Starting Triathlon – Pedal Choice

Pedals are one of your three contact points with the bike; the other two being handlebar and saddle. Your choice of pedal affects your power, endurance, and stability. As a triathlete, you have to keep in mind that you have a transition between run and bike where your pedal choice determines your shoe choice, and this in turn affects how you approach transition. In this third in our Starting Triathlon series, we explore pedal choice and how you should approach transition.

Pedal choice is a trade-off between performance, confidence, and ease of use. The pedal that may give you the most confidence will provide the worst performance and, likewise, the pedal that gives the best performance requires the most confidence. The three most common pedal types are:

  1. Flat pedal or flat with a toe strap.

  2. Mountain (MTB) style clipless system.

  3. Road style clipless system.

Clipless systems are ones where a special cleat attaches to the base of your shoe and this engages with the pedal locking your foot in place. It may seem odd that they are called ‘clipless’ when you actually clip your foot into the pedal, but their name derives from the lack of a clip that was a part of the traditional system of pedal and toe strap. Anyway, let’s look at each of these systems and find which one is going to work for you.

Flat Pedal with or without a Toe Strap

If you are new to road cycling, there’s a good chance that your bike already has these types of pedals. Although you won’t see professionals and elite triathletes using them, they do offer a number of benefits:

  1. They are cheap – in fact, most bikes ship with these kinds of pedals.

  2. You can ride wearing trainers – no need to buy or wear specific footwear.

  3. It’s easy to put a foot down – great if you lack confidence.

Unfortunately, flat pedals do have some drawbacks:

  1. Your foot can move or slip off the pedal.

  2. Your feet are unlikely to be in an optimum position for power transfer, efficiency, and injury avoidance.

  3. Trainers or similar footwear don’t provide much support for the soles of your feet. This can become uncomfortable when riding and reduces potential power output.

From a practical perspective, when you enter transition, you can run to your bike, pop on your helmet, grab your bike, and run to the mount line (the line that marks the end of the transition area) where you’ll be able to jump on your bike and start riding immediately. In summary, a fantastic choice for novice road riders that lack confidence and want as easy a transition as possible.

MTB Style Clipless System

You might be wondering why we’re talking about mountain bikes when this is an article on triathlon which entails, in most cases, road cycling. Don’t worry, we’re still focused on road-based events. A specific style of pedal and cleat was developed for mountain bikers that allowed them to dismount and walk without damaging their cleats. The pedals and cleats were also designed to avoid clogging from mud, and to give the rider the ability to clip-out easily in case they needed to put a foot down. As time has progressed, many road riders have adopted MTB style pedals because they offer several advantages over road style clipless systems. Nowadays, there are several brands of MTB pedals. The most popular are Shimano’s SPD (often none as spuds), but there are alternatives including Time’s Atac and Crank Brother’s Egg Beaters. The key features of this type of pedal system are:

  • A small metal (hard wearing) cleat attaches to the bottom of the rider’s shoe.

  • Cleats are recessed within the shoes’ soles making walking easy.

  • Cleats have two holes so that they can be attached with two bolts.

  • Pedals are double sided (sometimes four-sided) allowing access regardless of pedal position.

For the road rider or triathlete, this type of pedal system offers a number of advantages over other systems:

  1. Feet are securely held in place – improves power, efficiency, safety, and reduces injury potential.

  2. Feet are always in the same position so bike setup can be optimal for a given rider.

  3. Cleats are recessed within the shoes’ soles making walking easy.

  4. Double or multi-sided pedals make clipping-in really easy.

  5. Cleats allow a large degree of float (how far your foot can move from side to side before unclipping) meaning that accurate cleat positioning on the bottom of the shoe is generally not crucial.

Although there are many advantages to the MTB style system, there are a number of disadvantages:

  1. Less power transfer and efficiency than a road style system.

  2. Requires the purchase of specific pedals and shoes (cleats come with the pedals btw).

  3. Necessitates a change of footwear in transition.

  4. There’s a small learning curve to get used to clipping-in and out.

  5. Putting a foot down is not as instant as with a flat pedal.

  6. Mentally you know that you are clipped into the pedals and this can be tough for those lacking in confidence.

  7. Some riders experience a numb sensation on the soles of their feet when riding long distances because their weight is distributed over quite a small pedal area.

From a practical perspective, in transition you need to change shoes, pop on your helmet, grab your bike, and then you can run to the mount line where you’ll be able to pop on your bike and start riding immediately. In summary, a perfect choice for anyone wanting to improve efficiency and power whilst maintaining ease of use and keeping confidence. For most first-timers the MTB style system is our recommended option.

Road Style Clipless System

Many experienced and almost all elite triathletes use a road style clipless system. The most popular system is Shimano’s SPD-SL, but there are several alternatives including Look’s Keo and Time’s Xpresso. The key features of a road style system are:

  • A large plastic (lightweight) cleat attaches to the bottom of the rider’s shoe.

  • Cleats sit proud of the shoes’ soles making walking difficult.

  • Cleats have three holes so that they can be attached with three bolts. However, there are other systems, such as Speedplay’s four bolt ‘lollipop style’ system, but they are niche offerings that are unlikely choices for new riders and triathletes.

  • Pedals are single sided meaning that you frequently have to flip a pedal with your toe to be able to clip-in.

For the road rider or triathlete, this type of pedal system offers some advantages over other systems:

  1. Maximum power and efficiency.

  2. Comfort – a large cleat spreads load over a wider area than mountain bike style cleats.

  3. Feet are securely held in place – improves power, efficiency, safety, and reduces injury potential.

  4. Feet are always in the same position so bike setup can be optimal for a given rider.

Although the road style system offers maximum power and efficiency, it does have a number of disadvantages:

  1. Requires the purchase of specific pedals and shoes (cleats come with the pedals btw).

  2. Necessitates a change of footwear in transition.

  3. There’s a learning curve to get used to clipping-in and out (although not hard, but more difficult than MTB style).

  4. It is not as easy to put a foot down than the other systems.

  5. Mentally you know that you are clipped into the pedals and this can be tough for those lacking in confidence.

  6. Requires a different approach to transition (see below).

  7. Single sided pedals often require a flick with the toe so that the you can clip-in.

From a practical perspective, in transition you need to slip off your running shoes, pop on your helmet, grab your bike, and then run to the mount line. Your cycling shoes should already be clipped into the pedals and small elastic bands attached to the shoes and frame secure the shoes in an upright position. As you pass the mount line, you jump on to your bike (whilst still running), start pedalling to gain momentum (the elastic bands snap immediately), and then slip your feet into your shoes as you ride. Being able to achieve this type of transition requires two key things:

  1. Tri-specific cycling shoes – these have large Velcro straps to fasten them rather than multiple straps or dials found on regular road cycling shoes.

  2. Practice – lots of it!

In summary, for those that want to maximise power and efficiency, and don’t mind practicing transition, the road style system is a great choice. Before you do choose this type of system, it’s worth thinking about what other types of road riding you will be doing. If you plan on racing or time trialling, road style is the perfect choice. On the other hand, if you plan on commuting or riding to explore and socialise, MTB style may be a more sensible option.

Top Tip: Some people find that the amount of force required to clip-in and out is too much. Most clipless pedals (road and MTB) have variable spring adjustment, which allows you to reduce the amount of effort required to clip-in and out. When you first start using clipless pedals, it’s a great idea to ask your local bike shop to slacken off the spring tension.

So, there you have it: the pros and cons of three pedal systems, and how you approach transition with each. If you have questions, comments, or want to let us know which pedal system you’ve chosen, please add a comment below. Also remember to check out the other posts in this series and if you really want to accelerate your road riding progress, get hold of Simply Road Cycling today. It’s packed with tips and advice that will save you years of trial and error.


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The starting Triathlon Series

Photo Credit: @asty121