With the right mindset, a reliable bike and some well-chosen accessories, cycling in the city can become one of life’s most satisfying pastimes. Taking the tube has its merits, as does jumping on the bus, but there’s nothing quite like speeding past stuck traffic on your bicycle, feeling the city move around you like a changeling thing, savouring the shifting sights, sounds and smells of a landscape renewed with each revolution of your wheels.
Whether you’re commuting to a fixed destination or hopping on and off the bike to run errands and meet friends, one of the first things to get straight is your choice of urban cycling pedals. From clipless ‘ski-style’ models to classic touring and broad, BMX-influenced platforms, choosing a pair of pedals for your city excursions is simply a matter of utility and aesthetics. Yes, that’s right - style. As industrial designers well know, perception is as important as function; although casting your eyes over what some brands in the bicycle sphere deem stylish might leave you pondering the truth of that statement.
To clip-in, or not
As we detailed in our overview of road cycling pedals a few weeks back, clipless pedals ('without clips') replace the straps and the cage of traditional toe-clips with an integrated ‘ski-like’ mechanism. To engage, the rider merely presses their foot on to the pedal, and, with the appropriate urban cycling shoes, clips in via a cleat attached to the sole of their shoe. A quick ankle twist outwards releases the foot.
What seems complicated at first is actually refreshingly simple, reliable and at speed, an awful lot of fun. There is a certain confidence that comes with a direct connection to the bike, which is why you’ll find clipless compatible soles across our city cycling shoes collection, with few exceptions.
To offer a ‘having said that’ about turn, some cyclists find clipping in superfluous, preferring to use a classic flat pedal, often furnished with the straps and clips we mentioned earlier, albeit more modern and versatile versions of their traditional cousins.
The decision of what to ride is, of course, yours. And there’s no right answer. Just ride in whichever way makes you comfortable. Some people even wear flip-flops for Pete’s sake.
Choosing Clipless Pedals
If you do decide to ride with clipless pedals, there are many options open to you, the most popular of which are known as SPD pedals - a term that, like Hoover, started off as a brand name, but soon passed into everyday use as a catch-all generic trademark.
SPD stands for Shimano Pedaling Dynamics, and while not the first to market, this Japanese brand’s system is now ubiquitous. The SPD system is, in reality, a two bolt clip-in system, attached to the sole of the shoe in a recessed area (rather than protruding like on a road bike shoe), which makes walking comparable to the experience of wearing non-cycling shoes. Known for outstanding reliability, an economical price and dual-sided ease of entry, SPD pedals are an excellent choice for your city bicycle.
Other urban cycling clipless pedals include Crank Brothers’ Eggbeater model, which offers the ability to clip in on all four sides of its intriguingly alternative design; Time’s ATAC pedal, a favourite of many off-road cyclists for its reliable engagement; and Speedplay’s Frog, although this model is reported to suffer from poor engagement.
Think BMX-style wide, and you’re halfway there. Ideally suited to the city cyclist looking for more pedal real estate and a studded, grippy top, platform pedals are a good stylistic match for disc brake-adorned bikes or utility-focused urban cruisers. Offering fit and forget ease, they require little maintenance, and will probably last a lifetime.
If platform pedals have a downside, it is that they tend not to work so well over long distances. For longer commutes, a smaller form factor, or at least, one with less depth is often the comfier choice for trouble-free pedalling. And of course, there’s the risk of injury - when kicking off from the lights, that grippy top can turn into a pretty effective weapon, whacking you mercilessly in the shins if you miss the pedal.
If you’re in search of elegance, drop bars and the creamy bite of a pungent mid-ride cheese, then point your mid-century French unpronounceable towards a pair of touring pedals - the louch, rolled up chinos of the cycling world.
Usually found hanging off the sort of battered, classic steel road bicycles that once a year shrug off their well-worn city image and head north to partake of the vintage delights at Eroica Brittania, touring pedals are designed for wandering, halcyon adventures, more likely than not to end with a pint of bitter and some salt and vinegar crisps (chips, to Americans. You don’t want to know what bitter is.)
Their advantages are many, their looks, classic. Downsides are few (still, watch those shins), and possibly existential: clipping in to your pedals not only improves pedaling efficiency, it also allows you to wear urban cycling shoes that sport a slightly stiffer sole than non-bike shoes, passing more power to the pedal and minimising loss from the flex of the sole. These sort of shoes can be worn throughout the day, whether you walk or ride, thanks to their recessed, hidden cleat area.