Speak to most cyclists and they'll tell you the same thing: "Once you go clipless, you never go back."
Riding clipless is a very different experience to riding on flat pedals, providing you with much deeper control of the bike.
It means better efficiency, handling, and power, as well as improving balance and the bike’s agility. If you’re serious about taking your cycling to the next stage, then going clipless is the gateway to fulfilling your biking ambitions.
But it’s not something you should dive into without first ensuring you’re ready. So how do you know that the time has come to make the switch?
What is a clipless pedal?
If you’re new to the clipless world, then it might require some explanation.
Firstly, the term: the clipless pedal system allows attachments on your shoes, called cleats, to slot into recesses or clips on certain pedals.
With your shoes attached to the pedals, you can now both push and pull the pedals through the pedal stroke.
The system is engaged by pushing the cleat into the pedal until you feel a satisfying ‘click’. Disengaging requires you to twist your foot – ankle first - from the mechanism.
If this sounds to you like being 'clipped in' then you might well be asking why the pedals are described as 'clipless'. The confusion over the term is a hangover from the days when pedal cages with toe clips were commonplace on race bikes. Since the modern cleat system has largely replaced the old toe clips, modern pedals are called ‘clipless’.
In the interests of clarity, pedals are either ‘flat’, having no clipping function at all, or ‘clipless’ designed to work in conjunction with cleats.
Am I ready? Clipless pedals for beginners…
Before you dive feet-first into the clipless pedal world, you should make sure it’s right for your needs.
If you’re regularly undertaking cycling journeys that are up to or over 10 miles long, then the system will provide significant benefits for you.
If you’re a mountain bike rider that often rides until the point of significant fatigue, then you’ll find you can ride for longer with clipless.
But because clipless riding takes some getting used to and requires a bit of skill to operate, you should already be a proficient and confident rider before making the switch.
What are the advantages of going clipless?
The main advantage of clipless pedals is the ability to push through the first half of the pedal stroke with your quads, then sweep back and lift through the second half of the pedal stroke using your hamstrings and hip flexors.
This helps increase efficiency and power output, while purpose made clip-in shoes can be made stiffer to transfer your power more effectively.
It also provides increased control over the bike, to which you are more directly connected.
Knowing your feet will not slip off the pedals is another advantage, especially in wet conditions or over rough terrain.
When correctly set up, a clipless pedal will ensure your foot is always correctly positioned over the pedal axle - giving you the best bio-mechanical leverage.
However, if you're generally commuting short distances, getting on and off the bike regularly, or just riding low miles casually, the clipless system may not be for you.
Which clipless pedals should I get?
Once you’ve decided to go clipless, you have a few decisions to make.
There are two main systems, the 'three bolt' (above left) and the 'two bolt' (above right).
This number refers to how many bolts are used to connect the cleat to the shoe. Road shoes have a larger cleat with three bolts, using stiffer soles and lighter pedals.
The two-bolt format is predominantly for mountain biking. It uses a recessed cleat, enabling you to walk normally in your shoes while off the bike, which is better suited to MTB’s stop-start style as opposed to road cycling’s long continuous miles. MTB pedals are also slightly easier to clip in and out of, in case you need to dab a foot during a tight bend.
Some riders occasionally opt to use the mountain bike (often called SPD) cleat and pedal system on their road bike (road pedals rarely, if ever, are used on mountain bikes), especially those worried about the more secure clipping system.
While the two-bolt and three-bolt systems are accepted standards, there is a wide range of pedal types and corresponding cleat variations.
What cleat/pedal combination do I need?
Are you a Road Cyclist?
- SPD SL – The Shimano is based on the Look system although they are not compatible. Shimano have a good range of pedals from budget to top end and are well known for their durability.
- Look- Look developed the modern clip-in road pedal from ski binding technology in the 1980s. Since then, their basic system design has changed little but they have used the latest in materials and technology to ensure their pedals are some of the lightest and best performing on the market.
- LifeLine - These are Wiggle's own brand pedals, and offer superb value with similar performance characteristics to Shimano.
- Speedplay – Speedplay are different from any other clip-in systems in that the mechanism is incorporated into the cleat. This allows you to clip into two sides of the pedal and the system also has finely tune-able float adjustment. This does, however, mean that the cleats are more expensive than many other brands.
- TIME - Time pedals have been on the road cycling scene for decades and have a cult following for their reliability and performance.
Are you a Mountain Biker?
If you're a mountain biker, you're looking at two-bolt clipless pedal systems.
- Shimano SPD (Shimano Pedalling Dynamics) – SPDs were the first mass-produced off-road clip-in system and still remain the most popular. They are well known for their performance on the trail and their durability.
- Crank Brothers – The Egg Beater style mechanism on Crank Brothers pedals sheds mud very well and allows you to clip in on four sides of the pedal. They do however require more maintenance than some of the competition.
- Time ATAC – Another long-time favourite with mountain bikers and cyclocross racers alike. Favoured for its good mud shedding abilities and consistent engagement and release, even in the worst conditions.
- Speedplay Frog – As with their road pedals, Speedplay have incorporated the spring mechanism within the cleat rather than on the pedal. They have a good reputation for durability and plenty of float, but the cleats are larger than most and some shoes may require slight modification to the tread to fit the cleats.
- LifeLine - This is Wiggle's own brand and offers fantastic value and performance. Ideal for beginners and intermediates.
- Look S-Track - These have been used by professional-level mountain bikers to achieve World Championship podiums on numerous occasions. Their unique design offers increased contact area between pedal and shoe, facilitating better power transfer.
- Ritchey - High-end pedals from a heritage brand. Ritchey has a great reputation for delivering quality components.
Get the best of both worlds
If you're a mountain biker and you think that sometimes you might prefer to clip in, but other times you would be happier with flats, DMR have come up with a perfect solution. Known as the Jekyll and Hyde of pedals, the DMR Versa Pedal features a clip-in mechanism on one side and a flat platform on the other.
How to set-up your cleats
Once you’ve bought your pedals, now all you have to do is set up your cleats (the corresponding cleats will often be included in the box when you buy your pedals). Doing this correctly is important to maximise the effectiveness of the new pedal system and to avoid developing an injury.
Wrongly installed cleats will mean you’re pedal motion is unnatural, putting pressure on the ligaments of your knees and the delicate parts of your feet.
The good news is that installing your cleats is easy with our three-step system below.
This installation guide is based on a three-bolt road shoe cleat. Two bolt SPD positioning is based on the same principles.
Step one: Fore and aft
First, before screwing in your cleat, put on your cycling shoe and find the ball of your foot at the base of your big toe. Where the biggest part of the bone protrudes, make a corresponding mark on the inside of your shoe with a marker. Next, do the same for the pad at the base (where it meets your foot) of your little toe.
Now, remove your shoe and on the sole draw two corresponding lines across the sole starting from the points you’ve just marked. The bottom line gives you the ‘aft’ of the cleat, the top line the ‘fore’.
At this point, you may need to consider your foot angle on the pedal – do you ride toe down, or heel down? If you cycle with your toe down, using that aggressive sprinter pedal technique, you may need to move your cleat forward slightly. Those who cycle with the heel down should do the opposite.
Ultimately, the ball of your foot should sit right on the pedal axel.
Step two: Inside or outside (transverse plane)
Next you need to find whether the cleat needs to move laterally, from the inside or to the outside of the sole.
This depends on the travel of your knee through the pedal stroke. If your knee is between your foot and the bike at the top of your pedal stroke, then you’ll feel pressure on the inside of your sole.
To counter this, move the cleat outward (away from the ball of the foot), allowing the foot to move closer to the frame and to fall more directly under the knee.
If your knee is further from the bike than your foot through the pedal motion, then move the cleat towards the inside of the shoe. This will widen your stance on the pedals, putting your foot under your knee and improving the distribution of pressure.
Step three: Orientation
Finally, you need to adjust the angle of the cleat - whether it points forward or is turned at an angle.
Begin by looking at your natural foot alignment. Sit on a table and dangle your feet. Do they naturally tend to point outwards (duck-toed), inward (pigeon-toed), or are they neutral?
If you are duck-toed, with toes that point outwards, you need to position the cleat so that the foot sits in its natural position, with the ankle slightly closer to the bike. To draw the heel inwards, adjust the fore of the cleat to point towards your big toe.
The opposite rotation will be necessary if you’re pigeon-toed. To move your heel outwards, you need the fore of the cleat to turn in the direction of your little toe.
Those with neutral stances should position their cleats to face straight forwards.
While it’s worth spending some time ensuring your cleat position is perfect, if the cleat has ‘float’ it will provide some wiggle room. See 'What is clipless pedal float?' for more information.
- If you don’t want to draw on your lovely new shoes with marker, use masking tape or blue-tac instead, then remove it when done.
What is clipless pedal float?
Some manufacturers such as Look and Shimano colour code their three-bolt road cleats. This is to indicate the amount of 'float' the cleat facilitates. Float refers to the small amount of lateral rotation available once the cleat is clipped into the pedal. Other manufacturers allow you to adjust the float yourself.
Without a few degrees of float your feet will be fixed into place and if misaligned can lead to knee injuries.
Shimano and Look colour code their cleats differently, depending on their degree of float:
Shimano SPD-SL Pedal Cleats
Red 0° Float
Blue 2° Float (provided with high-end e.g. Dura Ace SPD-SL pedals)
Yellow 6° Float (provided with most Shimano SPD-SL pedals)
Look Pedal Cleats
Black 0° Float
Grey 4.5° Float
Red 9° Float
Can you wear regular shoes with clipless pedals?
Generally no, especially with some of the more specialised pedal systems, such as the Crank Brothers’ famous ‘Egg Beater’ style system (bottom picture) or Speedplay’s ‘lollipop’ design.
However, some mountain bike pedals, such as Crank Brothers Mallet or Nukeproof Horizon (top picture), have platforms around the clips which means you can use them with regular shoes. These are sometimes called 'hybrid' pedals. There are also one-sided pedals, with a flat platform on one side and a clip system on the other.
Tips for your first clipless ride
You’ve bought your first set of clipless pedals and shoes and are ready for your first ride. But before you begin - a warning. Falling off at least once after first going clipless is not uncommon – if anything, it’s a rite of passage.
There are ways to minimise the hurt – especially to your pride – so follow our guidance below.
- Start slowly
The first time you go clipless must not be a race or a sportive. You need to give yourself time to adjust and it can take four or five rides to start feeling comfortable, so be patient.
- Safety first
Get started on soft surfaces like grass so that if (when) you fall, you’ll not be injured.
- Practice clipping in and out
Hold yourself upright on the bike using a wall or pole and practice the motion of clipping in and out. Visualise yourself coming to a stop, clip out, then put your foot down, then repeat until this is an automatic response so you don’t have to think about it when you come to a halt for real.
- Pick a foot
Always unclip the same foot first when approaching a stop and make it a habit. That will give the brain less to do when it thinks about which side the weight should fall when the bike stops.
Before moving off, use the foot still in its clip to push off. Raise it to the top position and push down, giving you enough momentum to get the other foot back into the pedal.
- Anticipate your stops
Particularly for road cyclists, look at the road ahead and anticipate any junctions or obstacles that require you to stop. Begin the process of clipping out and braking early so that you remain in control.