Bicycle pedals are ridiculously important, and not important at all, all at the same time.
The pedals are the interface through which your feet apply the power needed to propel the bike forward.
They’re important, because without pedals, you won’t be going anywhere, and they’re not important, because when done right, you will hardly ever think of them. It remains important to pick the right pedals for your particular needs.
At their most basic, pedals are simply platforms for your feet, ideally with some method for making it less likely for your feet to slip off. Some of those methods can be agonising when the cranks spin around and a pedal whacks you on the shin, especially pedals with raised metal pins.
Platform pedals mean you can cycle with pretty much any footwear, or barefoot, if you wish. And yes, that does include cycling with high heels.
There are a few downsides to platform pedals, starting with the most obvious: your feet can slip off the pedals, sometimes with interesting results. Especially when cycling over rough terrain, having your feet vibrate right off the pedals can be a problem, though for just pootling about it really shouldn’t be an issue.
Some people will tell you that there’s vastly better power transfer to be had by moving away from platform pedals, and to some degree they’re right, but it also very much depends on your pedalling technique.
You see, most people only ever apply muscle power when the pedal moves through the 14h00 to 16h00 position on a clock (when viewing the cranks from the side) and they continue to pedal like that even after switching to different pedals. In such cases, those riders won’t see any performance increase.
Yes, I’m aware the font makes it look like it says cups, but we’re talking clips here. In days gone by, serious cyclists used special pedals, which used clips and straps to secure their feet to the pedals. Indeed, there remain a small, but determined number of cyclists who ride with clips.
Clips bring with them several problems, most important of which it the inability to get your foot released in time, should you need to stop. Although usually more damaging to your ego than your body, it’s still best to avoid that slow sideways fall!
Here’s where things start getting a tad confusing. You get a type of pedal that requires a special cycling shoe. On the underside of the shoe there’s a cleat, and that cleat clips into the pedal. As a result, when using clipless pedals, it is usual to refer to the process of engaging the pedal with the cleat as clipping in. With me so far? With clipless pedals yo clip in!
The came clipless refers to the pedals that preceded it, covered above, under the clips heading. To show that it’s different, and that clipless pedals don’t rely on a system of clips and straps to secure your feet to the pedals, we can these clipless pedals.
There are two different groups of clipless pedals. The first are SPD pedals (short for Shimano Pedalling Dynamics) and these are often called MTB pedals. There are also road pedals, but though they have a 3-bolt cleat system in common, there are a number of competing road clipless pedals.
The advantages of being able to easily and securely attach your feet to the pedals are clear. If you’ve ever pedalled hard, and experienced your foot slipping off a platform pedal, you’ll realise how important that attachment is. It also allows you to increase power transfer, and there are claims of up to 30% gains to be had, but that absolutely depends on having a decent pedalling technique.
Unclipping is normally simply a matter of twisting your foot, so your heel flicks outward.
SPD pedals are usually double-sided, though you do get some that is an SPD pedal on one side, and a platform pedal on the other side. The cleats secure with two bolts, and SPD shoes have a recess in the sole, inside which the cleat sits. This means that with most SPD shoes you can walk normally, or almost normally. You can even get SPD shoes that are indistinguishable from normal shoes, unless you turn them upside down.
There are many advantages to SPD pedals, beginning with the ability to walk normally when off the bike. SPD pedals and cleats are usually tough, and last a long time (though the more you walk, the faster your cleats will wear out). These pedals are also quite good at not getting clogged up with mud to the point that you cannot use them.
There are disadvantages, too – fixing with only two bolts means you’ll have quite a problem if one bolt somehow works its way loose, and falls out. Further, because the pedal surface is quite small, you need decent SPD shoes, with a very strong sole insert. If the sole of the part of the shoe directly above the cleat flexes a lot, your feet will get very tired, can start hurting and you may suffer the dreaded hot spots.
These range from SPD-SL, to Look, Speedplay, plus many more. The only thing they have in common is a 3-bolt system for securing the cleat to the shoe. Road cleats are proud of the sole of the shoe, so if you’re going to try walking in them, prepare to leave your dignity behind. Many a club cyclist has found cleats give no grip at all on some café floors!
More important that wobbling like a penguin when walking is the damage walking will do to the cleats. With road cycling, weight of components is often a big factor, and so components are often made of lighter, and software alloys, compared to steel SPD cleats. This is why you’ll often see road cyclists at a café stop remove their shoes and walk around in their socks.
The biggest benefit to road cleats is not with the pedals or cleats, but with the shoes. Most better road shoes have soles made out of carbon fibre, with practically zero flexibility. Not so good for walking, but great for power transfer, while avoiding foot fatigue and hot spots.
Which are best?
Haven’t you figured that out yet? The answer is obvious – the best pedals are those that are most appropriate to what you do with your bike. Do you do BMX stunts? In that case, platform pedals are by far your best option. Just riding around town, in normal clothes? Platform pedals again.
If you’re a serious MTBer, then you’ll want SPDs, but a surprising amount of cyclists who rarely venture off the road ride with SPDs, too. On my road bike I have SPD pedals, as does my adventure bike.
If you’re a serious roadie, where weight and gaining every possible extra watt of power matters, then you’ll be wanting to ride with road pedals.