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Bike pedals are very basic pieces of equipment, but they do come in a huge variety for all types of different riding. Pedals also have a few unique quirks that are good to know about. With just a little bit of knowledge, you can really dial in the right pedals to make sure you get the right ones for a better ride.
A couple of basics apply to all pedals. First, the right pedal has normal right-hand threads, while the left pedal has left-hand, or reverse, threads. So when you install the left pedal, make sure to turn it counter-clockwise. Next, it’s good to know that pedals are only available in two possible sizes, with the size referring to the diameter of the threads. Single-piece cranks use 1/2-inch pedals and three-piece cranks use 9/16-inch pedals. These two sizes are not interchangeable.
Before installing your pedals, remember that it’s always a good idea to put some grease on the threads before installing. Also, be sure to hold the pedal straight and carefully thread with your fingers as far as possible to avoid cross-threading. Once the pedals are finger tight, you can go ahead and give the pedals a good, firm torqueing with a 15mm wrench.
The most common bike pedals are simply called plain pedals. These pedals are fantastic for a number of reasons. They’re very easy to use, they’re inexpensive, and they come in a lot of different styles for all kinds of uses and looks. If you plan on riding barefoot down by the beach, it’s a good idea to get smooth barefoot pedals that won’t hurt your feet. For riding in shoes, many pedals will have various types of grip features such as small nibs that offer a little extra traction for everyday riding. For BMX riding, freestyle, and some types of mountain biking, there are much more aggressive pedals that look like bear traps. These pedals bite into your footwear for extreme grip, but they will also shred your shins when your foot slips.
Pay some attention to variations in the platforms of different pedals. Some are a little narrower, which is usually a style consideration, while some are wider for different functional applications. Wider pedals, though certainly not necessary, are somewhat more functional because they provide a more positive contact area that enhances control. A great example of simple, functional pedals are the Blackops Gummy 1/2-inch pedals, which make excellent all-around pedals for bikes with a single-piece cranks. Blackops-t-bar 9/16-inch pedals are similar with a nylon-body design and are available if you need the 9/16-inch size for three-piece cranks. These two styles are very functional with a wide platform and just enough grip. They also come in a nice range of colors.
The next step in pedal evolution is the bike pedal clip, also known as toe clips. Toe clips are the little cages that hold onto the front of your shoe to increase bike contact, control, and efficiency. They can be added to most regular pedals, but check pedals and toe clips for compatibility to make sure the toe clips can be screwed on. Toe clips used to be common for many riders and were absolutely essential for road racing and Tour de France-type riding up until the 1980s, but are now considered obsolete. For the retro-minded, however, toe clips are still available and they do offer an ultra-inexpensive alternative to the category of pedals known as clipless pedals.
Sometime in the 80’s, the cycling industry took ski-boot binding technology and applied it to bicycle pedals. The results yielded an extremely effective way to firmly bind a special shoe directly to the bike for maximum power and control. These new pedals are called “clipless pedals” because they made the old toe clips obsolete, but the term is confusing to newcomers because the rider still clips into the pedals. These pedals are the most functional and also the most expensive type of pedal. Manufacturers have managed to make lower-cost offerings, but performance-grade quality only comes at a higher price. Added to this, of course, is the extra cost of special shoes with rigid soles and cleats for locking into the clipless pedals. It’s also worth noting that this option can be rather tricky for beginners to operate, and it is best to have them set up by a professional so that you are positioned properly to avoid injury from either poor positioning or difficulty clipping out.
Clipless pedals are also available in very distinct configurations for different types of riding. Road bike pedals strive for maximum riding efficiency by sacrificing all secondary considerations such as ease of dismounting and walkability. Anyone using pure road bike pedals will have a hard time walking around, much like skiers who come off the slopes are forced to clomp around the lodge in clumsy ski boots.
Mountain bike pedals have the same objectives for efficiency and control, but they usually make allowances for other needs. For one, clipless pedals for mountain bikes often have clips on both sides of the pedal to facilitate quick, frequent clipping and unclipping on tricky terrain. This is a modification of road bike pedals, which are one-sided, causing a time-lag when flipping the pedal before clipping back in. Mountain bike pedals are also designed to shed mud and dirt easily so that riders can repeatedly clip in and out while navigating messy conditions. Moreover, mountain biking shoes are often made to enable walking or running with the bike if the terrain gets too tricky to ride.
As clipless pedals have evolved, though, a third type of more user-friendly pedal has appeared that’s made for non-competitive cycling uses like commuting or casual fitness. This more general clipless pedal is designed to allow you to use a walkable shoe and also get in and out of the pedal much more easily to avoid injury. Though less performance oriented, these pedals are more cost-effective and easier to use than their cousins in the competition categories.
As you can see, the cycling world is overflowing with an endless bounty of pedal varieties for any imaginable use and budget. Take a look at plain pedals if you’re a casual rider and remember that smooth pedals exist for barefoot riding. For easy on-and-off riding or for trick and freestyle riding, other plain pedals cater with different options for platform and grip. If you’re commuting, you may want to consider one of the many less inexpensive and user-friendly clipless systems that will increase efficiency and speed. Meanwhile, weekend warriors and serious competitors will have performance demands that require higher-priced clipless pedal systems and compatible shoes that are crafted for their particular discipline.
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