A few weeks ago I finally decided to try out cleated shoes and pedals on my main commuter bicycle. My older, heavier bike had toeclips on it, which someone else had fitted; I had always felt that the big, fat, flat pedals on my new bike were inadequate and clunky in comparison; spatula-like and unwieldy discs of plastic.
But how do you start? Which do you buy? How do you know one will fit the other? I began like any other book-obsessed ex-academic by reading around: Sheldon Brown’s site had a guide to cleats (actually by John Allen) which reassured me that, as long as I defaulted to whatever read most like “generic no-frills SPD” in both cases, shoe and pedal would fit together (even better, most cleats that came with a given pair of pedals would attach to most shoes.)
Eventually I broke the circular dependency of shoe (which I needed to try on) on pedal (for which Wiggle offered excellent deals) by buying standard Shimano shoes from Warlands (my Oxford bike shop of choice) and then the next day ordering these M424 SPD pedals from Wiggle. The revelation that I really didn’t have to buy both at once came as something of a relief, and within a few days I had both anyway, and would always have had to wait for a decent amount of spare time to fit the pedals.
Last weekend I did so. It was mostly straightforward: while the advice to use fingers, not a spanner, to start threading the pedal into the crank to prevent cross-threading, is typically correct; this doesn’t work if the first millimetre or two of crank thread is already slightly damaged. So there was a brief moment of trepidation as I spannered the pedal home against my instinct to take care with the mechanics of it all: but when I stepped back to look at the bike, I was happy to see I had managed to avoid an actual cross thread.
And since then? It’s felt amazing using cleats, actually. There’s the increases in efficiency and comfort: your feet can pull up slightly on the pedals, and you don’t have to constantly self-adjust to keep them seated correctly; and the stiff sole of a cleated shoe prevents flexion losses and avoids foot ache. But apart from that, the tight and almost unmediated coupling of man and bike feels like something special: you and the bike are suddenly committed to each other’s positioning and effort expenditure on the road. It’s a step change in the way you treat your bicycle.
I should warn anyone right now who wants to try cleats: you will fall off, if only once. I was very proud of myself that I hadn’t fallen off after my first day of commuting. On my second day’s ride home, I performed the classic cleated pratfall: I gently decelerated to a junction with every appearance of care and control, only to finally come to a stop and totter like a drunkard, over onto (luckily) the pavement. Cleats are initially awkward to get out of, and if you don’t tighten the shoe connector bolts quite considerably, the connector will shift a little in its seating, and twisting your foot sideways will cease to disconnect it from the pedal as easily.
But if you’re considering the long, dark period from October until March with some trepidation; if you’re finding cycling gradually more tiring as the sun no longer warms your body quite so much; if your journey is a little lonely and lacking in company: then try out cleats, or even toeclips. Suddenly your bike is more exciting to ride; your efficiency hops up making your journey easier; and you find yourself with a brand new daily companion: your own bicycle.