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Choosing and Adjusting Bicycle Shoes and Pedals

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by John "if the shoe fits... " Allen
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Basics

I'll be making shoe recommendations in connection with different kinds of pedals, but first here's some quick advice.

Walk, don't ride when you go to buy shoes!

Feet swell a bit as you stand and walk on them. If you ride your bicycle to go buy shoes, you may find them too small after you have been walking. Buy shoes a bit large, or go for a good, long walk before trying them on. If you will be wearing the shoes for winter riding, you also might leave enough room inside for two layers of wool socks.

Pedal choices

Now, as to pedals: what kind are best for you? Some bicycles restrict your choices:

There is detailed information on installing, removing and servicing pedals in the companion article about pedals.

Most bicycles allow backpedaling and have three-piece cranks, so you can use any kind of pedal you like. You put one foot down when stopping, and prepare to restart by lifting the opposite pedal to the high-and-forward starting position. With toe clips or clipless pedals, the pedal rises with your foot. With plain pedals, you hook your foot under a pedal. To restart, you step down on the pedal as you let go of the brake levers. The first pedal stroke lifts you up onto the saddle as it gets you moving.

Starting and Stopping

In the video below, Theresa James, aged 13, demonstrates the preferred technique for starting and stopping on a bicycle which allows backpedaling.


Video courtesy of Martin Pion, ThinkBicycling
Click here for Martin's discussion of starting and stopping.

Many cyclists keep the saddle too low for efficient pedaling. Plain pedals reinforce this preference by allowing pedaling on the arches of the feet. Also see the article on this site about starting and stopping.

Pedal Reflectors

Some pedals have built-in front and rear reflectors, or reflectors can be bolted on. Always use lights at night -- but rear-facing pedal reflectors help increase visibility. They also show whether you are pedaling, so they serve more or less as brake lights. If your pedals can't take reflectors, reflective ankle bands are a practical substitute, and they also provide reflectivity to the sides. We like the wide, Velcro-backed Bike-a-Lite ankle bands -- but no ankle bands really protect trouser cuffs, so, wear socks that reach up over your ankles, and tuck trouser cuffs into the socks. Then only the right-hand (right-foot?) sock is at risk from chain dirt -- and nobody will see it when you get off the bicycle and put the cuffs back on the outside -- even less if the socks are black. Some bicycling shoes also are reflectorized.

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Plain pedals

Plain pedals can work with most shoes, and are most practical when a cyclist wears a variety of non bicycle-specific shoes -- especially, dress shoes. The feet are free to align themselves on plain pedals -- there is no need for adjustment, though there is also no rotational "float" -- freedom of the foot to realign itself during the pedal stroke. People who ride with the saddle too low for efficient pedaling often prefer plain pedals, so they can pedal on the arches of their feet.

If the shoes have leather soles, plain pedals should have a rubber tread for traction. With rubber soles, a toothed metal traction surface also works. A smooth metal surface will be slippery when wet, whether the soles are of leather or rubber. Plain pedals should be double-sided, so it doesn't matter which side comes up.

Plain pedals with a large platform for the foot can be used with soft-soled shoes, even moccasins or Crocs. Plain pedals which have only a metal cage, like the pedal at the left in the image below, should be used with stiff-soled shoes.

Metal pedal, usable plain or with toe clips and straps Rubber-block pedal,
for traction with leather soles
Platform pedal,
best with soft-soled shoes
Double-sided metal pedal rubber-block pedal with rubber reflector double-sided platform pedal

You have to push back against yourself to keep your feet on plain pedals during the upstroke. Also, the loose connection between feet and pedals promotes a slow cadence and increases the risk of a foot's coming off a pedal, possibly causing a crash. Still, there are "keep it simple" advocates who prefer plain pedals even for long rides, and who point to the risk of knee injury when a pedal secures the foot at an incorrect angle.

In winter, avid cyclists often switch over to plain pedals so they can wear heavy boots while riding. Children and beginners usually go with plain pedals for easier starting and stopping. (On the other hand, children riding on the back of tandems should have toe clips and straps -- see the article on this site about tandeming with children.)

Toe clips and straps – still popular

Toe clips and straps have been used since the 1890s and are still quite popular despite the advent of clipless pedal systems.

By preventing a foot from slipping from a pedal, even loose toe straps improve safety, once a cyclist has learned to get the feet in and out of them. So-called "mini" toe clips or pedal "baskets", though, used without straps, may look good to a beginner, but they make it harder to start without offering any advantage once you get going.

Toe clips and straps can scuff shoes, and require a relatively stiff toe box, so they aren't a great idea if you wear sandals, moccasins or Guccis. Most running shoes and bicycling shoes work well with toe clips and straps, though.

Pedals for use with toe clips and straps are available in a variety of widths and shapes. Single-sided pedals like the ones in the image below should only be used with toe clips and straps. Some quill pedals, like the one shown at the left, have a tall prong at the outer end, making them unsuitable for wide feet or wide-soled shoes. Platform pedals and track pedals, shown in the middle and right photos, avoid this problem.

Quill pedal,
AKA road pedal
Pair of platform pedals for
use with toe clips
Single-sided pedal without
quill, AKA track pedal
Quill pedal Platform pedals for use with toe clips Track pedal

Leather toe straps are more durable than fabric ones, and stiffer -- less likely to tangle with the toe of the shoe as you put your foot in. Thread a strap starting from the outside of the pedal, with a 360 degree twist under the pedal to keep it from sliding out of position. Do not insert the end of the strap into the slot at the bottom of the buckle. Instead, leave it hanging out like a floppy dog ear. Then you can tighten the strap by pulling on the end, and loosen it by pushing the buckle outward with your thumb.

Properly threaded toe strap

This correctly-threaded leather toe strap was started from the outside of the pedal;
and twisted 360° as it passes through the pedal. The end is loose, to tighten
by pulling, or to loosen by pushing outward on the buckle. The toe clip here is mounted
outboard of center, to accommodate the cyclist's splay-footedness. This is a rear pedal
on a tandem; a bungee cord connects to the front pedal and holds both pedals upright.
The knot in the bungee cord shortens it so it holds tension.

Most toe clips attach to the front of the pedal with two bolts, and can be placed under a pedal reflector. If your feet toe out, you may want to mount the toe clips farther toward the outside of the pedals than usual. Toe clips are sold in different lengths. It is very important for toe clips to be long enough to avoid strain to the Achilles tendon (at the back of the ankle). The ball of the foot should be over the pedal axle or slightly farther forward. Slightly oversize toe clips place the strap behind the widest part of the shoe, allowing you to pull back lightly at the bottom of the pedal stroke. There is confusion in toe-clip sizing: I've found Japanese ones to be one size smaller than European ones with the same markings (S, M, L, XL).

To get your foot into the toe clip, place your toe of your shoe on the back of the pedal and push down. On a recumbent bicycle, pull the back end of the toe clip toward you with the toe of your shoe. Get one shoe into its toe clip before you start. As you start, slip the other foot into its toe clip. If you don't succeed on the first pedal stroke, ride with the pedal upside down until you have built up enough speed to try again. Except on a fixed-gear bicycle, you may stop pedaling momentarily to reach down and tighten the toe clip once you get going.

Many people worry about getting their shoes out of the clips, but really, you only have to exit a pedal while nearly at a stop. A bit of practice while leaning against a wall will probably get you comfortable with this. You Power Gripdon't have to tighten up the straps if you don't want to, or, as you approach a stop, you may loosen the strap for the foot you put down. It is usually still possible to wiggle a foot out for an unanticipated stop. If you do fall, it's usually more about laughter than tears -- and especially if you wear cycling gloves so you can safely put a hand down to break the fall.

Power Grips -- wide straps that extend diagonally across each pedal from the outside front to the inside rear -- offer an alternative to toe clips and straps.

One widely-recognized problem with toe clips and straps, as well as Power Grips, is discomfort due to the pressure of the strap on the top of the foot. The strap also impairs circulation, resulting in even more discomfort in cold weather. As noted, adjusting toe straps is hard on a fixed-gear bicycle, because you can't stop turning the pedals.

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Clipless pedals

Clipless shoe-pedal systems work somewhat like ski bindings. They allow easy, hands-free release of the foot -- even more important on a fixed-gear bicycle -- and avoid pressure on the top of the foot. Most early clipless systems (1980s) had cleats that protruded from the shoe soles, but Shimano SPD, Eggbeater, and Speedplay Frog systems, among others, have recessed cleats and walkable shoes. Some walkable systems shed mud and packed snow well, making them practical for almost any kind of riding.

Cleats for clipless systems bolt to the soles of the shoes. Different systems use different cleats and bolt-hole patterns, so you need to take care to buy shoes that will work with your cleats and pedals. Cleats are sold with pedals, rather than shoes.

As with toe clips and straps, practice getting your feet in and out of these pedals before you go riding with them. The motion is different from that with toe clips, and it also is different with different kinds of clipless pedals. Most of these pedals have a release adjustment, which you set according to your leg strength.

The photos below show a selection of pedals used in clipless systems.

 
Speedplay Frog pedal
Look racing pedal, uses non-walkable cleat Crank Brothers
Eggbeater pedal
Speedplay Frog pedal Look Pedals Eggbeater pedal
 
Pair of Shimano SPD/platform pedals. Which side is up?
 
Two-sided Shimano SPD pedal
SPD single-sided pedals Shimano SPD pedal

My own choice, for urban cycling as well as recreational rides and bicycle touring, is SPD in its walkable "mountain bike" version. Other systems may be lighter, and easier to adjust, but SPD is relatively economical, and a wide variety of pedals and shoes is available from several makers. Shimano makes two kinds of cleats -- black, which release only with a twist of the ankle to the side, and silver, which also release upward. I prefer silver.

I do not like combination pedals which are plain on one side and clipless on the other -- like those at the lower left in the picture above. You are likely to fumble getting started because the wrong side of a pedal comes up. I suppose that these pedals might make sense for someone who can't have a different bicycle equipped with each kind of pedals. Some pedals are double-sided with platforms but have SPD on both sides, providing better support for the shoe. Long-distance riders report that these pedals improve comfort. The SPD pedals at the lower right in the picture are minimalist, designed for light weight. They work best with shoes that have stiff soles.

Cleats are adjustable, forward and back, from side to side, and in rotation for toe out/toe in. Most clipless systems also offer some rotational “float” – the feet are free to toe in or out. Float makes initial alignment less critical, and accommodates the slight changes in the natural angle of the foot at different parts of the crank rotation.

Correctly-aligned cleats make long rides easier and more comfortable, but incorrectly aligned cleats can quickly lead to knee pain -- usually at the outside of the knees. Prolonged misalignment can result in damage to cartilage in the knee joints, so -- deal with this problem promptly!

The cleat attachment on most bicycling shoes has the feet pointing directly forward -- but most people toe out. Except with pedals such as Speedplay that have a wide range of free "float", you will probably need to rotate the cleats. You may also have to move the cleats toward the big-toe side of the shoe soles so your ankles clear the cranks. While most systems offer a range of forward-and-back adjustment, legendary long-distance cyclist Lon Haldeman modifies his shoes to place the cleats even farther back. He reports that this eliminates foot pain and without reducing his power output. You may find his advice here.

A good way to start with cleat alignment is to note how your feet rest on plain pedals. You may also want to ask for the help of an experienced bike shop mechanic who uses the New England Cycling Academy Fit Kit, with its R.A.D. (Rotational Adjustment Device). If a foot feels like it wants to rotate, then it does. In tough cases, you do well to seek professional help from a sports orthopedist. You may need orthotics (shoe inserts, or wedges under the cleats) to align your feet, and/or "knee savers" (pedal axle extenders).

 

solessmIMG_1195

The soles of my Specialized Body Geometry bicycle shoes, with Shimano
SPD cleats. The cleats are rotated to accommodate my
natural toe-out: the cleats are parallel, while the slots under them splay
outward, though intended to point directly forward. Also,
the cleats are installed
as far as they will go to the big toe side
of the soles, to get my ankles clear of old Stronglight cranks, and as far back as they
will go, to spare my Achilles tendons.

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Adjusting a Shimano SPD cleat

Adjusting the angle of a Shimano SPD cleat by rotating it with an adjustable wrench
while tightening the bolts that secure it to the shoe.

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kneesavers

Knee savers

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Sheldon's sandals

A wide variety of shoes is made for clipless systems -- though if you want cleated business Oxfords or patent-leather pumps, you still have to get them modified yourself. (The market cries out! Really!) You can get sandals, combining high-efficiency pedaling with a 1950s beatnik look. Quoting Sheldon Brown, the founder of this Web site:: "These are my very favorite footwear. In the summertime I go for weeks on end without ever having anything else on my feet. Far and away the most comfortable cycling footwear ever."

This topic deserves a longer discussion, so here it is.

Sheldon in sandals

Sheldon wearing Shimano SPD sandals,
New Year's Day 2004, Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Ever making his way upstream against the current of conventional so-called wisdom, Sheldon also wore Shimano SPD sandals in winter. I had to ask him what he was thinking, wearing sandals, as I took the photo above during the Charles River Wheelmen bicycle club's New Year's Day 2004 ride. The temperature was 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius). Sheldon cheerfully explained that sandals, unlike ordinary shoes, do not restrict circulation to the feet, which stay warm. I gave sandals a try in cold weather and can confirm this. With two pairs of wool socks inside my SPD sandals, I have been comfortable on days when fingers of ice were forming in puddles on the road.

The Velcro straps of SPD sandals also are very accommodating of different thicknesses of socks, or no socks at all. On a warm, rainy day, I favor a bicycle with fenders, a Carradice rain cape -- and sandals worn without socks. Shimano sandals are mostly rubber, so they dry easily. When I get to the end of my ride, I wipe the sandals dry, put socks on, put the sandals back on, and I'm prepared to meet the dress code of offices, shops and restaurants.

I have tried Keen and Specialized brand sandals, but I like Shimano SPD sandals much better -- they have an open toe and don't cramp the feet. When I wear conventional cycling shoes. they are Specialized Body Geometry shoes.

In case you think that an avid cyclist's wearing sandals is a new idea, check this out:

Velocio in sandals

The photo is from before 1930. The cyclist is the Frenchman Paul de Vivie, known as Vélocio, a central figure in cycletouring and development of bicycle gearing systems in the early 20th Century. The bicycle in the photo has bi-chain gearing with gear selection by engaging drive on one or the other side. The Dancing Chain, the definitive -- and entertaining -- book on the history of bicycle gearing, includes the photo and describes de Vivie as wearing monk's sandals, no matter what the weather.

Conclusion

There are more options in bicycle shoes and pedals now than ever before -- and there are also some outside-the-toe-box options worth considering. I hope that I have been able to help you choose shoes and pedals, and set them up to work well for you.

Installing, removing and servicing pedals

Sheldon's article in Adventure Cycling about pedals for touring

Pedals, toe clips and straps and sandals from Harris Cyclery

Speedplay page about clipless pedals

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Last Updated: by John Allen