No matter what kind of bike you ride, you have a choice between platform pedals, toe clips or clipless pedals. Basic platform pedals are wide and flat and can accommodate most shoes. Toe clips are metal or plastic cages that bolt to platform pedals and keep your foot in place with adjustable nylon straps. Clipless pedals—a name that refers to a lack of toe clips—attach to cycling shoe cleats to keep your feet firmly in place without cages or straps.
Although many cyclists who have clipless pedals on their bikes also have a story about the first time they forgot to clip out before coming to a stop, clipless pedals are generally safer than toe clips and platform pedals. Your feet can slide off platform pedals in wet, slippery conditions, which is especially dangerous if you’re not sitting in the saddle at the time. You must reach down and loosen toe clips to release your feet, which can be inconvenient—if not hazardous—at times. Clipless pedals release your foot when you twist your heel out to the side. Clipless pedals also release in cases of impact, unlike toe clips.
A clipless pedal system keeps the balls of your feet connected to the center of each pedal, which is the correct foot position for maximum cycling efficiency. While connected in this position, you can use your hamstrings to lift through the back half of the pedal stroke and your quadriceps to push through the front half. On platform pedals, nearly all of your power comes from pushing through the front half of the stroke. For toe clips to be as efficient, you’d have to tighten the straps considerably, and keep them tight to prevent your feet from moving as you ride.
With increased efficiency comes increased power output. When you’re able to efficiently use both sides of your legs, you can ride faster and for longer amounts of time before becoming fatigued. With less wasted energy, your accelerations are faster. Climbing hills is easier with clipless pedals because you can distribute the workload evenly between your quadriceps and hamstrings. On steep climbs, clipless pedals allow you to transition out of the saddle and use your body weight without risk of slipping off the pedals. Clipless pedal systems necessitate the use of stiff-soled cycling shoes, which positively affects your power by drastically reducing foot flexion.
Clipless pedals are arguably more comfortable than platform pedals and toe clips. They're lightweight, and because both sides of your legs work effectively, it feels like you’re floating the pedals rather than pushing them. Toe clips can chafe your feet through your shoes, and overly tightening the straps in an effort to keep your feet in position can cut off your circulation. Most clipless pedal systems offer some amount of pedal float, which refers to the degree of angular rotation allowed between your foot and the pedal. While the amount of float is a personal preference, it can help prevent knee discomfort or injury if you log a lot of miles on the bike.