Swapping from flat pedals to clip-in ones is a milestone in becoming a road cyclist. Known as ‘clipless’ pedal systems due to the absence of old-timey toe clips and straps, they consist of a cleat on the bottom of your shoe that securely clicks into a pedal interface.
Clipless pedals are an important aspect of road riding, and especially racing. When set up correctly, they keep your feet in the most comfortable position, allowing you to ride further and faster. They prevent your shoes from accidentally slipping off. Most importantly, they allow you to pull up on the pedals, meaning you can apply power throughout the whole pedalstroke.
It’s not a difficult skill to learn, but riding with clipless pedals can be a daunting prospect. For beginner riders, the idea of being locked into your bicycle, unable to put your foot down in an emergency, is a scary one.
This post is for beginners trying to learn to ride with clipless pedals for the first time. Follow these tips and you’ll soon be clipping in and out with confidence.
1. Unclip early
Unclip from your pedals earlier than you think you’ll need to.
When you’re approaching a traffic light, intersection or hazard, unclip as soon as you suspect you may need to stop. That way, you’ll definitely have your foot ready to touch down on the ground.
It’s better to coast for 200 metres with your foot unclipped than to fall down in front of traffic because you couldn’t get your foot out in time.
2. Clip in late
Conversely, when restarting from a standstill, don’t try to clip in until you’ve gained some momentum.
It’s okay to ride a short distance with one foot unclipped, even just pedalling with one foot if you have to.
That’s better than fumbling to clip in, missing, and falling over because you’ve unintentionally slowed to a stop.
3. Always unclip on the same side
When I bought my first road bike, the shop assistant gave me this tip. I’ve been following it ever since.
Every time you need to unclip, start by unclipping the same side first. It doesn’t matter if it’s your right foot first or your left foot, just make sure it’s the same foot every time.
By doing so, you’ll develop muscle memory, such that unclipping will become instinctive. That muscle memory also applies to restarting, meaning you’ll get quicker and quicker at clipping in.
Personally, I always unclip my left foot first. This allows me to push off using my stronger right foot whenever I restart.
4. Adjust your cleat position
Whenever I buy new cycling shoes, I use my first few rides to fine-tune my cleat position. Having your cleats correctly placed relative to the sole of your foot is fundamental to a good bike fit.
I use Shimano’s SPD-SL cleats and pedals (the Look-style pedals). These are easily adjustable with an Allen key.
I position the cleat so that the ball of my foot sits just behind the pedal axle. I also rotate the cleat so that my feet point subtly inwards. Experiment during your rides until you find a position that works for you.
5. Adjust your pedal tension
If you’re finding you need a lot of force to wrench your feet out of the pedals, you may need to loosen the release tension. Conversely, if your feet accidentally come out of the pedals while you’re riding, you may need to tighten things up.
When you’re just starting out with clipless pedals, you might feel more comfortable with a looser tension. That way, you can easily unclip in a pinch.
Most pedal systems allow you to adjust the release tension. On my Shimano SPD-SLs, it just takes a twist of a small Allen key. Just note that some systems, such as Speedplay Pedals, don’t allow you to adjust the release tension.
The goal is to settle on a happy medium that works for you: one where you don’t unintentionally unclip when you don’t want to, but can easily unclip when you need to.
6. Expect to fall
When first learning to use clipless pedals, many beginners fall over at least once. It’s the infamous clipstack, where either:
- when restarting, you’re unable to clip in quickly enough, so you forget to start pedalling, slow to a standstill, and topple over; or
- when slowing down, you forget to unclip early enough, so you stop with both feet clipped in and lose your balance.
When I first started riding with clipless, I stacked it in my friend’s carpark.
With that in mind, it’s best to practise clipping in and out somewhere safe, like on a grassy field. If you do fall, hopefully you’re able to pick yourself up, laugh it off, and learn from your mistake.
By following these tips, with a bit of practice you’ll be riding confidently on the road, clipping in and out like second nature.
Do you have any tips – or embarrassing falls – from learning to ride with clipless pedals? Share them in the comments section below.
Once you’ve mastered clipless pedals, your bike can take your further – even overseas! Read these tips for travelling with a bike bag or case.
For more information about different types of clipless pedal system, check out this article by the Body Mechanic.