When should your child use clipless pedals?
27 November 2013
One of the biggest changes riders make as novices is going from flat pedals to clipless pedals. In this article Mark Wyer discusses when youth riders should take that step for their best long-term development.
Read his advice about which system your child should use, how to set shoes & pedals up, and how children can learn to use clipless pedals safely. Finally he looks at pedal choice for each discipline of the sport.
Your child may want to make the transition from flat to clipless pedals as soon as possible so they are not at a disadvantage to other riders, because they are fun to use, and so they look the part. However there are a number of reasons to not rush into using them. These include making sure your child develops a good pedalling style first, cost, and the potential for injury. In many cases pedals fitted with toe-clips and straps make a good intermediate step.
What are clipless pedals?
Clipless pedals allow your shoes to be fixed into the pedal by a spring mechanism. A specially shaped fitting known as a cleat is bolted to the sole of a cycling shoe and this is what clips into the pedal’s spring mechanism. To release a foot the rider usually has to twist the heel of their foot outwards. So, despite the name, you can actually clip into clipless pedals. They are called “clipless” because they don’t have the traditional toe-clips and straps that were used for racing up until the late 1980s, hence “clipless”.
Advantages of using clipless pedals
Clipless pedals provide a fixed platform for your foot on the pedal. This means your foot will stay in place on the pedal, it won’t slip off, and you don’t have to use any energy keeping it in place. Clipless pedals allow you to propel the pedals round in a smoother more circular pattern rather than just pushing down on the pedals. This allows for a more efficient and effective cadence. The combination of stiff-soled cycling shoes and clipless pedals tends to be more comfortable than generic trainers on flat pedals or in toe-clips and strap pedals which tend to pinch the top of the shoe/foot.
Disadvantages of using clipless pedals
Many younger children are not strong enough to clip in and out of clipless pedals easily. This means they may not be able to clip out in an emergency, leading to them falling over or causing a crash. If the cleats are badly set up, use of clipless pedals by young children could lead to injury of knees or hips. Very early use of clipless pedals can hinder skills development in the off-road disciplines. Riders using clipless pedals may just pull up on the pedals rather than using weight shifts for some techniques.
Which type to select
A good first clipless pedal is the Shimano SPD double sided pedal, such as the M520 model which can usually be purchased for less than £20 including the cleats. The advantages of this system are many, one of which being that the cleats are easy to set up on cycling shoes. SPD cleats can be fitted to most cycling shoes with a two-bolt fixing. There are also cheaper copies of the pedals and cleats available from other manufacturers. The Shimano versions are robust and hard-wearing and can be used on the road and track as well as off-road. This is the most popular off-road pedal so second hand bikes often come with these pedals. It is better to buy off-road shoes with cleats recessed inside the tread for a first shoe as they are easy to walk in without wearing down the cleat, and their soles will almost always have the two-bolt drillings necessary for attaching SPD cleats. If your child develops more of an interest in road and or track then they can get a more specific pedal when they become older and stronger, such as the Look Keo or Shimano SPD-SL.
It is possible to find shoes that work with Shimano SPD pedals for children as young as 8 or 9 if you want them to start using them that young.
Note that shoes designed for use with “off-road” SPD double-sided pedals will have the necessary two-bolt drilling to attach the appropriate cleat. However, shoes designed for single-sided pedals (“road pedals”) will usually have a different three-bolt drilling. Make sure you choose shoes with the correct fitment for the pedals and cleats that your child will be using.
Starting children off with clipless pedals
First of all you need to attach the cleats to the sole of the shoe. Many off-road shoes come with a section that needs to be cut away with a knife to expose the sliding plate with two slots into which the cleat needs to be inserted. At first you should set up the cleats to allow the feet to point straight ahead when clipped in. Most children should find this position comfortable unless they have an underlying anatomical reason to have their toes pointing inwards or outwards. If they don’t find the position of their feet pointing straight on comfortable then it might be worth consulting a sports physiotherapist or similar expert.
For more information on setting up cleats have a look at this useful BikeRadar article.
Once you have your child’s clipless pedals set up and ready to go then they will need to practice clipping in and out. Set the tension on the pedals as loose as it will go so they can clip out easily. It can be tightened as they gain strength and confidence. If you have a turbo trainer, set their bike up on it so they can practice without the fear of failing to clip out and falling off. Alternatively, head to a park or grassy field and get them to practice there where they will get a softer landing if they fall off. It might be worth holding them up (hold the frame of the bike) for the first couple of attempts at clipping in.
If your child uses cycling shoes with exposed cleats (e.g. Look Keo or Shimano SPD-SL) then try to avoid them walking on them too much. Walking will wear the cleat down which means it’s more likely they will pull their foot out when riding hard and this can cause accidents. Check the cleats for wear every couple of months and replace the cleats once they become worn.
I shall now look at if each cycle sport discipline and discuss when it is advisable to switch to clipless pedals, if at all.
BMX riders are not allowed to use clipless pedals for racing until they are 13 years old. This is to promote good pedalling and skills. It can be dangerous for young riders if they can’t put a foot down quickly in a tricky racing situation. Clipless pedals do allow riders to accelerate more quickly from the start gate and make it easier to manual or jump. However, riders may then use clipless pedals as a “short cut” rather than developing sound technique that will cope in all conditions and on all tracks.
BMX Coach Lee Alexander says “Training should consist of using both pedals and if you can master everything with flats then going onto clips will make you a better rider.”
Under 10s should be able to compete effectively with flat pedals. Courses for Under 10s or Under 12s shouldn’t include any sections where they have to dismount, so toe-clips and straps are a good compromise. However when they first start out your child may have to push their bike up some of the climbs and therefore flat pedals allow them to jump off and on more easily and quickly. As they get stronger and more experienced then they should be able to cope with clipless pedals in Under 12 races. They will really benefit from the additional control that clipless pedals provide in Youth Under 16 and Under 14 racing .
It is important for success in mountain biking that young people develop their skills on flat pedals. If children do all their riding with clipless pedals then they tend to pull up on the pedals rather than using weight shift to achieve techniques such as bunny hops, front wheel or rear wheel lifts, pumping or jumping. Relying on pedal lifting will limit a child’s ability to develop those techniques leaving them with a skill “ceiling”. Riders aged under 16 should regularly do skills training on flat pedals (with no toe-clips and straps either) on their mountain bike. I would suggest that Under 12s race on flat pedals as well. This may leave them at a short term disadvantage but it will be beneficial in the long term.
Road Racing and Time Trials
Youth age road racing can be fiercely competitive and most races start off at full speed. This means being able to clip into pedals quickly rather than fiddle with toe-clips and straps can be an advantage. Flat pedals are fine for racing in the Under 8 or Under 10 categories. An Under 10 or Under 12 rider might find toe-clips and straps a reasonable compromise especially when starting out. Clipless pedals become almost a must when entering regional racing at Under 14 level.
Track Racing is probably the discipline where early conversion to clipless pedals is most beneficial. Riders have to use either clipless pedals or toe-clips and strap pedals when riding fixed-wheel track bikes to ensure their feet stay firmly connected to the pedals. They need to keep their feet on the pedals to control the speed of the bike and to allow them to stop safely. It’s a lot easier for riders to start off on fixed-wheel bikes with clipless pedals because even if riders start from a trackside fence it’s easier not to have to bend down to fiddle with straps. It’s even more advantageous to use clipless pedals when riding grass track as there is no fence to start from and it is difficult to tighten straps when pedalling. However when hiring a bike from a track it’s worth checking what pedal system the hire bikes have fitted. Most velodromes do not allow hirers to bring and fit their own pedals to hire bikes. You can always take trainers if they use a different system to your own, and use those with the toe-clip and strap attachments that most velodromes provide.
Only flat pedals are used in Cycle Speedway so if this is your chosen discipline then you don’t have to worry. It’s best to train using flat pedals as well to develop a good pedalling style.
Don’t feel pressured to rush into getting clipless pedals for your child. The performance advantage is often overstated and they can actually hinder a child’s cycling development. It will be worth discussing with your child the disadvantages of rushing to use clipless pedals too soon.
Clubmates already using clipless pedals will be a good source of information about where to buy suitable shoes and the advantages of different pedal systems. They may allow your child to borrow a pair of shoes and pedals to try out at a club session.
Think carefully before settling on a pedal system and make sure you set up the cleats correctly. If you are in doubt about how to set up the cleats then it is well worth getting further advice from an expert.
Mark Wyer has worked in Cycle Coaching and Development for over 15 years. He currently works for British Cycling as a Go-Ride Coach in the Eastern Region and is a Level 3 Road and Time Trial Coach as well as holding various Level 2 awards. He is also a Regional Cyclo-Cross Commissaire, judges at races and regularly organises cycling events.