In the 'olden days' cyclists wore shoes that simply rested on the pedals during cycling, and life was simple. Then someone had the bright idea of fitting toe clips to pedals, to stop the shoes sliding around so much. Slightly irritating to use, but more or less a good idea.
Then by the 1950's someone had the idea of also fitting something to the shoe that clipped around the back of the pedal. Used together with toe clips that worked pretty well, and it was still essentially possible to move your feet to the ground when necessary (for example stopping at a road junction) without major incident.
Now we move forward to recent years. Every cyclist worth his spandex shorts is using 'clipless' pedals. These come in various shapes and forms, but the general idea is that a 'cleat' - a clip, if you must - is fastened to the bottom of the cycle shoe. An appropriate pedal is then used, such that the cleat can be clipped into the pedal when cycling. To 'unclip' it is necessary to turn the shoe (twist the foot) slightly outwards.
Hence the shoe is fixed to the pedal, which can improve cycling in all manner of ways. No more friction between shoe and pedal; no more loss of grip; and if you are really keen you can actually pull the pedals upwards at the back of the turn as well as push them down at the front (this is hard work).
Note 1: pedals come with a standard size thread and can be readily changed / replaced. You would be well advised to put some grease on the thread before fitting your new pedal - so that in years to come it can still be removed if necessary! Remember to order 'cleats' at the same time as your pedals - these screw to the bottom of your cycling shoes so they can clip on.
Note 2: Having bought your new pedals you will also need some cycling shoes, and cleats (your new shoes will probably come with cleats already supplied)
Why are they called clipless pedals? Beats me, but I think it's because you no longer have toe-clips. the fact you still have clips seems to have escaped the attention of whoever invented the name 'clipless pedals'.
So this works very well, but there is a downside in having your feet fixed securely to the pedals. You need to plan ahead more when you are going to stop. This is usually not a problem but there are three occasions when it is:
- Something leaps out in front of you suddenly and you need to stop unexpectedly.
- You need to stop for some reason on a steep uphill section. Getting clipped in takes a few seconds, and you need momentum while you are doing it. so getting started again on a steep uphill can be very difficult. Luckily this provides extra motivation not to stop on the hills.
- You forget. When this happens, and it does happen, usually during the first couple of weeks with clipless pedals, you fall over. Since your feet are fixed to the pedals, when you try and put a leg out to support yourself nothing happens, and you land on your leg, arm, shoulder, whatever. On tarmac this can be very painful (believe me).
For newcomers to 'serious' cycling all the stories of falling off as soon as you start using clipless pedals can seem a bit off-putting. Be assured, the pleasure of using them far exceeds the pain of that nasty graze you will get on your second trip out (first trip you'll be too aware of them, and be extra careful, but by your second trip you'll start to forget you have them on).
The other significant disadvantages of clipless pedals are
- they are pretty much impossible to use with normal shoes, so if you use your bike for cycling to the newspaper shop on a Sunday morning, that will be less practical
- as you now have big lumps of plastic screwed to the bottom of your cycling shoes you look like you have a serious medical problem when you try and walk in them
- you have to go and buy these special shoes and pedals - perhaps £70+ for shoes and £40+ for the pedals
They really do improve your cycling, and allow you to push down evenly for a larger part of the pedalling cycle. There is also a small element of 'pulling up' on the pedal at the back of the pedal stroke - perhaps usually negligible, but can be very useful in a fast sprint).
Very few cyclists would change back from clipless pedals to 'normal' pedals, I think, having once acclimatised to clipless pedals. It is pehaps the most important improvement you can make in your cycling (unless you are overweight).