Why I Like Toe Clips Over Clipless Pedals

I am a big fan of toe clips over clipless pedals – and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

And no, it’s not because I’m a Luddite who thinks technology is slowly ruining modern civilization (although, if I’m honest …)

It’s because toe clips (or toe cages) are simple, affordable, versatile, safer, and promote a better cycling stroke.

Now, if you’re about to throw your 29er studded tires at me, you can keep them, because I’m not talking to you. Clipless pedals are the tool of choice for mountain bikers for good reason: Bone-jarring bumps can easily throw your foot off a flat pedal. Clipless pedals effectively weld your foot in place. That’s super helpful in rough terrain. 

Instead, I’m writing to commuters, triathletes, and touring cyclists. And I know they’ve fallen out of favor, but I just really like ol’ fashioned toe clips!

I’ve cycled 3,000 miles through the Rocky Mountains, ran a Half-Ironman and biked a full Century. And as much as I love new gear (it’s kind of an addiction), clipless pedals on my road bike are one thing I can’t find a good reason to adopt.

No, Clipless Pedals Don’t Increase Your Power

If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: “Clipless pedals increase your power by allowing you to pull up on the upstroke, therefore engaging your hamstrings as well as your quadriceps.”

No, no, no! Why has this myth become canon? Sure, you might be increasing your efficiency by a couple percentage points, but at the risk of injuring your hamstrings and lower back.

If you’re struggling to understand why pulling up doesn’t really help, think of it this way: You burn energy to pull up with your hamstrings, right? Well, basically, the power you gain from the upstroke (which is an unnatural movement) doesn’t exceed the power you waste through muscle contraction. It’s a net loss for most people. 

Riding on flat pedals engages your prime movers: quadriceps, hips and glutes. That’s a big reason I prefer riding on flat pedals.

If you’re cycling the Tour de France, maybe you care about the 2% efficiency gains. For the rest of us, we’d rather save our hamstrings, thank you very much!

Because I Hate Cycling Shoes

I’ve tried riding with cycling shoes – and I just can’t do it. Not for regular rides, anyway.

You see, cycling shoes are made for performance. If you’re wondering how the myth about the upstroke has persisted so long, blame the shoes, not the pedals! Cycling shoes have hard, stiff soles that transfer more power to the pedal. Basically less squish = more power.

If you’re doing a cross-country trek like Bike Across Kansas, you might prefer the stiff soles of a dedicated cycling shoe. They improve power transfer and eliminate sweaty hot spots on long, punishing rides.

But generally, I do not enjoy being in the saddle for three hours straight. I like to watch the bees, listen to the river, stretch my legs, or dip into a hole-in-the-wall art gallery. And you can’t explore very far off the trail clomping around on cycling shoes!

Who Has All That Money, Anyway?

Do more with less – that’s what I say. This is Adventure On the Cheap, after all.

Even an entry-level clipless pedal cycling shoe, like the Perl Izumi Quest, costs $100. Plus the pedals and cleats, so there goes another $100. And if you really want to go big and splurge $400 on a pair of shoes and $200 on pedals, there is no shortage of companies who will happily take your money.

It’s not that I mind spending $200 for a good cause. But for a pair of shoes I can only use for one purpose? For a pair of pedals that are only SPD- or Delta-compatible?

There is no pedal – that I know of, anyway – that can be ridden with SPD cleats, Delta cleats, or flat-footed. You can pick two out of three.

Or, just leave the cleats to the sweaty Spin cyclists, and enjoy a 3-hr afternoon ride in your sneakers! 

You can buy a pair of toe clips for, like, $20. You can adjust them to your foot size and use them with any standard flat bike pedal. What’s not to love? 

Toe Clips are the Easiest to Escape

Now, there is some debate on this subject, so I must be clear:

What I like using are toe clips, not toe cages or pedal straps.

  • Toe clips do what you need them to – and no more. They keep your foot positioned squarely over the pedal and prevent it from slipping off, even in wet weather. That’s it.
  • Toe cages fully surround your foot. They lock your foot into place, much like a cleat. Most are a combination of toe clips + pedal strap. I find these finicky and difficult to exit in an emergency.
  • Pedal straps merely compress your foot onto the pedal. I find these difficult to exit in an emergency AND they don’t work well in wet weather.

Your mileage may vary.

Compared to clipless pedals … I wouldn’t give either one the award. Clipless pedals disengage by twisting your ankle outwards; toe clips disengage by sliding your foot backwards. Tit for tat. 

I’ve never decked on the pavement wearing either. (I have eaten dirt when my foot slipped off a flat pedal, though …)

So Why Aren’t Toe Clips More Popular?

If you’re wondering why toe clips aren’t more popular if they’re this awesome … then here’s the answer.

It’s because they’re dorky.

Let’s face it. We associate toe clips with spin bikes at the gym. No one wants their $2,000 road bike to look like a Peloton gone rogue.

But thankfully, I’ve reached the point in my life where I don’t give two s**** about what most people think. 

I still use my clipless pedals on my mountain bike. But for touring and road cycling, I haven’t touched my cleats in years (don’t even know where they are anymore, to be honest). I keep a $10 pair of toe clips on my $10 plastic pedals, and when I pass up a cyclist who spent more on his shoes than I did on my bike, I smirk a little.

Of course, he’ll pass me later while I’m watching the bees or listening to the creek, but what else is cycling all about? 

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