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Learning to Ride with Clipless Pedals the Painful Way and the Easy Way

Look pedalsI took the bold step last week of taking my road bike into the shop to change the pedals to clipless.  I practiced clipping in and out on the trainer in the shop, but the bike mechanic who was giving me some guidance didn’t disagree when I said I thought I should walk my bike home.

Clipping in and out with your bike stationary on a trainer in the shop is one thing.  Learning to go, clip in, clip out, and stop safely is entirely another. So for everyone who says practice on the trainer in the shop or find a doorframe to hang onto and practice clipping in and out, yes. But don’t think you’re home free after that. Not by a long shot.

It’s kind of like telling someone she’s all set to go snowboarding once she can click into her bindings.  I figured out the bindings on the snowboard and still came home with bruises and whiplash after my first lesson.  If I’d fallen onto my knees one more time that day, I’d have needed to call the ski patrol to rescue me on the bunny hill.

Clipless pedals are like that.  And no, they’re actually not clipless. You clip in and out. But here’s the scoop according to this primer:

In the old days, bike pedals either were plain (with no straps to hold your foot in place) or they had toe clips & straps. The toe clip was usually steel (most are now plastic) and formed a space, or box, at the front side of the pedal that you slid your foot into. Keeping your foot there is the responsibility of either a leather or nylon mesh strap, which you can pull tight when you wanted to make sure your foot stays in place, or loosen so you can get your foot out when you stop.

Toe clips & straps are still the norm for nearly all bikes between $350 and $1,000. They’re very inexpensive and don’t require the use of a special shoe. But when used with conventional shoes, they tend to focus pedal forces onto a small part of the bottom of your foot, creating fatigue & pain on longer rides as your foot tries to bend itself around the pedal.

So clipless pedals are so named in contrast to the toe clip pedals:

These days you’ll hear them being called clipless pedals and clipped pedals just to confuse you even more.  Originally they were called clipless to explain how they were different from the old fashioned “toe-clips” we described above.  Hence “clipless” meant “not-toe-clips” but something new and different.  The name has stayed with us and only recently are people calling them “clip pedals” now that toe clips aren’t seen as much.

The Painful Way

Even though it seems obvious that just knowing how to clip in and out is only the beginning, I didn’t really think that through.  So I made plans to go riding with Sam and our friend, Chris, last Saturday.  Sam offered to come by first to give me a lesson about how to use the new pedals.  Great!

But then it rained.  All day.  And then the weekend got away from us. And so on Sunday I ventured out to the laneway alone, thinking “how hard can this be?”  Turns out it can be plenty hard.  Hard like the asphalt in the laneway. Hard like, ouch, if I fall on that elbow one more time. Hard like, I think I’m going to faint before I can drag myself and my bike back to the shed.

You see, I clipped the one foot in, as directed. That seemed easy enough. But then I was confused about what to do next.  As my right foot flailed unclipped in the air, desperately trying to make contact with the pedal, I forgot about the forward motion a bike requires to stay upright.  Just a couple of days before I cavalierly said to Sam that I just didn’t understand how someone could fall the opposite way, away from the unclipped foot to the clipped foot side, when they had one foot free. Why wouldn’t you just put that foot down?

Well I get it now.  So the right foot’s flailing around and then, ever so slowly, I started to fall to the left. We’re talking slow motion.  And totally helpless.  I landed on my elbow.  Then I kind of lay there for a few seconds because my bottom foot was of course still clipped in.  I lifted the bike enough to unclip, picked myself and the bike up, and went to the shed to hold onto the wall and practice clipping in and out again.

But I was stationary.  That’s easy.  Back to the laneway (or rather the driveway – I didn’t feel ready to venture off the property).  This time I managed to get going, I even stopped successfully. But then when I tried again, same thing as before. Boom. That’s when I saw stars and felt like I was going to faint.

All told I think I was out there for five minutes, maybe ten.  I’m not usually one for drama, but I did consider that the solution to all of this was just to take the bike back to the shop and have the old pedals put on again.

The Easy Way

Not one to keep these things to myself, I posted to Facebook about the pain of learning to ride with clipless pedals.

Sam responded: I can help you. You won’t fall again.

The next morning I walked my bike over to the park. This time, I wore my Joe Rocket motorcycle jacket with armor and I thought we might practice on the grass.

When Sam arrived, she said, matter-of-factly, “not on the grass.”  She had a good reason:  “You’ve got to do this at speed, and you can’t get up to speed on the grass.”

Made sense. But no one, and I mean NO ONE, was going to take my Joe Rocket armored jacket away from me.  I ventured away from the picnic table to the paved path with my bike.

On her fancy red bike, Sam showed me lesson number one:  learn to coast with one foot clipped in and to put down your dominant foot when you stop.

“There’s never a rush — la, la, la, no rush, no rush, put your foot down as you stop. If you ever fall clipped in, it should be with both feet clipped in; never with just one foot clipped in.”  From now on, I guess, since that was my downfall (so to speak) on Sunday.

I coasted along, pulled the brakes, and put my right foot down. At this point, I wasn’t clipped in at all.

Next:  learn to pedal with one foot. This is the absolute KEY skill required for clipping confidence.  With one foot clipped in, it’s easy peasy to pedal around and around and keep the bike moving.  As Sam explained, knowing this makes clipping in the second foot a leisurely thing — no rush, no rush, no rush.  You can deal with intersections and not have to panic. Just pedal through with the one foot clipped in, and then when you’re ready and at your leisure, clip in the second foot.

I positioned my clipped in foot at the top of the pedal range so I could use it to give myself forward momentum from stopping. Sam taught me that too — I used to do running starts with the unclipped foot, but the shoes make it difficult and it looks fairly, well, amateurish for want of a better word. So, foot at the top of range and I pushed down, the bike started to move, I moved that foot round and round, the other foot just kind of hung out.  La, la, la, no rush, no rush.

Hey good,” Sam said. “You’re looking pretty balanced and confident.”

Next: clip in the second foot at speed.  Now that I could coast, pedal with one foot, knew which foot was going down when I stopped, and had my armor on just in case, clipping in the second foot just came easily. I’d already mastered the actual clipping part at the shop on the trainer.  Sam explained that if you’re having trouble finding the right spot on the pedal, just move your foot away and the pedal will fall into the right position.

Clipping out just requires a little twist of the heel to the side.  She had me practice moving forward, clipping in, clipping out, and stopping.  We went around and around a little portion of the path like that for about 15 maybe 20 minutes.  And I had it.  No falls, nothing.

Sam rode off to work. I practiced around the park a few more times.  Clipping in, clipping out, stopping, going. I actually had the hang of it.

And then I ventured out to the road and rode my road bike all the way home! Clipped. I stopped at an intersection without incident. Resumed the way Sam taught me, and conquered the laneway, whose asphalt my elbow is unlikely to encounter again.

One lesson from Sam and I can ride with clipless pedals!  Thank you, Sam!

And I can tell you this: it’s a LOT easier than learning to snow board.  I may have a few bruises, but no whiplash.

Let’s go for some autumn rides next month!

8 thoughts on “Learning to Ride with Clipless Pedals the Painful Way and the Easy Way

  1. Congratulations, Tracy! And kudos to you, Sam, for making explicit and clear what seems counterintuitive and scary to new roadies. Riding clipped in is more efficient and also pleasurable– I feel more like the bike and I are one. Even on the mtb, which presents its own challenges with riding clipped in (I fell about a dozen times in the first oh, 20 minutes the first time I went off-road clipped in). A thing I learned from off-road riding (both mtb and cross) is that I can ride with my cleat on top of the pedal until it is safe to clip in– it’s less efficient, but works just fine. And if for some reason I’m having trouble clipping in on one side, no need to panic– I just keep pedaling until I find a clear space (of mind or roadway) to clip in. This has happened to me on steep downhills, on rocky sections, on the road, but resolves itself.

    Now you can listen for one of my favorite sounds on group rides– the tat-tat-tat-tat of everyone clipping back in when you start up.

    -catherine w

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  2. Oh good, this all sounds like things I can manage. I actually just had the saddle on my bike lowered last night (a temporary change so I can more easily get on and off it) and I’m looking forward to trying these tips out when my mandatory post-race rest period is over.

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    1. I think you’ll be good if you break it down the way Sam did for me: coasting with one foot clipped in; pedaling with one foot; starting with one foot pedaling then clipping in the second foot, not feeling like you’re in a rush. She also had me pedal with both feet, but just the one clipped. That can work for short distances too. I forgot to write about it. Let us know how it goes (I know you will!). Let’s hope these and the lowered seat change everything!

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  3. Well, I just haven’t got the motivation to try clipless. Yup, it’s been toeclips (no strap) for past 2 decades. For my partner longer and he has cycled across Canada and U.S. several times.

    And I don’t ride bikes with dropdown handlebars. Yes, Luddite me.

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