The Shoes Ruse

(this is written for non-racers, and for riders who don't ride race-like. In other words, for recreational riders, tourists, commuters, general fitness riders...but not for racers or racer-likes. It is an opinion, a point of view not often presented as worthy of consideration. No harm is intended, but no punches have been pulled, and as presented here, I believe in my bones that it is worthy of your undivided attention and serious consideration, contemplation, genuflectionand more than all that, your experimentation. Nothing beats good old-fashioned seeing for onesself.

If you're loving your clipless pedals, there's no point in reading it, and certainly there's no point in changing what works for you. In that case, this article is not meant for you. But if you're not exactly in deep, passionate love with your shoe-pedal-system and are hoping there might be another way, read on!


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.

On August 20, a fellow who had just completed a money-raising ride from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific (with a group of 60) came by, and "pedals" came up, and he said the organizers of the group required click-in pedals. Many of the riders didn't even own a bike until the ride, but no matter: No click-in pedals, no ride. Those rule makers are well-meaning, but deluded. The notion of positively locking your foot onto a pedal seems to make sense, and is certainly an easy sell. But it is not true. Just because a guy is fast or experienced and Generally Honest About Most Things, doesn't mean he knows what the heck is going on with his shoes and feet and pedaling muscles. A common misconception, that one; and easily shot full of holes by one bicycle ride in sneakers---but on your good&normal bike.

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.

The thing is, if all you can hope to do is minimize the downward force on the upward-moving pedal, how does it help to be clicked or strapped in? 

It doesn't and can't. 

There are some benefits to being firmly attached. Whether they make sense for you and your riding, only you can answer. Here they are:

1. in slippery conditions and vicious sprints, and when hopping the bike over a dead raccoon or up onto a curb, a connection to the pedal is a benefit.

2. When you climb a super steep short hill, you actually can pull up on the upward-moving pedal for a few strokes, and doing so helps you turn over the other pedal (get it past 12:00 and into the power part of the stroke).

But before you think, "Hey, that's me---I don't want to not be able to hop over a dead road mammal, and now and then I get wild in rainy weather sprints; and there was that one time the hill stopped me, and I don't want that to happen again." consider how often those things will matter. Before I started pedaling free, I imagined myself hopping over dead mammals all the time--because I'd done it a few times. But when I gave up pedaling connected (about 5 years ago), I haven't missed it once. I ride around the mammals, and not once have I wished I was connected.

There are actual, real benefits to pedaling free:

1. You can wear any shoe in your closet. Sandals in hot weather. Crocs, even. Sneakers, boots in the snowy-cold winter. Footwear to suit the weather, not to fit the pedal.

2. More efficient muscle use, less chance of repetitive stress injury. Regular cycling shoes may give you some lateral float, but they lock your foot to the pedal (fore-and-aft wise) in one place, and that's not how we use our feet. When you go up stairs or do leg presses at the gym (efforts not unlike pedaling up a hill), you push with the middle of your foot. Not with the ball of your foot, as you've been told is proper for cycling.

When you run fast, you run on your toes (or off the ball of your foot). When you walk, you land on your heel. Middle-distance runners run off their mid-foot.

Your foot is just a foot, but you use it different ways for different kinds of efforts, and click-in cycling shoes don't let you do that.

On long grinding hills, it is absolutely more comfortable to pedal close to your arch. You can't do that if you're clicked in. And on longer rides, it's good to vary your foot's position over the pedal, because doing this calls on certain muscles in your legs, and puts others to rest.

If your foot is locked in one position, you're much more likely to get a repetitive stress injury, for the simple reason that you repeat the same motion over and over.

Now, shoes.

Racing shoes are rigid, slippery plastic. Riders shopping for them pick them up and test their stiffness (as though it matters) by trying to bend them with their hands. If the shoe is rigid and unyielding, they heave out an "ahhh..." and consider it worthy.

It's a bunch of hooey, though. Your foot doesn't bend when you pedal a bike. It tenses and pretty much stays straight, just as it does when you walk up stairs. 

You want TWO things from a shoe:

protection from the pedal. You don't want to jam the pedal into your foot.

gription. You don't want to slide around on the pedal.

That is all.

When the pedal is as big as a soup spoon, the pressure is concentrated in a small area, and the shoe needs to be hard to protect your foot. 

Now, pedals.

But when the pedal has a bigger platform, the pressure is distributed over a wider area, and the shoe sole can be much less rigid, thick, plasticky. There are pedals out there that let you wear the flimsiest sneakers or even flip-flops, with no loss of efficiency and no pain. 

The best pedals are double-sided pedals, the kind made for BMX riding. Some of those are monstrously heavy because they're made for riding off roofs and landing hard, but others are just normal, medium-to-lightish pedals that are perfect for the modern go-anywhere rider looking for a way out of the rigid-shoe jailhouse.

Now, shoes  again. Specifics and details.

Ninety-nine percent of the riding I've done over the past 5 years has been in Teva sandals. I use the Hurricane model, the cheapest, flimsiest, lightest model Teva makes.  They cost $39 and weigh 10 ounces in a size ten. In the summer I wear light socks or none; in the winter I often double-up thick wool socks. Being sandals with adjustable straps, there's never a fit problem, there's never the feeling of crampedness or anything. 

But what's the lower limit, shoeswise?

Proabably Crocs. Several people we know ride in them and prefer them to just about anything else. Before you think how ridiculous Crocs are, or how unsuitable for pedaling, consider that they're just contoured foam with enough resistance to offer support. They are not high shoe-craft, but with the right pedals beneath them, they do just fine for lots of riding, including long distance touring (we know people who prefer them to all others for just this purpose). 

I recently got some fake Crocs, from Target. They cost $9.99 and weigh about 5 ounces a pair. My foot fits in them loosely with a wool sock, and when I flip the heelstrap out behind my heel, it doesn't even do any good, because my heel doesn't contact it.

I've been riding them lately and the grip is excellent, even better than Tevas. I timed a hillclimb that I do all the time, and my times are no different than with Tevas (or real cycling shoes, for that matter). The fit is loose, but it doesn't seem to matter. The comfort is out of this world.  They work great with our Sneaker pedals, and on any ride that didn't involve dragging the bike up steep, loose trails (hiking with it), they're perfect.

The shoes you're used to may be the shoes you prefer, but they probably aren't the only ones that'll work for you. 

One more benefit to pedaling "free"

Your feet learn to pedal in circles, because they aren't forced to. As a bike rider, you're already accustomed to moving your feet in a circle, but when you're locked into the pedals, your muscles don't have to learn, because they're going to move in circles no matter what. But when you aren't connected, your muscles truly learn to move efficiently in circles, and that' seems like a good goal. If you want to train a dog to come, you don't keep him (or in my case, her) on a leash. And if you want to train your feet to move efficiently in circles, you don't force them to comply by locking them to the pedal.

Summing up. Ending it all.

The most important and liberating thing I've learned in 40 years of riding nearly daily, is that normal shoes and pedaling unconnected is the way to go.  For me, at least, and for a growing number of people who try it. It's not easy to give up old habits that you've practiced and espoused for 35 years. But at some point the madness has to stop, and if you're looking for an excuse to head out on a ride in your Hush Puppies, now you have it.