One of the first things you’ll discover about bicycles is that apparently the vocabulary was designed by someone with a sadistic sense of humor who was convinced that life would be better if newbs had no idea what anyone was talking about. Take the saddle bag, for example. I bet you immediately envision those bags you sometimes see hanging off the sides of bikes, over the rear wheel. You know, like saddlebags on a horse.
Wrong. Those are panniers. The saddlebag is the little teeny bag that hangs under the bike seat. Which is called the saddle, incidentally.
The whole clips issue is the same kind of thing. You’ve probably seen those cute little shoes cyclists wear? You know, the ones that clip onto the pedals?
Not clips. Nope. Those are actually the shoes for clipless pedals (and the shoes are cleats.)
That’s because these are clips:
And then the third type of pedal you’re normally going to see are flat or platform pedals. Those are the kind you grew up with on your bike, just a flat thing for you to put your foot on and push.
So, why do you care about clips and clipless pedals?
If you’re just riding bikes casually, you probably don’t. Flat pedals will get you from point A to B just fine if you’re not trying to go a significant distance. Most road bikes will come with clips already on them. If you tighten them up appropriately, they’ll keep your feet properly positioned on the pedals and let you get a little more push on them.
Clips aren’t the easiest things to extract your feet from, to be honest, not if you have them tightened down pretty well. (Particularly depending on the type of shoes you’re wearing. Shoes with smooth uppers are much easier to pull out of clips.) They can also be kind of a pain in the butt to get your feet in to. The added oomph to your pedaling is definitely a benefit, though.
Clipless pedals have the same advantages as clips, but more so. You can really pull up as well as push down, which gives you a big jump in efficiency and helps you get up to speed faster. Of course, your feet are then attached to the pedals – but in all honest, I’ve found it easier to get my cleats out of the clipless pedals than extract my shoes from clips at times.
If you’re going to switch, do it all the way. There are pedals you can get that have a platform on one side. The problem with those is when you’re first starting out, getting the cleats to clip in can be rough, and it’s even harder if you’ve only got the clip-in on one side of the pedal. Just do it. All the way, and don’t go back.
The downside to clipless pedals (and clips) is that your feet are effectively glued to the pedals. Probably at least once, you’re not going to get one of your feet pulled out in time and you’ll fall over. The most dangerous time for these kind of pedals is actually when you’re stopped, and it does happen if you’re not paying good enough attention.
I’ve fallen over twice, both times in a parking lot. I’ve seen it happen to other people on group rides. It’s not a big deal, and the thing that gets hurt the worst is your pride. You’ve just got to learn to get a foot free before you stop. Preferably, just free one foot; keep your other in so you can start pedaling without having to get clipped back in. As with all things, practice makes perfect.
Is it worth switching? If you’re going to be riding your bike a lot, and you’re doing it specifically for distance and speed, yes. A thousand times yes. Clipless pedals will change your life.