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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16 thoughts on “The Utility of Clipless Pedals, or, Why I Ditched My Spuds”

  1. Augsburg says:

    Your discussion of clipless pedals is right on! I wore clipless (Shimano SPD) for many years. Just like you, I thought I had to wear clipless to be a serious cyclist. Because the SPD system is so small and compact, long rides left me with hotspots at the ball of my feet and over time, permanent nerve damage in my feet.

    About 4 years ago, I gave up clipless and tried platform pedals. 100 mm x 100 mm platforms first popularized in BMX riding. Just like you say, what a difference. I can where comfortable shoes and no more clipping-clopping around in bike shoes. With good platforms and traction pins, my feet never slip, even when wet. I can ride 3 hours a day 5 or 6 days a week with no hotspots of foot problems.

    A year or so ago, the GCN Youtube channel did a scientific study of clipless vs standard pedals in a UK lab. Of course, everyone knows clipless are way more efficient due to the ability to pull up on the pedal stroke. Well, the lab results did not show any benefits to clipless. If fact, the non-clipless pedals did slightly better. Bicycling is full of myth and folklore and the benefits of clipless is one example.

    Clipless pedals do have their place. For racing and especially for mtn. biking, good pedal retention is important. But for most of us mere mortals, clipless pedals may not be all that good of a choice.

    1. Ray Marcil says:

      Wow, “the non-clipless pedals did slightly better” blows me away. I’ve been commuting 10 to 20 miles everyday in Anchorage, winter and summer, for 20 odd years. Completely subscribe to the “clipless are way more efficient due to the ability to pull up on the pedal stroke.” Can’t fathom doing climbs like Glen Alps (road and/or Powerline), bit of a climb outside town, without clipless pedals. That said with SPD cleats, Shimano shoes, and Crankbrothers eggbeatears the issue I have is warmth. In single digits or negative temps my feet refuse to stay warm. In winter use powergrips.com straps over boots. I need to find a warm winter boot with cleats. That said after reading clipless “SPD-equipped Birkenstock sandals” it gives me incentive to make a pair of clipless boots. Stomp and go.

  2. Erica Young says:

    Thanks for that historical and personal perspective! I’ve been biking almost every day since I was 7 (40+ years) and spent a few years in there clipless, then found it too much of a hassle and scary on icy roads after moving to Wisconsin. Now most of my miles are done on a tandem, with my 13 year old special-needs son as very part-time stoker (he only pedals when we are going downhill) and the need to be able to react and control the big bike with an unpredicable rear passenger sold me on going back to my running shoes for cycling. But you’re also right that it takes longer to get served in bike shops because I am not wearing the right shoes!

  3. Salomé Starbuck says:

    That is so Awesome!!! Thank you for telling this story!
    I live in Juneau, AK, and bought my first touring bike two years ago, which I have been commuting on and am planning a trip down the PCH on next summer. I’ve currently got regular platform pedals on my bike, which is totally fine for me, as far as I can tell, since I have wide duck feet, the toes of which are put to sleep by regular wide shoes. I can’t imagine wearing biking shoes, my whole legs would go to sleep! But I had been wondering lately if I should maybe get some clipless bike shoes made for my trip… I find your story reassuring, and I think I’ll just were my regular sneakers for my trip. 🙂 Thanks!!!

  4. Uncle Robot says:

    Nonsense – I only ride in my spuds – whether commuting, casual, training or racing. And been doing so for 20 plus years. Before that – toe clips. Modern shoes and loose springs resolve all the problems mentioned. The superior control afforded by being cleated in, particularly in busy city traffic – not mentioned in the article – is worth any down-side. Not that I don’t enjoy a ride on platforms and other shoes but for my normal pace, even at age 63, I want the certainty that I am not going to slip a foot off at a critical moment.

  5. David E. Fastovsky says:

    I rode clipless pedals for years; as you said, the Righteous use clipless pedals; these separated those of us who were “serious” from the Walmart bike unwashed masses. My epiphany came slowly; first, when touring, I really hated (a) carrying around extra shoes, and (b) walking like a duck; where was the opportunity to get off the bike and look around? So I moved to mountain pedals with their recessed cleats, but then I noticed that mountain pedals – in my case, Speedplay Frogs – were good enough for road riding with the local amateur peloton as well. One set of clipless pedals gone! But the mountain pedals were a bit clumsy for commuting, especially when there was snow and ice around. The last straw was when I went to Europe and saw all the European riders – commuters and tourers alike – eschew cleats. They actually use their bikes for transportation; Europe is a continent where people ride bicycles purposefully. It was just so much easier to use conventional platform pedals, and the power/speed loss was minimal under touring and/or commuting conditions. Platform pedals are so the way to go, and now there is actually a terrific selection of them out there for nearly every kind of rider/purpose.

    So when I’m riding my toy bike – the one I ride with the fast lycra set on weekends – I use clipless pedals (Speedplay X). But for serious riding on a serious bike – touring and commuting – I’ll never go back to clipless pedals again.

  6. colin daniel says:

    i have been a cyclist since i was 12 yrs old when i met a fabulous experienced cyclist who ended up being my mentor and coach, he gave me skills and advice that still are with me today at 59 yrs old and iam very great full for what he gave me. before clipless pedals we used cleats on the bottoms of our leather shoes, and you had to set them up properly in order to be comfortable and locked in, to your quill pedal and toe clips. this system worked well untill you had to walk in these shoes. i used this type of shoe for all my riding, including work commutes and shopping, always making sure i had a change of shoes to walk in. i was a bike courier for 3 yrs in a big city and opted out of the cleat shoe for a stiff soled touring shoe and toe clips, which worked well.
    i was on a lone bike tour of 2000 miles and half way through that trip when my last pair of eddy merckx shoes died. i went to a smaller town close by to a bike shop run by real cyclist and i was introduced to spd shoes and pedals for the first time, this was 1999. i was recommended to use a mtn bike shoe with a 2 sided pedal for practicality and comfort. those shoes and pedals were amazing, easy to use, comfortable and i finished my bike tour on them and never looked back. i now still use spd shoes and pedals for fat tire mtn bike rides on logging roads along with my wife using the spd system on our tandem bike while towing our 5 yr old daughter in a trailer behind us, also use the same system on my road bikes as a single rider or tandem, towing my daughter or not. this is a great system and i disagree with what you say about pedal stroke efficiency. getting up a climb with a 40 pound child and a 25 pound trailer , would not be possible with out clips and i know that because i have tried the exact same hill and towing of my daughter with out spd system and i could not get the same results, 40% less, and much more difficult to even get half way up that hill.
    great system and in most cases very practical, even when i take my daughter to school. may be because of your shoe size, i wear 43 s or size 9 shoes, and my spd shoes and clips are a wonder full advantage even if i have to walk a little bit with them or climb over rocks out in the bush to get to the next ride able section. find the right fitting shoe and set up the cleats and pedal tension and your good to go, one of the greatest modern inventions for a cyclist, and you can still find me using the same system, and i have never had a problem with them. proper cleaning and maintenance, inspecting pedals for signs of wear before each ride, will ensure good dependable operation.

    sincerely colin daniel

  7. Mark Curry says:

    I feel the need to weigh in:

    I’ve seen similar discussions about nearly every component of the bicycle: single- versus multiple-gearing; internally-geared hubs versus derailleurs; drop-bars versus flat versus riser; one-by-, two-by-, triple; steel, aluminum, titanium, carbon…My favourite is the preference for fixed hub with no brakes…

    The point of the bicycle is, shocking as it may seem, to ride it. In riding the bike, preferences will become apparent and one should adopt or discard components as one becomes more experienced. With respect to pedals, I regularly go back and forth. It take about five minutes to switch out pedals these days and I find that I ride differently with different bikes and components. I must suggest though that clipless pedals provide much more security on any sort of ride. Hitting an unexpected bump can knock your feet from platforms and this isn’t an issue with clipless. Still, it’s up to the rider.

    The point is: get on your bike and ride. Forget about trends. Try stuff out. Dump it if it doesn’t work. Ride your bike!

    Finally, if you’re not getting appropriate service because of your shoes, it’s time to find another bike shop!

  8. Jack G says:

    I’m on the side of SPDs. I’ve been using them for 15 years since I got a Specialized StumpJumper FSR (that I never really jumped stumps with). I rode in the Tour De Cure Texas from San Antonio to Austin two years on that bike. At this point I have a 29″ gravel bike that I use for commuting and working up to doing long distance touring. I have SPD Touring shoes, and dual use pedals that have SPD on one side and a platform on the other. I like the security of the semi-rigid touring shoes, and I can choose to use the platform for short distances, or easily find the cleat and power on. Aside from the velcro and ratchet straps on the shoes, they mostly look like any other sneaker, and I have never ‘clip clopped’ in the stores with these (though I have plenty of times on older shoes before the touring style gained strength and I switched).

    As for winter, I now live in Michigan and a few years back during one of the harsher winters I had no car and commuted with studded tires and winter insulated spuds through the worst of it. Knowing my feet would stay put gave me more focus for the ice ruts.

    But, as with everyone else, everyone has their perfect setup. I’m very happy with my 27 speed gravel bike with 29″ road tread tires, butterfly handlebar, and spuds.

  9. Similar experience here. I stuck with straight up SPD pedals for a while, moved to half-platform half-SPD, and now have completely moved back to platforms. I can bikepack out to wherever in my hiking shoes and still enjoy a nice hike without swapping shoes. Flip-flop commutes to work are a joy when the temps reach the 90’s here in Flagstaff, AZ.

  10. Gary says:

    I’ve been a serious rider since 1982. Like most I did the clip in thing for years and years. Three years ago I switched to regular tennis shoes… much more comfortable to me – and I can still stay with the pace line. Not going back. Like everything else in life, it’s just personal choice.

  11. old john says:

    The old Phil Wood platforms were nice with regular shoes so were
    suntour xc good with Merrill size 13 wide I did about 5 years
    with cyclebinding pedal / shoe combinations too narrow and
    uncomfortable eventually try speedplay zero with a variety of big wide shoes with thick wool sox for cushion and thin liner sox
    also added a plastic sredit card to reduce hot spot over cleat and extra shoe insole on long rides … My wife only rides tandem and
    only has used speedplay zero since her first ride day one….
    one time I switched her speedplays out for regular pedals on a new
    tandem our first ride on that bike was the five boroughs ride thru NYC … at a traffic light waiting to change she was taking photos
    of the tall buildings looking up , when the light changed I pedaled
    but felt a bump from the rear … you ever see that tee shirt that says
    If you can read this shirt the b!t@# fell off …… she was not injured
    but my new hammered Honjo fender only had twenty miles on it
    was bent beyond repair those speedplays take some getting
    used to but we like them

  12. Edward Leibnitz says:

    While I loved reading this article-I found it interesting that you forgot to mention that the old “toe clip” system included a cycling shoe with a “slotted” clear that you sank into the back of the pedal about 1 cm. This in combination with the toe strap that you tightened down really kept you locked in! I think the new clip less pedals offering a side release represented a major safety improvement! This being said the article was quite enjoyable…..

  13. BlusCat says:

    I ride a recumbent, and one of the only disadvantages of riding with your legs out in front of you is something called “leg suck.” This happens when your leg tires, your foot slips down off the pedal, hits the pavement and is dragged towards the back of the bike. You can imagine the possible consequences to your foot, ankle, knee, etc., if you’re doing 20+ mph!
    SPD pedals/shoes solve this problem. And because having your legs wedged between a seat back and the pedals gives you much more power than just your weight as you stand on the pedals, you can definitely put even greater force to the stroke if you can pull back on the pedal. That is why I ride a 40-pound steel long wheel base ‘bent MUCH faster than I ride a conventional bike weighing half that.
    I use multi-purpose SPD pedals (cleat on one side, platform on the other) so that I can wear regular shoes when I’m out for a casual ride with my granddaughters on their 20″ wheeled bikes, and be firmly clipped-in when I’m mashing my way to work in the mornings.

  14. ALee says:

    I appreciate the article. I use SPD on mountain bike shoes like the Giro VR90 which are incredibly comfortable to walk in, even on hard floors and w/ an adjustment I get more power w/ less work.
    The cleat is recessed enough on the mb shoes. I have tried walking in’road bike’ shoes and it’s a non-starter. After I park my bike up and walk into the grocery store/my office/ down the sidewalk folks can certainly hear me crunch the concrete/ tap the marble/stone.
    The other aspect is workload . I have experimented w/ different strokes while pedaling to increase efficiency, i.e. pulling up one pedal while cranking down on the other. Using SPDs I have found that I’m able to move my legs in a circle w/ greater ease and w/ the same power output compared to mashing down on one side at a time using flat pedals. Like many have said here, leaning one way or the other, I’m never going back to platform pedals

  15. ploeg says:

    My first pair of bicycle-specific shoes did not accommodate SPD or any specific pedal system at all. They were just a pair of touring shoes with stiff soles. The benefit of having stiff-soled touring shoes is the same as the benefit of having stiff-soled backpacking boots: your foot muscles don’t get as tired and beat up during a full day’s jaunt when they have full support. Platform pedals are great for support, but if you pull 40+ miles a day, Shimano sandals or mountain shoes are worthwhile to use with platform pedals.

    I personally prefer to use SPD pedals on my bikes, but I don’t think that SPD pedals in themselves confer any performance advantage. As you say, SPD pedals give you a feeling of greater control. This feeling could lead you to start mashing the pedals, which could cause foot stress and pain. If that happens, you need to downshift and spin your feet more.

    Most of my bikes are equipped with SM-PD22 plastic platforms that are pressed into one side of each of my SPD pedals, which allows me to ride around town with regular shoes. If I’m going beyond town, though, it’s Shimano sandals for me, thanks.

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