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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 ofSpecialized 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 beingmechanicallyattached 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Press down so that the back part of the cleat clicks into place. Your foot is now connected to the pedal.
  4. To get out, simply press down with your big toe and turn your heel outwards, as if you are squashing a bug.
  5. 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 pedalingefficiency. They will not disengage unless you turn your heel outward.
  6. 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:

  1. Push down like an average pedal stroke.
  2. Pull your foot across the bottom of the stroke as if you are trying to wipe poop off of the bottom of your shoe.
  3. Pull your foot up and thrust your knee hard toward your handlebar.
  4. 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?

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# Comments

  • trek7k

    When I was starting out I basically practiced skill #1 for about an hour in the grass. Then I did “track stands” clipped in so when I started to fall I was motivated to react quickly! After that, my first time on the trail was a breeze.

    In terms of pedal stroke, I’ve heard it’s pretty rare to find riders who manage to get the full efficiency out of the upstroke. For me, I’ve been concentrating on driving my knees up (#3 on your list), especially when my legs are tired and this certainly seems to help.

    At the end you touched on another “advantage” of clipless pedals – the ability to ride with just one foot clipped in! On various rides I’ve either lost or broken a pedal and this saved me. Riding with just one foot clipped in is, as you mentioned, also great practice for improving pedal stroke.

  • dgaddis

    Speaking of pedaling in circles….at the ’09 Auguta Half Iron Man the local SORBA chapter volunteered at one of the aid/water stations on the bike route. Of the riders using a solid disc rear wheel, you could tell who was pedalling in circles and who was a masher! Those disc make a noise when you accelerate them, but are quiet when holding a steady speed. So the folks pedaling in circles made no noise, but those who were just mashing down made a ‘whoop-whoop-whoop’ noise with every pedal stroke.

    There were no mashers in the front of the group 😀

  • neuraxon77

    How you adjust the pedal tension and cleat position has a huge impact not only in clipping in and out but also on comfort, so take the time to perfect them.

    Recently we had flooding in Australia and I found the circle technique very useful on boggy ground and water crossings. My feet stayed where they should and even though they were soaked after the crossings, with thin socks I still felt sure footed and barely noticed they were wet (thank god it wasn’t cold). Where other cyclist were walking it, I was splashing it. 🙂

    The ability to ride with just one foot has also been very useful. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve injured myself and one-legged it home.

  • fat_billy

    Pedalling in circles is one thing road bikes are good for. The smoothly “pedal in circles” mantra is real and does work. When on the road it is easy to concentrate on pedaling. Think of it this way, Mash untill your “quads” are singing then switch to pulling up till the hamstrings sing, by then the quads are good to go. Another advantage to MTB riders is in the area of slippery or low traction areas (roots rocks ect). When you become good at the circle thing and hit a slippery item the “pulling up” has less power than the Mashing and allow you to go over things that caused you to spin and loose traction. Sorta like automatic traction control. This is the major thing road biking taught me and helped the MTB big time. Later,

  • Goo

    @trek7k & neuraxon77, I’ve definitely messed up one of my legs before and pedaled home with just the other. Definitely not a fun experience, but I sure was glad I had clipless pedals!

    @dgaddis, Cool story! Thanks for sharing… so telling that all of the leaders were riding “quietly!”

    @fat_billy, +1 on the traction benefit!

  • forbinn

    Any advice about choosing the right pedal/shoe combination for standard duty all mountain riding? Brands? Models? As always, I’m looking for the best gear for the best price.

  • maddslacker

    I’m really really happy with my Crank Bros eggbeaters pedals and Bontrager Race Mountain Shoes.

  • HardtailKlein

    I just bought a pair of Sidi Dominater 5 MTB shoes, and was wondering if anyone else has a problem with cleat screws backing out of the sole plate… It doesn’t seem to matter if I use the Sidi accessories screw, which are a little longer (and pricier) than the proprietary screws that came with the SPD cleats I’m trying to mount. Any feedback would be appreciated.

    • trek7k

      Try using some of the blue loctite screw thread prepartion. That usually keeps the screws from backing out.

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