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Cleats, clips or flats: which bicycle touring pedal is best?

Alia Parker's picture
What sort of pedal should I use for bicycle touring?

Deciding what pedals to use for bicycle touring can do your head in, especially if you've never used cleats before and you're trying to decide on whether to make the switch. Staunch opinions abound on all sides from 'you absolutely must clip in, because, well, you're wasting energy otherwise' to 'you're absolutely mad if you clip in – I mean, that's a whole extra pair of shoes you'll need to carry!'.

My advice, as with all such bicycle touring questions, is: don't stress. Does your bike have pedals? Can you ride it? Sweet! You're pretty much there.

That's not a very satisfying answer though, is it. We're programmed to want to know the 'best' way to do things. But what's 'best' will be different for everyone. So to help you work out what's best for you, here are your main pedal options, who they're suitable for and additional tips to make touring in them easier.

Flat platform

Shimano Saint MTB pedal, Cycle TravellerThe good old flat pedal is foolproof, easy to use and you don't need to buy special cycling shoes to use them. That alone means you're likely to carry one less pair of shoes in your panniers, reducing weight and saving space. There's a stack of flats to choose from, including cheap plastic ones, affordable heavy metal ones, or more expensive lightweight metal platforms.

Suitable for: Riders who like simplicity; and, riders who don't like to 'dress like cyclists'.

Not suitable for: Cyclists who are already staunch SPD converts and don't like the feel of foot movement, slipping or going without the ability to pull-up on the pedal while riding.

Tip: If you want to get picky about the type of flat pedal you use, here are a few pointers. A broad platform, something like a Shimano Saint mountain bike pedal, will provide better support for your foot over long rides and also help your shoe to grip the pedal, reducing foot movement. While you can use any shoe on flats, choosing a walking shoe with a decently stiff sole will help prevent pins and needles in your feet or that 'dead toes' feeling. Soft-soled shoes, like joggers, will have a tendency to let your foot flex around the pedal when you push down and this repetitive motion over a few hours can reduce the blood flow to your toes.

SPD pedal with platform

Shimano XT touring pedalThe flat pedal with SPD cleat is a best-of-both-worlds option. Just to confuse you, pedals that you clip into using cleats are called clipless pedals … I'll explain why further down. These dual-purpose pedals are great because you can clip in when you want to, but also just jump on with any old pair of shoes and ride away. Again, there are plenty of options to choose from. Some have a flat platform on one side and a cleat on the other (like the popular Shimano XT T780), others have cleats on both sides and a platform (like the Shimano Click'r pedal, which is good for beginners). Each has their pros and cons. Some riders find the one-sided cleat a little annoying as you need to make sure the cleat-side is facing up before you can clip in, others find the double-sided cleat annoying because you don't get much of a platform since the cleat protrudes out in the middle.

Cleats are great at improving pedalling efficiency because riders can pull up on one leg at the same time as pushing down on the other. They also prevent the foot from slipping about on the pedals, improving control and confidence, especially on climbs. The other half of using cleats is the type of shoe that pairs with them, and since cycling shoes are designed to have nice stiff soles, they are generally better for your feet when riding. SPD cleats (often used for mountain biking and commuting, as opposed to SPD SL road bike cleats) recess into the shoe, making them much easier to walk in. However, cycling shoes by nature will never be as comfy to walk in as a normal walking shoe, which means touring cyclists who plan on hiking or doing plenty of walking will likely want to take along an additional pair of shoes.

This type of SPD/flat combo is also quite practical for long-distance touring because if you lose a cleat or your shoe breaks, you can still use the flat to get by.

Suitable for: Riders who want better efficiency and control; riders who like the stiffness of cycling shoes; and, those who don't mind tap dancing on the pavement or clacking their way through the supermarket.

Not suitable for: Cyclists who just want to take along one pair of comfy walking shoes; nervous riders.

Tip: Your cleats (to attach to the bottom of your cycling shoes) should come in the box with your new pedals. Make sure your cycling shoes are compatible with the type of cleat you're using. For this pedal option, you'll be looking for a mountain bike or commuting shoe where the small metal cleat recesses into the sole. Don't confuse them with SPD SL road cleats (see below). When it comes to shoes, there's no need to necessarily take additional shoes (especially if you're travelling ultra light), but many tourers do like to take something more comfy to walk in when not cycling. Running shoes are often lightweight but take up space, while Tevas are also a good option if you want something that doesn't take up much space but has a good sturdy sole for walking. Thongs (that's flipflops for non-Aussies) are always handy as they're light as easy to pack.

SPD pedals

Shimano SPD pedalThese pedals are for those who only ever want to ride clipped in. Being double-sided, they're easy to clip in on either side and they are slightly lighter weight given they've done away with the platform. Having said that, you're probably going to have so much gear on your bike that a few grams off the pedals will make no difference whatsoever.

Suitable for: Riders who can't bear to ride when not clipped in and know they won't ever use the flats.

Not suitable for: Cyclists who want to keep some flexibility in what type of shoe they wear; and, cyclists who like to unclip when riding off-road.

Tips: You'll normally only choose a pedal like this for long-distance bike touring if you're already comfortable cycling with cleats. You'll know straight away if this is the right option for you. If you're tossing up between this and the SPD/flat combo, just go for the combo.

Toe clips

These are pure old skool. Toe clips consist of a plastic or metal clip to put your toes in and a strap to tighten around the foot, thus clipping, or securing the foot onto the pedal. So when Shimano came up with cleats that were quick release, they were known as clipless because you didn't need to 'clip' or strap your foot to the pedal. Many cyclists who are nervous about using cleats mistakenly feel toe clips are safer; however, when used properly, it's actually harder to release the foot quickly from the straps as opposed to the SPDs, where you only need to twist your ankle outwards to disengage. But for confident cyclists, toe clips aren't a bad option: you can use them with any shoe, and they help improve cycling efficiency (although not quite to the extent of SPDs).

Suitable for: Cyclists who want improved pedalling efficiency without clipping in; riders want the simplicity of taking only one pair of shoes but improved performance over a flat pedal.

Not suitable for: nervous riders (with an exception below).

Tip: There are some alternatives to the traditional toe clip. Half clips are available that cradle the toe only and do away with the strap. While you lose a little in performance by doing this, it still secures the foot better than a flat pedal alone, and it also allows you to get your foot out of the pedal much faster. Another option are toe straps like the Cinelli Kink Toe Strap. This strap fits over the pedal, helping to prevent the foot from slipping about while making it easy for you to pull your foot out of the pedal. You'll still need to use a backwards action, but many users boast that they find it very easy. Even so, they get mixed reviews, especially when it comes to longevity or performance in the rain.

Road pedals

Look Keo road bike pedalRoad pedals are the least popular option for bicycle touring. This is because the cleat doesn't recess into the shoe, meaning they're not ideal for walking around on. That said, they're great for riding in, so they'll still do the job. Road pedals (of which the popular options are Shimano SPD SL, Look and Speedplay), are broader than their mountain-biking cousins, helping to spread pressure across the sole of the shoe. You generally only find them paired with road bikes, but there's no reason you can't break the rules if you're really want to.

Suitable for: Riders who already have road pedals and don't want to buy new pedals and shoes to go touring; ultralight credit-card tourers who are riding road bikes anyway; and cyclists who don't expect to be doing much walking throughout the day, or who don't mind changing shoes.

Not suitable for: Touring cyclists who want a more practical shoe.

Tip: Shimano SPD SL road pedals and cleats are much easier to come by than other brands. This is handy to know if you need to replace your cleats (they'll wear down fast if you walk about on them a lot) because road pedals only work with their corresponding cleat. For instance, if you buy Look Keo pedals, you'll need to use Look Keo cleats. You'll also need to make sure you get a road shoe, because there's no way you'll fit these babies onto a mountain bike shoe.

For the record

You may be interested in knowing what I use when touring. Personally, I like to use stiff-soled mountain bike shoes paired with Shimano XT T780 pedals. I clip in about 99% of the time, but like having the flat platform there for those odd occasions where a flat is more suitable. I'm comfortable wearing the mountain bike shoes about the supermarket, and have even worn them out to dinner. But I do also like to take along a pair better suited to walking and hiking so I can explore the areas I visit. Carrying these doesn't bother me. But that's me.

The bottom line

When it comes down to it, as long as your bike has pedals, you can go touring. If you've always been happy using flats, don't feel pressured into changing your pedals unless you feel it's a natural progression you're drawn to make. Sure you may get better performance, but it's not a race. Go with the option that will make you most happy, and if it turns out that you don't like it, change it up for next time. Just remember, there's no right way – just your way.


Images from top: Bicycle pedal, source Shutterstock

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