Now that you know why you should switch to clipless pedals, all you need now are the right pedals and shoes plus a little bit of practice.
Clipless Pedals and Shoes
First, you need to buy the right gear: a pair of clipless pedals and a pair of shoes. As you can see from the photo above, the number of pedal options can be pretty intimidating. Two of the most popular types are Crankbrothers’ Eggbeater pedals and Shimano’s SPD pedals but be sure to check out the MTB pedal buyers’ guide to understand all your options.
Naturally, there seem to be even more mountain bike shoe options than there are pedal options! Whichever pair of shoes you buy, make sure they have a place to attach the “cleat” for your pedals. The cleat is the metal piece that actually clips in to your pedal, and a pair of those should come with whichever pedals you choose to buy.
I personally wear a pair of Specialized shoes on the trail. Some mountain bike shoes feature a flat bottom skate-style sole with a cleat option thrown in for good measure. Others sport a more relaxed, casual design that would look pretty normal off the trail.
While they may look geekier, I recommend going all-out and buying a pair of legitimate cross-country style mountain bike shoes. Going with a cross-country oriented shoe provides you with the benefits of a snug fit for power on the upstrokes and a hard sole for even force distribution on the downstroke.
In short, XC shoes ensure the best pedaling performance possible.
Skill #1: Clipping In and Out
If you have never ridden with clipless pedals before, the thought of being mechanically attached to your bicycle may seem scary… until you realize how easy it is to get in and out of the pedals. Here’s how to get comfortable with clipping in and out.
- Find a big, grassy field to practice in. That way you won’t have to worry about navigating, and if you take a fall or two the consequences won’t be nearly as bad as on pavement or rocky trail.
- Place the front of the metal cleat into the pedal. It may take a little while to get the feel of where exactly the cleat is at, but it should be positioned right under the ball of your foot.
- Press down so that the back part of the cleat clicks into place. Your foot is now connected to the pedal.
- To get out, simply press down with your big toe and turn your heel outwards, as if you are squashing a bug.
- Make sure that you do not pull straight back when you try to disengage the pedal. One of the main goals of clipless pedals is to increase pedaling efficiency. They will not disengage unless you turn your heel outward.
- Practice this motion over and over with both feet until the motion feels completely natural.
Over time, these steps will truly become second nature. You will undoubtedly fall a few times as a result of not being used to the new gear, but don’t worry – you’ll catch on quickly! The video below demonstrates the basic clip in/clip out motion. (Don’t worry – the third clip in the video is demonstrating pedal “float” – this is not the result of a stuck cleat.)
Skill #2: Pedaling in Circles
I will be the first person to admit that I’m not good at pedaling in circles. I tend to just mash the pedals and go. Personally, I need to get a road bike and spend about 6 months focusing on spinning efficiently. While I’m not the most efficient pedaler myself, I at least understand the basic concept.
As the subtitle says, it is important to think about pedaling in circles. As I mentioned previously, one benefit to clipless pedals is the increased speed and power generated by using the entire pedal stroke instead of just the downstroke.
While you’re pedaling, consciously consider these steps:
- Push down like an average pedal stroke.
- Pull your foot across the bottom of the stroke as if you are trying to wipe poop off of the bottom of your shoe.
- Pull your foot up and thrust your knee hard toward your handlebar.
- Push down… and repeat smoothly.
As with any other mountain biking skill, perfecting the art of the pedal stroke takes time and practice. As you begin to master the art, try unclipping one foot and pedaling with just the other. Doing this will help you realize how beneficial a smooth cadence can be.
Your Turn: Over the past two posts on this topic we have covered a lot of ground: the benefits of clipless pedals, when to switch, what gear to buy, and two crucial skills for using clipless pedals. What other questions do beginners have about making the big switch?