The importance of having pedals

Pedals are, of course, fundamental to bicycles. There was a bicycle-like invention known as a draisine or a hobby horse invented in 1817. However, bicycle scholars like David V. Herlihy argue that it is not technically a bicycle, as it lacked pedals and cranks. Regardless, with the exception of striders for toddlers, bicycles produced today have pedals. Before I got into bicycling, pedals were not something I had ever thought about. My pedals were always plastic with yellow reflectors. Then I bought a bike that didn’t come with pedals and decided to learn to ride with clipless pedals. The name seems contradictory, as your feet are attached to the pedals, but more on that later. Sheldon Brown and John Allen provide a detailed account of different types of pedals and how they work.

Velocipede made by Andrew Muir and Co, Manchester, England, 1869, Courtesy of Oldbike.eu
Note the pedals on this velocipede made by Andrew Muir and Co, Manchester, England, 1869, Courtesy of Oldbike.eu

Tony Hadland and Hans-Erhard Lessing describe the development of pedals in Bicycle Design. Since the 1860s, there have been many different types of pedals invented. Velocipedists’ pedals were quite different from modern pedals, as riders rested their instep, rather than the ball of their foot, on the pedal.  Flat pedals were first used with the high-wheel bicycle (today it tends to be called a penny farthing). In 1876, rat trap pedals were invented, which look very similar to many modern pedals.

Campagnolo pedal with strap and toe clip, early 1980s
Campagnolo pedal with strap and toe clip, early 1980s

By the late 1880s, pedals with toe-clips started to become more common, even on high-wheels. Toe clips kept feet from flying off, which can be dangerous when traveling quickly.  More serious cyclists began to wear special shoes that locked into their pedal along with toe clips. However, it can be difficult to get out of toe clips, particularly if a cyclist uses additional straps. From there, so-called clipless pedals were invented around 1894. Tony Hadland and Hans-Erhard Lessing write: “Confusingly, at the heart of each and every so-called clipless pedal is a clip. Such pedals are called clipless because they don’t have an external toe clip.” Instead, they have a cleat on the sole of the shoe that locks into a fastener on the pedal. After the 1890s, the clipless pedal mostly disappeared, and until the 1970s serious cyclists used toe clips and straps to keep their feet secure. Bike-advisor.com includes a visual of different types of pedals.

Today, there are a range of different clipless pedals available, but many riders still use toe clips as well. I’ve never ridden with toe clips, but I do usually ride clipless. There are two main categories of clipless pedals: Those designed for mountain biking and those designed for road biking. What is the difference between the two? Mountain bike pedals are typically designed so that they are easier to clip in and out of, as mountain bikers are more likely to have to put a foot down unexpectedly than road cyclists. Mountain bike shoes generally have some some tread on the bottom, which makes it easier to walk, as mountain biking sometimes involves having to walk your bike. Road shoes tend to be very difficult to walk in, as they have a smooth surface with a cleat protruding under the instep. Road pedals have a wider, more stable platform and help improve performance.

Left: Sidi road shoes Right: Bontrager mountain bike pedals at right.
Left: Sidi road shoes                     Right: Bontrager mountain bike shoes at right.

Sheldon Brown explains that clipless pedals work similarly to ski binding. Indeed, the first functional clipless pedals were made by the company Look, which first made skis (my road bike is equipped with Look pedals). Clipless pedals engage with the cleats on the bottom of the cyclist’s shoes, locking the shoes onto the pedals. You clip out of clipless pedals by twisting your heel outward.

John Allen recommends mountain bike pedals for urban cycling, recreational riding, and touring, and you can read his post for information on different types of mountain bike pedals. On my primary bike I use Shimano SPD pedals  which are virtually indestructible. Learning to ride clipless was certainly unnerving, and as a less experienced cyclist, the idea of making it more difficult to put a foot down seemed absurd. The first time I went out for a ride around my neighborhood I forgot to clip out and promptly tipped over. A bit embarrassing, but I was fine. I also had some trouble on steep hills at first, but failure to clip out has never caused me to be more than very slightly injured.

My first clipless pedals were flat on one side and were Shimano SPDs on the other. This type of pedal worked well when I was a beginner who was relying primarily on one bike, as I could wear regular shoes if I wanted to. While one could feasibly ride a short distance with regular shoes and clipless pedals, most clipless pedals have a much smaller surface area, so it is hard to keep your foot from sliding off. The downside of this type of pedal, is that the pedals always seem to end up on the opposite side of where you want them to be.

Eventually I switched to double-sided Shimano SPDs for my touring bike, which meant I always had to wear specialized shoes. Sometimes this is inconvenient because I always have to bring a change of shoes, but I prefer not having to worry about my feet flying off my pedals. Additionally, clipless pedals or toe clips make for more efficient riding. I ended up deciding to write about pedals after getting my fifth (I know) bike recently, which is a bare bones single speed that I ride with platform pedals. As it turns out, as much as I love riding clipless, sometimes it is just simpler to throw on a pair of street shoes, grab my bike, and head out the door.

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