Back in the late 1970s I became what I thought of as a “serious cyclist”. Serious cyclists back then rode handmade bikes with drop bars and fancy Italian components. They wore wool shorts and jerseys. Their shoes were handmade in Italy and they always rode with toe clips and straps. Platform pedals were definitely not serious and were best left for children and your grandmother.
During the 1980s “clipless” pedals became de rigueur and I made the obligatory switch. Some of those early clipless models were awful, with zero flotation and humongous cleats. They eventually improved and most of today’s clipless pedals are well-engineered and relatively easy to use.
In recent years, as I started using my bicycles more regularly for transportation, I became awfully tired of always wearing special shoes (waddling around like a duck in the grocery store is terribly undignified.) Initially, I searched for comfortable riding shoes and cleat systems that presented a low profile for better walkability, but in the end I was never really satisfied, so a little over a year ago I switched all of my bikes over to platform pedals. Now I ride in whatever shoes I happen to have on and I’m able to switch from being a bicyclist to a pedestrian without changing costumes.
Another plus to “pedaling free” is that your feet are able to move around on the pedals, which I believe reduces the chance for repetitive injuries, something that is a concern for many bicyclists (especially old farts like me with tired knees). Many of today’s clipless pedals have plenty of lateral float and probably won’t cause problems for most people, but it’s the ability to move my foot fore-and-aft on platforms that has proven to be a big plus for me.
Grant Petersen of Rivendell wrote a somewhat controversial article on this subject titled “The Shoes Ruse“. Here’s an excerpt:
The biggest myth in bicycle riding is the need for special cycling shoes and the benefits of stiff ones. The argument in favor of Special Shoes is this: With a firm connection to the pedal, you will be able to apply power for the full 360-degrees of a pedal revolution.
That’s one of the biggest, fattest lies of all time on any topic, but experts, riders, and the media repeat this over and over again, year after year. Coaches, trainers, people we’re supposed to listen to. Statesmen and Pillars of the Community. Even the Girl Next Door says it over and over.
When elite pedalers and lousy rookie pedalers have been hooked up to machines that measure muscle activity during pedaling, the machines tell us this:
—During normal pedaling at normal cadences, nobody pulls UP on the backstroke.
—The elite/efficient pedalers push down less on the upward moving pedal than the rookies do.
Think about that until it sinks in and you’re bored. The good pedalers — the guys in the logo costumes and the white sunglasses and shaved legs — minimize the downward force on the upward-moving pedal more. They don’t pull up on it or even unweight it. They just minimize the downward pressure on it, so one leg isn’t fighting the other as much.
That is a far cry from the 360-degrees of power the clickers and media and experts promise you.
There’s a lot more where that came from, and even if you don’t agree, it’s a fun read, so you may want to check it out.
Mostly I agree with Mr. Petersen in that the average non-racer is not gaining much (if anything) in efficiency by riding clipped-in. It may feel more efficient to be clipped-in, and if a person likes the feeling and doesn’t mind the drawbacks presented by special cycling shoes, that’s great. But in reality, being clipped to our pedals is probably not going to shorten our commute times by a significant amount.
Switching back to platforms has been one of the best bike-related decisions I’ve made in a very long time. Maybe I’ve lost a little efficiency, maybe I haven’t; honestly, I couldn’t care less. What really matters is that I no longer have to “dress up” to ride my bikes, which in turn, makes bike riding that much more integrated into my daily routine.