Pedals can make a huge impact on your cycling performance. The right pedals will make you faster and more efficient on the bike. Being more efficient on the bike will give you more energy for the run which will result in faster race times.
There are a couple different categories of pedals, but before we jump into the different pedal types and how they help, let’s take a quick look at the different phases of a pedal stroke.
The Pedal Stroke
The pedal stroke consists of four phases: power/downstroke, pull back, upstroke, and set up. We’ll use a clock face as a reference for where the phases start and stop. (I found this great image outlining the pedal stroke on rideharder.co.uk)
Power / Downstroke
The power phase which is the period between roughly the 1 o’clock and 4 o’clock position. It’s called the power phase because this is where most of the power is applied to the stroke. You are utilizing the biggest muscle groups in the body during this phase, your glutes and your quads.
Next is the pull back phase and it is from the 4 o’clock to 7 o’clock position. During this phase, the muscles in use transition from your glutes and quads to your calves primarily.
The pull back is followed by the upstroke phase which is from 7 o’clock to 10 o’clock. During this phase your hamstring takes over and supplies a majority of the power.
Finally, the set up phase which is between 10 o’clock and 1 o’clock. The setup phase is at the top of your stroke, just before you are about to smash the pedal down. During this phase, there aren’t many muscles engaged, so you aren’t applying much power, if any, to the pedal stroke.
Now that we know more about the phases of the pedal stroke, let’s see how the different types of pedals affect it.
Platform Bike Pedals
These are your everyday, standard bike pedals. They feature a flat platform that can be used without the need of special shoes. While these pedals are great because they are simple and allow you to use most any type of shoe, they aren’t doing much for your efficiency. Using platform pedals will only allow you to apply power during the power phase of your pedal stroke. Once you hit the 6 o’clock position of the stroke your foot is just along for the ride.
Toe Clips / Toe Cages
Toe clips / toe cages are attachments to a pedal that act as a harness for your foot to keep it in contact with the pedal. Toe cages can be a good next step for those looking to make step up from the basic platform pedal. They provide the same benefits of a platform pedal, but allow you to apply power during more phases of the pedal stroke because you can pull up.
In my experience with toe clips, they have been more of a nuisance than a help. The straps seem to loosen over the ride which will negate any advantage they provide. Constantly battling loose straps is not something you want to do during a race. Also, those with big feet or max cushion running shoes might not be able to get much of their foot into the cage which will reduce the amount of power you can apply and can even cause pain on longer rides.
Contrary to their name, clipless pedals are actually pedals that you clip into. “Clipless” comes from the fact that the pedals do not require toe clips. Unlike platform pedals, clipless pedals do require special shoes. The way the system works is by attaching a cleat to the bottom of your shoe. This cleat locks into the pedal to give you power and control during the pedal stroke. To release your shoe from the pedal, you simply turn your heels outward. Your cleat will unclip and your foot will be free.
Clipless pedals can be a bit intimidating to get started with, but once you are used to them, you won’t even have to think when it’s time to clip in or out from the pedals. Clipless pedals will allow you to be the most efficient as they will let you apply power during almost all phases of the pedal stroke.
There are a variety of clipless pedal designs, some of the most popular are SPD, Egg Beaters (Crank Brothers), Speedplay, and Look. Based on my own observations, Look-style pedals are the most prevalent on triathlon bikes. The Look-style pedal is comfortable, easy to get in and out of, and has a large platform to distribute power to the pedal stroke. I refer to it as “Look-style” because Look pioneered the design of the pedal. Other manufacturers produce pedals with similar design, but since Look originally came up with the design, they are commonly referred to as Look pedals.
If you aren’t currently riding with clipless pedals, I highly suggest you give it a try. I certainly have my fair share of embarrassing falls at stop signs when I was learning to ride with them. I think everybody falls when starting out with them. Once you get the hang of it, you won’t want to ride on platform pedals again. From spin class to mountain biking, cycling will never be the same.