Pedals 101

Bikewagon - BWCC

Pedals are a very important part of the bicycle. As a rider, they are your main connection to your bike. The specific design of pedal installed on your bicycle can have a dramatic effect on the riding feel. Unlike in the past, there are now dozens and dozens of pedal designs available for all sorts of different riders.

Whether you are buying a new bike and want to make sure you get the right pedals, or you are considering an upgrade for your current pedals, this guide will explain the pros and cons of various types of bike pedals, how they work, and the important decisions you have to make in order to get the right version for you.

There are three main categories of bike pedals available, and within each category there is a variety of different models aimed at different users. As usual with bike gear, pricier models tend to be lighter, more durable, or have other advanced features. Let’s get to the categories and start learning about pedals.

Platform Pedals

When you think of a bike, most likely you picture platform pedals -- simple metal frames with a bit of traction -- basically, just a place to put your feet. Platform pedals work fine for casual riders and are the only pedals commonly seen on around-town and cruiser bicycles.

platform pedals

The downside of platform pedals actually comes on the upstroke -- the portion of your pedal stroke where one foot is rising, the other falling. Platform pedals lose efficiency because a cyclist cannot pull up on the pedal with the rising foot, and this loss of contact with the pedal causes some energy to be lost as well.

Platform pedals are great for beginning cyclists, kids, and people who like their feet to be ready at a moment’s notice to stop a fall. Downhill mountain bikers, freeriders, and dirt jumpers often use platform pedals specially designed for these activities with extra durability and metal studs for extra grip when the pedal is wet or muddy. The simplicity, durability, and ease of getting your feet on and off the pedals is useful for these more extreme sports.

Platform pedals are available in a wide variety of qualities and prices, starting with low-end polycarbonate plastics and ending with expensive, lightweight magnesium pedals for downhill cycling.

Pros:

  • Can be low price
  • Simple
  • Can be used with a variety of shoes (or even barefoot in some cases)
  • Easy to mount and dismount bicycle, especially in case of emergency

Cons:

  • Some efficiency is lost because foot is not connected to the pedal
  • Traction studs can wound ankles and shins in the event of a fall or slip

Cage Pedals

Also known as toe clips, cage pedals were first introduced over 150 years ago and feature an adjustable plastic or webbing toebox within which riders can insert their forefoot. This allows cyclists to use their legs to pull up while pedaling, as well as pushing down.

cage pedal

Cage pedals are often used by commuters who will be stopping and starting often, as it is easy to get in the habit of automatically slipping your feet in and out of toe clips. One warning: make sure that your cage pedals are properly adjusted for your shoes! Too tight and you won’t be able to pull out your feet; too loose, and you might as well use simple platform pedals.

Pros:

  • Low cost
  • Easy to use
  • Can be used with a variety of shoes (or even barefoot)
  • More efficient than platform pedals

Cons:

  • Foot is not firmly attached to pedal, so not 100-percent efficient
  • Can be difficult to get foot in or out of toebox quickly if overtightened
  • If the other side of the pedal is used, the toe cage will drag on the ground and wear out quickly

Clipless Pedals

Clipless road pedal

Once you understand that cage pedals were once known commonly as toe clips, the name clipless pedal makes a little more sense.

Clipless pedals, with the use of special shoes fitted with cleats, allow you to lock your shoe in the bike by pressing down firmly. When you need to stop, you can twist your heel outwards to disengage the mechanism and release your foot. There is a bit of a learning curve when you first use these pedals. A good way to start learning is to lean your bike up against a wall and practice clipping and unclipping.

If you are going to use clipless pedals, you will need specially designed shoes with cleats that match your pedal design. The most common pedal designs are SPD, LOOK, and Egg Beaters. Cycling shoes often feature a stiff sole for high efficiency, which can make them uncomfortable for walking any distance. Make sure you are prepared with walking shoes if you plan on cycling away from home.

You can also buy hybrid pedals, which feature clipless cleats on one side and a standard platform pedal on the other. These designs allow you to clip in for longer rides, and to wear whatever shoes you like for more casual trips.

Clipless MTB pedal

Pros:

  • Solid connection to the bike
  • Pedaling is very efficient
  • Easier to maneuver the bike in rough terrain and when hopping obstacles
  • No need to worry about feet slipping in muddy or wet conditions

Cons:

  • Definite learning curve
  • Quick stops may occasionally result in a tumble if you don’t release your foot in time
  • Many clipless pedals require lubrication and cleaning
  • Not ideal for commuting -- can be frustrating in stop-and-go traffic
  • Mud can interfere with the mechanism; some models deal with grime better than others

Conclusion

Remember, your pedals are one of the most important features on your bike and determine much of the feel and handling of your bike. With all the options on the market, it can be confusing choosing the right pedal. But with the information in this article, you can make a more informed decision about the pedals you purchase.