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bike tech: pedal free or die (maybe)

Posted May 06 2009 10:48pm
I rode the Kona, now in what will likely be its final version, to and from work today.

The bike is a joy to ride. I had forgotten what it felt like to ride a singlespeed bike, with no gears and only the power of my legs to get me up and over the hills. And coasting down the other side? Wheeee! Pure fun. I am hoping to sign up to do a few of the short-track XC (off-road) races at PIR this summer, as a warmup for 'cross. (The races are on Monday nights so it won't conflict with work or family plans much at all. Plus, there are free clinics for new women and junior riders, something that would be great for me to take advantage of.)

But a new dilemma becomes apparent: Having watched my fair share of bike races over the years, I know that clipless pedals are de rigeur, almost a requirement for admission to the race course. If I ride with my big, flat BMX pedals and sneakers I will probably be the only one out there without clipless pedals and special shoes. And I know enough about how technically demanding racing can be to know that this can put me at a serious disadvantage -- not to mention putting my shins and knees at risk of pedal slam. (Imagine missing the pedal and pushing hard with the other foot, or slipping off the pedal in wet or muddy conditions. You know where that free pedal is going to end up, don't you? OUCH.)

I've tried clipless pedals before, though not in quite some time. I was racing, if it can be called that, for a local team called Cyclisme. The directeur sportif (team director) insisted that I switch to clipless pedals: "They'll make a huge difference. You'll shave whole minutes off your time," he promised. So I sprang for a used pair of Speedplay "Frogs", the most affordable and user-friendly pedal available at the time. I read the manual, got some help from co-workers on how to install the cleats into a used pair of shoes, and read the manual some more to get SOME idea of how to set the cleat properly. It was all very d-i-y-, and on my budget the best I could do at the time. I practiced clipping and unclipping in a parking lot, fell over nearly a dozen times until I got the hang of it, and finally felt confident enough to try some time trials with them. I raced five TT's out at Vancouver lake, plus the Oregon TT championships that year (1996). And by the end of the season I had done a number on my knees. They were achy and sore every day, all the time, for over a month. I rode the State championship, finished dead effing last and hung up the bike completely for six weeks to give my knees a chance to heal. About the same time, I got diagnosed with Crohn's (another outcome of the racing) and so I didn't race after that. When I could ride again, I swapped out the Frogs for my old pedals with clips and straps. I decided to never use clipless pedals again, not even for commuting. And while I've had some knee trouble over the years it has never been even close to as bad as it was at the end of 1996.

Fast-foward to this afternoon at another bike shop (not my own; we sell a few very basic models of clipless pedal mostly as a convenience, but do not offer custom fittings or the special clipless shoes, advising folks who need that level of service to go to a shop that caters to racers -- 98 per cent of the pedals we sell are flat). I stood staring at the wall of new shoes, all of them designed for clipless pedals, and frowned. A salesman came over and we chatted awhile. He listened as I explained my predicament: I had a hard time with clipless and experience had told me that my decision to go back to flat pedals had been a good one; but if I was going into racing would I now have to go back to clipless again? He explained that most shops no longer offered customer cleat fittings, but instead offered only a complete bike-fit, which could cost upwards of $150. His shop offered a Full Fit package for $250, which would include (get this) me being filmed as I rode my bike and being taught the "correct" riding position, along with getting fitted "properly" to my bike (or, as I know often happens in the industry, being gently persuaded to "upgrade" to a better fitting -- read: more expensive -- bike than the one I had). I listened patiently, scribbled a couple of notes to politely feign interest, and thanked him for his help.

Then I hopped on the Kona and took the "scenic route" -- along the Esplanade and across the Steel bridge to the MAX station in Chinatown. Riding along the glistening river felt wonderful, so light and free; and if I fumbled for the pedal a few times, well, I'd get used to where the pedals were with more riding time. I couldn't see myself switching to clipless at this point, even if it caused me to slip and fall in the mud or made run-ups harder. I could only imagine the kind of damage I'd do to myself now if I rode clipless. Without access to an orthopedist or a sports specialist, let alone the money needed to dial in a custom fit, I figured it would make far more sense to simply let things be, and run what I've got. For better or worse, I'm going to ride flat and think like the 11-year-old BMX rider I once was, and hope I don't screw up too badly.

The first short-track race at PIR is June 22.

( Crank Bros. 5050x, possibly the world's sexiest BMX pedal. )

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