There are a lot of choices when it comes to picking the right pedals for your bike, but what are the differences and which one is right for what cycling you plan to do.
The key interface between you and the bike is the pedal, and a proper linkage will optimise the power transfer from the leg to the crank. However, the more effective pedal connections need practice and are not for beginners, so you need to consider your experience and performance requirements when choosing the type of pedals.
There are three different options.
Traditional flat Bike pedals.
These are the simplest and safest approach which consist simply of a flat platform and the foot is free to move, but as the foot is not connected, you are only gaining power from the downstroke, and can’t benefit from circular pedalling.
Toe clip style bike pedals
Toe clips are a metal frame and strap that are attached to the front of the pedal and allow the foot to be secured to the pedal, increasing power transfer as it allows you to pedal ‘round’ the crank. The efficiency of the linkage is dependent on how tight the strap holds the toe in place and the stiffness of the shoe.
“Clipless” bike pedals.
With Clipless bike pedals, the shoe connects to the top of the pedal via a spring loaded mechanism which attaches to a cleat which is bolted to the bottom of the shoe.. The connection is much firmer than with clipless pedals, so they are much more efficient than toe clipped pedals, but clipping in and out takes practice, and there is a chance that you’ll fall off when you stop if you can’t get your foot unclipped in time!!
In addition, you need specialist cycling shoes, with stiff soles which are pre-drilled to attach a specific type of cleat. Proper cleat positioning is essential to avoid foot pain, and you need to match the shoe, cleat and pedal type.
Clipless pedals are the ideal as they maximise power transfer but if you are new to cycling or are not confident, then consider sticking to the basic pedals until you are confident on the bike, once you are confident, then you can swap to clipless pedals.
If you decide to stick to toe clips or basic pedals, then that’s fine too and there are some advantages. Obviously, it’s a lot cheaper than investing in clipless pedals, cycling shoes and cleats, plus trainers are a lot easier to run in than cycling shoes which make running around transition a lot easier!.
The interface between the bike pedal and shoe on the clipless pedal is called the cleat, which is generally a plastic or metal lipped block which is held on to the shoe with 2 or 3 bolts. The pedals, cleat and shoes need to match and the decision will impact what shoes and pedals you can pick.
The traditional choices are either the Shimano SPD-SL or Look Pedals, which are very similar but are not interchangeable. Both use a larger plastic cleat which attaches with a three bolt pattern, which gives a firm connection and a wide range of movement forward, back left right and rotationally, letting you find the best position. This cleat sticks out of the bottom of the shoe, making walking difficult. The pedal has a spring loaded clip that allows a limited amount of side to side movement and a very firm hold which ensures maximum power transfer.
The alternative is SPD cleats from Shimano, which use a small metal cleat to attach to a two-sided pedal, making clipping in easier. SPD cleats were designed for mountain biking, where a hard plastic sole and large cleat are not suitable. This means that they can be recessed into the whole of the shoe, and can be fitted to shoes with rubber soles suitable for running and walking, which makes them ideal for commuting and touring.
There will be less power transferred and some additional weight, but they are a viable choice for people who are likely to be using their bike more for commuting than racing.
Most triathlon-specific bikes and shoes will use either the SPD or Look format, but consider what you will spend most of your time on the bike.