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Tech Talk: Choosing Pedals

What type of pedals are right for me?

Your body comes into contact with your bicycle in three areas: Your seat, your hands, and your feet. To get the most enjoyment and benefit out of your cycling, you need to carefully choose the parts for each of these areas. Your feet are where choosing the right pedals makes a difference, and there is not one choice that works best for everyone. Here's a rundown of the difference types of pedals, and the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Platform Pedals

Avenir Comfort Platform PedalThese are the basic "regular" pedals that just have a flat surface to place your feet on. They come in many shapes, styles, and materials. They range in price from around $10 for plastic ones to $20 for metal ones. In either case, they are cheap versions that you just replace if and when they wear out or break. For people who like the best of the best in their parts, however, there are high-end platform pedals available in the range of $50 to $100 and even more that are made of lightweight alloys and have servicable and replaceable high-quality ball bearings.

Most hybrid and cruiser bikes come with "comfort platform" pedals, which have a smooth surface that makes them usable with thin-soled sneakers, sandals, or even barefoot (in true "beach cruiser" fashion).

Mountain Platform PedalMost kids' bikes and low- to mid-level mountain bikes come with "mountain platform" pedals. which have a somewhat "spiked" surface to help grip the bottoms of your shoes better to avoid having your feet slip off the pedals. This idea is taken a step further with BMX-specific pedals, which usually have plastic or metal studs located across the pedal surface that "bite" into the tread of your shoes to prevent slippage.BMX Pedal

Pros: Inexpensive (usually), work with any kind of shoes.

Cons: Less efficient--promotes "pedaling in squares" rather than pedaling in circles.

Pedals with Toe Clips

Pedal with Toe Clip and StrapThese are a regular mountain-style platform pedal with a plastic or metal toe clip or "cage" attached. Usually, there is also an adjustable strap around the pedal and toe clip, but some people prefer to use only the toe clip without the strap. This setup is a little more efficient than plain platform pedals, because it allows you to exert a somewhat more even effort throughout the full rotation of the pedal stroke. The cages also keep your feet from slipping off of the pedals during more aggressive riding. The one-sided design requires you to flip the pedal around with your toe as you get started riding in order to insert your shoes into the clips. You must slide your foot backwards in order to remove it from the clip, which some people find to be a less-than-natural movement.

Pros: Inexpensive, work with any kind of shoes, somewhat more efficient than platform pedals.

Cons: Can be inconvenient to insert and remove your feet.

Clipless Pedals

These pedals have a mechanism that is similar in concept to a ski boot binding. The mechanism holds your foot in place on the pedal during the circular pedaling motion, but is easily released by twisting your heel outward. The term "clipless pedals" is used to distinguish them from pedals with toe clips. Unfortunately, this often causes confusion, because the phrase "clip in" is used to refer to the process of putting your feet in place on your clipless pedals.

Clipless pedals hold your foot in place securely, while riding fast on smooth roads, as well as during aggressive riding on off-road trails. They allow you to practice the most efficient pedaling technique, by exerting an even, consistent force throughout the circle of your pedal stroke.

The clipless pedal system consists of three parts: the actual pedals, the cycling-specific shoes that are designed to work in conjunction with the pedals, and the cleats, which is the set of hardware that attaches to the shoes that works with the clipless mechanism on the pedals. The cleats usually come as a pair with the pedals, and are also available separately as replacements as they wear out.

There are two important characteristics of all clipless pedal systems. The "release angle" determines how far you need to twist your foot in order to disengage the clipless mechanism. Some pedals have adjustable tension, which allows you to customize the release angle and the force needed to get your foot out. For some pedals, you can change the release angle by adjusting the position of the cleats on your shoes. The "float" of a pedal refers to how much your foot is able to freely swivel from side to WITHOUT coming un-clipped. Some people like a lot of float, while other people prefer the secure feeling of no float at all. You can change the float for some pedals by choosing a different version of cleats.

Road Clipless Pedals

Look Keo Grip CleatsSome clipless pedal systems are designed specifically for high-performance riding and racing on paved roads. Road-specific shoes have a very stiff sole that is completely smooth with no tread on the bottom. The cleats are usually a fairly large triangular- or square-shaped object that is held in place on the shoes by three or four bolts. The large cleat helps to spread the force out over a larger area of your foot, which helps to reduce fatigue in your feet during long, fast rides. However, the large cleats and smooth soles do tend it make it somewhat difficult (and sometimes even dangerous) to do much walking around in your cycling shoes when your're not actually riding.

Look Keo Classic Road PedalSeveral manufacturers make road-specific clipless pedals. One of the most common is Look, but Shimano also has a few similar models. Both are one-sided designs, which means that the cleat clips into the pedal in only one direction. However, the pedals are usually weighted so that they naturally spin into the optimal position in order for you to get you shoe and cleat clipped in.

Speedplay Road PedalAnother popular brand of road pedal is Speedplay. They have a minimal "lollipop" design that is very lightweight, and also have the benefit of virtually unliimited float.

Pros: Lightweight, maximum efficiency for long, fast rides

Cons: Require cycling-specific shoes, impractical for walking around off the bike

Mountain Clipless Pedals

Shimano SPD Cleats SetThese pedals have cleats that attach to the shoes with two bolts each, and are small enough so that they are recessed into the tread of the shoe. The shoes have rubber or plastic treads that are similar to typical hiking shoes or sneakers. This allows you to walk around much more easily and safely during breaks in your bike ride. This is also useful while riding on rough off-road trails where you might occasionally need to get off and carry your bike through particularly difficult sections. Some mountain bike shoes have soles that are a little less stiff compared to road bike shoes, which also makes them more comfortable for walking. However, mountain bike shoes designed for off-road racing can be just as stiff as some road bike shoes.

Shimano PD-M520 Mountain PedalBecause of the walking ease and comfort that they provide, many cyclists who only ride on roads still prefer to use mountain bike shoes and pedals. Most mountain bike pedals have a two-sided design, which makes it quick and convenient to step on the pedal and get clipped in without having to spin it to one side or the other.

Crank Brothers Egg Beater PedalThe most common models of mountain bike pedal are made by Shimano; their cleat system is referred to as SPD. These are the same type of pedals used on the bikes in many indoor spinning classes.

There are a few competing mountain bike pedal makers that are gaining in popularity. The Crank Brothers Egg Beaters have a four-sided design, which makes clipping in even easier, and also helps to prevent the pedals from getting clogged up in really muddy off-road conditions. Speedplay makes an off-road pedal called the Frog, which features the same virtually unlimited float of their road pedals.

Speedplay Frog Mountain PedalPros: Pedaling efficiency, comfort, walkability

Cons: Cycling-specific shoes required, may not be as efficient as road-specific pedals.

This article was first published on December 16, 2011.