Firstly, a story. My first time riding a bike “clipped in” was unpleasant, to say the least. My partner and I are roughly the same size and I decided to give it a go on the way home from a casual ride. So, we swapped shoes and bikes and after a very wobbly start, I had made it to the end of the bikeway with out running in to anyone, anything or freaking out too much. But that was soon to change. Once we left the security of the no intersections, limited traffic bikeway, we were back in to the real world. And I didn’t last long. Coming up to our first intersection with lights, of course, a red had to appear. Slowing to a stop, I failed to get either of my feet out and promptly fell over and landed on top of a small child (probably 3-4yrs old) who was waiting to cross with her father and sister. I was mortified, embarrassed. I was crying and apologising to both the child and her father who were, gratefully, pretty unconcerned about the whole incident. The child was unhurt but startled. The dad was downright sympathetic. We gathered all my stuff and limped to the footpath where we swapped back. Then vowed never to ride in cleats again but I think I knew at the time that it was a hollow promise.
Secondly, a disclaimer. I am by no means suggesting that riding with cleats is the way to go. I regularly ride with out them and for those quick trips and/or for those times you don’t want to do the frog walk in funny shoes or slip on any smooth surface, normal shoes are the way to go. Riding clipped in can be nicer for longer rides and rides with any significant hills but are not a necessity.
So. What worked for me. Well, firstly, I waited until I felt I was actually ready and resilient enough to give it a go and then went out and bought the kit for my own bike.
I wanted something that I could use for any shoe and that wouldn’t commit me to always riding in clipped in or taking a second pair of shoes. I went for the Shimano PD-A530 which they call a road touring pedal. It uses the Shimano SPD cleat system to clip in. On one side of the pedal is the clip in point and on the other is a flat but moulded and ridged platform in which you can ride normally.
I went for the bog standard cleat that came with the pedals but the beauty of this type of pedal is that there is an aftermarket cleat (Shimano SM-SH56) that allows the foot to release by twisting the heel in 3 directions (sideways, diagonal and up) rather than just the one (sideways). They are designed to be an easy release which is perfect for learning. The cleat is also made out of metal so is hard wearing. But caution is needed when walking on surfaces that are easily scratched.
I went for a generic jogger type shoe from their mountain bike range that looked like a fairly normal walking shoe. I wanted something that didn’t look like a bike shoe. The cleat is recessed in to the shoe making it easier to walk around normally when off the bike. It is still a fair bit stiffer than a normal shoe but still fairly comfortable to get around in.
This is what worked for me. I put on the shoes with the cleats and I set the springs on the pedals to the lowest hold level ie the easiest to release. I first had a few goes clipping in and out just standing over the bike to find out what movement was required and how difficult it would be. I started out just riding the pedals on the flat side to get used to it all. Once in a low traffic, low turning and nicely predictable area, I would flip the pedals over and clip in and practise clipping in and out. Well before anything of consequence came up (people, corners, traffic, lights, stop signs), I would clip out very early and resume riding the flats until I had passed the obstacle and would clip back in when I felt comfortable.
After lots of practise, I became much more comfortable with the clipping in and out and felt myself leaving the clipping out til later and clipping in earlier until I didn’t require the use of the flats any more. This seemed to work well for me as I haven’t had any cleat related incidents since.