Thursday, March 13, 2014

Platform Pedals: Is a Stiff Cycling Shoe Really Necessary?

I've written fairly extensively over the years regarding my inability to make peace with clipless pedals. It's not that I can't use them, that I don't understand how they operate, nor that I don't comprehend the benefits they are supposed to provide. However, I just do not like them. I don't like the idea of being attached to the pedals, and even though I've gone back and forth with them on my road bike(s) at various times and for a variety of test periods that stretched from a day to several weeks and months, I just can't seem to get comfortable with the idea. I can use them when forced to, but I find that I don't enjoy the ride and I'm constantly worrying about forgetting to unclip. Ultimately, it's just not worth the stress it creates. I also realize that I am in the minority and that nearly all individuals who ride for long periods of time on the road most often end up using some sort of clip mechanism on his/her pedals.
*Image found here
Not only is it challenging to find pedals that aren't extremely large and/or heavy platform pedals, I've always struggled with the type of shoes to wear when riding. I can quite easily wear every day shoes to ride my bike, but when the rides are longer, or for fitness/exercise, the cycling is simply different and more extended and it's a challenge to find appropriate gear for my feet. What has typically taken place is that I find a cycling shoe that is intended for mountain biking and simply do not put the clips in the shoes. It works, but it's not ideal as I find myself slipping because there usually isn't enough grip between whatever pedal I'm using and the bottom of the shoe's surface.

My understanding from reading and talking to others has always been that a stiff shoe is nearly a requirement for long distance/road riding, but I've never entirely believed in the benefits to the rider.  Some research I've been doing as of late has brought to light another idea when it comes to platform pedals (whether a rubber block pedal, a touring pedal, or something else - basically, any flat pedal that doesn't require the rider to clip into a small surface that doesn't support the foot). It has been suggested that the only need for a stiff shoe when riding is because of the clip factor and the small surface of the clip mechanism, and that if one is cycling on a platform pedal that supports the foot, more damage can actually be done to the foot when using a stiff shoe because it isn't allowed to move the same way it would in an everyday shoe.
I decided to experiment with this a bit just to see if it rang true for me. I went on a ride with my typical cycling shoe and another ride in shoes that I'd generally just wear around to see if there was any difference. Granted, it's a limited scope for a test, and certainly not the most scientific, but I was interested to see if anything would feel different. I'm not in prime cycling shape at the moment due to the chaotic nature of weather this season, but it was worth it to me to see what results would show. One of my biggest complaints when I return from long road rides is that my feet always hurt. It's not the shoes (they're actually quite comfortable), but once I cross the 20 mile barrier, my toes become numb and my feet just begin to ache. I couldn't help but wonder if some of this had to do with the shoe choice and pedal combination.
So, what happened? I suppose my results were more inconclusive than anything else. When riding in the cycling specific shoe, I experienced what I typically do while riding: my feet tend to slip off the pedals (because I'm not clipped), after several miles, the outter rim of my foot goes numb as well as my toes, and my feet began to ache (almost like a muscle spasm). When I wore my everyday shoes to ride, my feet didn't slip off the pedals, however, I experienced similar (though not exactly the same) pains in my feet after a longer distance. It could be possible that simply riding in a fairly non-squishy tennis shoe could be the best route, or it may be that my issues with all of this have nothing to do with the pedals or my shoe attire, and there are other things causing the problems. Additionally, my "everyday" shoe is not one that I would choose to use for a long ride more than likely, if given a more appropriate option.

I'm continuing to experiment because I am fascinated by the idea that the stiff cycling shoe when riding on platforms isn't really the best choice, but I am curious what others have experienced. I know that I am really an oddity when it comes to road riding on platform pedals, but I'm curious if anyone has noticed any difference between shoe choice and the pains and aches of your feet - Even if you just use platforms around town, I would be interested to know if you have different experiences when using various shoe types.  I think the theory makes sense - if you have the platform to support your foot then a stiff shoe is potentially doing you a disservice - but I am interested in the more practical application and whether or not this has been true for others. I suppose, if nothing else, I'm learning that I really do have to do my own experiments rather than relying on the information that is so readily accessible on the web, and truly trust my own experiences and findings.


  1. I am a klutz, and not just your ordinary trip-on-her-own-feet sort of klutz. I'm walk-into-door-jamb klutzy. There is no way that I will ever use toe clips, clipless pedals, or even those power grip strap things. No way. That hasn't stopped me from commuting 12 miles each day for six months now, nor from making long recreational rides, including metric centuries, on a regular basis.

    As I understand it, the need for the stiff shoe is to give you an efficient transfer of power between your foot and the crank, mediated through the pedal, which is essentially absent in some clipless systems. If you have a platform pedal, though, it plays the role of the stiff shoe.

    The other benefit of toe clips and clipless systems is that they help you learn not to press down with the foot that is on the back half of the pedaling circuit. You don't actually pull up with that foot. All you do is let it float so that your feet aren't working at cross purposes. I've practiced letting my back foot float and have found that it really does make me faster. Plus, my legs don't get fatigued as quickly.

    All of this might be wildly wrong, but it makes sense to me.

    1. I am SO with you on the klutz-factor. Beyond the klutziness that is present for me though, I just find that having to attach to the pedal is just needlessly stressful. Since I won't be winning (or even entering) any pro-level races on my bike, I think it just makes sense to have some sort of platform pedal.

      I think everything you've said is right on point. My personal problems come in with long distances (let's say, over 40 miles for a single ride) and having numbness or pain in my feet (or foot, depending). I haven't quite figured out what the right combination is to keep those issues from rearing up. Too stiff a shoe and I have problems and too squishy of a shoe also creates issues, regardless of the type of pedal it seems.

  2. I've never heard that theory about the stiff soles of clipless shoes. If you look at a pair of vintage cycling shoes used with toe clips, it appears that they have stiff soles. So, I think that debunks the clipless pedal theory. My understanding is that a stiff sole disperses the pressure applied to the pedal to help lessen the fatigue on the ball of the foot.

    Personally I have gone full circle on this issue. About 10 years ago I started to experience numbness in the ball of my foot on longer rides. At that time I wore a fairly soft soled tennis shoe. After doing some research on the internet I learned that a clipless set up might help alleviate the numbness. So I invested in clipless and for a time I felt it was helpful.

    I eventually purchased a dropped bar bike "road bike" and invested in a Look style set up instead of the SPD style I had been using. It was suggested that the look pedals would be better because they would provide more support. I really loved the cool silver specialized shoes that I used with this set up. After spending a few years riding clipless I was still getting numbness after about 45 minutes on the bike. After a long ride in freezing temps I noticed that my numb toes were blanched white. I concluded that it must be a lack of circulation. Certainly thick socks that make my shoes tights cause my feet to become cold due to lack of circulation. I have heard that tight clipless cycling shoes can cause numbness and hot spots.

    Now I have gone back to platform pedals. I am particular about the type of pedals I use. For long distance I look for pedals that provide support to a wide area. As far as shoes go, it's kind of trial and error. In general I have found running shoes with a firmer sole and more cushioning work well, but so due my North Face sandals, and they aren't particularly firm. I tried a pair of hiking shoes with quite stiff soles for winter riding but my foot started getting numb even before 45 minutes of riding. I now use a pair of gortex lined running/hiking shoes with a firm sole which have worked well for the winter. Like I said trial and error.
    The shoes that do work well give me complete comfort even on all day rides.

    In regards to power transfer, I really think that is over played. With all the studs on the pedals and a grippe sole on the shoe I stay attached just fine. For the record I like Velo Oranges touring and city pedals a lot. I also use a pair of bear claw pedals on my winter bike. I love being unclipped, it's so much easier.

    1. I think this is where I'm headed... to a less "squishy" tennis shoe and a platform pedal for the next experiment. My current shoes are definitely not too tight (I have had those, however, and now avoid them at all costs), but I have wondered if I've done damage to my feet by exposure to cold temperatures. Since the majority of the issues seem to be related to the toes or just beneath them, and I do have issues with my hands due to exposure to sub-zero temperatures, I'm wondering if it's possible that all or many of the feet problems I experience are somehow connected to that as well? It's all very curious.

  3. Good discussion item!

    Folks, if you are eperiencing numbness or pain from pedal hotspots, you are experiencing NERVE DAMAGE. (Ditto for your hands or butt.) If your feeling still comes back, then SO FAR, the damage is temporary. If you do not find a way to eliminate the nerve damage, if you ride enough, the damage will become PERMANENT. I know, I have permanent nerve damage in my feet and hands from cycling.

    I was once a staunch believer in clipless pedals. I used the Shimano mountain bike SPD system because it allowed me to walk in shoes equipped with the clipless cleats. I was certainly aware of the other systems (Time, Look, etc.), but these systems made walking awkward and even dangerous, with some systems that utilize large slippery plastic cleats.

    I still think the clipless systems are a requirement for racing and for serious mountain biking. Racers need them for efficiency, and mtn. bikers need them to be able to pull up on the pedals (bunny hop) to unweight the bike over obstacles. But those of us that ride for recreation, fitness or commuting, do not need clipless pedals - in my opinion.

    Today, I ride with platform pedals. My preference are the large 100 mm x 100 mm platforms with traction pins. My favorites are the Velo Orange Grand Cru Sabots, but there are many others. With these platforms, I can ride with walking or cross training shoes and I never experience numbness or hotspots on my feet. I will still feel numbness in my hands and butt on long rides, but at least my feet are good.

    As far as the soles of my shoes, I do like a firm rubber sole with enough tread for the traction pins to grip securely. Too soft a sole and the pins don't feel as secure. I agree with others that the stiff soles were really to make up for the pressure point caused by cleats used in clipless systems.

    I will also note that because I was so bullheaded as to ignore what my body was telling me, and since I now have permanent nerve damage in my feet, I really need the larger platforms (100 x 100 mm are about 4 inches square). Because I do not have the tactile feel in my feet anymore, the large size makes up for the fact that due to a lack of feeling I do not always know if my feet are squarely placed on the pedals.

    1. Always a good message - listen to our bodies! It's easy to get caught up in what we're doing and try to ignore the signals our body (or its parts) are sending.

    2. I know the loss of tactile feeling that comes from nerve damage -- mine is accompanied by full drop-foot. I've been riding a pair of Sun Ringle "Zuzu" platform pedals on my Bianchi Volpe since 2009 -- 106mm x 106mm -- but they're only a partial solution to the problems of foot retention and foot placement. With the former, there's nothing comparable to the efficacy of toe clips; and, with the latter, the drop-foot prevents me from guiding the foot to a comfortable position on the pedal with any guarantee of repeatability.

      I recently purchased a pair of MKS "Urban Platform" pedals, along with a pair of Zefal half toe clips (plastic/polymer). The half clips are great, but the pedals are significantly smaller in surface area than my platforms, and the "feel" was off -- "wrong" might be more appropriate -- so much so, that I chose to return to my larger platform pedals.

      I just learned about VO "Sabot" platform pedals (100mm x 100mm), and inquired if they accept toe clips. They do... but, at $90 for the pair, I'm not jumping to buy 'em so quickly.

    3. $90/pair is a big splurge, but if they are beneficial, perhaps it is something for others to consider as well. It's tough to have to buy-n-try though. Like many shops that let riders borrow saddles to test them out, I wish there were more shops that did the same with pedals.

  4. I ride platform pedals (MKS Lambda). I've ridden in clipless pedals, and they were fine then. But these days the vast majority of my riding is transportation riding. I'm slow and I stop frequently. I don't particularly NEED efficiency, and now that I'm older, I don't want the risk of falling I might have in clipless pedals.

    Honestly, some of my favorite shoes to ride in are my Merrell minimal shoes, like the Pace Glove. It's soft and flexible, but the big old MKS pedal gives me LOTS of support. If I'm going on a long ride, I'll pull out my Keen sandals or my Keen Presidio shoes if it's cold. Both of them are SPD capable, but don't have SPD clips on 'em. They're a little less secure on the pedals than the Merrells. Part of the reason I like the Merrells is that I can FEEL where my feet are on the pedals. I really can't with the Keens. I have to be a bit more careful and look. And with the Keens, I have to raise my saddle to make up for the difference in sole thickness between them and the Merrells.

    Again, I'm not a high-performance or fast rider, but I rode almost 4000 mostly transpo miles last year. Just do what feels comfiest.

    1. Four thousand miles for transportation! Janice, you are my hero!! :O)

      I like the MKS pedals as well, and like you, I find the need to stop (depending on the ride) quite frequently. Something catches my eye, I want to take a photo, etc. It's nice to be able to just put my foot down and not really have to think about it.

  5. Like you said, it's likely a problem with your feet. Since toe clips vs. clipless, vs. platform pedals is such a personal preference, I wouldn't be easily swayed by other's opinions. My particular preference are toe clips for rides over 20 miles and flat,grippy pedals for errands around town where I'm constantly stopping. for what it's worth, I have numbness in my feet (balls and toe area) on long rides, which is alleviated by shaking my feet every once in awhile. I don't think this is nerve damage and not what you describe is happening.

    1. I will have to try the shaking of my feet... I like it! :O)

  6. I really enjoy reading all of your experiences and thoughts. It's interesting to me that some people are certain that a stiff shoe is a need, while others don't necessarily feel that's the best way to go - or at least that it isn't necessary.

    For many years, I rode with my Keen sandals (not the flippy ones, but the fully supported ones) and was just fine, but it was almost as though when I started using more of a standard cycling shoe, issues arose, so I am truly fascinated to hear/see others' experiences, so I thank you all for sharing.

    If you have different thoughts, keep 'em coming, certainly. I have some out of town guests visiting, so my commenting is limited at the moment, but I'm definitely absorbing all that you each are thank you! :O)

  7. I wear mountain bike shoes, athletic shoes or street shoes with good padding on the bottom. MKS touring pedals have a little tooth and hold my feet pretty well without straps or clips. I won't use clipless as I don't feel like being locked into one position while moving my legs. A pedal that is good for street shoes [preferably with rubber bottoms] is the platform Electra City alloy pedals. They look modern but elegant - not large. In rainy conditions, straps or half toe clips help.

    1. That's another good point, Liz, that I hadn't really brought up... but having my leg in one position is often not good either. Getting the clipless system adjusted right can be quite a pain as I have one foot that turns in slightly and one that turns out slightly, but then I feel as though I can't move at all (and sometimes, that causes knee issues, which I also don't want to experience either).

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    1. Interesting. I think it certainly makes sense though as to why these work well for you. Avoiding the overly cushioned sole would (I'd think anyway) transfer your efforts better to the pedal.

    2. There's a real craze on this indoor soccer thing so the shoes seem to be everywhere. Very grippy thin soles though. Almost like cycling shoes only you can walk around in them fine when you stop at places of interest when you're touring.

  9. I tour 100km a day on platforms and find futsal (indoor football) shoes to be excellent as they have a thin sole which is more energy efficient (as you're not compressing a thick foam wedge with every stroke) and you can also "feel" the pedal better through them. The soles also grip well onto the mini-screw-thread-like pedal studs.

  10. Great post. Been struggling with this same issue for years. Pretty sure I am the only member of the San Francisco Randonneurs who rides brevets in peddles...

    I also tried clipless for a few months. Even did one 200K brevet in them, but my feet were killing me the last 30-40 km's. Not being able to move and shift my feet around drove me bonkers!

    Anyway, I think Grant Peterson of Rivendell says it best here:
    I like Salomon trail runners. Nice and comfy. Can be got in Gore-tex. My last pair had reflective accents which I liked for bike riding. Latest pair didn't, which irked me, but I did get them for half-price. Next pair will have them for sure. Very comfy on and off the bike, especially if you walk a lot:

    I'm also found of Chrome Industries old Kursk shoe. Cool looks. Very comfy on and off the bike. Decent for walking, but not as good as the Salomons. Sadly discontinued, but you might be able to find them somewhere in your size still if you are lucky:

    Their new shoes are their "Forged Rubber" line. Old school methods, cool looks, nice big reflective panel in the rear. Down side for me is they are very narrow. Had to go one full size up to fit. Tread pattern very thin, so wears out quickly. Rest of the sole is thick rubber and looks to last a long time. Other downside is they absolutely KILL my feet if I walk more than a mile, so these have been relegated strictly to commuting duty:

    1. Thanks for all of the links... always good to have.

      I've read many of Grant's posts, but I hadn't seen that one.

      I agree that not being able to move my feet around makes me crazy. I also think that it has caused additional knee issues from using certain ones. In the long run, for me, I'm just better off with a platform pedal.

  11. Let me address one topic raised above, which is the difficulty many have in detaching from clipless pedals.

    I am a happy convert to SPD multi-release cleats (as opposed to SPD single-release) for most MTB riding. I recommend you try the Shimano SM-SH56 Multi-Directional Release SPD Cleats (roughly $15 online).

    While flat pedals are good for extremely technical trails and/or simply to build confidence, I have found flats to have the following drawbacks: (1) on regular bumpy sections, your feet can bounce partly or completely off the pedals, (2) flat pedals that have spikes/pins can lacerate your legs in a crash, and (3) of course you can only transfer power to flats during the downstroke.

    Like you, I tried SPD-style pedals with "single-release" cleats (i.e., the Shimano SM-SH51 SPD cleats) and found I could not get free of the pedals reliably in a fall.

    So for years I resorted to using toe clips (a.k.a. cages) rather than clipless. Drawbacks of toe clips are (1) you have to take a couple seconds every time before pedaling to flick back each pedal and get your foot into the cages and (2) you still don't have 360-degree power transfer.

    Then I researched SPD-style pedals a bit more, and discovered that they're compatible not only with "single-release" cleats but also with "multi-release" cleats (i.e., Shimano SM-SH56 SPD cleats). With single-release, you have to kick your heal outward to release from the pedal. With multi-release, you can (a) kick your heal outward, (b) roll your foot outwards, (c) simply pull straight up firmly or (d) any combination of these to release.

    So I bought a pair of SH56 cleats, bolted them onto the shoes, adjusted the pedals to their loosest release setting and -- boom! -- they work great. I have "pedal-retention" yet can easily release from the pedals. In a year, I have virtually never fallen down because I could not get free from the bike. And I cured the problems enumerated above.

    Many people rightfully fault Shimano for promoting single-release cleats (SH51s) with their shoes, instead of multi-release (SH56s).

    I ride the clipless SPD pedals with a wide, stable platform (e.g., Shimano XTR M985) and shoes with rubber soles (e.g., Shimano MT34) so I have the option to pedal unclipped for short, tricky sections.

    After a year of use, the MT34s are causing "hot spots," so I am now looking for a stiffer, wide SPD shoe that still has stability and grip on rocky surfaces.

  12. Like many of you, I have switch back to the PLATFORM (original) PEDAL.....
    We have all seen fellow cyclists fall over because they could not UN-CLIP a pedal in time, and if you used to ride like a Weekend Warrior with a club like I used to, you were almost an outcast if you didn't clip in. That being said, the real beauty and functionality of the PLATFORM PEDAL is the amount of natural float you get. However your foot/leg moves in the cadence cycle, the flat pedal will accomodate. As a 20 year fitness/club/fun rider, I made the switch because the CLIPPED IN riding caused my left knee to sort of TORQUE and twist causing pain due to not enough float. I even switch to the LE' FROG CLIP-LESS which were better but still caused pain on long rides.....I also would experience hot spots on the ball of my foot.
    Bottom line: Love PLATFORMS....I use several....I like the ERGO Platform pedal which has a sort of arch built in.....I like VELO ORANGE SABOT with the Spikes for my mountain bike and I also have classic MKS Pedal in the copper finish on one bike....All Great. As a shoe I tend to like a trail running shoe with a Narrow heal platform yet a grippy bottom. The shoe with its thicker sole takes away any HOT SPOT and is just comfortable. I love the stuff that Rivendell-SOMA-Velo Orange are doing to keep things Low Tech -Functional and Fun...while still keeping it interesting and addictive, we are cyclists so we are all Addicts of some-sort...haha.
    Keep it Simple......and ENJOY..

  13. I'm with you 100%. I have a set of SPD-SL pedals and shoes, and they're fine. They actually make me feel like I'm in more of a groove with less effort (because I'm literally connected), but I ride through 5 miles of junk traffic with lights to get to any serious riding, and it just didn't seem worth it. Plus, I had some occasional knee issues.

    So for the hell of it, after reading some of Grant Petersen anti-cleat propaganda ( -- because my road bike is a Rivendell -- I hgave a set of MKS Lambdas a chance, and I haven't removed them since. So far, I've taken it on 60-mile rides, and it's been a champ. The super-wide base allows my feet to move around a bit with no loss of pressure or connection, and I've had zero knee pain. I just need to find some better shoes. There's a brand of skate shoes with a really grippy rubber sole that's supposed to be great, but I forget the name. They do kind of ruin the look, but I'm OK with that. Maybe one of the Nike Frees would look a bit sportier and do the job.


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