Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Versatile Pedals - Not Just a Retrogrouch Thing

The year was 1985. Bernard Hinault, riding on the latest "clipless" pedals from LOOK, joined an elite group of 5-time Tour de France champions. From that point on, toe-clip pedals became a thing of the past.

Well. . . not entirely.

I'm not going to go on a total Retrogrouch diatribe against clipless pedals in this post and try to argue breathlessly that toe-clip pedals are better. Clipless pedals are fine. I use them. They have their place. But I still like and use traditional toe-clip pedals for a lot of my riding. There are a lot of situations for which I simply prefer them. I thought I'd take this post to discuss some of the things I like about traditional pedals, and to show some of the pedals I like.

First, with so many choices in clipless pedals, why would anyone but a self-avowed Retrogrouch still use toe-clips? One reason: Versatility. Traditional pedals are simply more versatile than the click-in variety. No special shoes needed. With traditional pedals, whatever you're wearing becomes riding footwear. Sneakers. Casual shoes. Sandals. Whatever. In fact, once one gets past the need to wear special cycling-specific shoes (many of which necessitate the "duck walk"), one pretty quickly realizes they don't really need cycling-specific clothing all the time, either. Speaking for myself, once I got over the need to "suit up" for every ride, I found I started riding a lot more. Trips to the grocery store. Chinese take-out runs. Library. Pharmacy. There are lots of things I used to do with my car that now are another chance to get on my bike.

For rides over about ten miles, at faster than a casual pace, I do of course wear cycling clothes, including shoes. But out of a collection of roughly a dozen bikes, only my "fastest" and most narrowly-focused road bike has clipless pedals. The rest have toe-clips. My main commuting bike has toe-clips, and for my roughly 14 mile commute I wear classic-looking traditional touring cycling shoes that give me the benefit of stiff-soled riding shoes, but also let me walk more or less "normally." I'll wear cycle-specific clothes for the commute, but change into professional wear at work.

Let me show some of the pedals I use and enjoy:

The classic Campagnolo Superleggeri pedals from Italy (above). Here's a set I have that is still brand new in the box. I have identical sets on several bikes. Great pedals all around -- made from the 1970s through the 80s. Many other companies made (and some still make) pedals that were basically knock-offs of these. But Campagnolo bearings are about as good as they come, so in that regard, they'll last a long, long time. These are distinguished from the otherwise very similar Nuovo Record pedals by their black anodized aluminum cages. (The NR pedals, available at least since the 1960s, had chromed steel cages). There was another version, called the Super Record which are distinguished by their titanium spindles, but otherwise look pretty much the same as these. People often confuse the SL with the SR pedals. And now that I've pointed out the difference, I'm sure some Campagnolo expert out there is going to write and tell me I got it wrong. It's happened before. 
TA Specialties quill pedals (above). Made in France. In many ways, these are even better than the Campagnolo pedals above. With a combination of precision ball and needle bearings, they could potentially last forever -- maybe even longer than the Campys -- and they have a cool little grease fitting at the end for easy maintenance. Everything on these is replaceable -- the bearings, the cages, even the little flip tab on the back (the one that makes it easy to flip the pedal up to get your foot into it). These are pretty hard to find nowadays. I'm not even sure they still make them, and if they do, it's possible they no longer export them to the US. I use these on my Rivendell Long & Low.

Mid 80s Campagnolo Chorus platform pedals (2 pictures, above). I use these on my commuter bike. Yes, my friends at my local bike shop joke about the fact that even my "commuter bike" is fully Campagnolo equipped. What can I say? What I like about platform pedals like these is that they work really nicely with touring-style shoes because they offer a bit more support under the sole. In that way, they'll even work well with sneakers and other non-cycling-specific shoes. Looking closely, one may see that these have laminated Cinelli toe straps (no stretching!) with a sweet little buckle pad on the outside.

Campagnolo Croce d'Aune TBS (triple bearing system) pedals. Mid 80s vintage. These are ideal for fixed-gear track bikes because of the tapered spindle -- notice, no dustcap at the end. That allowed a bit more clearance when cornering (dragging a pedal on a fixed-gear bike is not a good experience). These use a combination of ball and needle bearings to help support the shortened spindle. Really cool-looking pedals, and pretty hard to find these days. Something tells me that somebody's going to write and tell me that the toe strap is routed wrong. I'm not sure there's a better way to do it on these -- if there is, it isn't obvious.
MKS Sylvan pedals. Made in Japan. Basically a knock-off of the Campagnolo SL pedals above. These ones are the "short cage" version, which is modeled on the track version of the Campagnolo pedals. These are good quality, but inexpensive pedals for daily riders, and MKS still makes 'em. They also have a full-cage version that looks almost exactly like the SL pedals shown above, and a slightly wider "touring" version which lacks the little flip tab and is probably better for use without toe clips.
MKS Urban Platform pedals. I don't have a pair of these, but they'd be a great choice for around-town riding. With a nice, flat base and that big, wide flip tab, they'd be excellent for riding in "normal" shoes. They do accept toe-clips, too (they really wouldn't be ideal to use without the toe-clips). These are derived from (not an exact copy of) an old French model, the Lyotard "Marcel Berthet" pedal -- loved by touring riders for years, but no longer available. These Japanese-made pedals are probably cheaper than a nice used set of the original Lyotards from eBay. (photo from www.velo-orange.com)
White Industries Urban Pedal. Made in USA. Another design essentially based on the Lyotard "Marcel Berthet" pedals, but in this case, rendered in super high quality CNC'd aluminum with precision sealed cartridge bearings. Very nice. Not cheap. (photo from www.whiteind.com).
Those last few pedals, I think, show that good quality, traditional pedals are alive and well. Velo-Orange and Soma Fabrications are a couple of good online sources for them, but check the local bike shop, too.

Some people will still wonder why anyone would still use traditional pedals. I hear it all the time: "They don't hold your feet securely." "You won't be able to pull up on the pedals." "They're harder to get in and out of." But I don't see any of these things as issues.

The notion that feet must be attached firmly to pedals is a bit of a myth in most cases. I find that my feet are held more than securely enough with traditional pedals, even with non-cycling shoes. The only time I've ever pulled (or nearly pulled) a foot out of a pedal unintentionally was on a fixed-gear bike going up a hill way too steep for the gear I had, and with the toe straps completely loose. It was a complete tactical error in judgement, and not something that happens in most riding (and my foot still didn't come out, and I still made it up the hill without incident).

Can't pull up on the pedals? Thing is, we don't really pull up on the pedals as much as we "un-weight" the pedal on the upstroke. Grant Petersen busts that myth pretty thoroughly in his book Just Ride. Read it.

Harder to get in and out of? OK, so on one hand people fear the pedals are too easy to pull out of. On the other hand they're too hard to get out of? I actually find traditional pedals just as easy to get into as clipless pedals, maybe even a little easier, but that might be because I use them so much more. It's a different movement than with clipless, but no harder really. The other thing I've found is this: if I'm taking off at a light and have trouble getting into a toe-clip pedal, I can still get myself going well even if my foot isn't properly "in" the pedal. But with clipless pedals, that is much harder to do. The cleat/pedal "target" is much smaller, and if one doesn't get lined up just right, or if the cleat doesn't engage properly, it's really hard to get going without a foot slipping off. Banged up shins are the likely result.

As far as getting a foot out of toe-clip pedals, if one is riding with old-style slotted cleats and cinches the straps down tight, it can be hard to pull a foot out in an emergency -- but how often does that happen? Secondly, it really isn't necessary to tighten the straps that much -- as I've already pointed out, it's a bit of a myth that we need to be so firmly attached to the pedals. If riding in touring-type shoes, and with the straps only semi-tight, getting out of the pedals is no problem at all.

So as I've already pointed out -- I'm not arguing that traditional toe-clip pedals are superior to clipless. I have no problem with clipless pedals in all their various forms and guises. But I still value the versatility of traditional pedals, and I'm really glad that there are still at least a few companies out there who still make good quality toe-clip pedals for road bikes. For a lot of riding -- especially any riding that isn't racing -- traditional pedals are a classy choice that make a bike so much more than an expensive, narrowly focused training device.


  1. For some of us, clipless is not an option. My knee problem won't even permit cleats with conventional pedals. Also, clipless is another one of those solutions to a problem that didn't really exist. I have both Berthets and the TA pedals and they are superbly easy to use and, in the case of the Berthets, amazingly light for a steel pedal.

  2. Thanks for the comment -- I agree with you about solutions to problems that don't really exist -- I see a lot of them out there. I just really like traditional pedals for so many reasons. Like I said, I use clipless pedals, but they really don't seem any better to me -- and not nearly as versatile.

  3. > Can't pull up on the pedals? Thing is, we don't really pull up on the pedals as much as we "un-weight" the pedal on the upstroke.

    I always argued this, but then when I got SPDs I found I do sometimes pull _back_ on the pedals - now I wonder if this isn't what people mean when they swear they pull up.

    I'm younger than clipless pedals, but I always used toeclips until a year or so ago - in the end I had too much trouble finding the shoes that I wanted to use with them. I equipped all my own bikes with SPD compatible pedals and got some nice "water resistant" Pearl Izumi shoes from a season or so before. They're smart enough that I've worn them in the office quite a lot, they have good tread for mountain biking, and they're nice and flexible for walking (I also tend to run* up long sets of stairs and whatnot, and as a bonus, after I had an ankle injury they were actually the only shoes of any sort I could wear for a long time without pain).

    I still prefer toeclips for general use, as I can get into them reliably (i.e. I always get them first time, and quicker than almost anyone with clipless pedals, whereas occasionally I miss first time with the SPDs) , but the SPDs are great for taking off up steep hills off-road.
    In the past I've used toeclips in everything from bare feet to steel capped work boots, but it turns out I don't really need the flexibility of wearing any shoes on my bike (maybe once a year if I'm lucky, in which case I can just swap the pedals) - I much prefer the flexibility of those hill take-offs and wearing a single versatile pair of shoes on all my bikes all the time :)

    * A few years ago I was in a shop in Christchurch and they were having a huge argument with a customer who wanted to obtain shoes he could also run in - they told him they did exist, but they absolutely refused to help him because they believed cycling shoes should be only for cycling; I've never seen customer service like it! Incidentally, it seems that most shops in this part of the world are getting worse and worse for shoes - they used to have walls covered in shoes - now you have to look hard to find them, and there might be only have a handful of models. You need to go online and import it yourself if you want anything a little unusual, like me.

  4. I know this an old post, but would you mind sharing what shoes you wear? I use pedals like these too, but I haven't found shoes I'm happy with. Love the blog, thanks for all you share!

    1. Here is a full post about shoes for traditional pedals: http://bikeretrogrouch.blogspot.com/2014/02/classic-cycling-shoes.html

  5. I still use clips and straps, and usually slotted cleats, for all or most of my riding even though I've tried various clipless systems for a lot of miles since 1985. I found they did not provide advantages for me like they seem to for others. People who find clipless pedals and shoes more comfortable than any clip/strap/shoe combination have comfort as a reason to use them--and that's what many pros reported was the reason they like the switch in the 80s. People who can't pull back and up with clips/straps/slots find it's easy to do this with good clipless systems. People who found they couldn't get out of clips/straps/cleats easily because they had to loosen a strap also prefer clipless. But these don't prove to be advantages for me: As was mentioned above, pulling up is mostly pulling back or unweighting, and I find I pull back and up (as my heel angles up on the back stroke) as easily with clips/straps/slot cleats as I do with clipless. I also have good comfort with clips/straps/cleats so didn't get a clipless advantage there. And like many in the 80s and before, I don't cinch the straps down tight except for certain kinds of sprints and those rare. I have the straps just snug enough that it holds my slot cleat in place so no pull-out problems, but still can easily let the shoe be pulled out with a slight twist to release the cleat, so I almost never touch the straps ride to ride if I'm using the same or similar shoes. When he first starting taking those paychecks from LOOK, Bernard Hinault used to explain it was a safety issue and that you needed release in a fall like skiers do. I both ski and ride and have fallen in both pursuits often enough to have discovered this not to be an issue in cycling where my feet are as likely to come out of the pedals in a fall as they are with clipless.
    So clipless don't offer me any advantages but they do present drawbacks as listed in the blog, for me mainly the ability to use whatever shoe I want cleat or not.

  6. I ride about 17 miles a day to work and back in London. I used to always ride with spds but then the sole split on my Specialised shoe and I didn't buy another pair. My pedals were platforms with spds on one side so I just started riding in my usual shoes. It was the best move I ever made. I now ride more often using by bike for little errands, I don't have to keep a spare pair of shoes at work and I doubt I'm any slower. As I get older I gradually wear less and less specialist cycling stuff and yet I cycle more. If you're just commuting you don't need padded shorts, tights, gore tex etc. In the winter I wear a coat.

    I love the blog. Keep up the good work.

  7. I've never got on with toe clips. I'm tall and have big feet (US 14). This has several effects. I have longer cranks, so flipped toe clips tend to drag and even catch, which can be dangerous. (Ideally, larger frames would have higher bottom brackets, but that's not always the case.)

    My feet are so large I have to find extra-large clips, since many would only allow my toes in and create a horrible pedalling foot position. Then, the added length exacerbates any wheel overlap issues.

    For me the answer is two-sided SPD clipless pedals. Flat on one side, mech on the other. I find this a good alternative - there's no added length or bulk. I don't have any illusions that I pull up on a stroke - it's just the positive positioning that helps.

  8. the good thing is you still can pedal on the normal side if all fails! Lol
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