Bike pedals these days come in a variety of shapes, styles and sizes, but all are designed to keep you rolling forward with efficiency. The three general types of pedals described in this article—platform, toe clips and clipless—all have various pros and cons, depending on your riding style and biking needs. Clipless pedals, which have a relatively high number of manufacturers and models, will be described here in greater detail.
Your Basic Pedal: Platform Pedals
Platform pedals, also known as flat pedals, are a great choice for beginner riders or casual bikers. A flat bike pedal offers a wide, stable surface and is most commonly found on basic road bikes, mountain bikes, hybrid bikes, cruiser bikes and kids’ bikes. With a flat pedal, you can move confidently—without the worry of having to quickly unclip a bike shoe. Flat pedals are not as efficient as the clipless or toe clip pedals described below and don’t secure your foot to the bike for maximum efficiency, but they are a go-to, low-maintenance option you can constantly rely on.
Sidenote on Names/Labels: Clipless Bike Pedals versus Toe Clips
Toe clips? Clipless? What’s with these confusing names, and why would anyone want to be attached to a bike, anyway? Because there is often some general confusion about these pedals and how they got their names, here’s a quick note on clipless pedals versus toe clips.
When a system of toe cages and straps was invented for bike pedals, it took on the name “toe clips.” For a long time, this was the most efficient method for securing feet to bike pedals. In the 1980s, an alternative pedal came along whereby cleats literally clipped into the pedals, but they were not just “toe clips.” So, the name “clipless” was born.
Whether using toe clips or clipless pedals, when your feet are strapped or clicked into the bike, you are able to get the greatest amount of pedaling energy because you utilize the power generated from both pushing down and pulling up the legs. Mechanically, this doubles your pedaling power (compared to flat pedals), making for greater efficiency of travel—especially when climbing hills.
Old School: Toe Clips
Toe clips, also known as toe cages, are a system of plastic cages and straps designed to be attached to certain, but not all, types of flat, platform pedals.
Backroads Pro Tip
Toe clips used to be one of the best methods for securing your feet to the pedals, but, in many ways, this has been rendered obsolete with the increase in popularity and manufacturing of clipless pedals.
The benefit of toe clips, as compared to clipless pedals, is that they don’t require cycling-specific shoes to function, and they are often less expensive than a set of clipless pedals. The downside is that toe clips take a bit of getting used to, and they have to be hand tightened (and often retightened while riding) to get the maximum benefit of being strapped in.
Overall, this is a great option if you want an inexpensive means to more pedaling efficiency but aren’t quite ready to shift gears into the world of clipless pedals.
New School: Clipless Pedals (Two-, Three- and Four-Hole Designs)
Think of clipless pedals as “ski boots of the biking world.” When you first begin riding with them, the feeling of constraint might feel a bit odd. But you’ll soon come to see that this security allows for greater stability and efficiency that you’ll quickly grow to rely on and appreciate.
Within the market of clipless pedals is a variety of options to choose from, but the general methods by which they function are the same. Many proprietary designs for pedal systems exist, and some of the major manufacturers will be explored below.
In most clipless pedal systems, whether a two-, three- or four-hole cleat design, a metal or plastic cleat attaches to the bottom of a cycling shoe and then clicks into the bike pedals via a spring-loaded mounting system.
A cleat is clicked into the pedal by exerting downward force with the foot and is typically released by twisting the foot laterally to unclip the cleat. To help tune the unclip release point, the spring mechanisms on most pedals are able to be adjusted tighter or looser, depending on your riding preferences. How much your foot can move side to side before unclipping is commonly referred to as “pedal float.”
Backroads Pro Tip
Like many other parts of your bike, these mechanical pedal systems require general routine maintenance to ensure proper working performance. This primarily includes cleaning crevices, lubing springs and tightening screws.
The major benefit of clipless pedals over platform pedals is they enable greater control when riding. Your feet are less likely to slip in difficult terrain, and you enjoy maximum power efficiency when cycling for any given period of time. The downside is they do take some getting used to. Be prepared for a small learning curve of unclipping without tipping over (but don’t worry, it’s part of the learning process and we’ve all done it!).
Prices for a pair of clipless pedals range from approximately $50 to over $200. Price largely depends on the type of design and materials used.
Companies such as Shimano, Look, Crank Brothers, Time, Forté and Speedplay make two-, three- and four-hole clipless pedal designs. All these manufacturers have slightly different mechanical designs, and people argue their preferences or gripes about each. In general, though, all clipless pedal systems are functionally designed to easily attach your feet to the bike. Which manufacturer you choose is really just a matter of personal preference.
Backroads Pro Tip
It is important to note that not all shoes, cleats and pedals designed by different companies are interchangeable. You must use the correct shoe, cleat and pedal combination that ensures proper fit and performance for you.
Two-Hole Cleat Design
Often found on mountain, casual, commuter, touring and some road bikes, the two-hole cleat design is the most common clipless pedal option on the market. Named after the leading manufacturer of this pedal type, these are often referred to as SPD pedals (Shimano Pedaling Dynamics).
In this system, two holes are drilled into the bottom of the shoe under the ball of the foot. Often there is a track in the shoe so the cleat can be adjusted slightly forward, backward and laterally to allow for maximum comfort in terms of foot position and angle over the pedal. Comfort and fit are unique to each person, so if you are having difficulty fitting pedals, it is best to visit your local bike shop for some assistance with fine-tuning the adjustment.
Two-hole cleats are slightly recessed into the cycling shoe, making for an easier (and quieter) time walking around than you experience with the three-hole cleat design. Two-hole clipless systems are a versatile and solid choice if you are looking to get into using a clipless pedal.
Three-Hole Cleat Design
A popular design for road biking is the three-hole cleat design. Often called the Look cleat, named after the company that developed this concept, the system uses a plastic cleat attached to three holes drilled into the bottom of a shoe. This cleat protrudes out to attach to a corresponding pedal.
Compared to a two-hole system, the Look cleat is incredibly stiff and responsive—a big reason road bikers prefer it. A major benefit of this system is that the cleat is wider than a two-hole design and covers more surface area, enabling it to withstand the high-load pressure that can be created while pedaling hard on a road bike. If you are not one to be racing bikes or pushing hard on a regular basis, consider opting for a two-hole cleat design, which can be more forgiving. If you are a serious road biking enthusiast, though, the three-hole design is a great choice.
Four-Hole Cleat Design
Created primarily for road biking pedals, the four-hole cleat design is less common than two- and three-hole cleat designs, but some Speedplay and Time models utilize this configuration as an alternative to the three-hole design. Technically speaking, there are differences to the force load being applied in three- versus four-hole designs; however, this is where manufacturer and personal preference come into play.
Backroads Pro Tip
When purchasing a four-hole cleat system, keep in mind that an adapter might be necessary when fitting this to certain cycling shoes.
- Think about your style and frequency of riding, and then decide what pedal to choose.
- When selecting clipless pedals, make sure your shoes, cleats and pedals all work together as a system.
- Be mindful of foot angle and pedal float when first using a new set of pedals and cleats. Adjust accordingly or seek assistance with adjusting, as needed.
- Practice makes the confident use of toe clips or clipless pedals a whole lot easier over time. Remember, even the best riders don’t have a perfect dismount every time!