The clipless diaries, part 1: An introduction

As solid and as reliable as the Saint pedals are, I was getting sick of the constant looming threat of them taking a bite out of my shin, ankle or calf. I wanted the security of my foot on the pedal in the rain, but felt traction pins weren’t necessarily the best way of doing so.

A few friends have also called me out on my precarious foot positioning, especially on harder efforts. I’m relatively flat-footed, so my feet tend to over-pronate (rotate inboard) when running or pedaling. Over time, I’ve noticed the strain I’m putting on my shins, so I thought some way of artificially limiting my ankle pronation might help in the long run.

I had been thinking about clipless pedals for quite a long while now. The name is admittedly quite stupid, but it stuck. In essence, this system involves a special shoe with a metal or plastic cleat that “clips into” the retention mechanism on the pedal. The rider’s feet are effectively bound to the bike, so no pedal slippage can occur. To release or “unclip” from the pedal, the rider generally has to twist his/her heel outward.

They come in two general flavors, differing in the number of bolts used to mount the cleat to the shoe.

Image courtesy of bicycles.stackexchange.com

Three-bolt cleats and pedals are almost exclusively the domain of road bikes. French company Look carried over the base technology from its ski boot bindings in 1984. A large plastic cleat stands proud of the sole of the shoe, clipping into a pedal that’s meant to be used only on one side, and the shoes themselves are usually very rigid with little to no tread. While this makes for a stiff pedaling platform and minimum power loss, such “road bike shoes” are very hard to walk in and offer little grip, especially on smooth tiled floors. Not that you’d want to walk in them for long, either, as walking also wears out the cleat. In Filipino parlance, these shoes are called baliktad na takong (“heels in reverse”) due to how the cleat juts out on the ball of the foot, instead of on the heel.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

In 1990, Shimano released its first iteration of SPD (Shimano Pedaling Dynamics) – the granddaddy of the two-bolt cleat and pedal system. Called the “mountain bike” system due to its origins, it uses a much smaller metal cleat, fastened by two bolts. The shoes are closer in appearance and flexibility to a typical sneaker and are more walkable, with a recessed well to house the cleat and minimize its wear while off the bike.  Most models of the pedals are double-sided, meaning you can clip into them from either side. Detractors of the two-bolt system point to the smaller cleat making undesirable “hot spots” on the foot on prolonged and/or harder pedaling efforts.

Despite the “mountain bike” moniker, pedals for two-bolt cleats can also be found on road bikes because they are easier to live with for the commute. Cyclocross, with its peculiar combination of pedaling and running in the mud, takes this versatility to the extreme.

Shimano PD-M324 SPD + Flat pedals.

There is a subset of “single-sided” SPD pedals that offer both the SPD mechanism on one side and a normal flat pedal on the other. This allows a rider to use cycling shoes as well as normal footwear. For me, this was the ideal solution – on paper, at least.

There’s a lot more to discuss about clipless pedals and shoes, so stay tuned for the next part of this series.

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