Saturday, 20 March 2010

The clipless myth

To start right from the middle: I don't like clipless system. The fact that I broke my arm in a low-speed fall because I failed to unclip may have to do something with this position, but it's not the only reason.

Efficiency. I heard claims that clipless system greatly improves cycling efficiency - there were numbers as high as 20%. I was skeptical, so I did my own measurements in a real-world road-cycling circumstances. I was more then disappointed. I measured average speed on two loops of fixed length (60 km and 85 km) with and without clipless system, all the other factors being the same (i.e. the same bike and clothes). The average difference (averaged over 2 and 6 rides) in average speed was less then 0,5%. On one of the sections it was in favor of clipless system, on the other section it was in favor of plain pedals and shoes. The difference was smaller than the difference in individual rides within one system. Thus, my measurements doesn't show any statistically significant advantage of any of the system.

Safety. All clipless advocates confess that falling off is part of the learning process. What they do not tell is that you will damage your bike in that process and that an injury is a real possibility. My quick search through the net revealed only 4 voluntarily reported injuries caused by clipless system. When talking to the people after my accident I got the impression that they are much more common - even my physiotherapist had broken the arm. There seems to be a high degree of self-censorship, self-guilt (e.g. "it's MY fault that I couldn't unclip") and the dread of being scoffed at by the "pro"'s.

The feel. Nothing is life is all bad or all good. I liked some aspects of clipless system, especially "the feel" and "the look". I suspect that these are the main reasons for its popularity. As for me, I am not going to risk another 2 or 3 months of rehabilitation, just to stay within the "cycling mainstream". The proper cycling technique and a positive feel that your foot is not slipping on a pedal can be trained and learned, without any disadvantages of restrained feet.

Every so often I read and hear people comlaining about some additional aspects related to the clipless system: pain in feet, ankles or knees due to restricted movement, water seeping in through the holes in the soles, cold sensation due to heat transfer through the cleats, sorenes in the feet due to pressure in the cleat area, awkward walking, the need for a second footware on a tour. The general consensus, however, is that the benefits of the clipless system override any disadvantages. But what exactly are these benefits? Have they ever been proven in an authoritative research? I know of a few reasearches regarding this issue (
link here) and according to them the benefits for a non-proffesional cyclist are so slim (*), that I can only conclude that clipless system is just another market gimmic with huge turnover, exploiting people's urge to follow the fashion.

(*) What this abstract says is: Shoe-pedal interface (flat pedals vs. clippless pedals) does not influence cycling effectiveness during normal (submaximal) exercise. Only an active pulling-up action on the pedal during upstroke increases the pedalling effectiveness, while reducing overall efficiency. It is, really, pretty logical: yes, when you pull up, you will be quicker, but you will loose more energy then if you didn't pull up. So, in brief, there is no free lunch; in fact, the clipless lunch is more expensive.


  1. For general cycling I absolutely agree with you. However anyone with any kind of racing experience (however small) will tell you that clipless are almost indispensable.
    Clipless doesn't change overall power transfer that much but for hard acceleration and sprinting it makes a HUGE difference. Not to mention the fact that any kind of XC type offroad riding is quite difficult at speed without clipless pedals.
    Just thought someone should weigh in here to balance out the viewpoint... But all in all I agree with you.

  2. if you are riding fixed, not having your feet attached to the pedals can be more dangerous than falling because the pedals can hit you in the calf and/or make it difficult to place your feet back on the pedals if the are spinning too fast especially when going down hill

    and it is also easy to find a clipless system that suites the amount of effort you desire to detach most decent spd have an adjustable spring loaded tensioner, the crank brother system can be adjusted by which foot you place the cleat and the three bolt systems which are generally hard to detach from are usually only used for racing

  3. Thanks for the comments!

    Good to have the opinions from the opposite side.

  4. I did some heavy mountain biking before and my bike had platform pedals with short steel stubs. I used pretty soft rubber sole shoes that "bonded" well with those spikes securing my feet on pedals. That worked nicely and I am not sure if I would feel comfortable now to use clipless system in such conditions.

    The only drawback is that you may have to use shin guards as spiked pedals can tear off skin from your shins easily. Shin guards are a common accessory for downhill/freeride biking anyway.

    However, my road bikes have SPDs and I can't picture anything else there. It just works so much better for me on a smooth road.

  5. I have to think you were not pulling through the stroke is why you saw so little improvement and didn't give it a fair shake.
    Sorry that you got hurt and I can understand why you are now shying away from them.
    My personal experience my only regret is not switching sooner.
    I run Campus peddles (one side clip one side platform) on a couple of my bikes (main two bikes I commute on) and when riding in regular shoes I feel I loose half my power especially on hills. Even with traditional clips I have on a classic bike I keep popping out as I try to pull through the stroke. Afraid to tighten the straps enough to keep it from happening.

    Yes I have had a few falls. I even got stitches once in a fall because I unclipped one side and fell the other way. Oddly enough it was the foot that I got unclipped I managed the slice open my ankle on the chain ring. The rest of my injuries were to pride as I managed to do the slow motion fall to the side that I didn't unclip waiting for lights.

  6. I rode cleats for 5 years. For 5 years I had knee pain that eventually got so bad that I considered giving up cycling. I tried every different combination, shoes, position, angle etc that I could. Nothing worked. The last straw was when I came off in Mallorca and broke my arm [not particularly blaming the cleats but I don't know if it was a factor].
    I have since reverted to plain platform pedals. I have no knee pain whatsoever. I recently completed a 2 week 700mile tour with no knee pain! The other day I tried the cleats once again for a 20mile run. Instant knee pain! Sunday, back on the platforms for a 70 mile hilly club run. No knee pain! I don't know why but they do not work for me. I would love to use them as I like the feel. I am no slower without them. As I ride the platforms with no toeclips I can see and feel my feet making small corrections on the pedal all the time. I'm assuming my body is deciding for itself how it wishes to cycle, utilising a variety of muscles from the hips and legs, down to all those tiny muscles in the feet. This way they all contribute to the power needed rather than the limited amount available when your feet are locked into a certain position.
    Course I could be wrong but it works for me

  7. I much prefer cycling using regular shoes and flat pedals, but sometimes the advantage of SPDs are so great that they almost seem a necessity.

    For example, I find challenging cross-country mountain biking much easier clipped in. The smoother pedalling action gives me more grip going up rough terrain, and I feel more in control going down bumpy routes when I'm attached to the bike.

    Practising unclipping quickly is essential, and it's useful to try it with both feet and the cranks in all positions. Extending the length of time you can balance when stopping unexpectedly is very useful.

    I've certainly taken a few annoying sideways falls in the past, but it's possible to pretty much eliminate them entirely.

    I also find SPDs valuable for long road rides, encouraging a more efficient rotational style of pedalling, rather than the downward push-push that I tend to do more with flat pedals. At a guess, I reckon they're at least 10% more efficient, which for timed rides is fantastic.

    Saying this, for cycle touring I prefer normal shoes and flat pedals because I'm rarely on challenging terrain, I'm not in a massive hurry and I don't want to carry an extra pair of shoes.

  8. Totally agree with the article and the benefits of flat pedals. I have posted separately on Bike James website. I nearly gave up cycling after 20 odd years of road and off road cycling. What a lot of clipless peadl advocates don't get is the fact that your foot is in fixed forward postion without the ability for the foot to find it's own most comfortable placement, and also float is not a natural thing. I now use Superstar pedals with 5/10 impacts and I off road race with more speed and safety than I ever did on clipless due to having more power on the pedal stroke due to no knee pain!

  9. If you are new to cycling, give clipless a try. Time Atac is great. Flat pedals are fine for urban riding. I commute on flat pedals but on weekend rides, esp. the fixed gear, my Atacs are priceless.