The invention of clipless pedals was a huge innovation for mountain and road bikes. Cyclists had long understood the importance of keeping their feet secured to pedals for efficiency, but traditional toe clips had a few faults.
Most importantly, they required cleated shoes to work effectively, and the straps that held the cleat in place were virtually impossible to release quickly.
When used without cleats, toe clips are admittedly better than platform pedals. But they don’t provide a rider with the feeling of connection to a bike that comes with clipless pedals.
Clipless pedals hold the foot firmly on the pedal and allow cyclists to disengage with a simple twist. However, the process of learning that simple twist can be a painful one for eager riders who don’t take the time to practice in safe spaces.
I was one of those riders when I bought my first set of SPD pedals. So, I had been riding mountain bikes for several years and had spent several years on BMX bikes before that, so I was very comfortable with wheelies and manuals, taking reasonably large drops, and riding technical uphills.
Then, I put those clipless pedals on my bike and suddenly felt like Superman. Five minutes later, I was lying on my back with my feet still in the pedals from pulling an off-balance wheelie and not being practiced at unclicking.
That first experience with clipless pedals left my ego far more bruised than my body, but the entire situation could have been avoided with a few tips toward transitioning into the use of clipless pedals.
Adjust Your Pedal Tension
Most clipless pedals have a tension adjustment, and it’s usually done with just a hex key. Decreasing the tension of new pedals works well to make engaging the shoe an automatic process.
Clicking into a pedal requires hitting just the right spot with your cleat and applying pressure, and riders who are new to clipless pedals are often to find that this is trickier than it looks.
Easing the pedal tension will lessen the pressure required to engage the shoe, and your ability to easily click into the pedal will come much more quickly.
It probably goes without saying that lowering a pedal’s tension will make disengaging a shoe much easier. While the twist to disengage a shoe is a simple movement, it usually requires an almost purely horizontal rotation.
New clipless users often twist at an upward angle in an attempt to lift the shoe from the pedal while turning it, and this doesn’t work well at all if the pedal tension is high.
Lowering tension can help a new user disengage from a pedal even when they don’t make the twisting motion on a perfectly horizontal plane.
Practice Getting In and Out of Pedals Before You Ride With Them
Starting with your bike in a training stand is an excellent way to train your legs to properly twist out of clipless pedals. Training stands are not terribly expensive, and they have the added benefit of allowing you to stay in riding shape during the winter months.
Click one foot into a pedal and mount the bike as you normally would. Spin for a minute or two, and then disengage both feet and dismount the bike.
Repeat this process a few times, and be sure to mount and dismount the way you would if your bike were not in a stand. This simple muscle memory exercise is surprisingly effective for training the brain to twist the foot rather than lifting it from the pedal.
If you don’t own a training stand and don’t wish to purchase one, it’s worth noting that most health clubs have spinning bikes with clipless pedals.
You might look a bit strange mounting and dismounting a stationary bike repeatedly, but it’s a great way to practice getting in and out of your pedals without falling over.
Choose a Fall-Friendly Practice Space
There is a nearly 100 percent chance that you will fall over at least once on your first day of riding with clipless pedals, so it makes sense to find a spot where you’ll be landing on the soft ground.
A grassy park is a perfect place to practice. Again, it’s smart to begin by taking a few minutes to practice mounting the bike, riding a bit, bringing the bike to a stop, and dismounting.
Even when you think you have clipless pedals mastered, there will be times when you come to a full stop and can’t get your shoe disengaged from the pedal quickly enough. Repeated starting and stopping is time well spent.
When you become comfortable with starting and stopping, try riding your bike across the grass as slowly as possible. This will force you to quickly unclick from time to time in order to catch your balance, and it’s great practice for more technical trails.
If your grassy area has any hills, it’s a good idea to practice riding up them. Lots of spills occur from losing momentum, missing a downshift, and toppling over because you couldn’t get out of the pedals quickly enough.
Even experienced clipless pedal users find themselves in slow-speed crashes on uphills every now and then, so lots of practice at varying speeds on a soft surface is well worth the time spent doing it.
Practicing your uphill riding also reinforces a fundamental aspect of using clipless pedals: It’s almost always better if you disengage from a pedal before you come to a complete stop.
Since uphill practice often surprises you with an unplanned stop, doing it repeatedly makes you better able to unclick at just the right time before losing your last bit of momentum and falling over.
Even advanced riders can benefit from spending their first day with clipless pedals in a grassy area. Almost every rider finds it difficult to disengage from their pedals in the middle of a wheelie or a stoppie, so practicing tricks on the grass just makes sense.
If you’re an intermediate rider who hasn’t yet mastered many tricks, practicing track stands on grass is a great way to train yourself to quickly unclick from your pedals.
Practice Unclicking and Dismounting on Both Sides of the Bike
Most of us have a preferred side for mounting and dismounting a bike. I like to click my left foot into the pedal, push off for a bit of momentum, swing my right leg over the saddle, and then click in my right foot.
To dismount, I usually do the reverse. But there are often times when a rider can’t use their preferred side, and in these cases, it pays to have practiced at starting and stopping from both sides of the bike.
Even in situations that require a stop but not a dismount, it’s important to be comfortable with disengaging either foot from the pedal.
I’ve seen plenty of new clipless users ride up to a stoplight, unclick their preferred foot, and fall over to the opposite side.
Ride With Confidence
Clipless pedals may seem a bit intimidating, and for those who aren’t smart about transitioning to their use, they can lead to painful crashes. But the way they transfer power to the pedal and give the rider a feeling that we are truly connected to the bike makes them well worth using.
Spending some time training your brain and muscles to disengage from them quickly will definitely help you avoid unnecessary crashes. It will also build your confidence and improve your overall riding.
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