I've got a bike with pedals that have toe clips and straps on them. I'm
going to ride it for a while but am wondering about clipless pedals. Can you tell me about them?
Thanks for the email, Tom. Clipless pedals offer more power throughout the pedal stroke because they keep your feet attached to the pedals making it easy to apply power on the down stroke and up stroke. They are also easier to get into and out of than clips and straps once you get used to them so they're actually safer -- even though people who learned first how to use clips and straps sometimes think that going clipless is more dangerous.
Because there is no metal clip or strap rubbing your toe or foot, clipless pedals are more comfortable and they don't wear out your shoes. And, because the clipless pedal does not have a metal cage hanging down like a toe clip, you don't have to worry about dragging the toe clip when you're riding on the bottoms of the pedals. This can be a problem if you're riding on a trail where the inverted toe clip can snag on a root in the ground and cause a crash, something I've seen more than once.
There are super light clipless pedals if you're interested in performance, too, and clipless pedals often include some amount of float in the cleat system and this helps protect your knees. If you use cleated shoes with regular pedals with toe clips and straps, there is usually no float, so you don't have anything built in to protect your knees.
If you decide to get clipless pedals and shoes, be sure to set the cleats up correctly. They should be under the balls of your feet and angled so that your feet are at a natural angle that feels right when you're riding. It's hard to do this yourself but any good shop should be happy to help you out if you're buying shoes and pedals from them.
Once you get your pedals on your bike, don't go for a ride until you've trained your feet how to get in and out of the clipless pedals. To do this, stand over your bike on your lawn. Now click your right foot into the pedal and then click it out. Do this 100 times (I'm serious). Focus on the motion of getting in and getting out. Then repeat with your left foot.
This will train your muscle memory so that when you actually ride the bike you should be able to get in and out easily. If you started with clipless and never rode toe clips and straps this would be natural. But, if you ride on clips and straps first you end up learning the bad habit of pulling up/back to get out, and that will not work with clipless pedals. Practicing getting in and out will save you falling over, which even at slow speed can result in broken bones, so you want to avoid that.