Clipping In: A Beginner Cyclist's GuideMay 30, 2021
A common question we get at CWRB is around 'clipping in'. Whether you're on a road, gravel or mountain bike, being attached to your pedals can seem to be one of the biggest and scariest changes you can make - especially when you've just starting out riding!
The good news is, there are lots of ways to make this transition easier for yourself if it's something you decide to do... but let's address some questions first:
Q: Do I HAVE to clip in?
This is an easy one. Absolutely not.
Riding bikes is a wonderful way to be more active, make new friends, explore new places and just be happier and more confident. If the thought of clipping in has you so anxious it's interfering with any of these things, you 100% don't have to do it! It doesn't matter if 'everyone else' is doing it.
Want to wear sneakers? Do it! You do you!
Q: What is Clipping In?
Platform or flat pedals have a large surface area for you to put your foot on. There's no clipping mechanism or strap, so they're easy to use on any bike. Sometimes they have notches, tread or small spikes to help your shoe grip the pedal better.
Clip Ins (aka clipless because those hipster toe straps you still see around used to be called 'clips' so now pedals you clip into are called 'clipless' - go figure) attaches your foot to the bike using a two-part system. The first is the pedal itself which are smaller (and sometimes much smaller) than the flat pedal. The second part is the cleat you wear on the bottom of your shoe.
When people refer to Clipping In, they mean using the cleat at the bottom of their shoe to 'clip into' the slot on the pedal.
Q: Are There Different Types?
It’s always safest to assume that with bike stuff, there are always different types! Clipless pedals require specific shoes and cleats which fit the mechanism, let’s look at the two most popular types.
Mountain Bike Systems: These are often called SPDs (which stands for Shimano Pedalling Dynamics) or Walkable Clipless is the system most often seen on mountain bikes and gravel bikes. They are popular on non-road bikes because they’re easy to get in and out of and the cleats are recessed into the soles of the shoe which means the cleats don't really contact the ground when you walk. Many SPD systems use a double-sided pedal which means you can click into the pedal on either side so you don't have to look down to get your feet in.
Road Bike Systems: Sometimes called SPD-SL (which stands for Shimano Pedalling Dynamics – Super Light) or clip-clops, these pedals are most common on road bikes. They’re popular for road biking where maximum efficiency, aerodynamics and minimum weight are all important. In road clipless systems, the cleats protrude from the soles of the shoes giving you a more ‘clip-cloppy’ style of walking when off the bike… but the point of them is to be light and aero on the bike, not off it!
Q: What Are the Benefits and Drawbacks
There are a few benefits that are absolute, and a few that are subjective (that is to say, they depend on your confidence and ability).
The main benefit touted in favour of clipping in is that you will cycle more efficiently (some say about 30% more) due to being able to push down and pull up on the pedals. Where this will be most noticeable is when climbing where any extra assistance is appreciated!
On a mountain bike, being clipped in can have a different advantage in that you can manoeuvre the bike (ie bunny hop or lift the back wheel) without having the skills to do it on flat pedals, though this is a more subjective advantage.
The other side of the coin to clipping in on a mountain bike, as downhillers, BMX riders and some bike instructors will tell you, is that it’s best to learn skills ‘the real way’ so you’re not reliant on being clipped in.
While there is truth to this, there’s also the viewpoint that the more confident you are navigating obstacles, the better you’ll get at them and the more you’ll build those crucial skills along the way (as opposed to not getting started before you’ve mastered anything).
Another drawback is the cost. Clipping In requires specific gear which can cost a pretty penny. A tip from us is, even if you aren't planning on using them right away, you may get it cheaper (or even free!) with a bike purchase as a package deal. You may find you are ready to try them faster than you thought.
Q: What If I'm afraid I'll fall?
One of the biggest fears of going clipless is falling. Of course, no one likes stacking it (and somehow those slow-mo crashes seem to hurt the worst!). But if we stick with the car analogy, a fear of falling is equivalent to a fear of stalling... It would be great if you learned it perfectly the first time and it never happened, but if would be unrealistic of a driving instructor to reassure you it will never happen.
The clipped in gumby stack is sort of a… rite of passage. Anyone who says they've never done it is probably telling you porkies.
Q: How Do I Get Started if I Want to Give it a Try?
Let's start off thinking about it this way: when you learned to drive a manual car it was a steep learning curve, right? You had to learn how to operate the clutch and move the gears as well as think about braking and accelerating and steering. It's all so hard at first... you bunny hop everywhere - and hill starts become the most panic attack-inducing, horrible thing you can imagine. But then, over time, you practice and it becomes second nature!
This is what it's like learning to clip in. Some people "get it" straight away. Others take a little more time! (And some even fall onto their husband's motorcycle in their own driveway while trying to practice. But I digress.)
If you want to give clipping in a try, here are 7 top tips to help you get started.
1. Adjust Cleat Tension
The cleat is the bit that's attached to your shoe which clips into a specific mechanism on a pedal. To clip in, you need to put downwards pressure when you've found the right spot. To clip out, you need to create a light twist sideways motion - kind of like doing the Charleston if that's a reference that makes sense to you!
The tension you feel when trying to unclip is called 'cleat tension', and the good news is it's adjustable! If you want a really firm fit, such as on a long road bike ride where you don't expect to unclip, you just tighten the tension screw. If you want a looser fit, such as on a gravel, cyclocross or mountain bike because you're unclipping more often, you just loosen the tension screw!
2. Adjust Cleat Position
One thing to get used to about going from flat pedals to clipping in is your foot being secured to the pedal. Well, duh, you might think, but stick with us. As the cleat is attached to the shoe with a few screws, the cleat position is fixed in that particular spot - for better or for worse.
As cycling is an activity that requires a LOT of repetition (a 60 minute bike ride can have anywhere between 4800 - 6600 pedal revolutions), if your cleat position isn't right and forces your foot or knee to be at a weird angle, you could end up with a strain or injury.
Just like with the cleat tension, you can adjust the cleat position on your actual shoe! Its always better to start in a neutral position while you get used to it, but certainly don't settle or feel like you'll 'get used to it' if you end up with sore knees, hips or ankles after a ride.
Your local bike fitter or bike shop can help you find the right position!
3. Try 50/50 pedals
These are absolute gems if you want to try clipping in but feel really nervous. Double-sdied pedals are flat on one side, and have the clipping mechanism on the other. This means you can easily ride in sneakers if you want, or even use the flat side of the pedal with your new fancy cleat shoes if you're still working it out.
This particular pedal is called Shimano M324 which also have cleat tension adjustability. They can be used on all kinds of bikes either as a temporary measure or as your permanent pedals!
4. Practice somewhere quiet
There's no doubt about it, learning to clip in can be a stressful time, and you'll find it will be a better learning environment to practice somewhere nice and quiet before heading out onto the road or trails.
Find a park, path, very quiet street or even a closed circuit such as a velodrome or criterium track if you're lucky to have one nearby. Push off to get some momentum and try 'finding' the pedal without clipping in at first. Push off, find the pedal, see if it feels like you're lining up your cleat, and then when you're ready, put some downward pressure to clip in (but don't forget to keep some momentum!).
Once you can find the pedal with your cleat, put in a few pedal strokes, then clip out. Repeat times a million ad nauseum... you can never have too much practice before going out into the real world with your new cycling shoes!
5. Become ambidextrous
While this word is used to descibe equal usage of right and left hands, practicing clipping out WITH BOTH FEET is an important skill.
Even if you watch other cyclists as they ride on the road or trails, you'll see most people end up with a 'favourite foot'. While there's nothing strange about favouring one side, an inability to unclip on both sides can cause issues if you are forced to stop and unclip with the other one... This is especially true if you are learning to ride clipped into your mountain bike.
While you're on the quiet street or closed path or track, make sure you spend time clipping and unclipping with both feet, until it feels equally natural to use both. By doing this, you'll be ahead of the game and far more likely to avoid the dreaded gumby slow motion stack if you know how to use both feet.
6. Start a Foot Care Routine
Unlike your fave comfy sneakers, if you want to start clipping in, you'll quickly find that cycling shoes have a very (very) firm sole. This feature - while it isn't ideal for walking - ensures that the power you're working so hard to generate using your leg muscles is directly transmitted to the cycle's pedals for maximum effect. If cycling shoes had soft flexible soles, some of that energy would be lost which makes for less efficient ride.
The hardness and lack of flex in the soles of the shoe can mean that your poor feet get quite sore too! We recommend some simple stretching and rolling of the feet can really help to alleviate this and have your paws in great shape.
Use a trigger point ball or even a golf or tennis ball to roll under the feet while you sit post-ride, or just get your partner to give them a rub for you... post shower.
7. Learn Correct Pedalling Technique
To get the 30% efficiency from the push/pull effect of clipping in, it pays to learn correct pedalling technique up front. If you look at the image below and then think of the entire pedalling revolution as a clock face, when you're riding on flat pedals, you really only have the pushing motion when your foot is at the 11 o'clock position through to 7 o'clock position. When clipping in, while one foot is pushing down, the other foot can pull up from the 5 o'clock position to the 1 o'clock position.
When you start clipping in, you'll have a lot to think about at once, but the basics of good pedalling technique are to drop your heel in the down stroke (ie avoid pushing down on your tippy toe), pretend you're wiping dog poo off your shoe during the bottom transition and then slightly point your toe as you pull during the up stroke, getting ready to drop the heel for the next down stroke.
Don't freak out too much, you can create a simple mantra like 'heavy heel down, light toes up' or something while you're getting used to it.
Have some tips we haven't included here? We'd love to hear from you!