The Utility of Clipless Pedals, or, Why I Ditched My Spuds

“So I forgot to clip out of my clipless pedals and fell over.”

A well-worn pedal.

To anyone who isn’t serious about cycling, the above phrase is nonsensical. In the minds of snobibsh cyclists, nothing distinguishes them more from their casual brethren on wheels than their clipless pedals. Switching to clipless pedals is as momentous to an adult cyclist as ditching training wheels is to a kid. Sure, anyone can ride a bike, but only those who are truly dedicated choose to “clip in,” and lock themselves to their bike. But while clipless pedals may make some cyclists feel more powerful and agile, do they offer any benefits to utility cyclists? Do commuters and couriers have anything to gain from riding clipped in? For me at least, the answer was, no; Clipping in to clipless pedals didn’t add value to my cycling experience. And in fact, there came a point when the negatives outweighed the positives.

For nearly a century, toe straps and cages were the pinnacle of pedaling technology.

The name “clipless” refers back to the “toe clips” that were cycling state of the art until the 1980s, and toe clips are still fashionable amongst hipsters on fixes. Eddy Merckx and Gary Fisher and other riders on the road, off the road and on the track would use toe clips back in the day to keep their feet tethered to their bikes. With fixed-gear bikes, where the cyclist is forced to pedal as long as the wheels are rotating, toe clips arguably made for a safer ride on the wooden tracks of velodromes. Slipping off pedals that don’t stop rotating leads to injuries and crashes. Toe clips have been used since the earliest day of road racing. Professional and  amateur racers alike argue that they are able to “pull up” on the backstroke, and thereby increase the power of their pedaling. But scientific studies in the 21st Century suggest that compared to “platform pedals,” where the rider’s foot is free to float on top of the pedal, the benefit of clipping in is negligible and primarily a subjective perception of increased speed.

The bigger benefit for more experienced cyclists in locking their feet to the pedals is that they become more agile: it is easier to control a bike when you’re securely attached to it. Toe clips and clipless pedals allow mountain bikers and BMX riders to bunny hop their bikes with greater ease, and maintain contact while airborne. Clipless pedals are practically mandatory for competitive downhill mountain biking.

As a Child of the Eighties, I was enamored with clipless pedals. It seemed the ultimate statement of dedication to cycling: I’m so serious about riding that I’ll sacrifice walking. I felt like I could keep up with Team 7-Eleven if I was clipped in. I spent the summer after I graduated from high school painting houses, and I used my paychecks to buy gear for my bike. In those days my Solomon clipless pedals seemed the coolest thing, and I swore I rode up Middlebury Gap faster when I was clipped in. Just a few miles from where I was born in a Vermont hospital, I was reborn into the pavement when I forgot to clip out at a stoplight for the first time, and I fell over.

I could ride fast in my cleats, but I couldn’t walk quickly or lightly. I clip-clopped on linoleum and went slip sliding away on parquet. I was a gangly danger to myself and property when I was wearing my hard plastic bike shoes, or “cleats.” I might have looked fast, but the frictionless soles of my cleats came close to killing me. And the metal hardware on the bottom of my feet scratched floors everywhere I went. I justified the switch to myself by saying that I couldn’t find toe clips big enough for my Size Fourteen Feet, so clipless pedals were *ahem* the most practical option.

I rode with clipless pedals for the next fifteen years. I was an early adopter of Shimano’s Pedaling Dynamics system, which featured a cleat recessed into the bottom of the shoe sole, instead of sticking out like a bony tumor (yes, the word “cleat” is used to refer both to the locking plate on the bottom of the shoe as well as the entire shoe itself). SPD shoes and pedals were initially marketed to touring cyclists, but they were quickly adopted by mountain bikers, who needed to get off and walk through technical trail sections. According to the advertisements, SPD shoes were easy to walk in, inconspicuous and practical. They were supposed to be so silent and comfortable that you could grab a latte without making the barista wonder what you were wearing down below. Cyclists quickly dubbed the new Shimano cleats as “Spuds.”

In practice though, my Spuds were often duds. The first generations of clipless pedal cleats were attached to the shoe with three and sometimes four bolts. Spuds had just two bolts. The locking cleat itself had shrunk from the size of a small potato to the size of a peanut. My new spuds didn’t stay in place. The tendency of spuds to slip in use ranged from being merely inconvenient and awkward to being downright dangerous when my foot became jammed to the pedal, and I was forced to unlace the shoe in order to exit.

But I stuck with my clipless pedals, and eventually upgraded to the Time ATAC system. As a bigger guy, I found that the retention springs in my clipless pedals failed after a few thousand entries and exits. While brand-new shoes shrouded the cleat, as the soles wore down, the minimalist SPD cleats were exposed. After enough clicking and sliding and grinding, the metal cleats were so worn down that they ceased to function. Just as the treads of my shoes would get jammed up with debris, so too would my spuds. If the cleats were too clogged, they wouldn’t work. I was constantly forced to buy new shoes, cleats and pedals. While the MTB-styled Time ATAC pedals were of a better quality than Shimano’s SPDs, they merely minimized the design flaws. I still wore out my Times. It just took longer.

About a decade ago I got “really serious” about cycling, both off-road and on. I rode thousand kilometer events, and dabbled with off-road centuries when on-road centuries became too pedestrian. My carbon fiber System 7 shoes cost more than any bike for sale at Walmart, and more than most at Dick’s. The stiff sole of the shoe maximized energy transfer. But, my stiff shoes also left my feet locked into the same position, mile after mile. The numbness in my toes began to creep up my feet, no matter how I adjusted my pedals, cleats and shoes. The numbness became semi-permanent. Even when I wasn’t on the bike, I couldn’t feel my toes. I developed painful hot spots above my cleats. After fifty or sixty kilometers, I felt like I was pedaling on thistles. A podiatrist suggested that, just maybe, I should walk more, and bike less.

My Rocket7 shoes cost nearly as much as my monthly rent, but only lasted for a couple years.

My last gasp at riding clipped in was a pair of homemade biking sandals. My feet hurt less when they weren’t bound into a tiny box. I cut apart a set of three-strap Birkenstock sandals, added a fiberglass layer to anchor the cleat, and then glued my new shoes back together. My “Frankenstocks” were certainly unique, and definitely comfortable. But they would only be aesthetic winners in an ugly duckling beauty pageant.

While they look smart, SPD-equipped Birkenstock sandals are eventually torn apart by the rotational torque required to unclip from the pedals.

After asking one too many times, “Why the heck am I doing this,” I left my Frankenstocks at home and just rode to the office in my Doc Marten Oxfords. And I never looked back.

I rediscovered the joy of riding in whatever shoes I was wearing. I no longer had to worry about wearing bike cleats that would cause me to cartwheel in the grocery store. I didn’t sound like a plodding Shetland pony at the bank. Slippery stairs were no longer a life-and-death hazard. I didn’t have to carry an extra pair of shoes with me so that I could change at the office into something more decorous and less painful.

Giving up clipless pedals also came at a time when I shifted from riding recreationally to riding practically. As a bicycle courier I didn’t have the luxury of clipping in just once or twice per day. Instead, I was on and off my bike dozens of times in a busy shift. As a parent with kids on bikes, I needed to be able to follow them into preschool, onto the playground, and around town. I was constantly encountering situations where my cleats were inappropriate, inefficient and an impediment, never mind expensive and regularly in need of maintenance.

In short, my cleats no longer added value to my life. Instead of being restricted to riding on tiny pedals with specialized shoes, I found liberty in riding on flat, broad platform pedals with whatever shoes matched my outfit and my day. I found that the bigger my pedals were, the less pain I had when pedaling. Unable to find quality pedals on the market that were big enough, I began modifying my own pedals. I glued sanding pads to flat pedals for lots of friction. I found that the traditional serrated teeth on un-cleated pedals still caused pain in my feet. Flat blocks didn’t, though.

And this summer I’ll be working as a bicycle tour guide in Skagway, Alaska for Sockeye Cycle Co. Every day I’ll be leading dozens of cruise ship passengers on bike tours. And none of the bikes that we rent have clipless pedals. Riding clipless would not only be an impediment practically speaking, it would also send a message to novice clients that they’re not good enough. But the fact of the matter is that 99% of the world’s cyclists don’t clip in now, and haven’t clipped in the two hundred years since the first bicycle was wheels out. Regular riders aren’t racing over the Alps with a support car shadowing them. They aren’t bunny hopping over logs on mountain bike trails. But because cycling magazines are filled with glossy pictures of pros on clipless pedals, and also filled with advertisements for clipless pedals, it’s become the norm amongst élite cyclists.

Ultimately, I can’t won’t tell any rider that they shouldn’t clip in. Nor would I judge a cyclist for their choice of pedals. What I can do is tell my story, and encourage each rider to ask themselves; do clipless pedals add value to their lives? Do clipless pedals allow them to ride more, and more fully enjoy their ride? Or are they an impediment to integrating cycling into their lives?

Wesley Cheney leads Klondike bike tours for Sockeye Cycle Co. in Skagway, Alaska. He earned his Eagle Scout Badge with Troop 216 in Springfield, Vermont, biked from London to Rome via the Route Napoleon, sailed with the USS Kearsarge to Equatorial Africa, earned a Bachelors Degree in Philosophy from Old Dominion University, completed the final Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200km Brevet, and most recently delivered freaky fast sandwiches for Jimmy John’s in Norfolk, Virginia. As a professional photographer, he has captured images of Harrier jump jets, Norfolk Southern intermodal trains and mountain bike races. Wesley has built, pedaled, paddled and sailed bamboo bicycles, bamboo kayaks, and bamboo sailboats. In the off-season he sings in the choir of Christ & St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, teaches screen printing at 757 Makerspace. He regularly contributes questions to The Thomas Jefferson Hour, plays the ukulele and the flugelhorn, reads the New Testament in German, and prefers to wear a kilt.

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