Just Keep Pedalling, Or How To Get Started (Commuting) With Clipless Pedals

Preamble

  • This is not going to be a post about why you might choose to go clipless for commuting.
  • This is a post for people who already commute by bicycle, but who have never ridden clipless before.
  • This is not going to be a post that assumes anyone should have to know or care about the relative merits of SPD-SLs vs Look Keos, or even know what those are.
via unsplash

Requirements:

  • A bicycle to which you have pedal-changing rights.
  • Double-sided pedals (I use and really like the VP-R62s; the Shimano PD-A530s are good too).
  • A pedal wrench, or a friendly neighbourhood mechanic who can help you with adjustments and fit.
  • Bike shoes and cleats compatible with your chosen pedals (Some pedals may include cleats, but for beginners I recommend the Shimano SH-56 SPD cleats for reasons I will explain below).
The Giro Petra and the Giro Civila. These are SPD-compatible cycling shoes; the cleats that then attach to your pedals go in the recessed bit.
  • A helmet, because you might fall down. More than once.
  • A railing or a wall you can hold on to, so you can practice not falling down.
  • A quiet road or a grassy patch, because you might still fall down.
  • Several days in a row.

Terminology:

  • Counter-intuitively, “clipless pedals” are the kind you clip your bike shoes into.
  • So “riding clipless” means “riding with your shoes clipped into pedals”.
  • Double-sided pedals like the the VP-R62s and the Shimano PD-A530s are pedals that have a flat platform on one side, and a clipless mechanism on the other. This means you can easily switch from riding your bike with your everyday shoes to riding clipped in with a flip of the pedal.
  • “Cleats” are the bits you attach to the your bike shoes that then provide the connection to your pedals.
  • There’s two main styles of clipless pedals, and the shoes and cleats you choose will need to match your pedals and your requirements . For the purposes of getting started with clipless commuting, I strongly recommend going with SPD pedals and mountain-bike or “city style” shoes (or as I tend to think of them, “the ones I can walk to buy coffee in without slipping and falling over”).
  • A major consideration when you’re commuting is “how do I make sure I can quickly and safely get out of a potentially bad situation”. There are two things that directly influence that answer when you’re riding clipless: “tension” and how your cleats are designed to release.
  • “Cleat tension” (sometimes referred to as “pedal tension”) refers to how aggressively your pedals hold on to your shoes once you’re clipped in. You or your friendly neighbourhood mechanic will want to adjust this so it’s extremely easy to clip your shoes in and out, especially at the beginning. Otherwise, you risk not being able to clip out when you want to (and very sore ankles).
  • Within the Shimano SPD universe, there’s two popular cleat models: “lateral” (or single) release and “multi-directional” release. Lateral release cleats will only unclip if you kick your heels outward; multi-directional cleats are much more forgiving. That forgiveness could be the difference between you suddenly stopping at a red light and forgetting you’re clipped in and falling over and being saved because your reflexive leg pull got you out of danger. The Shimano SH-56 SPD cleats are multi-directional; the identical-looking SH-51 model is lateral release only.

OK, let’s ride:

  • Day one: With your newly installed double-sided pedals, and wearing your everyday shoes, go for a ride as your normally do. Get used to the sensation of the flat platform side of the pedal under your foot vs the SPD side. Practice flipping the pedals over from the platform side to the SPD side without ever looking down. And whenever you stop, pay attention to which foot you reflexively put on the ground and which foot tends to stay on the pedal.
  • Day two: Still wearing your regular shoes, start by practicing the pedal flip again. Once you can easily and without stopping or looking down flip the pedals to the side you want, you’re going to imagine yourself clipping in and out at intervals. Start riding on the flat platform side, then flip the pedals over to the SPD side and push the balls of your feet into the pedal where the cleat of your SPD shoe would meet the slot on the pedals. Tell yourself this is what clipping in would feel like. (I would say aloud as I was riding, “pedal pedal clip, pedal pedal”). You might notice it takes a few tries even to get to the “right” side. That’s the point of this exercise — getting comfortable with that uncertainty, and then reducing it as you build up your muscle memory.
  • Day three: Still in your regular shoes, go through a few rounds of the “pedal pedal clip, pedal pedal” drill. Then, you’re going to layer on a heels-out motion that simulates the act of clipping both feet out of the pedals while keeping your feet on the pedals and pedalling. This is a key thing that your brain will resist in the beginning, and you will be tempted to stop pedalling when you’re clipping in and out. This is how falls happen. Keep riding, then simulate clipping back in (including, crucially, the pedal flip you need to be on the right side of the pedal). This is the “pedal pedal clip, pedal pedal, clip out pedal pedal, clip pedal pedal” drill. Do this mindfully and intentionally. You need to learn the difference in sensation of the simulated clipping in vs clipping out motions, and you need to notice when your brain tries to stop pedalling while you’re simulating clipping in and out.
  • Day four: You’re going to practice stopping, and yes, you’re still wearing your regular shoes. Go through all the drills, and then when you’re feeling great about your accomplishments, pick a point in the distance (like a stop sign or an intersection). Then pick a marker in between you and that point, and when you get to that marker (like a tree or a garbage can) do the “pedal pedal clip, pedal pedal, clip out pedal pedal” drill and keep pedalling until you get to your stopping point. Does this sound just like day three? Yes, and no. What you’re actually practicing here is training yourself to unclip before you get to the point at which you need to stop. Riding clipless means being even more vigilant about stop signs, road conditions, potentially dangerous drivers, and other cyclists than riding without foot retention. As you get more experienced it will become second nature to clip out before you get to that traffic light, but for now, repeat after me: “pedal pedal clip, pedal pedal, clip out at this tree, pedal pedal stop, pedal pedal clip in pedal pedal”.
  • Day five: Remember how I asked you to pay attention to which foot you tend to put on the ground, and which foot tends to stay on the pedal? Hold that thought, and put your SPD shoes on. Wiggle your toes around. Feel the balls of your feet. Now line your bike up next to a wall or railing that you can hold on to with the hand that’s opposite the foot you tend to put on the ground. My left foot is the one is use to stop, so I would use my right hand to grasp the railing. Got it? Good. Get on your bike. Steady, steady. With your usual foot on the ground, and holding firmly to that railing, clip into the other pedal. Do not let go of the railing. Now, take your foot off the ground and clip that foot in. Still holding on, unclip your dominant foot and then the other. Remember, no looking down. Repeat until you can do this by feel, quickly, and easily. You’re working on mastering the motion of clipping in, and getting a feel for the amount of force you need to exert to clip out (and if there’s too much tension and you’re struggling, now is the time to get it adjusted).
  • Day five and a half: You’re comfortable with the amount of tension in your pedals. You’ve wrapped your brain around which foot you tend to stop with and which foot you tend to put on the pedal first. You’re prepared for a fall. So now it’s time to ride: head to that nice soft patch of grass or that quiet street with no incoming traffic. If you’re riding to that safe spot, use the flat platform side of your pedals. Once you’ve arrived and are far away from multiple lanes of oncoming traffic, you’re going to do this drill over and over again: “pedal pedal clip in pedal pedal pedal identify a marker clip out at the marker pedal pedal stop pedal pedal clip in”. Your goal is to build up the muscle memory of what each motion and interaction feels like, and to teach your brain to resist the temptation to stop pedalling when you’re trying to clip in and out. Repeat after me: brain, you don’t need to be clipped in to be pedalling.
  • Day six: At this point you should have some sense of what might need tweaking (do your ankles hurt? your knees? is your ego ok?) and what you need to keep practicing. You might also decide at this point that you are Team Flat Pedals For Life. That is entirely reasonable, and why you should always have a pedal wrench or a friendly neighbourhood mechanic to hand. Whatever your next ride might be, ride safe.
London: pretty, and can be a giant pain to ride in. Photo via Death To Stock.