Pedal and shoe choice is as vast and complex as buying a bike itself, but it doesn’t have to be. Start off by thinking about what your primary goals and needs are:
- Are you going to focus on cycling and dabble in triathlons?
- Do you plan on learning and executing flying mounts and dismounts?
- Do you have any chronic injuries in your back, hips, or legs?
Cycling Shoes vs. Triathlon Shoes
This is a big decision, and a lot depends on how whether you plan on doing a lot of triathlons and plan on executing or learning how to do flying mounts and dismounts.
The big difference between cycling and triathlon shoes is that cycling shoes usually have a relatively small opening for the foot, and typically 2-3 straps including a ratchet-style strap across the ankle area to ensure the shoe is snug. Cycling shoes are not intended to be put on while riding a bike, ala a flying mount. And once they are on, they are on.
Triathlon shoes, on the other hand, feature a much larger opening for the foot, and generally have 1-2 large straps. Many triathlon shoes feature straps that close from the outside to the inside — a design developed to make putting them on while riding easier. Another feature of triathlon shoes: drainage holes. These help prevent you from carrying all that water from the swim exit for the entire bike ride. The downside to triathlon shoes is that they are more drafty, so wearing them through cold winter months can be a challenge, depending on where you live.
What the heck is a flying mount?
Here is a demonstration:
For pedals, there two general styles available. There are one-side clips made by such brands as Look and Shimano, and there are two-sided pedals, such as Speedplay (Shimano makes a two-sided pedal as well). The biggest advantage of any clipless pedal is that a rider can use the full range of the pedal stroke. Also, because the sole of the shoe is rigid and firmly affixed to a stiff metal or carbon pedal, more power is transferred from your foot to the road.
These types of pedal systems are large and are very stable. They also have entry just on one side of the pedal, which can take some getting used to for the novice cyclist. Additionally, the pedals use a spring mechanism. The spring tension increases when cleat of the shoe is mounted into the pedal. The pedal makes a snapping sound, signaling that the shoe is securely mounted into the pedal. If you’ve ever stepped into a downhill ski, the experience is very similar. The spring does require maintenance from time to time, especially if you ride in all types of weather conditions.
Speedplay pedals resemble a lollipop. The axle is connected to a circular platform. Both sides of the pedal are the same, so many riders find it easier to get into than a one-sided pedal. Additionally the pedals involve no mechanical parts, so there is no maintenance. Also the lack of spring tension can be easier on the knees for getting out of the pedals. The big win these pedals may provide for triathletes is Speedplay pedals have unlimited float, or twisting range of motion. Unlimited float allow a cyclists with biomechanical issues to pedal in a more comfortable range of motion versus a Look or Shimano style of pedal that has much more limited float.
While the pedals themselves appear small, the Speedplay cleat is relatively large, and provides good power transfer from your foot to the pedal. If there is any downside to Speedplay pedals, it is that the cleats can collect mud, dirt and rocks. In a wet or grassy transition area, this could lead to some difficulty getting clipped in if you like to put your shoes on before mounting the bike. Also, the cleats are metal and can be slick on asphalt. If you are an athlete that does flying dismounts, this really is not an issue.
For the brand-spanking new cyclist or triathlete, the best option may be to go with plastic or metal flat pedals at first. This is a great way to get comfortable on a bike without having to worry about being physically attached at the feet. A more advanced version of this would be to use pedals that have a plastic cage mounted to them. The plastic cage provides more stability and allows the rider to utilize more of the pedal stroke instead of just the push down portion of the pedaling motion. Be aware that plastic cages can be as tricky to get out of as clipless pedals depending on what type of shoe you are riding in.
For the rider who goes with flat pedals or pedals with cages, the best way to go is to use a rigid sole shoe. Many cycling companies make fairly inexpensive touring or street-style shoes that work great. For the athlete on a budget, we recommend going with what you have to limit costs. Chances are, you will soon discover that your softer sole shoe may not be the best for regular riding.