In search of the right pedal
This much is certain: pedals belong to every bike. Whether click or platform pedals – that is the question here. Which one you choose is up to you. What there is to consider and whether the choice of pedals can call your whole identity as a cyclist into question – this is what Wiebke would like to examine in more detail below. In doing so, she takes a closer look at all possible options and explains why this question concerns her personally.
The agony of choice
When it comes to cycling, you have many choices. From “What kind of routes do you want to ride?” to “Which kind of bike do you ride?” to “What are your goals?” to “Which equipment do you want to use?”
All these questions also play into the decision of which pedals are the most appropriate. But beware. As with the question of the wheel or the goals, there is no right or wrong. Below is some general information about clipless pedals as well as my personal advantages and disadvantages of the pedal types. These are intended to provide a little support for your decision, if you still have to make it or want to make it again.
Furthermore, I take up the topic at this point because I have been confronted with it frequently and have had to justify my decision “against” clipless pedals countless times. What this does with me and why it bothers me – more about that later.
Pro clicks: When does a click system make sense?
There are different click pedal systems and they are usually not compatible with each other. This means that the shoe, or the plate under the shoe, must match the pedal.
What click pedals are there and how do they work?
Known click pedal systems are SPD, SPD-SL, Look and Speedplay.
The clipping-in process creates a firm connection between the pedal and the shoe, which is supposed to ensure optimal power transmission when pedalling in a rounded manner. While one foot pushes, the other can pull. The shoe can be released from the pedal by a twisting movement.
Clicking in and out requires some practice at first. Clicking out in time before stopping as well as adjusting the pedals correctly helps to get used to the it without accidents. There are different ranges of movement of the pedals, which can be recognised by the colours. e.g.: Shimano’s yellow plates allow the foot the most room to move. Depending on the system, the adjustment of the spring for clicking in and out can be made on the pedal or the cleat under the cycling shoe. This determines how easy or difficult it is to click in and out.
To find the correct positioning of the cleats on the cycling shoe, a bike fitting can be helpful. The position under the shoe should be taken into account, as well as the position of the foot. In order to avoid incorrect stresses, these settings should fit well. If you have pain, then something doesn’t fit and you should change something about your position.
Which click pedals to start with?
For many, SPD (also often known as mountain bike click pedals) are the ideal entry-level. Clicking in is possible on both sides and is therefore easier than with the “road bike click pedals”, the SPD-SL. Here, the pedal always has to be turned to the right side before clicking in.
With SPD pedals, the cleats on the shoe are recessed into the soles, making walking, climbing or pushing much more comfortable. In addition, these pedals are also available as combination pedals, which allow one side of the pedal to be ridden with road shoes.
The benefits of click pedals and a brief look at the science
The biggest advantage of click pedals is that the foot always remains fixed in the right position, so no energy can be lost through slipping. In addition, the stable connection offers more control between the bike and the rider.
From a scientific perspective, this is just as exciting a topic. A study by the University of Freiburg shows that in fact only a few professionals generate propulsive forces during the upward movement, i.e. actively and permanently pull. By using online feedback, it could be shown that an optimal movement sequence is crucial for efficiency when pedalling. It is important that the pedal is unloaded as much as possible during the propulsive movement. Pulling, the so-called upstroke, can be an active and thus relieving part for the other leg.
So efficiency is not gained by using click pedals alone. It is only through a “rounded kick” that the muscle groups can be evenly loaded and thus an efficient riding style can be created.
With practice and sensitivity to the “round kick”, click pedals can be useful. Click pedals are also of added value during sprints.The advantage of clipless pedals through control and the possibility of pulling is very convincing for many to equip themselves with click pedals from the beginning.
Nevertheless, there are also arguments for flat pedals that can be useful depending on the intended use. More on this below.
Pro Flats: When do platform pedals make sense?
Flat pedals usually have a large contact surface and optimally give a lot of grip through pins or small notches. The foot is not clicked in and so you can always take the shoe off the pedal. This means a safe riding experience – especially on MTB, gravel or off-road rides. Anywhere you have to spontaneously put your foot on the ground more often, a flat pedal could be the right choice.
In addition to the most non-slip connection possible between the shoe and pedal by the flat pedal, the flat pedals are particularly useful on long bike trips. The foot is free on the pedal, the position always varies minimally and this relieves the knees. In addition, you can also stop at any time and go a few meters, without the feet hurt you directly or you wear out your cleats.
Tip: Should you opt for flat pedals, I recommend you choose shoes with a hard sole, as this is much more comfortable for the foot on long rides and the power transfer is more direct and therefore more efficient.
The advantage of flats in bikepacking
In addition, flat pedals offer great weight and space savings on lightly packed bikepacking trips. Choose a pair of shoes here that you’ll be comfortable in on both rest and travel days. While you always have to have the right road bike or MTB shoe pair with you for clipless pedals, you can freely choose which shoe you ride with flat pedals. Both on month-long trips as well as on Weekendescapes I therefore like to choose my flat pedals.
Even in ultrarace, there are always people who ride several thousand miles with flat pedals. So choosing flat pedals does not mean that someone has little experience or rides less well. It is in the end a matter of taste and both systems offer their advantages and disadvantages.
Why is this question about pedals so important?
In mountain biking, it is relatively normal to ride both MTB clicks and flat pedals. By rookies and pros. In road cycling, it is rather unusual for someone to ride without click pedals. What does that mean for us? What does it mean for gravel riders? Does the decision about your pedals play a big role in your environment?
It’s up to you whether you prefer to ride with or without click pedals. The main thing is that you ride. And you feel comfortable doing it. Besides, it’s a process. I started on the road bike with flat pedals, then switched to the simple SPD pedals, drove the 2-3 years and now drive for about 1 year with the SPD-SL pedals. On the gravel bike I vary my pedal selection. But I prefer to drive there always with flat pedals – simply to save space and because I feel safer on technical passages so.
Surprised I was nevertheless, when I was addressed after 7,000 km with the wheel by South America without inquiries to my sneakers, all at once permanently on my flat pedals on the Gravelfahrrad. Only when I was back in Germany, many commented on my shoe or pedal selection. That got me thinking. And sometimes caused negative emotions. And so the idea for this article was born.
Cycling is versatile and colourful. There are many unwritten style laws, such as big sunglasses and high socks, which can be fun but also lead to exclusion. In the end, it’s the perceived riding safety, the health or avoidance of pain, and the freedom to just ride whatever bike and setup you feel like that prevails.
I’m all for pedal positivity. Or better: pedal neutrality. No matter what kind of pedal system you use, as long as you ride, you belong! Both on the road, on the MTB, in the city or on your next gravel adventure.
Text and research: Wiebke Luehmann
Edit: Johanna Jahnke
Release/ layout: Juliane Schumacher