Clipless pedals: what are they?

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Clipless pedals are a pedal system that uses a cleat attached to the rider’s shoe to clip into specially designed pedals. They allow for efficient power output and mud shedding, but early versions had issues with clogging. Different types of clipless pedals exist for road and mountain biking, with varying release mechanisms. Float adjustment is available but should be used carefully to avoid knee injury.

For many years, the toe clip was the primary pedal system on racing bicycles. The toe clip was a metal or plastic cage that the rider slipped his foot into, allowing him to pull the pedals up while pedaling as well as push them down. Despite this high power output, the toe clips were bulky and difficult to insert and remove. This is how clipless pedals were born. Clipless pedals also allow a rider to pull the pedals up, but there is no cage for the rider’s foot to slide into. The cyclist, on the other hand, wears a special shoe with a cleat attached to the bottom; the cleat then clips into specially designed pedals, much like a ski binding but much more compact.

Clipless pedals are less of a pedal and more of a pedal system. They work in combination with the cyclist’s shoe, which has a very rigid sole made of plastic, carbon or other hard substances. A specially designed cleat then attaches to the bottom of the shoe and acts as an interface between the shoe and the pedal. Clipless pedals themselves vary in shape and size depending on a particular brand’s design, but most are made to shed mud effectively. Early versions of clipless pedals clogged and malfunctioned as mud got stuck in the spring mechanisms while riding.

On most mountain bike clipless pedals, the cleat must slide, tiptoe, under a bar on the pedal. The rider then pushes the heel down and a spring-loaded rear bar on the pedal snaps into place at the back of the cleat. The cyclist is therefore essentially locked into the bicycle. To release the foot from the clipless pedal, the rider must rotate the heel outward away from the bicycle, thereby freeing the cleat from the spring bar.

Some road bike clipless pedals work a little differently. For example, Speedplay’s road pedal systems work in the opposite way to the mountain bike pedals described above. The bars usually attached to the pedal are instead attached to a cleat on the rider’s shoe – which is much bulkier than most cleats – and the pedal itself acts in the same way as the aforementioned mountain bike cleat. When the rider presses their foot against the pedal, the springs that move to connect the interface are on the shoe rather than the pedal. But the release from the clipless pedals works the same way: the rider pushes the heel off the bike.

Even if the rider’s shoes are locked into the clipless pedal, the foot can move from side to side. This is called float, and many pedals now offer a float adjustment that allows the rider to decide how much movement his or her foot is allowed to move. But be careful: limiting the float too much can be harmful to the knees, and not limiting it enough could favor accidental releases from the pedal.

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