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RAGBRAI Training: Power to the Pedals

  • 13 June, 2011
  • TJ Juskiewicz

You may take your cycling shoes and pedals for granted.  After all, you just step and stand on them while riding.  But these are vitally important components for cycling and deserve a mention here.  Not only do they serve as the interface between our body and the bike where all of our forward motion gets generated, but they can improve our efficiency, comfort and safety if selected and used correctly.

Let’s start with some terminology. In case you haven’t noticed, there are all sorts of pedals and associated shoes and cleats available now.  Basic inexpensive bikes tend to come with platform pedals.  These are simply a rubber or metal pedal on which your feet rest.  There is nothing to hold your feet in place other than the rubber or teeth of metal.  Back 30 years ago, most people rode those early 10-speeds with metal pedals and tennis shoes.  These pedals would bite into the bottoms of shoes and cause our feet to ache.  We’ve come a long way since then. 

The next step up was to have toe clips and toe straps.  This includes a toe clip and strap that attach to each pedal.  The strap would wrap around the shoe and hold it in place.   This served the purpose of allowing the cyclist to push and pull on the pedals, to help generate power through more of the pedal stroke than just the down stroke.  These also helped keep the feet from slipping of the pedals when standing or when wet. 

The next era brought clipless pedals.  These are pedals that don’t look at all like pedals.  They have some sort of small platform and in some cases little more than just an axle, and they all have a system for attaching to customized cleats that fit on the bottom of the shoes.  One of the first companies to make clipless pedals was Look, the same company that makes ski bindings.   It’s the same concept – we fasten our ski boots to the skis and we fasten our cycling shoes to the pedals.  There is now a wide variety of different brands of pedals available.  It has become a very personalized decision as to which pedal system we choose.  So much so that you may have noticed that new bikes don’t come with pedals.  That’s because everyone makes their own choice of pedals to use.  Once you have selected a pedal, you have to use matching cleats on your shoes.  People typically stick with one type of pedal if they have multiple bikes and/or pairs of shoes.

So which system should you use? It’s purely a personal decision.  If you have a real fear of having your feet attached to your pedals in any way, use the platform pedals. If you want to get more power going to the pedals and keep your feet more securely on the pedals, then I’d recommend the clipless route.  The new clipless pedal and cleat systems now work very well and are easy to get in and out of, with some practice and assuming they are adjusted properly.

If you choose a clipless route, then your next decision is the brand.  If you do a lot of recreational riding such as RAGBRAI, where you do a fair amount of walking around in you cycling shoes, I’d recommend going with a system such as the SPD pedals.  These require small cleats that fit in the bottom on your shoe and don’t stick out.  You can get a shoe with some rubber knobs on the bottom which keep the cleat from every touching the ground when you walk.  If you get the type with the larger plastic cleats, these are not as easy to walk in and walking will wear them out. If you go this way, be sure to get a pair of cleat covers to protect them and keep from getting mud in them.

If you use clipless pedals, as I mentioned above, these can add to safety by helping to keep your feet securely on the pedals when standing or when your shoes are wet.  However, they can also create some danger if you do not have a lot of experience getting in and out of them.  If you decide to buy a pair of new shoes, cleats and pedals for RAGBRAI, make sure you practice with them several times before heading out on the ride.  Some brands take a little getting used to when getting your feet ‘clicked in’ and getting them back out.  Typically you can get clicked in by stepping on the pedal and pressing straight down.  This requires some practice as you need to do a few pedals strokes to get up enough speed to coast while you click in.  If you slow down too much while fumbling around with your pedals, you can guess what happens.  Also, there is a tendency to look down at the pedals while trying to get you feet in.  This means you aren’t watching the road ahead of you – not a good idea with a few thousand other cyclists out there. 

With enough practice you can click in without looking down at all.  Likewise, you need to practice getting your feet unclicked and become expert at this.  It seems there is a rite of passage when graduating to clipless pedals.  You need to come up to an intersection, stop and then realize your feet are still attached and boom, down you go, usually in front of a car or a bunch of your laughing friends. This is embarrassing at least and dangerous at worst.  All of this is cured with practice.  I highly recommend using clipless pedals.  Once you get used to them, you won’t go back.  So don’t let this discussion scare you away from getting clipless pedals, but just be warned that if you decide to get some this year,  make sure you practice well before starting RAGBRAI so you can have a safe and enjoyable ride.

I just ran across a great article on pedals in this week’s newsletter of RoadBikeRider (www.RoadBikeRider.com).  If you love cycling you should sign up for this very informative and very free newsletter.

Coach David Ertl

David Ertl is a USA Cycling Level 1 (Elite) Coach and owner of Cyclesport Coaching. He coaches individual cyclists, the Des Moines Cycle Club Race Team and the JDRF Greater Iowa Chapter for the Ride to Cure Diabetes.  He can be contacted at Coach@CyclesportCoaching.com 


  1. Steve

    I don’t wanna git drug!

  2. Anissa Huggins

    I have clipless pedals and I have fallen quite a few times, skinning my knee and hurting my hip, all because I totally forgot that I was clipped in. They are good, but when you are riding around in the city, like Chicago for instance, where there is little respect for bicyclists, you definitely have to pay attention and remeber that you are clipped in because otherwise, you can and will get hit by one of Chicago’s crazy drivers.

  3. Indianafrank

    One additional tip. Keep your cleats tightly screwed to your shoe. It’s a good idea to check them every week or so. The screws will occasionally come loose, and you can find yourself in a position where you can’t disengage from the pedal because the cleat just wiggles around on the bottom of your foot.

  4. CyRider

    I rode my first RAGBRAI on a 30 year old ten speed with platform pedals. I now have a new road Trek road bike with clipless pedals and will not ever give them up. When I first started with clipless pedals I would clip one foot in before I started and then only had to worry about getting one foot clipped in while I was starting out. I still do that out of habit but do not need to, clipping in has become second nature.

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