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I'll be making shoe recommendations in connection with different kinds of pedals, but first here's some quick advice.
Feet swell a bit as you stand and walk on them. If you ride your bicycle to go buy shoes, you may find them too small after you have been walking. Buy shoes a bit large, or go for a good, long walk before trying them on. If you will be wearing the shoes for winter riding, you also might want to leave enough room inside for two layers of wool socks.
Now, as to pedals: what kind are best for you? Some bicycles narrow the range of choices:
A coaster brake (backpedaling brake) prevents you from backpedaling after a quarter turn or less. After stopping, you have to take a foot off the (rear) braking pedal before you can place the other foot on the (forward) power pedal -- so, a coaster brake is practical only with plain pedals, which don't secure your feet.
A bicycle with a one-piece crank uses a smaller pedal threading than other bicycles. Only a limited selection of pedals is available for one-piece cranks, unless you use an adaptor, and that will push the pedals outward, reducing cornering clearance.
A fixed gear doesn't let you coast. A good, secure connection to the pedals is important with a fixed gear, but spinning pedals make toe clips hard to enter, and the straps hard to adjust. Click-in pedals are the best choice if your bicycle has a fixed gear.
Most bicycles allow backpedaling and have three-piece cranks, so you can use any kind of pedal you like. You put one foot down when stopping, and prepare to restart by lifting the opposite pedal to the high-and-forward starting position. With toe clips or click-in pedals, the pedal rises with your foot. With plain pedals, you hook your foot under the pedal. To restart, you step down on the pedal as you let go of the brake levers. The first pedal stroke lifts you up onto the saddle as it gets you moving.
In the video below, Theresa James, aged 13, demonstrates the preferred technique for starting and stopping on a bicycle which allows backpedaling.
Many cyclists keep the saddle too low for efficient pedaling because of poor starting and stopping technique. Also see the article on this site about starting and stopping.
Some pedals have built-in front and rear reflectors, or reflectors can be bolted on. Always use lights at night -- but rear-facing pedal reflectors also help increase visibility. They also show whether you are pedaling, so they serve more or less as brake lights. If your pedals can't take reflectors, reflective ankle bands are a practical substitute, and they also provide reflectivity to the sides. I like the wide, Velcro-backed Bike-a-Lite ankle bands -- but no ankle bands really protect trouser cuffs. I wear the ankle band over my socks and tuck my trouser cuffs into the socks if I am cycling in street clothing.
Plain pedals can work with most shoes, though special bicycling shoes have stiff soles and can be used with cleats. Special shoes are preferable even with plain pedals, though not necessary.
Plain pedals should have a rubber tread for traction if your shoes have leather soles. With rubber soles, a toothed metal traction surface also works. A smooth metal surface will be slippery when wet, whether the soles are of leather or rubber. Plain pedals should be double-sided, so it doesn't matter which side comes up.
|Metal pedal, usable plain or with toe clips and straps||Rubber-block pedal,
works with leather soles
best with soft-soled shoes
Plain pedals have disadvantages: you have to push back against yourself to keep your feet on them during the upstroke. Also, the loose connection between feet and pedals discourages pedaling at a high cadence and increases the risk of a foot's coming off a pedal, possibly causing a crash.
Plain pedals also have advantages. In winter, even avid cyclists often switch over to plain pedals to make it possible to wear heavy boots while riding. Children and beginners usually go with plain pedals to avoid complications when starting and stopping. (On the other hand, children riding on the back of tandems should have toe clips and straps -- see the article on this site about tandeming with children.)
Toe clips and straps have been used since the 1890s and are still quite popular despite the advent of click-in pedal systems.
Even loose toe straps increase safety by preventing a foot from slipping from a pedal. So-called "mini" toe clips, though, used without straps, may look good to a beginner, but they make it harder to start up without offering any advantage once you get going.
Toe clips and straps can scuff shoes, and require a relatively stiff toe box, so they aren't a great idea if you wear sandals, moccasins or Guccis. Most running shoes and bicycling shoes are fine, though.
Pedals for use with toe clips and straps are available in a variety of widths and shapes. Single-sided pedals like the ones in the image below should only be used with toe clips and straps. Some quill pedals, like the one shown at the left, have a tall prong at the outer end, making them unsuitable for wide feet or wide-soled shoes. Platform pedals and track pedals, shown in the middle and right photos, avoid this problem.
AKA road pedal
|Pair of platform pedals for
use with toe clips
|Single-sided pedal without
quill, AKA track pedal
Most toe clips attach to the front of the pedal with two bolts like a pedal reflector, and can be placed under a pedal reflector. If your feet toe out, you may want to mount the toe clips farther toward the outside of the pedals than usual. Toe clips are sold in different lengths, but people with very large feet may have to place stacks of washers between each toe clip and the pedal.
Leather toe straps are more durable than fabric ones, and stiffer -- less likely to tangle with the toe of the shoe as you put your foot in. Thread a strap starting from the outside of the pedal, with a 360 degree twist under the pedal to keep it from sliding out of position. Do not insert the end of the strap into the slot at the bottom of the buckle. Instead, leave it hanging out like a floppy dog ear. Then you can tighten the strap by pulling on the end, and loosen it by pushing the buckle outward with your thumb.
This correctly-threaded leather toe strap was started from the outside of the pedal;
and twisted 360° as it passes through the pedal. The end is loose, to tighten
by pulling, or to loosen by pushing outward on the buckle. The toe clip here is mounted
outboard of center, to accommodate the cyclist's splay-footedness. This is a rear pedal
on a tandem; a bungee cord connects to the front pedal and holds both pedals upright.
The knot in the bungee cord shortens it so it holds tension.
To get your foot into the toe clip, place your toe of your shoe on the back of the pedal and push down; or on a recumbent bicycle, pull the back end of the toe clip toward you with the toe of your shoe. Get one shoe into its toe clip before you start. As you start, slip the other foot into its toe clip. If you don't succeed on the first pedal stroke, ride with the pedal upside down until you have built up enough speed to try again. You may stop pedaling momentarily to reach down and tighten the toe clip once you get going.
Efficient pedaling requires a secure foot-pedal connection, which allows you to pull back lightly at the bottom of the pedal stroke. Slightly oversize toe clips place the strap slightly behind the widest part of the shoe, making this possible.
Power Grips -- wide straps that extend diagonally across each pedal from the outside front to the inside rear -- offer an alternative to toe clips and straps. Power Grips do not require toe clips, but they achieve a similar effect.
Many people worry about getting their shoes out of the clips, but really, you only have to exit a pedal while nearly at a stop. A bit of practice while leaning against a wall will probably get you comfortable with this. You don't have to tighten up the straps at all, if you don't want to, or, as you approach a stop, you may loosen the strap for the foot you put down. It is usually still possible to wiggle a foot out for an unanticipated stop. If you do fall, it's usually more about laughter than tears -- and especially if you wear cycling gloves so you can safely put a hand down to break the fall.
One widesly-recognized problem with toe clips and straps, as well as Power Grips, is discomfort due to the pressure of the strap on the top of the foot. The strap also impairs circulation, resulting in evne mroe discomfort in cold weather.
Click-in shoe-pedal systems work somewhat like ski bindings. They allow easy, hands-free release of the foot and avoid pressure on the top of the foot. Most of the early systems (1980s) had cleats that protruded from the shoe soles, but Shimano SPD, Eggbeater, and Speedplay Frog systems, among others, have recessed cleats and walkable shoes. Some walkable systems shed mud and packed snow well, making them practical for almost any kind of riding.
Cleats for click-in systems bolt to the soles of the shoes. Different systems use different types of cleats. There is more than one bolt-hole pattern, so you need to take care to buy shoes that will work with your cleats and pedals. Cleats are sold with the pedals, rather than the shoes.
As with toe clips and straps, you should practice getting your feet in and out of these pedals before you go riding with them. The motion is different from that with toe clips, and it also is different with different kinds of click-in pedals. Most of these pedals have a release adjustment, which you set according to your leg strength.
The photos below show a selection of pedals used in click-in systems.
Speedplay Frog pedal
|Look racing pedal, uses non-walkable cleat||Crank Brothers
Pair of Shimano SPD/platform pedals. Which side is up?
Two-sided Shimano SPD pedal
My own choice, for urban cycling as well as recreational rides and bicycle touring, is SPD in its walkable "mountain bike" version. Other systems may be lighter, and easier to adjust, but SPD is relatively economical, and a wide variety of pedals and shoes is available from several makers. There are two kinds of cleats -- black, which release only with a twist of the ankle to the side, and silver, which also release upward. I prefer silver.
I do not like combination pedals which are plain on one side and click-in on the other -- like those at the lower left in the picture above. You are likely to fumble getting started because the wrong side will come up as often as not. I suppose that these pedals might make sense for someone who can't have a different bicycle equipped with each kind of pedals. Some similar-looking pedals, on the other hand, have SPD on both sides and a platform around the mechanism, providing better support for the shoe. Long-distance riders report that these are more comfortable. The SPD pedals at the lower right in the picture are minimalist, designed for light weight. They work best with shoes that have stiff soles.
Cleats are adjustable, forward and back, from side to side, and in rotation for toe out/toe in. Most click-in systems also offer some rotational “float” – the feet are free to toe in or out. Correct rotational alignment avoids soreness and possible injury to the knees. Float makes initial alignment less critical, and accommodates the slight changes in the natural angle of the foot at different parts of the crank rotation.
Correctly-aligned cleats make long rides easier and more comfortable, but with incorrectly aligned cleats, knee pain -- usually at the outside of the knees -- can show up quickly. Prolonged misalignment can result in damage to cartilage in the knee joints, so -- deal with this problem promptly!
The cleat attachment on most bicycling shoes promotes incorrect alignment by wanting the feet to point directly forward -- but most people toe out. Except with pedals such as Speedplay that have a wide range of free "float", you will probably need to rotate the cleats. You may also have to move the cleats toward the big-toe side of the shoe soles so your ankles clear the cranks. While most systems offer a range of forward-and-back adjustment, long-distance cycling legend Lon Haldeman modifies his shoes to place the cleats even farther back. He reports that this eliminates foot pain and without reducing his power output. You may find his advice here.
A good way to start with cleat alignment is to note how your feet rest on plain pedals. You may also want to ask for the help of an experienced bike shop mechanic who uses the New England Cycling Academy Fit Kit, with its R.A.D. (Rotational Adjustment Device). If a foot feels like it wants to rotate, then it does. In tough cases, you do well to seek professional help from a sports orthopedist. You may need orthotics (shoe inserts, or wedges under the cleats) to align your feet, and/or "knee savers" (pedal axle extenders).
The soles of my Specialized Body Geometry bicycle shoes, with Shimano
SPD cleats. The cleats are rotated to accommodate my
natural toe-out: the cleats are parallel, and the slots under them splay
outward, though intended to point directly forward. Also,
the cleats are installed as far as they will go to the big toe side
of the soles to get my ankles clear of old Stronglight cranks, and as far back as they
will go to spare my Achilles tendons.
Adjusting the angle of a Shimano SPD cleat by rotating it with an adjustable wrench
while tightening the bolts that secure it to the shoe.
A wide variety of shoes is made for click-in systems, though if you want cleated business Oxfords or patent-leather pumps, you still have to get them modified yourself. (The market cries out! Really!) You can get sandals, combining high-efficiency pedaling with a classic 1950s beatnik look. Quoting Sheldon Brown, the founder of this Web site:: "These are my very favorite footwear. In the summertime I go for weeks on end without ever having anything else on my feet. Far and away the most comfortable cycling footwear ever."
This topic deserves a longer discussion, so here it is.
Sheldon Brown's very own Shimano SPD sandals,
New Year's Day 2004, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Ever making his way upstream against the current of conventional so-called wisdom, Sheldon also wore Shimano SPD sandals in winter. I had to ask Sheldon what he was thinking, wearing sandals, as I took the photo above during the Charles River Wheelmen bicycle club's New Year's Day 2004 ride. The temperature was 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius). Sheldon cheerfully explained that sandals, unlike ordinary shoes, do not restrict circulation to the feet, and they stay warm. I gave sandals a try in cold weather and can confirm this. With two pairs of wool socks inside my SPD sandals, I have been comfortable on days when fingers of ice were forming in puddles on the road.
The Velcro straps of these sandals also are very accommodating of different thicknesses of socks, or no socks at all. On a warm, rainy day, I favor a bicycle with fenders, a Carradice rain cape -- and sandals worn without socks. The sandals are pretty much all rubber, so they dry easily. When I get to the end of my ride, I wipe the sandals dry, put socks on, put the sandals back on, and I'm prepared to meet the dress code of offices, shops and restaurants.
I have tried Keen and Specialized brand sandals, but I like Shimano SPD sandals much better -- they have an open toe and don't cramp the feet.
There are more options in bicycle shoes and pedals now than ever before. I hope that I have been able to help you choose, and set them up to work well for you.
|Articles by Sheldon Brown and others|
Last Updated: by John Allen