Sucky Pedal Disengagement
September 18, 2008 12:23 AM   Subscribe

I almost got run over this evening when my SPD clips didn't release. What can I do to be (and feel) safer?

I switched from straps to clips about a month ago and have been pretty happy for the most part. Tonight, I pulled up to a slightly hasty stop and twisted my foot to release, and -- nothing. Frantically twisting and yanking, I simply toppled over -- into the lane of oncoming traffic. Fortunately, the next car was 20 yards away, but it really shook me. (Plus, I looked like a monumental idiot.)

I noticed afterward that my shoe was misaligned. I think the cleat shifted instead of releasing. Perhaps it wasn't tight enough, although I'd been riding for weeks without any perceptible movement up till then. I've tightened both cleats, but that hasn't alleviated my concern.

A substantial part of my worry is that, once they failed to release and I entered an emergency mode, I don't think I did anything right. I think I followed my instinct to pull back from the pedals (as I would with straps), which of course would do nothing useful with clips. This makes me concerned, not just for a situation like this, but in any emergency situation. I've been in enough of them that the idea of not being able to get my feet instantly off the bike just scares the crap out of me.

My thought right now is to just practice, practice, practice. (You fight like you train, as they say.) Is there anything else that can help me feel (and hopefully be) safer when I'm riding?
posted by bjrubble to Travel & Transportation (25 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
unfortunately, everyone I know who starts using clipless pedals will fall a few times before developing the reflexes to clip out consistently when necessary.

so yes, practice, practice, practice. go to an empty parking lot and stop, start, stop, start. both sides. heel out is the correct motion -- don't worry, you'll do that instinctively sooner or later.

on the road, clip out well ahead of anticipate stops. as you learned this evening, you need to make sure the cleats are fastened to your shoe tightly enough. use a bike-specific torque wrench on the cleat-bolts -- you can borrow one from your Local Bike Shop (LBS) -- and follow the instructions that came with your pedals. don't overtighten the bolts either unless you want to strip the threads from the anchor plate (which often isn't replaceable).

you might also want to practice falling. wearing a helmet, of course, and thick clothing / padding / armour if possible. the best thing to do is actually to KEEP YOUR HANDS ON THE BARS, and let your body take the blow. it'll hurt, but very often when a falling cyclist puts his hand out to break the fall, the result is a snapped collar bone from the force of impact being transmitted up the arm and through the shoulder.
posted by randomstriker at 12:50 AM on September 18, 2008

That kind of tangle happened to me once or twice, but I don't remember how I avoided it. Kind of a muscle memory thing. You can (or should be able to) decrease the clamping strength with a small Allen wrench, maybe 2mm.
posted by rhizome at 2:06 AM on September 18, 2008

Check your cleats are done up really, really tight. Your problem here was clearly that the cleats twisted in the shoe instead of your shoe twisting out of the pedal, which means that they weren't tight enough.
posted by pharm at 3:03 AM on September 18, 2008

The odds of both clips not releasing is pretty slim. Unclip before you lean to put your foot down. If one doesn't disengage, put the other foot down and immediately get to the sidewalk.

Go ride in the grass until you're comfortable with disengaging on concrete again. Try finding your local fixie crowd and play footdown while clipped in. Yes, you'll fall. Probably a lot. Saying that this, which is %100 muscle memory, won't transfer, is incredibly, horribly wrong.

You're obviously new with clips, which means your reflexes still haven't adjusted. Nothing will fix this but time and practice.

I can't stress this next part enough. Perform basic, routine maintenance before you take your bike out. On everything. It's nice to have a setup you have complete faith in, but honestly, it's kind of dumb. Every day isn't necessary, but the idea of not checking on something for weeks with (assumed) daily riding means you're doing it wrong. You didn't fail by falling, you failed by not taking care of your shit, and you should be incredibly thankful that it was just a clip not disengaging.

three blind mice, who died and made you king of bikes? Oh, wait......
posted by onedarkride at 3:48 AM on September 18, 2008

Back the release tension off a fair bit. All the SPD pedals I've ever bought have been really tight out of the box, which is fine for experienced riders but really funny quite dangerous for riders new to SPDs.
posted by markr at 4:35 AM on September 18, 2008 [3 favorites]

Make sure the cleats are really, really tight. Your legs are much stronger than your arms. The fasteners that attach SPD cleats to the bottom of your shoes, button head 4mm machine screws, are pretty small. The arm of a 4mm allen wrench is pretty short, so that ham-handed mechanics don't strip these fasteners. They need to be really tightly screwed to the bottom of the shoe. Check all three, work in a circle. Sometimes as one gets tighter the others get a little looser. Check them again.

Loosen the release tension of the pedals. There should be a 2mm button head fastener on the pedals, two if they are double sided. It will be marked with a "+" and a ""-" sign. Turn it towards the minus sign slowly. Check as you go. Put the bike in a trainer, have someone hold you up, lean against a wall. Keep testing it.

If you don't understand what these words mean, go to a bike shop.

I have developed a bad habit over 15+ years of using clipless pedals of clipping out and putting my right foot down. It's probably because I'm right handed. The downside is that roads are crowned, sometimes severely so, and it can be a long way down on the right side. Clipping you left foot out, although it's on the 'traffic' side (in the US) might be safer.
posted by fixedgear at 4:40 AM on September 18, 2008

Forgive me for saying something obvious, but you could switch back to clips and straps, or even go to platform pedals or something along those lines (some of the most serious, no-car bike commuters I know use BMX pedals). And some clipless pedals, I'm told, are easier to release than others.
posted by box at 4:41 AM on September 18, 2008

What markr said.
Also, you might wanna give the clip mechanism a whiff of WD40 or something similar. Makes the release work like it's... ehm... oiled.
posted by Thug at 4:44 AM on September 18, 2008

Falling over happens with cleats, and wearing cleats for routine city riding is kind of silly. I suggest buying Shimano PD-M324's which have a platform on one side and a clip(less) on the other side. I used the platform side of these during a tour especially in shitty city conditions (wet cobblestones, train tracks, etc) and used the clipless side for all the long country riding.
posted by beerbajay at 5:42 AM on September 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

KEEP YOUR HANDS ON THE BARS, and let your body take the blow.

Fair enough, but please wear a helmet if you plan to do this - your shoulder will stop your body, but your head will keep on moving. (Until it hits the concrete. Then it will stop.)

And fixedgear; I thought clipping out on the right would be the correct side - you can then rest your foot on the kerb. No?
posted by Kiwi at 5:42 AM on September 18, 2008

(slight derail) I don't ride in the gutter, i.e. not that far to the right.

More on topic and not to belittle thug's suggestion, but a little lubricant (WD-40 is a desiccant) is a good idea. A little tiny bit.
posted by fixedgear at 5:57 AM on September 18, 2008

Have you had the bike on a trainer to adjust the tension on the pedals (as fixedgear mentioned up there)? I have SPDs on my commuter bike and since I put my left foot down, I keep that pedal just a smidge looser than the right one.

Something that helped me get used to clipless pedals was putting the bike on the trainer and having whoever was in the house at the time yell "Stop!" randomly, at which time I would unclip immediately (if you don't have a trainer, you can ride up and down the street with a friend to the same effect). You can anticipate having to unclip at certain times (intersections, for example), but those sudden stops can be trouble. If you get used to unclipping in an instant without thinking about it, you are far less likely have that moment of panic when you're tugging your foot frantically and not getting release. Smooth and steady does it.

Also, in addition to keeping your cleats tightened, also make sure to keep them clean-- little stones, dirt and other detritus can keep the mechanism from working properly.
posted by Heretic at 6:18 AM on September 18, 2008

randomstriker - sorry, you did mention to wear a helmet.

also, make sure you're shoes are tight. nothing worse than your foot squirming around in the shoe while you try to twist out.

and one more thought fixedgear - i find that clipping out on the kerb side means that my weight distribution also moves to the kerb side. any subsequent toppling would then be onto the footpath (or sidewalk).
posted by Kiwi at 6:48 AM on September 18, 2008

fixedgear's answer would be my approach. Back off the pedal spring tension and really tighten the cleats on the shoes. As you get more confident, you can increase the pedal tension again. It's equally no fun to unclip on a really high-slope climb.
posted by bonehead at 7:31 AM on September 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

Been there, done that, fallen my fair share number of times (including in the LBS in front of all the racers...good for a chuckle). Loosen the tension as much as you can and practice. When you feel comfortable, tighten a smidge, ride some more. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Question to poster: when you normally come to a stop, do you unclip one foot, or both? If one, which foot is it, and do you attempt to stay seated? When I started, I tried to unclip both feet, but switched to unclip my left, do a standing motion (like get out of your saddle like a climb), brake, and basically touch my now-unclipped left foot down on the road. That's never failed me, but takes a little practice and some balance.

On a personal note, please don't get all frustrated and scared about it. Those kinds of pedals always start out as new to cyclists used to kid pedals and the straps.
posted by fijiwriter at 8:06 AM on September 18, 2008

I've been through exactly this experience with SPDs, even after riding clipless pedals for over a decade—but I was riding with new shoes and new pedals.

If your cleats are rotating relative to your shoes (which mine did, halfway destroying the sole), it means they're not screwed on tight enough. Lube the threads of the screws with grease and reattach them. This lets you get them much tighter. This is important.

Also, clip out a little earlier so that you've got a moment to plan an escape route if things go south.

As to the correct foot to clip out, I don't think there is one. Everyone has one leg stronger than the other, and I think we naturally tend to leave that one clipped in. My wife and I clip out on opposite sides, even though of course we're in perfect harmony on almost everything else.

Random related personal anecdote: I have actually fallen over on my bike at a stop even after putting my foot down. I fell over the other way because I was so whipped.
posted by adamrice at 8:06 AM on September 18, 2008

When I switched to SPD's, I asked the guy at the shop how long it would take me to get used to clipping in and out. He said "usually it takes people about three falls". I did what you did, twice, in the first couple weeks of having mine, and now the clip/unclip is so reflexive I almost don't notice I'm doing it. So, yeah, just keep practicing and you'll be fine.
posted by pdb at 8:16 AM on September 18, 2008

I had trouble with cleats coming loose in the shoe before. A little blue loctite on the cleat bolt threads took care of it.
posted by Mountain Goatse at 8:36 AM on September 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

I hate SPD's because they're too hard for me to get in and out of. I use Time ATACs. Much easier to get in and out of, a good hookup, and 13 degrees of float, which is good for the knees. I know they're a mountain bike pedal, but they work fine on the road.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:06 AM on September 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

Maybe Three Blind Mice is correct and one shouldn't be using clipless pedals in traffic but I'm not so sure about that. If your goal is to keep up with traffic and maneuver quickly, I think having your whole leg strength can really be a good thing. Having said that, I switched to a kind of hybrid pedal, clip in on one side and standard pedal on the other. The shoes are different too and better for walking around in. So, instead of clipping in in between lights or whatever, I can leave one shoe unclipped and on the standard pedal. Might be an option to think about. I really love them and think they're great for a commuter. These are similar if not the exact ones I have and they're cheap!

I also think that you have a tension issue and that a bike shop might be best to help you out here. Falling is scary and sucks but, yeah, like the other poster said, I think I fell three times before I finally got it all sorted out.

Good luck!
posted by amanda at 9:53 AM on September 18, 2008

When I started, I tried to unclip both feet, but switched to unclip my left, do a standing motion (like get out of your saddle like a climb), brake, and basically touch my now-unclipped left foot down on the road.

How could you possibly do it any other way? Unclip both feet? It leaves you seated on the saddle with both feet resting on the pedals or waving in the air. Then what?

My wife and I clip out on opposite sides, even though of course we're in perfect harmony on almost everything else.

Won't work on a tandem, we've tried ;-)
posted by fixedgear at 10:31 AM on September 18, 2008

I never really liked Shimano SPD pedals, but I love Speedplay. Check out the Speedplay Light Action series, which take a little less force to get in and out.

It sounds to me like you're just not used to them yet, plus you said that it looks like the cleat wasn't aligned on the shoe properly. It's possible that they shifted, and if so, that'll definitely prevent you from unclipping. Speedplay are extremely easy to set up on a shoe.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 11:05 AM on September 18, 2008

I hate SPDs for this very reason. If you can't get the tension on them adjusted correctly, I would switch to LOOK pedals, which are much more civilized.
posted by luckypozzo at 11:06 AM on September 18, 2008

Second the Time ATAC pedals - I have them on both my bikes and I've never had unclipping issues, even when I had to unclip suddenly due to an unexpected sink-hole grabbing my front wheel. (whee!) They are very dirt-tolerant, an they're even compatible with the SPD bolt-holes on the shoes.

I also have to second the use of a torque wrench. It made a huge difference in how tight I went with the cleats. I'm never really comfortable really torquing on a bolt by hand, so I have a tendency to under-tighten. With a torque-wrench, I can dial right up to the tolerances with confidence and it is _always_ tighter than I would have gone by guesswork or "feel."
posted by Crosius at 12:00 PM on September 18, 2008

Thirding the Time ATAC's. I've been using them for years. The crankbrothers pedals are nice, too, but they don't hold up to the rigors of fixed-gear riding. One failed whilst I was going down a hill and my foot came out. One of those awesome "oh shit" moments played out right before I hit a curb and totaled my bike and collarbone.

Time ATAC's and crankbrothers pedals are auto-cleaning and auto-tensioning, meaning grime and mud won't affect your ability to clip in or out. They also give you a bit more side-to-side movement, so you can stand up on the pedals and float around a bit.
posted by tmt at 5:45 PM on September 18, 2008

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