The clipless diaries, part 5: Before and after

So, pratfalls aside, how have clipless pedals changed my riding?

It took a while for me to get comfortable in them. I came from a flat pedal background, so when I tried driving my leg force through the pedal body, I found validity in some people’s claim of “hot spots” on the foot since the SPD mechanism effectively “shrinks” the pedal into a lump. Initially, my feet were curling up trying to apply the power to what they felt of the pedal body…which isn’t much. As hard as it is to believe, this might also be down to the RT33 shoes themselves not being the stiffest; Shimano rate them a 5 out of a possible 12 on their own stiffness scale.

Backing off, I relaxed and tried to just spin the pedals. This felt much better. With some more practice, I found the key was to drive the power through the shoes, not the pedals. With the shoe locked on the pedal, it effectively serves as an extension of the pedal body, so leg power can be delivered without applying as much force.

One thing clipless pedal advocates love to talk about is how the system lets you pull up on the pedals to make power – recruiting more muscles and effectively “doubling” your leg power. Hmmm, okay. While this is true, I doubt the force delivered by pulling up on the pedals is anywhere close to that of pushing down on them, or leg extension. Even with flat pedals, I could recruit my hamstrings and glutes by sliding rearward on the saddle, and even with clipless pedals, the act of pedaling is still primarily driven by the quadriceps muscle.

However, I felt that at higher cadences it’s easier to spin, and do so with more controlled power along slightly more of the pedal travel, than on flat pedals – resulting in more efficient pedaling and a higher average speed. Along BF Parañaque’s bumpy Concha Cruz Drive, on a tempo effort with flat pedals, my pace tends to drop from 20 km/h to around 16 at the exit gate. On the clipless setup, I could maintain 20 km/h the whole length, sometimes even breaking it. The benefits will only show up when I put in the effort, though.

The other situation where the clipless system comes into its own is when riding out of the saddle. Mashing away at lower cadence, or when sprinting hard, I no longer need to think about my foot positioning on the pedal or the feeling of my shins twisting from ankle over-pronation. I just drive each body-weighted pedal stroke to the ground.

So… As a friend asked me recently, am I now a clipless pedal advocate? I would have to say “it depends.”

If I were to ride mountain bike trails again, I wouldn’t be too keen on committing to clipless all the time. Let’s face it, there are unfamiliar features that can catch you out, requiring a dab of the foot off the pedals and on the ground. It’s here that the multi-release cleats are handy. If I’m on an initial reconnaissance run of the trails, I’d probably be on the T780 pedals’ platform side. That’s more due to my relative inexperience on trails.

On the road, the argument is much more straightforward. My particular setup gives most of the benefits of clipless pedals with very few of the drawbacks. Occasional cleat scraping and shouty logo on the top strap aside, the RT33 shoes even look like something you could take to the office, so it’s much easier to commit to the system more often.

Finally, on the days I can’t ride with “special cycling shoes” for whatever reason, the T780 pedals make it relatively easy to keep riding Hyro anyway. There also are other pedals with the same concept to choose from, such as Shimano’s light-action Click’R PD-T420, the classic PD-M324, and the sportier PD-A530.

The clipless diaries, part 4: The elephant in the room

Previously I went over the Shimano RT33L shoes. Now that all the SPD components are in place, how do they perform? Rather – how well do they fit my cycling experience?

I played around with cleat location and fitment, initially trying a midfoot position where my foot’s low arch was. I found it difficult to unclip in that position, so after much trial and error I decided to follow the ball-of-foot-over-pedal-spindle school of thinking, while setting the cleats to allow for my feet’s natural outward splay. Leaning against a wall, I spent a bit of time clipping in and unclipping, which felt really strange at first – even with the T780 pedals’ retention springs set to the lowest tension.

Of course, there’s the elephant in the room. If you invest in clipless pedals, expect to fall off at least once. Remember that I bought the T780 pedals in an attempt to reduce self-injury from my pedals? They’ve been a failure in that regard, but not quite in the way you’d think.

On one of my first long rides with clipless, I was chuffed that I was doing pretty well. I had covered around 70 kilometers without falling, and I was just a few more from home when I had to slow to a crawl around vehicular traffic at an intersection. Still clipped in, I fell in queue and followed a black Toyota Fortuner SUV as it crawled forward, and to my left was a motorcycle rider.

I failed to see the more-sudden-than-expected stop of the Fortuner. I reacted in time to come to a complete stop, but I had forgotten to unclip beforehand. In slow motion, I felt myself falling to the right, “drive” side – not what you want on a bicycle. Frantically I tried to pull my right foot out…which it did, thanks to the multi-release cleats, and I avoided falling. Unfortunately, in trying to perform a last-ditch save, I managed to startle the rider beside me and Hyro’s big chainring managed to find my right calf. The chainring teeth dug into it, making a line of five or six little wounds along its length, one of them bleeding. No falls, yes, but perforated right calf. So much for SPD pedals’ wound and injury reduction…

As they say, though, practice makes perfect, and I am happy to report that such clumsy clipless shenanigans have largely disappeared. It’s just a matter of adding the extra step of unclipping my right foot in advance before stopping, with my left foot still clipped in, in preparation for the traffic lights turning green.

So, have there been any benefits to binding my feet to the bike? That’s a story for next time.

The clipless diaries, part 3: Shimano SH-RT33L road touring shoes

Previously, I went over Shimano’s Deore XT T780 pedal set, which combines SPD retention mechanism and flat pedal in one unit. I also discussed how they performed underfoot on normal sneakers.

To use these pedals to the fullest, I needed proper shoes. I found a lot of them underwhelming, though.

Cross-country MTB shoe: Shimano SH-XC31

Despite the promise of easier walking, many MTB shoes deliver on that premise only on muddy ground and off-road conditions. Most cross-country MTB shoes do just this, equipped with hard, unyielding plastic tread blocks. If your walking happens mostly on floors, asphalt and pavement, this isn’t what you want.

Mountain touring shoe: Shimano SH-MT34

More walkable MTB shoe options do exist, but they also give you a tall stack height (measured by the thickness of the sole from insole to outsole) – not what I wanted, either.

Then I saw Shimano’s road touring shoe line.

Road touring shoe: Shimano SH-RT82

These look like road bike shoes, but throw out the three-bolt cleat mounting. Instead, they get a two-bolt SPD cleat mount with a full-length rubber sole. Interesting.

I ended up getting Shimano’s SH-RT33L shoes. The company logo aside, I like how simple and understated these look. You could get away with using them for work…just about.

I’ve heard horror stories of the company’s shoe sizing running on the small side, but these EUR 44-size shoes fit me well with just enough give at the toe box.

One level down from the RT82, the category flagship model, these jettison the third ratchet-buckle strap and offset strap arrangement, relying on two normal hook-and-loop straps instead. They still get the same sole, though, and have a few nice touches. Dense mesh at the toebox provides foot venting, but doesn’t let the odd splash of water through immediately. There’s also a bit of reflective material on the ends of the straps and on the heel cup.

The RT33s may be more walkable than your typical road bike shoe, but they’re still rather stiff in the sole. The outsole has a strange profile, with a pronounced “tiptoe rocking” as you roll forward from the ball of your foot to your toes, since the area of the sole where the cleat recess lives is thicker. On most surfaces walking with them is fine, although depending on how your cleat is set up, you might still hear its metal scraping and clicking on the pavement.

Driving with them isn’t the best of ideas. The stack height on the ball of the foot is still kind of high, so it forces my left knee to go unsupported while manipulating the clutch, and brake pedal feel is diminished. On longer drives, I’d advise a change of footwear.

With this shoe, as with some other models, Shimano provide you a “cleat nut” with four threaded holes, as well as a rectangular waterproof sticker. To mount the cleat and fine-tune the position, you remove the insole (or “sockliner”), then put the cleat nut face down into the long thin holes. Take the cleat, foreplate and two mounting bolts, place them on the outsole, and loosely thread them into the cleat nut while you fine-tune the position of the cleat. Once satisfied with the cleat position, prep the cleat bolts with grease or thread locker, and torque them down to 5 Nm. Teeth on the back edge of the cleat will dig into the outsole and leave divots to secure its position. You then cover up the cleat nut from the inside with the waterproof sticker and return the insole.

So, how do I get along with them on the bike? That’s a topic for next time.