In less than 10 days, I’m going to be running my first triathlon (sprint distance)! In preparation for the cycling portion of the race, I decided to give clipless pedals a try. As I’m sure pretty much everyone who reads this blog is aware by now, clipless pedals are a bit of a misnomer. Clipless pedals are actually pedals which involve you, yes, clipping in your shoes so that they stay on the pedal. The benefit is supposed to be more efficient power transfer. The drawback, of course, is that you are literally stuck to your bicycle.
Because I wasn’t sure if they were going to be for me, I searched online to see if I could find an inexpensive used pair rather than sinking a good deal of money into what is already a gear-heavy sport. As luck would have it, I found someone selling a pair of pedals and women’s cycling shoes with cleats in just my size at a great discount. I met up with her and asked why she was selling. She told me that bought them for her first triathlon. They put the pedals on in the shop and she went to test them out in the parking lot – and promptly fell over and broke her wrist. She said she didn’t want to use them after that, and she just wanted to get rid of them. Yikes! Still, I bought them, reminding myself of all the people I know who ride clipless all the time and haven’t broken bones (at least not that I know of).
My partner, Kevin, is a much more experienced cyclist. I recruited him to help me get the hang of the cleats and pedals in a dirt parking lot next to our apartment. The first thing he had me do was lean against a wall and practice clipping in and unclipping with one foot – then switch and try the other foot. Once I was confident I knew the motion of unclipping, I could try it in motion.
“The key thing,” he said, “is to make sure you clip one foot in, then pedal a bit to get up some speed. Then you clip in the other foot – once you’re moving.”
Right. Got it. Makes perfect sense. Don’t clip in the other foot until I’m moving.
I clipped in my first foot… and then promptly (instinctively!) plonked my other foot down on the other pedal.
As if in slow motion, I fell into Kevin, who was, of course, still standing right next to me. You know, since I hadn’t moved. D’oh!
Well, lesson learned – the next try went better. I got going, clipped both feet in, unclipped, and came to a stop. Victory! I wondered, though – what would happen if I needed to stop very suddenly? Would I be able to stop and unclip at the same time? Let’s try it in the parking lot! The answer is no. No, I cannot come to an abrupt stop and unclip at the same time. Once again I tipped over onto Kevin.
After my practice session I was determined to get some real experience. My first outing or two into Toronto traffic actually went fine. I unclipped well ahead of any lights and pedaled one-legged when I needed to.
But, I was warned, everyone falls with clipless pedals. Everyone.
My first fall came when I was turning right at a red light. The car ahead of me was stopped, right turn signal on. There were no pedestrians crossing. No sign announcing “no rights on red.” I slowed, wondering why the car wasn’t turning. I didn’t want to turn right and then have the car turn right over top of me. As I was wondering what to do, I slowly came to a stop – a stop I hadn’t planned on, of course.
“Oh shit, oh shit,” I cried as I fell in slow-motion to the curb, helpless to stop myself. Some people at the curb gave me concerned and puzzled expressions. I pulled myself up and confided to the guy standing with his bike beside me, “You see, that’s why I’m riding clipless right now! To get used to them. Like this.” As if it were all part of my master plan. He smiled politely and I rode away, nursing a tender bruise on the knee.
My second fall wasn’t quite a fall, but it scared me anyways. I was filtering by some cars and came across a white sports car that was very close to the curb. I decided that there wasn’t enough space to pass, so I slowed to a stop without thinking much about it… and again, started to fall. This was shortly after reading a comment someone had written on Sam’s facebook about how they fell into a car and had to pay for damages. Realizing I didn’t have any insurance, all I could think was to fall AWAY from the fancy white sports car! I managed to get a foot out in time, so no damage was done, to me or the car, thankfully.
After I shared that experience with Kevin, he commented how resilient I was being, riding clipless in the city. I was proud. Yes, I was being resilient. I was conquering the clipless!
The third fall was perhaps the most embarrassing. It’s a situation that has been blogged about here before. I had unclipped one foot in advance of coming to a stop, just as I’m supposed to. And then I put my weight down on the side that was still clipped in. Down I went. Sigh.
After that I decided I wasn’t really that resilient after all. I came up with a new plan. My bike has a rack and I have a pannier. In the city, I use regular running shoes. Once I get down to the trail where everything is less stop-and-go, out come the cleats from my pannier and I go clipless. It may look silly, but for now it’s been a great compromise, and I have to say, it really is great fun when I can get going fast with the clipless pedals without worrying about traffic. And I haven’t fallen since. (Knock on wood!)
Stephanie is a PhD candidate in Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto. She is also a runner, photographer, drinker of craft beer, and a newbie triathlete-in-training.