Thursday, March 27, 2014

Taking the Lane: Pedal On

Today we are going to have an in depth physics lesson on the mechanics of pedal motion and how it propels the bicycle forward. I hope all the readers are up on their multivariable calculus. Alright, so the above two sentences are just a joke, but today I am going to review the basics of two different pedal types to help you make the best choice for you, your bike and your commute.

Platform Pedals
Basic Platform Pedal (Photo by Piper Williams)
This is the type of pedal most people think of when they think of bike pedals. These are the type of pedals your first big wheel bike had installed. You can use this pedals by pushing down with your feet; there is no option for a pull motion (unless you have straps on your platforms). The benefits of these pedals are that they are very easy to use, have a non-existent learning curve, and allow the user to dismount very quickly. You can use these pedals in almost any type of footwear, even barefoot (being that I was born in Kentucky, you can bet that rode my little pink and teal Huffy without shoes many times, but I do not recommend doing this). Platforms can be acquired very inexpensively, I paid around $10 for mine, and often come installed on bikes when you purchase them. The downsides of platforms are that they can be bulky and do not allow the user to pedal as efficiently as clipless pedals.

Clipless Pedals
Clipless Pedal - My Beat Up Pedal (Photo by Piper Williams)
This is any type of pedal that you attach yourself to using a special type of shoe with a specially designed cleat. Within this class of pedals, there are multiple subclasses, but in this piece, I am going to be very general. Clipless pedals allow you to pedal much more efficiently as you pedal by both pushing and pulling. This helps you get to your destination faster. It can also help you feel more psychologically connected to your bike. Clipless pedals do have a bit of learning curve to get used to and most people (myself included) will experience at least one slow embarrassing fall from forgetting to unclip when stopping. These pedal also require that you have at least one set of shoes just for cycling with the cleats installed.

Racing/Training Shoes for Clipless Pedals - My personal pair (Photo by Piper Williams
Commuter Shoes for Clipless Pedals - My personal pair (Photo by Piper Williams)

So now that you know your basic pedal options, how do you decide which ones are going to work for you? There are couple of aspect to consider when you making a choice. First is the length of your commute. If your commute is short (under 4 miles), you may find that the extra speed given by clipless pedals is not worth the hassle of a change of shoes, particularly if you are biking in city and are constantly having to stop at traffic lights. However, if your commute is on the long side clipless pedals can make your ride that much more enjoyable. Do you use your commuter bike for training as well? Given that most training rides employ clipless pedals, changing pedals back and forth is more effort that it is worth and it may be best to stick with clipless pedals. Do you have the funds to invest in pedals, cleats and shoes? Combined this can cost well over $100 and is a worthwhile investment, but only if you will really use them. There really is no wrong choice when it comes to pedals for commuting, just the choice that makes sense for you. I do have to make one further comment for those of you are commuting in major metropolitan areas (i.e. London), make sure you are comfortable and practiced at clipping in and out of clipless pedals before taking them out on busy city streets. (The streets of Lincoln are not busy city streets.) However, most individuals are not commuting in these types of conditions and do not take this into consideration.  

To be upfront, I will tell you what I use and what I would prefer, so you know my bias. I presently own only one bike that I need to make work for transportation, training and racing. I do not have time to switch pedals on and off before every ride, so I usually have SPD clipless pedals attached. I use the shoes pictured above for training and commuting respectively. If I had an additional bike that I would use solely for transportation and commuting, I would have platform pedals installed on it since this would give me greater freedom in shoe choice.

As for what shoes you can use with these different pedals and what works for commuting, that is an article for another time.

Happy riding and pedal on.


  1. Another great option for those who want to ride both platform and clipless pedals is a multi-purpose pedal that offers a platform on one side and a cleat surface on the other. Shimano makes several models with this configuration:

  2. I had considered adding this type of pedal to the post, however, I think I will actually do a post later and outline all of the different types of clipless pedals including multipurpose pedals.