Navigating the World of Clipless Pedals
Last summer I wrote about trying to ride clipless and failing. Unfortunately, not much has changed since then. For background, I do ride my roadbike with foot retention: I use Power Grips, adjusted as snugly as possible. They bind my feet to the pedals effectively while still being extremely easy to get out of. Sure, they don't exactly look "pro," but they get the job done and anyone who thinks otherwise has probably never tried them. Still, it bothers me that I just can't master riding clipless after all this time, while others have no trouble with this skill at all. This year I was determined to get to the bottom of what makes it so hard for me.
My first step was to start from scratch. Last year, the Co-Habitant gave me his old clipless pedals (Shimano M520) and I used those by default. I got as far as being able to ride around the block gingerly, but ultimately just wasn't comfortable with it. Later more than a couple of women told me that they hate these pedals and cannot use them either, and that what I should really do is go to a bike shop and try as many different pedals as possible. I didn't know you could do that, but apparently some bike shops offer this service. Since I spend a lot of time at the Ride Studio Cafe as it is, I arranged with them for a fitting. They have a trainer in the back room where you can set up either your own bike or one of their demo bikes, and they have a variety of clipless shoes and pedals to try.
To ride clipless, you have to buy a set of pedals, which are sold with cleats, and a pair of compatible shoes. The cleats that are purchased with the pedals are then attached to the shoes. There are many brands of these pedal/cleat systems, and they are generally classified into road (SPD-SL) vs mountain (SPD) - a little misleading, since in practice both are frequently used by roadcyclists. The mountain bike system (left) features small cleats with 2 attachment points. Notice also that on the shoe, the part where the cleat goes is recessed, so that when off the bike you walk on the sole and not on the cleat itself. The road system (right) features larger cleats with 3 (or 4) attachment points. And the shoe is not recessed, so that when off the bike you actually walk on the cleat (this is why roadies make those click-clacking noises on pavement). As it is explained to me, the benefit of the road system is that more of your foot is attached to the pedal. The benefit of the mountain system is that it is easier to walk off the bike.
Popular road-compatible systems include Look, Shimano, Time and Speedplay, all shown here. The former 3 are near-identical, but the Speedplays (the smaller pedal on top) are a little different in shape and attachment style (also they are double-sided, whereas the other road pedals are one-sided). I did not bother trying these, because nearly everyone I know who uses them seems to have problems. But I tried the Shimano and Look SPD-SL, and I liked them both. The clipping mechanism felt very different than that of the (SPD) Shimano M520s I was practicing with last year. For me at least, it felt much easier to clip and unclip with the road pedals; the mechanism did not feel clunky or death-grippy. With the SPD cleats last year, even on the weakest setting I felt as if I were stomping on the pedal with all my might to clip in and jerking the bike sideways in order to unclip. With the road system, the mechanism on the pedal felt as if it grabbed the cleat without much effort on my part, and I could also unclip fairly easily. On the downside, I found the road shoes slippery to walk in, which made me nervous. A number of people I ride with discouraged me from going with the road system for this very reason.
Having already tried the typical Shimano SPDs and determined that I did not like them as much as the SPD-SL, the one system left to try was Crank Brothers. This is technically a mountain bike system, and the cleat looks very similar to SPD cleats. However, the pedals are 4-sided and use a different mechanism. I had hope for these pedals, because those who use them report that they are very easy to clip in and out of compared to the other mountain systems. I tried them, and I agree. The mechanism engages and releases very easily, and I know that I will be able to practice with these without the "what if I can't unclip?!" anxiety. The model pictured here is the Egg Beaters, but I ordered the Candys - which are the same, except with a platform. I wanted the platform version, because I do not like the feel of tiny pedals and want more support for my foot. I think the platform will also make it easier for my foot to locate the binding mechanism, before that part becomes intuitive.
It is yet to be determined whether I'll be able to master clipless, but I have a feeling that if I can do it at all then I'll be able to do it with these Crank Brothers. My biggest problem so far has been fear over the effort of unclipping, which should no longer be an issue with these. I will keep you posted on future progress or lack thereof. But for any beginners reading this, I encourage you to visit a bike shop that specialises in this stuff and talk to them, try different pedal/cleat combinations and see how they feel - as opposed to struggling with a system just because a spouse or a friend uses it.