Maybe when you started mountain-biking – or whatever sort of cycling you do – you got all the gear right from the start. The bike, the helmet, the glasses, the SPD shoes (or some other type of clipless system – I talk about SPD just because that’s what this site is about!) and the pedals to match. Maybe you had someone advise you on what gear to get, like your club, coach or local bike shop, and you were all kitted out from the start.
But most bikers I know started cycling recreationally to begin with – maybe going for long rides on some fire trails or country roads and only then starting to get into some more serious training and then some marathons, races, time trials, whatever. I know I did and there’s a good chance you did too.
And it was only later you realised that the more serious riders you saw around were riding these weird pedals that their shoes clicked into, and though it looked a bit scary, you realised that if you were going to join the ranks of the ‘serious’ riders, you were going to have to go that route too.
So why go clipless?
Going SPD is an additional expense – you need to get SPD shoes and SPD pedals – and it can also seem pretty daunting to first-timers, with plenty of questions going through your head like Will I fall over, is it dangerous, how do I get unclipped quick enough if I get into a tight spot? Well, these are all good questions, and I try to answer them in this article about clipless fears, but the question is, why go SPD? Is it just something cyclists do to look cool, or because everyone else does it?
Well, I’ll give you some ‘scientific’ reasons in a second, but put simply, using SPD shoes and pedals takes your riding to a whole new level because it gives you a whole new dimension of contact with the bike. In a way you become one with the bike.
Now, you might not feel like being ‘one with the bike’ when you come crashing off and maybe the whole ‘one with the bike’ thing sounds a bit airy-fairy anyway, so let’s look at it in practical terms: when you are riding ordinary shoes and standard (platform) pedals your foot is merely resting on the pedal and though it is at least reasonably stable on the downstroke, on the rest of the pedal revolution your foot can be all over the place, slipping, rotating and generally moving about. Also, you certainly can’t apply force with the foot that’s currently on the upstroke. In fact in a way, because that foot is resting on the pedal, you are fighting it with the other foot that’s on the downstroke!
So there are at least three things here:
- Stability: because your foot is not able to move around all over the place you can fully concentrate on your pedalling technique, which is an extremely important aspect of your performance. Also, you are not dissipating energy because your feet are not moving about in directions that are not directly invested in pedalling. When not clipped in your feet can even lift off the pedal, which can’t be good for performance (or safety – see 3)).
- Efficiency: this is partly related to the above and also to the issue of pedalling motion – with your SPD shoes firmly clipped in you can apply force all the way around the pedal’s rotation, even ‘pulling up’ with the foot on the upstroke (actually a ‘kick and scrape’ action is said to be most efficient). People disagree on the percentage efficiency increase this gives, at higher cadences (pedalling speeds) there is probably not such a great advantage as you cannot pull up that fast, but it’s at least in the range of 10% or more at lower cadences.
- Safety: now this will seem counter-intuitive if you are using SPD shoes/pedals for the first time, because falls are a concern. But actually SPD is generally safer than ‘riding loose’, especially in MTB, for several reasons. One is that you have more control over the bike – when you are clipped in you have a firm connection with your bike and can make it do what you want more easily (especially in cross-country MTB racing). The other thing is that your foot cannot slip off the pedal accidentally. That is no small thing – imagine riding a steep, rocky descent and your foot suddenly slipping off the pedal. That can throw you right off balance and cause a serious tumble – I have had some hairy moments like that myself. The same can happen on a steep climb where you are really grinding away at the pedals. In fact most mountain-bikers have probably had this happen – a foot slips off, and you bang a knee, shin or even face on some part of the bike. Not only does it REALLY hurt, it can actually cause an injury that puts you out of cycling for days or weeks. There is a saying “Break a chain, break a bone”, and this is not much different. Likewise, with road cycling, a foot flying off when pedalling at very high cadence can be a risky experience as you are also typically riding at speed and can lose balance on the bike and fall.
So there we have it, some very good reasons to ‘go clipless’. It’s really NOT some faddy thing that you ‘have’ to do to be a ‘real’ cyclist, there are very good arguments for doing so. Now I know you are still worried about the falling thing, we’ll get on to that – for now just go grab those SPD shoes and pedals and go for it because once you have mastered riding with them you WILL NOT (I’ll give you 99 to 1 odds on that!) consider riding without them again!
Are you an experienced clipless rider who’s been in SPD shoes since pre-school? Let us know YOUR experiences here. Or are you still wondering whether to take the plunge? What are your concerns? Tell us in the comments below.