at 5AM 50 miles into a 100 mile night ride when my mind was elsewhere and I thought I could ride on gravel ;)
    Junction coming, which gear will I need, select it and turn pedals over, unclip. Becomes as natural as putting on your seat belt in the car.

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  6. I admire your talent, hope to see you again next time of the works, I wish you good luck! Studying this info So i am satisfied to exhibit, Love your work, clear!

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    1. Thank you Aletea. I'm pleased you found it useful.

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  7. Great advice Ron ....ive been told to get myself onto a grassed area clip in and basically fall over !!!!!! So in a way you'll know what to expect when it eventually happens !! (Im just starting road cycling at the age of 44 )

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    1. Hehe - well I don't think falling is essential, but it is almost inevitable. Do you remember the limp falling craze? That's what you need to if you are caught out. The grass is of course to protect your bike from damage. And try to fall on your left, to protect the derailleur.

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  8. Ron, I've used toe clips for years and just bought my first clipless pedals & shoes. I'm glad I found your article, which is full of great advice. I think I'll try them on my trainer first, just to get a feel for clipping in & out. Any advice on where to place the cleats?

    TH, Bethlehem, PA

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    1. The usual recommendation is that you place the cleats pointing fore-and-aft, such that the pedal axle aligns with the joint of your big toe. However some fitters argue that a rearward position is more appropriate - I start with the cleats right back and adjust from there if necessary. Avoid placing them too far forward as this may lead to tendonitis of your achilles.

      Don't forget to check and if necessary adjust the saddle height with your new shoes and pedals.

      Steve Hogg is one of the leading fitters in my area, and has a wealth of information about this subject available on his blog.

      http://www.stevehoggbikefitting.com/

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  9. I've just put Shimano A530's on my tourer. Do you have ny advice on what to look for in cycling shoes. I will probably be going for MTB shoes as I like to stop and look aropund wherever I get to.

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    1. I only take one pair of shoes touring, so they have to perform on the bike, on short hikes, or just wandering around in towns. I choose an MTB shoe which is water resistant and has a grippy sole. I have a widish foot, and find that Northwave shoes such as the Drifter GTX fit me best, and have a Vibram sole which is great for hiking. Shimano have a similar shoe in the MT71, but I find the fit a little narrow for a shoe which I will wear all day every day for weeks at a time.

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    2. I just fitted the same to my bike - I got a pair of Shimano P064 and have got on "relatively" well with them (see below).

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  10. thank you, this was really honest and usefull

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  11. My advice - Don't try to run before you can walk. I had been running on the flat side of Shimano A530s for a couple of weeks and finally got my clipless shoes. A quick run round the block (which is 8 miles in my case) and I thought I was fine so I set off the next day on a major sportive.

    Two tarmac impacts, several bruises, no skin on my knees and a lot of hilarity from my oh-so supportive fellow cyclists later I decided I should really have got some more practice first. Nevertheless, the increase in speed, power and (for me) hill climbing ability has been worth it.

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  12. Thanks so much for this article. I have just started with clipless and have already fallen over, which put me off a bit because I hurt my shoulder. Reading this clarifies a few things and I will try again! :)

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  13. I wish I had read your article yesterday before trying my first road bike and clipless pedals for the first time. I thought I had practiced enough on the trainer but there is nothing that can quite prepare you for the real ride (and dogs). 2 falls, no skin left on either knee, and bruised pride later.... I now know that my clips are too tight and that I should have gotten use to my bike first before diving in. I might have to wait a day or two before I try again.

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    1. Don't be discouraged, you will soon master them...

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  14. What I found helpful was to take out my new and first clipless bike with a biking shoe on one foot and a running shoe on other foot and practice clipping in and out repeatedly.When comfortable with unclipping motion,then reversed shoes.Gave me confidence and worked well until cut off by bus,then the inevitable fall with the panic stop.

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  15. Been riding clipless for 6-7 years and would never go back, although I was nervous when I first started .. had my 1 very public traffic signal 0 MPH fall-over during my first week way back when, got that over with ;) (I did practice clipping in and out on both sides for an hour or so before ever getting out on the road with them!) What has worked very well for me, and has become automatic over the years is that as soon as I start hitting my brake, I unclip my left foot, and if I see any kind of iffy situation coming up (frequent in the life of a full-time urban commuter cyclist), I do a just-in-case unclip so that I'm ready (but of course this all becomes so natural over time that you don't even think about it. Clipless REALLY is not scary at all!! And the improvement to the whole cycling experience ... well, I just can't imagine anyone ever going back to not using them once they got the hang of it). SPD's have always worked best for me as a commuter cyclist, no slippery clattering into the office or grocery store, no need to change shoes between bicycle and shopping or other errands. Keen makes some excellent SPD sandals! And as for pedals ... I started out with Crank Bros. eggbeaters (Candy's - they have a very small platform with the eggbeater in the center, very nice for urban cycling with frequent stops where, with the occasional missed clip-in attempt at take-off from a traffic signal, you can still just easily speed on across). Always thought I would try something different as time passed, but after all these years, still see no reason - they've worked out very well for me.

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  16. Day 1 - started out OK in my local carpark, but as soon as I started trying quicker stops and trying to clip out while turning did 2 sideways falls leaving me with bruised knees as well as confidence, and feeling like an upside down turtle.
    Read this before my day 2 practice, and had never realised that I dismount with my left foot, and it was when I was trying to unclip and dismount with my right foot I had a double whammy of conflicting brain signals going on! Today went better - only 1 fall (and not as painful) - but really helpful advice on learning which leg is the dismount leg and unclipping that one, and also repeating to myself to unclip first before braking...
    Think I got a bit more carpark time before the road though.
    Thanks for the advice

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  17. Perfect, just what I was looking for. Bought a pair of M520's today and needed a few tips. Will try them out tomorrow.

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  18. I found that wellgo makes the best double sided SPD pedal I have seen. The flat side is just like my bmx pedals, and you can use one of the shimano cleats with them ( I don't know witch one because I haven't needed to replace my cleats yet) great for riding with any type of shoe.

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  19. I've used Shimano M520s for years now. Because the left one had seized to the crank and I couldn't get it off I had an LBS remove it for me. Because he put in quite a bit of effort and charged next to nothing I was persuaded to buy replacement pedals from him (he had to take the old pedal apart and grind flats on the spindle to get enough torque to remove it) The first pedals he had me try were MKS. A beautiful product, incredibly well made but they don't work with Shimano clips. They appeared to clip in but came out when I pulled up. Then he had me try Eclypse pedals. These were even worse: they clipped in and stayed in just fine but hung up when unclipping. It was like starting with clipless all over again! So I bought some M520s elsewhere and the LBS gave me a couple ot tires for my trouble and expense. Moral: only use clips that are specifically made for your pedals. Pete

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  20. Hello I have just bought the speedplay pedals I did try the spd-sl a year & half ago and had 3 falls & hurt my knee & that really knocked my confidence so I went back to flats, but I have recently bought the speedplay pedals I really like them I like the double sided I find them easier to click in & out I have been practicing around my local park but I worry about forgetting to unclip & falling if I have to stop suddenly,

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  21. Hello I have just bought the speedplay pedals I did try the spd-sl a year & half ago and had 3 falls & hurt my knee & that really knocked my confidence so I went back to flats, but I have recently bought the speedplay pedals I really like them I like the double sided I find them easier to click in & out I have been practicing around my local park but I worry about forgetting to unclip & falling if I have to stop suddenly,

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    1. Keep it up David - confidence comes with practice.

      My wife likes Speedplay for the same reason, but I don't care much for them - too expensive and high maintenance.

      Get some Keep On Kovers to make last longer, and you'll need the Speedplay grease gun to give them a shot of grease or they'll eventually seize up.

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  22. I have the K Kovers Z on them I like these as you wear when riding too, I clever idea.

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  23. I'm glad I have found this blog, because I have just bought myself the first pair of clipless and still wondering how to use them, how to get on my bike for the first time.

    I live in Hong Kong and we have no soft grassy park to practice on, I'm out of confidence because I only can practice on hard service, once I fall that will hurt.

    But this blog have given me a general idea on how to use the clipless and have solved some of my questions.

    Thnaks a lot.

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  24. I started using clipless shoes about 12 months ago, and though I had a couple of falls, it was no more than expected, My LBS eventually decided that the pedals were set too tight. My shoes are Giro, my biked a Giant Cross City Cruiser. I am a week away from 72 years old, and I was pretty proud of myself.
    I have now bought a Giant Defy Pro 1 road bike and I expected the clipless matter not to be of any concern. At first, I could not even engage cleat and pedal but eventually, I could. I spent several hours practising clipping in and clipping out and eventually took to the road where I clipped in and clipped out so often I could not enjoy my ride. But no falls, until .....
    I had to make a sudden stop because of a "detour: sign across my path. I braked, I extracted my left foot from the pedal with difficulty, so much so the bike overbalanced and fell to the right, and the right so was still so stiff, I could not extract the pedal. I fell into a fence and am now nursing 6 breaks to my ribs.
    My LBS had previously told me that my pedals could not be loosened any more than what they are; my only option was to keep on practising until I get better (I reckon I am OK) AND the mechanism loosened up. I cannot believe this. It seems insane that an appropriate adjustment cannot be made to my pedals.
    I realise that I have used the terms "pedals" and "cleats" incorrectly at times, but I am sure you will know what I mean.
    Has anybody got any hints for me? What about using a file on my cleats to make them smaller? (No, surely that is not the solution)

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    1. I assume you have made the transition from MTB pedals to road pedals. The Giant Defy Pro 1 does not include pedals in the specification so it is difficult to comment without knowing what was fitted.
      But your bike shop is not being very helpful. If they have sold you pedals that won't work for you and cannot be adjusted then they should replace them with something that does.
      I would be returning to the shop and asking for them to be replaced.

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  25. Any advice on hill starts please? I can't avoid hills where I live and it's the only time I'm falling off because I can't get the speed up and I end up being stationary again by the time I'm clipped in, and over I go!

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  26. Fractured my radial head on first ride deviated as no cycling for me for 8 weeks ... I wish they had told me to loosen the cleats. .. I was cycling 12 miles everyday along the canal in Cheshire missing all the good weather now.not to mention I'm scared to try again

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  27. Good info. I think I recall Bob talking about the rt/lft pedal issue when we put it together. Hoping for the best.

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  28. Today I used my new Bianci San Mateo Road Bike equipped with clip on Pedals. I had to buy new Cycling Shoes at the same time. After riding thousands of kilometres with Toe Straps this new Experience resulted in 3 Falls because I could not unclip the shoes fast enough. I am 86 years of age and usually ride on a daily basis, but this experience really scared me and I am concerned that it could result in a really serious accident. I am planning to go back to the "old"system, but I feel much better
    and I may be too old to change.

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  29. This post has helped me for an article which I am writing. Thank you for giving me another point of view on this topic. Now I can easily complete my article. Cheers

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  30. Hello and thanks for a good article. Could you please give a piece of advice what to do if you are on a high gear with little uphill and suddenly your chain is slipped and felt? Alex.

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