For professional cyclists, the choice of pedals can improve performance and safety. Although most professionals opt for clipless pedals, the type of pedal used usually depends on the rider’s preferred type of cycling. Road racers and mountain bikers tend to use different types of clipless pedals depending on the sport, while indoor sprinters might abandon clipless varieties for toe clips or straps.
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Before the 1980s, there were two types of pedals: platform pedals and toe clips or straps. Platform pedals are flat on both sides and allow simple pushing while pedaling. Toe clips and straps were introduced to allow a rider’s feet to remain attached to the pedal, improving pedaling efficiency. In the early 1980s, clipless pedals were invented based on quick release ski bindings, promising a safer racing pedal with even more efficient pedaling. By 1989, most of the riders in the Tour de France were using clipless pedals.
Clipless pedal systems consist of pedals and specialized cleated shoes. The cleats in the shoes clip into the pedals, attaching the shoe to the pedal much like toe clips, but without a strap to tighten. Like toe clips, clipless pedals give riders more power while climbing or accelerating because the shoe never leaves the pedal. Unlike toe clips, clipless pedals make entry and exit quick and safe. To dismount, riders simply turn their heels away from the bike to release the cleats from the pedals instead of untightening a strap. Clipless pedals come in two types: road pedals and mountain biking pedals.
Road pedals are designed to be efficient and aerodynamic. Cleats and pedals typically have a three-hole pattern. Pedals are lightweight and cleats can only click into one side of the pedal. The other side is flat and polished to increase aerodynamics. Shoes used for road racing are light and stiff. They typically have flat, streamlined outer soles. The cleats protrude from the shoe, making them difficult to walk in while off the bike.
Clipless pedals used for mountain biking are sometimes called walking pedals because of the shoes used. Shoes have recessed cleats and heavier treaded outer soles, allowing riders to easily walk around while off the bike. Pedals tend to be heavier to withstand tougher terrain and are usually double-sided, allowing riders to clip on to either side of the pedal. Cleats and pedals usually have a two-prong design, allowing for slightly easier release than road pedals. Some riders, such as mountain biking coach James Wilson, prefer flat platform pedals to clipless systems, in part because clipless systems that fail to release quickly can contribute to crashes.
High-speed sprinting cyclists have the opposite problem of mountain bikers: Shoes that come unclipped while riding at high speeds can cause accidents. Although clipless systems increase efficiency for faster acceleration, shoes might not stay clipped in under the force used by sprinters. Unlike road racers and mountain bikers, track cyclists do not need to remove their feet from the pedals. Because of this, some track sprinters opt for toe slips or straps, which will hold the foot tightly onto the pedal and reduce the risk of slipping.