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The Power Of Cleats

Taking cycling to the next level.

So I have been cycling for “fun” for around a month now. Nothing too extravagant, just a few 5-mile cycles to the yard to ride the horse and back. I try to cycle to the gym as well, but again it is only 2 miles so nothing challenging at all, even I can manage it! It has more been a case of getting used to riding on the roads and gaining confidence in traffic.

People have been mentioning cleats since I bought my bike back in May. Apparently, if you want to cycle properly then they are the way forward. To a beginner the thought of having your feet strapped to the bike is daunting. I rely on my feet being free to escape all potential falls and there have been a fair few near misses on the roads already.

However, after a multitude of people telling me that cleats are a must for a triathlete I caved and went to the bike shop.

The various types of pedal and cleat available to cyclists.

The various types of pedal and cleat available to cyclists.

I was already having the bike serviced (the gears felt a bit sticky and it had not been checked since buying it) so I went over my options with the man doing the service. There are an array of cleats and pedal types. The mountain bike pedals he had were tiny with a small surface area so less power on the peddling per stroke, however, you could walk comfortably in the shoes as the cleats were built into the shoe. The road pedals had a larger surface area, however, demonstrated a bulky cleat on the bottom of the shoe making it hard to walk.

The Cycles UK man did explain that for racing you need a large surface area and lightweight shoes, as per the road bike set up. To me, this seemed strange that pedals and shoes could make such a difference. However, I have already found out that the type of tyre and bike you are riding makes a huge difference on the roads, so I trusted him and bought the road cleats and pedals.

Testing cleats out for the first time

The gentleman walked me through screwing on the pedals (simple case of unscrew old ones and screw on new ones) and showed me how to put cleats onto the bottom of the shoes, (again simple case of line up holes on the bottom of the shoe and screw in the fixings). “The time will come when you have to do all of this yourself” he commented.

Example of the type of shoe and pedal I opted for.

Example of the type of shoe and pedal I opted for.

In an attempt to help me get used to these cleats he suggested that I try clipping in an out in the shop. I mounted and clipped my right foot into the pedal. This took a few moments to realise the location of the cleat on the ball of the foot. After struggling to get my foot un-cliped he loosened the cleat tension to make this easier, however, I was still relying heavily on using force from my other foot on the floor. I did not think anything of this and just decided I would have to get used to it. We repeated the drill with my left foot.

After I was getting both feet in and out of the cleats without too much hassle the man decided it would be a good idea to put them both in to “get a feel”. It is important to note that at this point in time we were the only people in the shop and we were doing this exercise right next to a bike display. I did as I was told and clipped both feet in with him holding onto the handlebars. He told me to twist my feet to un-clip myself from the bike. I tried, nothing happened. I tried again, still nothing. My feet were both jammed into the pedals, “ah I think we need to loosen the tension a bit more” he said.

Now the issue was that he could not let go or I would crash to the floor and I was stuck. Each time I jabbed my feet sideways harder the bike crashed into his crotch, which was met with grunts and cries of pain on his part. Finally, we decided I just had to go for it, the most vicious ankle twist in history. I threw everything into it, my hips went, my leg cocked and my ankle twisted. The foot came loose. However, the force flung me, the man and the bike into the bike display of luminous yellow road bikes. I was still attached to my bike with one foot, so helpless I just lay there with the giggles, not a great start to my cleat journey!

The Cyclo Park:

Admiring my new shoes.

Admiring my new shoes.

After the mishap in the shop and numerous stories from people about falling off at traffic lights, I decided that trying these new bad boys out in a none traffic flooded environment was the best idea. The cyclo park in Gravesend, Kent is potentially one of the handiest training tools to a newbie triathlete. It is a 3 km circuit on clean, none potholed tarmac. Perfect for learning to cycle and for clocking up miles with minimum inner tube changing.

I signed in, took the bike through and was met by a few avid cyclists in Lycra and alien helmets. I had rocked up in mesh gym leggings and a long sleeved cotton top. However, I had my new grown-up shoes so all was well. The first attempt at clipping in went well. They went in first time and I was off, smugly I thought “I must be a natural”. How wrong I was.

After a few laps, I was hot and needed a top change. So I decided to stop at the entrance of the cyclo road where a group of people were sat having lunch, I could put my clothes on the fence for easy collection once I was done. I un-clipped, again no problem. Changed, watered and ready to go out for a few more laps I hopped on, not worrying about the cleats now. In my arrogance, I clipped in one foot and failed to find the second pedal in time (the side with no clip in was at the top) I panicked about not being able to find the second pedal clip, my shoe sliding over the top of the none cleat side. The bike, in slow motion, began to fall to the side. Half of my brain kept trying to get the other foot clipped into cycle away and the other half decided it would be a good idea to un-clip the other foot and save myself. While this debate was occurring I hit the floor.

The interesting position you find yourself in when you fall off and can not un-clip your feet in time.

The interesting position you find yourself in when you fall off and can not un-clip your feet in time.

I lay there for a moment wondering what had happened and how to stop it from happening again. I was clearly there longer than I thought as the group of people having their lunch started shouting to me to see if I was ok. I shouted back “yes, thank you” feeling myself going bright red. Twisting my foot out of the pedal was not going to happen with a bike on top of me so I undid the shoe and un-trapped myself from my bike. “You sure you are alright love? You were down for a while” exclaimed one man. I explained to him I was practising on cleats and he just laughed “Ah yes they take a bit of getting used to, its traffic lights you have to look forward to!” Great. Can’t wait.

I explained to him my predicament and he did offer some interesting advice on the motion of peddling with cleats, however:

“You will find that when you cycled with flat pedals it was probably very much an up and down motion as you only had down power. With cleats, you utilise the upwards power generated by your legs too. The best way to describe a good cycle stroke with cleats is it is like wiping dog poo off your shoe. You should not be pushing down and then focusing on the other legs downforce only. You should be wiping the foot downwards on your heel and then driving the toe back and the heel up, like getting poo off a shoe. Both the up and down force need to be active on both legs. If you do this you will find higher gears a lot easier and you will generate much more force and power. If you are doing Iron Man it is about endurance and efficiency. Being efficient in your cycling will mean you are saving a lot of much-needed energy.”

After the first fall, I had a fair few more. So decided that this session was best used focusing on mounting and dismounting from the bike. I spent 2 hours falling off over and over, my poor bike that was once black and red now more mottled grey as the paint was torn off. However, eventually, I got there. I have always been told that if you can do something three times in a row without failure you are improving. All I know is thank God I went to the cyclo park first before I went on the roads. It got to the point where I was practising standing up pedalling with my new shoes and was quite happy stood up or sat down with them.

People were right, they make life a lot easier. Each stroke is halved in effort as the other foot lifts it is creating force forward rather than being a passenger to the downwards pedal of the other foot, as such on flat pedals with no cages. Cycling life was suddenly much faster and much easier.

Lessons learnt in initial cleat encounters:

  • They do make a difference! Get some as soon as possible and start riding in them
  • Once you are over the mental block of being strapped to something it all becomes second nature – keep at it!
  • Cleats take a lot of getting used to when mounting and dismounting
  • Expect to fall over a few times when you first go out with cleats
  • Try to get to a cyclo park to test them out for the first time. It will save embarrassment and potential accidents with cars at traffic lights.
  • Make sure the cleats are not tightened too much. If the bolts on the cleats are too tight it will be exceedingly difficult to un-clip from the peddle and you will fall off.
  • Clipping in. Use your strong leg first to push down and get momentum. The second leg will trail behind and flip the pedal over to the correct side to find the cleat fixture (some pedals do not have cleat fixtures on both sides!). Once you have the pedal on the right side, clip your second foot in and you are away.
  • If you fall off in front of lots of people do not just lay there and wonder what went wrong, get up! Otherwise, they will think you are hurt and will run over to you, which is even more embarrassing.
  • Remember the action of wiping dog poo off your shoes and you will have ultimate power and speed.
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