SPD: More Mettle to the Pedals

When I got my recumbent, the tech who prepped it for me mentioned clipless pedals as a defense against “leg suck.” Google that term for the grisly details, but do it on an empty stomach.

Briefly, it’s when you’re riding along and your foot slips off the pedal, falls down, hits the pavement and your entire lower leg is folded up and dragged beneath you, towards the back of the bike. Later, I discovered that to be an overrated danger. But I was new to recumbent riding, so I got a pair of clipless pedals.

Shimano SPD Shoes
Shimano SPD Shoes

When I first started riding with them, I found it weird and unsettling having my feet attached to my bike via what are essentially modified ski bindings. Check that, I found it almost unnerving, and embarrassing, the first time I came to a stop, forgot to un-clip, and fell over.

However, as with all things, as I have continued to use them I have become more comfortable and less apprehensive. I can’t say I never experience an elevated heartbeat when I slow down and have to calculate whether an upcoming traffic situation demands an un-clipping. I can say that, for me, the advantages of clipless pedals outweigh those rare nervous moments.

Clipped in
Clipped in

The key benefit of clipless pedals is that you can pull up on one pedal while pushing down on the other, allowing you to put much more “mettle to the pedal” for speed and energy savings. There is some debate about whether bicyclists actually pull up on the pedal as they ride along at their normal cadence, but there isn’t any doubt in my mind that the ability to apply power to both pedals really helps in those instances when you need to speed up really quickly.

This is also an important advantage when climbing hills. The additional power means you can sometimes delay, or eliminate entirely, having to bail off your bike and walk it up the hill.

Since your feet are fixed, they do not slip around on the pedals, like they will do sometimes when you’re riding in inclement weather and the pedals get covered with ice and snow or water and mud. And on rough roads, your feet won’t bounce off the pedals and cause your legs to flail around like a slapstick comedy routine.

Clipless pedals come in two general system types: “walkable” and “road.” I like walkable systems because they recess the cleat up inside the sole of the shoe, so you can hop off your bike and walk around in them, sort of. Road systems mount the cleat on the very bottom of the shoe sole, so walking in them is like walking with a bunch of beer bottle caps stapled to the sole in the area of your forefoot.

SPD Cleats
SPD Cleats

Since I wanted to be able to hop on the bike for a short ride without having to go through the trouble of changing into bike shoes, another criteria I had for a clipless pedal was that it could be used with regular shoes. This means the pedal needs to have the clipless mechanism on one side, and a regular platform on the other. Without that arrangement, the tiny pedal — and the clipless mechanism atop it — will dig into the sole of your shoe for exquisite discomfort. Shimano Multipurpose SPDs are the only clipless which have this platform/mechanism option. I have both models: the  PD-A530 SPDs  and the  PD-M324 SPDs.

Shimano PD-M324 - Clip side up
Shimano PD-M324 – Clip side up
Shimano PD-M324 - Clip side down
Shimano PD-M324 – Clip side down

Although you can get your pedals on-line, I recommend you do visit your favorite bike shop to acquire them. Not only will they have advice on which brand of pedals to buy, but the bike shop techs will usually mount the pedals on your bike, and adjust them for you, for little or no extra charge. This is important, because an improperly adjusted set of pedals can either un-clip unexpectedly or be difficult to release at all.

Shimano PD-M324 - Clip side up
Shimano PD-M324 – Clip side up
Shimano PD-M324 - Clip side down
Shimano PD-M324 – Clip side down

If you decide to purchase, install and adjust your SPD pedals yourself, I’ve got some tips for you:

  1. Read the instructions carefully, all the way through, before you start.
  2. There are two types of SPD shoe cleats: single- and multi-directional release. Singles only un-clip when you rotate your heel directly outward more than about six degrees, multi-directionals release when you rotate your heel more than six degrees in almost any direction. Some cyclists who mash their pedals pretty hard claim that multi-directional pedals may pop out if you pull up too hard. Since I don’t ride like a racer with my multi-directionals, I don’t seem to have that problem. I suggest that newbies try multi-directionals first, and then move to singles if they have problems.
  3. When you’re removing the left pedal to replace it with your new clipless, remember that it is reverse threaded; if you try to remove it by turning it counterclockwise, like a regular bolt, you’ll only succeed in tightening it down further.
  4. Begin the pedal adjustment by backing off the tension bolt to the lightest setting, if your shoe begins to pop out of the pedal when you’re not pulling up very hard, then cinch it down to a little higher tension.
  5. If you’re all by yourself when you’re adjusting the pedal tension, put your bike in a doorway so you can keep yourself vertical with your hands while you’re testing your clipping-in and un-clipping.

If you’re on a budget with regard to bicycling accessories, the price of going clipless may be a real show-stopper. A decent pair of quality SPD pedals and shoes is going to set you back about $200 US. Some folks may not be able to justify the gain in performance with the cost.

My only big problem with bike shoes is that “walkable” doesn’t necessarily mean “walk friendly.” Walkable typically means when you dismount and walk, you won’t be sliding, slipping and clacking around on the floor as if you have a set of deformed ice skates bolted to the bottom of your shoes. I don’t think the shoes are meant to be used for strolling around the shopping mall, they’re usually much too snug to be comfortable for very long.

DZR Minna SPD Shoes
DZR Minna SPD Shoes — review coming soon…

As a matter of fact, I think some SPD-compatible bike shoes are nothing more than road clipless shoes modified to work with SPD cleats; the soles are far too narrow to be adequate walking shoes.

I have a minor beef with the design of bike shoes: they usually look like they’re part of a costume collection for a cheap science fiction movie. Even if I could walk around in them, they are so ugly… if I had any fashion sense it would be offended!

That being said, I’m testing a pair of SPD compatible shoes from an outfit called DZR which seem to be quite good for extended walking. And they look like a pair of normal shoes! I’ll be back with a full report in a little bit.

BluesCatBluesCat is a resident of Phoenix, Arizona, who originally returned to bicycling in 2002 in order to help his son get the Boy Scout Cycling merit badge. His bikes sat idle until the summer of 2008 when gas prices spiked at over $4.00 per gallon. Since then, he has become active cycling, day-touring, commuting by bike, blogging (azbluescat.blogspot.com) and giving grief to the forum editors in the on-line cycling community.

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12 thoughts on “SPD: More Mettle to the Pedals”

  1. Island Dave says:

    I had my first use with clipless with the arrival of my Velomobile. I had read about leg suck but since I’m enclosed within a shell including a floor, it wasn’t an issue. I was told that it took less energy with clipless pedals as you don’t have to maintain the effort of keeping your feet on the pedals that are out there in front of you. They stay engaged in place.

    I started with SPDs but changed to Untegra road pedals and cleats as it spread out the pressure to the ball of my feet. I carry a pair of crocks inside my velomobile when I need to get out and walk around.

    Today marks 198 weeks since my Velomobile arrived. 198 weeks and 25,256 miles.

  2. John M. Hammer says:

    Leg suck is a serious danger with recumbent tadpole trikes (the type with two wheels up front and one in back) but not so much with other recumbents, trike or otherwise. Since it’s nearly impossible to fall or turn over on a trike, and there’s no need to release feet from pedals except when needing to completely dismount since the rider can come to a complete stop at any time without releasing, a trike rider can use heel support and straps instead of clipless if he prefers to ride in street shoes/sneakers. But clipless is great for all the reasons mentioned in the article, is a near-guarantee against leg suck, is easier to engage and disengage than straps, and safer in an accident (since the clips will disengage but straps will probably tear your ankles up pretty good).

    I don’t like clipless on my Schwinn hybrid grocer-getter bike. Given the short distances, frequent traffic stops, and mild hills I traverse with this bike, and the occasional need to walk around on very hard surfaces while shopping, clipless is both not needed and kind of a pain to deal with.

    But I love clipless on my recumbent. I have an EZ-1 Lite, not all that different than Bluescat’s bike. I have both shoes and sandals with SPD cleats. The shoes are from Specialized and they look like sneakers with velcro straps instead of laces – not ugly at all. The sandals are from Nashbar and look like sandals, i.e. dorky especially with socks, but they’re super-comfortable in warm weather and I’m plenty dorky-looking enough without them when I’m on my bike in warm weather, anyway. Both the shoes and sandals are easy to walk on soft surfaces like carpeting, linoleum, and some asphalt roads; but concrete sidewalks, the tile floor in my kitchen and main-floor hallways, and many in-store floor surfaces both make walking awkward and wear out the cleats quickly. When I take the EZ-1 to a local bike shop and I might have to leave it overnight for service and either walk or take the bus home, I carry another pair of shoes with me.

    I’ve learned that, if I MIGHT need to unclip, I should DEFINITELY unclip and if it turns out I didn’t need to unclip, well, I can clip right back in. The first couple of weeks I used clipless on my bent I ended up flopping over a few times when I came to a stop. I was literally at 0 MPH every time it happened so there was no significant damage to me or the bike; it was just embarrassing because I was simply forgetting to unclip. That doesn’t happen anymore. Maybe it will happen again someday when I make an emergency stop but unclipping is really second nature, now. Climbing very steep hills at very low speeds used to concern me, too, but not anymore because I can both unclip very quickly if I decide the hill is going to force me to walk and it’s actually pretty amazing how slow I can go (and therefore how steep a hill I can climb) on this bike as long as I remain calm and focused. Once this past winter I went down on my side at some speed when I rode over some ice, and MAYBE I could have gotten a foot down in time if I hadn’t been clipped in – but probably not and I still might have gone down and hurt my foot some into the bargain.

    A few little quibbles:

    “Shimano Multipurpose SPDs are the only clipless which have this platform/mechanism option.”
    Not true. Just as an example, I had a pair of Wellgo pedals with SPD on one side and platforms on the other. And the pedals I use now are SPD on both sides but with the clips set into a platform which, while not perfect, are usable for short rides in street shoes. I find the imperfect platforms better than having to rotate the pedals to the correct side every time I put my feet back up.

    “If you’re on a budget with regard to bicycling accessories, the price of going clipless may be a real show-stopper.”
    Well, it depends on the show. My sandals were under $50, my current pedals were under $50, and the cleats for the sandals were… I think they were under $15. This is still far from free, but one can get all of these second-hand for even less. Although I wouldn’t want to wear someone else’s shoes, second-hand pedals are usually OK if you don’t mind aesthetic imperfections; I just sold my Wellgo combo pedals for $20.

  3. Phil says:

    I had clipless pedals about 20 years ago, only top find that when I lost one of the cleat screws there were no spares available. I switched to DMR V12 pedals, and can wear anything I like on my feet to suit the weather; my feet don’t slip off, and I don’t sound like a small horse on the pavement.

  4. BluesCat says:

    Island Dave – I couldn’t wear Crocs around the office, so I have to leave a pair of work shoes in a file cabinet next to my desk. If I were to wear road bike shoes, and carry a pair of Crocs so I could walk around when I flatted (or needed to stop in a store on the way home, etc.), and then I had a pair of work shoes in my office … I’d have three pairs of shoes I’d have to have for a single work day … my wife would accuse me of being a budding Imelda Marcos!

    Did you mean Shimano Ultegra road pedals, Dave?

    John – Uh … (chuckle) … ya mean Specialized shoes like THESE? I guess shoe beauty is definitely in the eye of the beholder!

    Your trials and tribulations getting used to riding clipless pretty much parallel mine.

    I guess I should have said “Shimano Multipurpose SPDs are
    the only clipless which have this platform/mechanism option, are readily available to me and are made by a manufacturer with whom I have some familiarity.” I have seen Wellgo R120B Road pedals and W-44B Dual-use pedals advertised online, but since no bike shop in my area carries them, I haven’t had an opportunity to take a look at them. Would you say your Wellgo’s held up okay, and would you recommend them?

    The “show” I always try to talk about is the “full list price” (it keeps me out of trouble with people coming back to me and saying “Hey! I couldn’t find that bargain basement price you quoted ANYWHERE!”) And although you can find clipless pedals on the Interwebs for way less than at your local bike shop, I was making the assumption that folks new to clipless would go their favorite LBS to get them, get them installed and adjusted.

    Phil – I’ve heard that the DMR V12s are really rugged, and my understanding is that they have set screws sticking up out of the platform to really grip your shoe. Have you had any problems with them tearing up the soles of your shoes?

  5. Island Dave says:

    Thanks for the catch BluesCat. I did mean Ultegra.

    Other than child care duties I am basically retired. Most of the time riding in the warmer months I wear gloves shoes and shorts and carry shirt and crocks if I have a bunch of walking to do.

    I saw a roadie yesterday who had a pair of flip flops stashed in his jersey pockets.

  6. Island Dave says:

    I try to support my local bike shops but the prices can be double of what I can get through Amazon.

    For example, locally on Island and on the mainland, the plastic road cleats are in the $40 + range whereas through Amazon they are around $20 with free two day delivery.

    Fortunately I do all my own work on my bikes.

    I got a call last night from a local bike shop who was attempting to replace the cassette on another Velomobile. I talked him through it.

  7. John M. Hammer says:

    Right, that all makes sense.

    Yes, I liked the Wellgo combo pedals just fine. I stopped using them only because, as I wrote above, I wasn’t enjoying having to flip to the correct side every time I’d put my feet back up. I’ve owned a few of their platform pedals, too, because my favorite LBS carries them. I don’t have any particular brand loyalty, but I’ll buy Wellgo again if they have what I want at a good price, especially if they’re available at a LBS.

  8. BluesCat says:

    John – If I decide to get a pair of SPD pedals for my old Specialized Hardrock grocery-getter, I may just look into getting a pair of Wellgos. The price certainly seems right.

    If I do, I will still get a pair of platform/clip mechanism combos. I know a lot of people don’t want to deal with the bother of flipping over the pedal to get to the correct side, but I haven’t found it to be that much of a hassle.

    I simply put my shoe down on the pedal, close to the center of my arch, and slide my foot back. Before moving my foot more than an inch, I can always tell what side is up and whether I need to bring my foot all the way back, put my toe under the rear edge of the pedal and flip it over as I bring my foot back forward; all in one smooth motion.

    If you look closely at my old pair of M076 shoes at the beginning of this article, you’ll see a small black smudge on the toe (I tried to clean them up for the picture). That mark is testimony to this flipping action.

  9. Eric W says:

    Lots of choices in flip over pedals – look online at ebay, amazon, google. I had the Wellgo Campus ones, wore then down to a nub, and realized I rarely used the flat pedal side after the first weeks. Replaced with regular two sided SPD’s from Shimino – they seem indestructible compared to the Campus pedals.

    Clever people make a platform with clips for standard pedals – it’s only a piece of plywood with the SPD cleat on the bottom. Easy to make at home.

    Bike wildly!

  10. John M. Hammer says:

    These weren’t cheap – they’re the most expensive pedals I’ve ever purchased – and aren’t light but I sure do like them. As I described in my first reply, they have SPD clips AND platforms on both side, the platforms aren’t perfect but are OK for the times I need to pop over to the deli and don’t want to change my shoes first.


    On another topic, on a standard diamond-frame bike I have no trouble twisting my heel outward (toes in) in order to unclip. But on my recumbent I find that my hips just don’t want to make that motion; I can do it but it’s awkward. So getting cleats that can unclip in either direction is very important for me. I also need to be careful with my right foot when unclipping heel inward (toes out) because it is possible for my heel to make contact with my chainrings if I don’t have the right crank rotated to the correct position first.

  11. BluesCat says:

    John – I wasn’t sure the pop-up cages on the Shimano All-Mountain pedal series (which includes the PD-M647 you mentioned) were adequate for comfort while using street shoes. My understanding is that the cages are there more for lateral stability for singletrack and downhill racers. If they actually would work for commuters, then they might be an option for those who are annoyed with having to do the “pedal flip” on the Multi-Purpose series.

    I’ve found that if I use the second set of shoe mounting holes for the cleats, the pair which is closer to the heel, I don’t have to rotate my foot as much to release the cleat.

    I always have my leg fully extended when I clip-out, so I never have an issue with whacking the chain rings.

  12. It was extremely useful article for me. At the moment trying to improve my gear, but likely start from clipless pedals. Thanks 🙂

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