Clipped in

Bontrager shoes and Shimano SPD-SL pedals

Please note that the chronology of events is correct, but the post dates are not. I’m nearly up to date now.

My transition to a road bike is primarily based on the fact that I was wasting quite a bit of energy while traveling on my hybrid bike, especially on longer rides. All the comfort elements such as upright riding posture, full suspension, and cushy seat were all soaking up valuable energy which could have been propelling the bike. One often overlooked energy robber, or perhaps inhibitor is a better word, are your feet and pedals.

Normally we don’t even think twice about wearing our favorite gym shoes on a bike ride, but once you start extending those rides, you find that your feet can easily slip off the pedals and become fatigued or even painful. I recently experienced this on a longer ride to the northern most end of Captiva (about a 48 mile ride), as the balls of my feet were getting quite sore, forcing me to constantly shift my footing on the pedals and loose power.

Now back in my earlier days of riding I actually strapped in to trap pedals, which in general were a good thing as your feet would not shift, nor loose contact with the pedals, but getting out of them, especially in an emergency was never fun. On my return to cycling, I really did not worry too much about the pedals and basically kept the stock synthetic ones on the bike and just used my favorite gym shoes for the ride. As my distance increased I was always consciously aware of my foot placement, constantly readjusting the positioning due to bumps, slipping, fatigue and discomfort.

So for the sake of greater efficiency I ventured into the new world of clipless bike pedals and cycling shoes. The curious observation here is that you actually do clip into clipless pedals, so right off the bat I knew I was in for a learning curve. As usual I jumped on to the interwebs for some preliminary research. I was bombarded with terms like LOOK, SPD, SPD-SL, LOOK KEO, Speedplay, Time RXS/RXE/ATAC and even Eggbeaters. Hating acronyms, I headed to my local Trek store to have a chat about shoes and pedals.

We started with the basics, the pedals on your bike serve one purpose, and that is to transfer power from you to your bike. It is easy for your foot to slip off the pedal without something holding your foot to it. There is a correct/proper placement for the position of your foot on the pedal axle. A proper shoe and pedal combination allows you to transfer all the power from your leg to the pedal instead of from the ball of your foot. And, what really hit home for me, you should not have to consciously think about maintaining your feet in the right position at all times.

Modern pedals are based on a clipless system which is very similar to the way a ski boot clips into a ski. Your shoe has a cleat mounted on it which literally snaps or clips into the pedal (apparently the moniker of clipless was coined to differentiate it from the older antiquated toe clips, so although you do clip into clipless pedals, clipless actually means not-toe-clip…. got it).

There is a dizzying array of pedal systems which use specialized cleats which are bolted onto your shoe. There are five basic brands/systems in the market; Shimano, Look, Speedplay, Crank Brothers, and Time ATAC. Shimano is the leader in mountain biking, while Look is the leader in road bikes. Crank Brothers make the famous eggbeaters loved by mountain bikes as they have a mud resistant design while Time ATAC and Speedplay are the brand to consider for knee problems with its lateral, angular float capability.

As far as cycling shoes go, they differ from normal gym shoes by having a much stiffer sole and uppers. These stiff soles provide a much better transfer of energy from your leg to the pedal and support the full length of your foot to reduce cramping and fatigue. The uppers are also relatively rigid for extra support. Cycling shoes are paired with a cleat system which clips them into the pedal.

There are three basic types of cycling shoes, casual or hybrid shoes, mountain biking shoes and road cycling shoes. The casual shoes are for the low mileage rider whose primary concern is walking comfort (casual riders and commuters). These shoes look like regular shoes and have the most flexible soles while maintaing compatibility with a clipless pedal system. The mountain biking shoes have a stiffer sole but still provide enough flex, as well as a rubber lug outsole to allow walking on rugged trails and mud. These shoes typically use a 2 hole (SPD) cleat system and pair up with the Shimano style pedals. The cleats of both the casual and mountain shoes are recessed making them easy to walk in.

The road cycling shoe has an exceptionally stiff sole allowing you to transfer all power to the pedals. They have very stiff uppers to maintain your foot in position, are well ventilated and are made of extremely light materials. They typically use a 3 hole exposed cleat system which protrude from the bottom of the shoe and are usually mated with Look style pedals. These shoes are not designed for extended walking as the sole does not flex making them nearly impossible to walk in (you can always spot the road cyclist as they awkwardly tip toe and waddle while walking around).

So with all that background info sloshing around in my noggin, it was time to look at shoe/pedal systems. As a road cyclist, I needed a very stiff light shoe to maximize my power transfer to the pedals. Shoe styles were pretty much the same across the board with velcro straps and ratchet systems. The primary price altering feature was the soles composition, or basically how much carbon fiber was in it. I tried on many brands but found that most shoes were uncomfortably narrow, particularly in the toe box. Now road cycling shoes are supposed to fit snugly, but not hurt. By the way you can forget all sizing charts as it seems the actual size on the shoe really doesn’t correlate with anything in the real world. The only way to find the right shoe is to sit down and try them on.

I eventually found a very well fitting pair from Bontager with a very decent price to boot. These shoes used the Look 3 hole system for cleats. For my pedals I chose a Shimano SPD-SL design. I liked the concept of a wider design in the pedal. It just made sense that a wider design would allow for a more efficient  force load  than a narrow Speedplay pedal system (that and my knees are still good, knock on wood, and don’t require all the angular float they bring).

Total damages for the shoes and pedals, about $200 bucks. Bontrager offers an unconditional guarantee on just about everything they make. If you don’t love it, change it. So if I’m not happy with the shoes once I get on the bike, I can always exchange/return them.

I’m sure there will be a small learning curve, or is it usage curve, with these new shoes and pedals. Clipping in and out will take a little practice. I keep hearing the mantra, clip one foot out early well before you have to stop, unless you want to find yourself laying on your side.

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