Many decisions in life are very confusing. Choosing the correct pedals for you doesn’t have to be one of those things. Follow this guide to find the right pedals for you.
There are 2 types of bicycle pedals: platform and clipless. Platform pedals (sometimes called ‘flats’) are the type most people are familiar with as they are the easiest to use and don’t require any additional equipment. They’re exactly what you’d imagine a pedal to be – a flat, wide piece of metal or plastic sometimes with pins for added grip. If you’ve ever bought or rented a bike and it already had pedals on it, chances are they were platform pedals. They’re great for all sorts of applications from downhill racing to beach cruising, and matched to a flat specific shoe with sticky rubber can be almost as “engaged” as a clipless pedal, but with a bit more freedom to move your foot or bail out. Flats are also a great tool for teaching yourself proper bike techniques that will crossover regardless of what other pedal type you may ride. The problem with platform pedals (and I use the word ‘problem’ loosely), is that they lack any sort of ‘foot-retention’ which can lead to reduced efficiency and pedal slips. A flat pedal that slips out from under your foot can be a recipe for some serious shin carnage if one is not careful.
Foot-retention is the act of retaining your foot to the pedal, bonding your foot not only on the frontside down-stroke of the pedal but also the backside up-stroke. An early remedy for this was the advent of ‘toe clips’ (or simply ‘clips’), which are metal or plastic cages that attach to platform pedals which you’d then slide your foot into to create the bond we call foot-retention. Clips worked well enough, but somewhere along the line people realized this retention could be”clipped” faster in and out, as well as more securely. Thus, the they went on to produce the ‘clipless’ pedal system.
The clipless pedal system consists of the pedals, cleats, and cycling specific shoes. Clipless pedals, as the name implies, do not use toe clips – the foot-retention is achieved by engaging the cleat with the pedal to form a bond greater than is even possible with toe-clips. The cleat is attached to the bottom of a cycling shoe by short bolts. Generally road shoes/cleats will have a 3 bolt pattern while the mountain combination uses just 2 bolts. While clipless pedals are great for the performance cyclist, it can be quite intimidating for beginners. Clipless pedals require some practice to learn how to engage, or more importantly how to disengage the cleat from the pedal. This learning curve often leads to tipping over situations at when coming to a stop that generally bruise the rider’s ego more than their body. When the cleat is engaged with the pedal (commonly/confusingly referred to as ‘clipped in’), the amount of wiggle room you have before disengaging the pedal is called ‘float’. The amount of float is mostly determined by rider preference. However, increased float can reduce pedal efficiency (very slightly), but tends to be kinder to those with knee issues.
If you really wanted to nerd out on pedal selection you can get into pin count, float ranges, spindle materials, and bearing types; but a good starting point is to get something you feel comfortable with and go from there. When moving to clipless pedals, a good way to practice is to setup your bike in your doorway/hallway so that you can reach the walls with your hands to balance yourself while clicking in and out of your pedals. After getting comfortable with that, you can move to a low traffic road/parking lot/grassy patch and apply your newly learned techniques while riding. Know that changing out pedals is extremely easy (just remember the non-drive-side is reverse threaded), so you can always swap them out to tailor to a particular ride.