Photo Laurent Fignon by Bike Race Info
Today we call them clipless pedals. They scare a lot of newbies to the sport who fear that they won’t be able to get their feet “unclipped” in time to avoid a potentially nasty and embarrassing fall. So long as the brain and one of a rider’s ankles/feet are somewhat coordinated, releasing a foot from a clipless pedal is as easy as, well, falling off a log. Today’s shoes even come predrilled with holes to fit the wide variety of pedal/cleat designs out there, and the cleats all have some degree of float to accommodate foot pronation. It’s a tidy little package that guarantees both efficiency and safety.
But (as they say on late night TV,) wait, there’s more. Even setting up your shoe/cleat combo has never been easier. Just install six screws into two cleats, sit on bike, adjust as necessary and you’re good to go. Adjust the release tension with a few turns of a hex wrench. Getting in and out of pedals requires no hands – just the ability to coordinate brain and foot to engage, then twist an ankle to release. Simple, secure and effective.
Back in the day, it was not so. And I’m not talking 50s and 60s, I’m talking early 80s. Shoes were almost always all leather with laces. (Plastic and Velcro were radical advances back then.) You could have any color you liked so long as you liked black. The leather soles were smooth and lacked any kind of pre-drilled holes. The ubiquitous cage-type pedals had lovely shiny chromed steel clips bolted to the front of them and a long leather strap around the back to form the holy trinity of serious cycling. It was a matter of personal preference and style as to whether you ran your toe strap through the sides of the pedal or through the back plate; the latter was felt to offer a more secure cinch. Cleats (or as they were properly called in the UK, shoe plates) were nailed onto the sole. Not regular nails, but wee, fine, fiddly nails. They offered no play or float (just as the early Look style plates offered no play either). To make sure you didn’t bugger up your knees, you rode a few miles in the shoes “sans plates” and let the pedal mark the leather sole. Then you nailed your cleat on. If you didn’t get it right, you took out the wee, skinny nails and tweaked. Now all cleats come with some degree of “float” meaning that you can get your cleats close enough to a perfect position and still not wreck your knees.
Then you had to practice the fine art of learning how to use the toe of the shoe to flip the pedal, clip and strap around to slide your foot in and engage the shoe plate on the back of the pedal – without using a hand. Then you leant over to pull the strap tight thus securing your foot in the pedal/clip/strap combo. Release was a breeze under normal circumstances: reach down, flick the strap buckle and lift and pull back your foot. With practice, it became second nature. The biggest issue was if you took a spill: if the feet were strapped in tight, separating yourself from your machine could be tricky to put it mildly. (Ask Freddy Maertens about the 1976 Paris-Roubaix and Johan DeMuynck in the 1978 Giro d’Italia. Both took tumbles and required assistance to detach themselves from their bikes). There was the real possibility of twisting a knee or ankle if you crashed with the straps pulled tight. Then you really had to use your hands to get free ‒ or get help.
Clipless pedals are, of course, progress in a way. They are safer, easier to use and lighter. However, the fine art of the one-hand-on-the-bars, the other reaching down to flick the strap buckle is as redundant as the rotary phone. It’s just another little skill that has slowly vanished only to find a home at myriad Eroica events. Now, with shifters and brakes combined on the bars, and clipless pedals ubiquitous, there’s no need to reach down for anything except a water bottle, and that can be solved with a camelback (well, not really, but it’s possible). At the end of the day, we now live in a world where whatever hand isn’t on your bars is free to fiddle with your goddamn strava app. Progress comes at a price I guess.