28 Aug, 2015

To cleat or not to cleat? ... That is the question!

No matter whether you ride with or without cleats, the objective is to have fun on a bike.
A typical flat pedal-takkie scenario.
The author (left) and PWC Bike Park skills instructor Nicolle van der Greft riding without and with cleats respectively.
There are a number of different kinds of cleat systems on the market. This is the Shimano SPD system.
The author proving that even with flat pedals, it is possible to do “wheelies”.
On trails like this, cleats are perhaps ideal as riders are able to apply plenty of push and pull power on the pedals.
Nicolle van der Greft showing that, even with flat pedals and takkies, riders can get the rear wheel off the ground.

You have your awesome new bike and are rearing to go, but still have that one final decision to make … what pedals should you put on your bike?

Flat pedals seem super un-cool but you also don’t want to fall flat on your face after hearing all the terrible stories of being stuck in the pedals.

It may seem daunting, but we have all been there and will still have the odd intimate moment with the tar or soil.

To gain a better understanding of how women start out pedal-wise and what their thoughts are, I asked a couple of friends and riding buddies to answer four questions about pedals and using cleats or not (PS, thanks girls!).

Some of the answers were very interesting and often included stories.

Everyone has to start somewhere and some of the more fearless among us seemed to hop into cleats straight away while others, perhaps more cautious, seemed to take a little more time.

This lead to the first question, when you first started cycling, did you use flat pedals or did you go straight to cleats? And following on from that question, if you used flat pedals, how long did you stay on them before going into cleats?

Most of the women took about a ride or two around the block to get the feeling and movement of the bike with flat pedals.

They then did the same with the cleats and were “A-for-away”.

While for other women (like me), they took a couple of months before plucking up the courage to try cleats. But once moving onto them, they got the hang of them fairly quickly and haven’t looked back since.

There is no specific length of time that you are or aren’t meant to move onto cleats, as long as you are comfortable on the bike and enjoy your riding.

Women who have been around cycling, either family members or as youngsters, will hop into cleats more easily as they have the knowledge and assistance from those around them.

Otherwise, if you are the “cycling” pioneer among your friends and family, you will likely take a bit longer to move across.

The secret is that there is no rush, and you should take your time and enjoy your riding.

To understand what the stumbling block was before this decision is taken, women were asked what their biggest fear was about the whole cleat/pedal choice. The answers were unanimous … the fear of falling or getting stuck in the pedals.

It is natural for women to be more cautious, thoughtful and concerned about what lies ahead of them when tackling a new challenge.

There is no trying to disguise it, but you will fall at some point, even after years of cycling with cleats. With road cycling, it is a little easier to get comfortable with them as you don’t have any unexpected obstacles jumping out at you.

So, if you can, rather start with cleats on the road so you can get comfortable, otherwise ride in a bike park you are familiar with and then, only when comfortable, test out the trickier sections and routes.

Every one falls and will continue to fall … it always makes for a great story with a beer after the ride.

So now you know that generally all women have and will always worry about falling when they use cleats, so now you are probably wandering why they even do this to themselves in the first place? That’s because the benefits of cleats are significant.

The main one being the “push and pull” you gain from cleats. What this means is that when you push the pedal down, you have a direct connection with the pedals increasing the power gains you get from every pedal stroke. In the opposite direction, you have the opposite foot “pulling up” the pedal. This therefore gives you an all-round movement with every pedal stroke which definitely makes you a little faster.

Along with this, you avoid slipping off the pedals. This can be extremely dangerous, sore and uncomfortable as your feet are not connected to the pedals.

It will be easier to gain greater control on the road but, should you wish to go off-road, be sure to wear shin-guards to avoid any nasty bangs or cuts from the pedals.

Finally, with your feet not being able to constantly change position, your bike set-up remains correct with your leg angles never changing. This is vitally important to avoid any discomfort or injuries while riding.

So hopefully now you will be more convinced and confident to give cleats a go, here are some pointers and tips when considering them.

Firstly, the choice of pedals. Some pedals are extremely tight which makes it difficult to get the cleat in and out the pedal while others have an adjustable setting that allows you the freedom of how easily you want the cleat to go in and out.

Should you be a little more motivated to give the cleats a go but not 100% convinced yet, what I would suggest is you try the Shimano dual purpose pedals? These have a flat pedal on one side and a cleat on the other, giving you the freedom to either be clipped in or ride like a normal flat pedal. They also have an adjustible setting where you can determine how “tight” you would like the cleat to fit into the pedal, giving you the opportunity to set it to your comfort.

You will also have a dominant leg that you place down when stopping. If you would like to take baby steps, put the cleated pedal on your non-dominant foot and keep your dominant foot in takkies on the flat pedals.

This will get you used to the sensation of being “stuck” in your pedals while reducing the risk of you falling. Once you are comfortable with this, put both pedals on and head out for your adventure.

Secondly, choose shoes that are comfortable and compliment your riding. There is an endless amount of choices you are shown when you begin shoe shopping and it can often be overwhelming, but if you are just starting out, you definitely don’t need and probably won’t enjoy the fancy expensive shoes the sales consultant will try convince you to purchase.

Rather go for a plastic/rubber sole that had some flex and stretch in the material. This will allow the shoe to fit comfortably and give you some space in the shoe. There will always be a choice of shoe in this range for both road and mountain bike.

With the mountain bike shoes, you will also be able to “hike-a-bike” a lot more easily with the rubber/plastic sole shoes as they give you grip and movement.

There are also options such as the Specialized Cadette shoe. This shoe has a takkie look and feel to it but the underlying sole has a greater stiffness than that of a normal takkie. The grip/tread of the shoe is developed to hold contact with the flat pedal and avoid slipping off the pedal. There is also has the option to cut out a piece at the bottom to place a cleat when you are ready.

Now you will have even more reason to add to that shoe collection you already have!

Lastly¸ never try uncleat when you have already stopped. This will most definitely end up with you a heap on the floor!

Practice in your driveway, straight piece of road or even on lawn (a nice soft landing when you get it wrong the first few times). What you need to do is pedal the bike to gain a bit of momentum, stop pedalling to allow the bike to freewheel and pop your heal out to the side away from the bike and the cleat will pop out allowing your foot to be free to place down on the floor … simple!

Hopefully, now you can see you are not alone in the fear of the dreaded cleats, but you can be assured they are not as bad as they seem and will definitely offer you benefits when you begin riding with them.

Hope to see all you women out on the roads or trails, cleated in and riding confidently!

Tamaryn Kietzmann

Tamaryn Kietzmann

Journalist |

Tamaryn Kietzmann is a Specialized brand ambassador, trail lover, roadie and triathlete because "life is too short for one discipline".