Cycling Etymology: Why Are They Called Clipless Pedals?


Cycling Etymology: Why Are They Called Clipless Pedals?

We like to look at the origins of cycling nomenclature occasionally, dissecting the etymology of certain nuanced terms and explaining their origins. Today, we’re looking at the term “clipless pedals.” Read on for a short but sweet rundown by John…

A Brief Pedal History

I’ve heard it all: “clip in,” “cage less,” “click in,” “clip pedals,” and I wanted to offer some background for the term “clipless” and what it means. This is by no means new or revolutionary, and many people are aware of this, so please don’t take this as me mansplaining anything here; I simply enjoy looking at cycling’s rich past to explain modern vernacular through quick etymological breakdowns.

In the early 1970s, road cycling was growing, as interest surged in the United States. People of all walks of life were riding bikes, partially thanks to the oil embargo of 1973 driving up gasoline prices worldwide. In the US, this pushed people out to buy bicycles en masse. This rising popularity of the bicycle in the US, with the largest economy worldwide, spurred the advancement of bicycle technology.

Photo via Adventure Cycling Association

Greg Siple, Adventure Cycling’s art director and co-founder, thought of his implausible event in December 1972, while riding the California Coast. In San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, he found a starting point: “My original thought was to send out ads and flyers saying, ‘Show up at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco at 9 o’clock on June 1 with your bicycle. And then we were going to bicycle across the country. I pictured thousands of people, a sea of people with their bikes and packs all ready to go, and there would be old men and people with balloon-tire bikes and Frenchmen who flew over just for this. Nobody would shoot a gun off or anything. At 9 o’clock everybody would just start moving. It would be like this crowd of locusts crossing America.”

This culminated in the fabled Bikecentennial in 1976 with a large group ride across America.

Meanwhile, American Crit races were taking off, with major cities across the US hosting races in its downtown area—a spectacle for the spectators. The bicycle was at its peak in the 1970s in America. Meanwhile, the world was like, “welcome to the party!”

The foot retention system of choice was the tried and true toe clip design—straps plus platform pedals. These pedals were mostly coming out of Japan in the 1970s, but the British, Italians, and the French all had their respective versions. Most riders would keep their toe straps loose, allowing their shoes to slide in and pull out without reaching down to loosen or tighten the straps.

This system reined supreme in the road racing and riding category through the 1970s and into the 1980s. Meanwhile, the early mountain bikes were having their heyday in the Western United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s, prompting riders to take Suntour MP-1000 BMX pedals, plastic road cycling/touring toe clips, and Italian leather toe straps. The pedal cages, or the metal perimeter of the pedals, were often shaved down for cornering clearance.

Mountain biking innovator WTB–Steve Potts, Charlie Cunningham, and Mark Slate–invented the brand’s first product in this era: the Toe Flip. This allowed for easy access into the pedals and toe clips by giving your foot a lip to flip into.

To recap:
-Toe Clip is the plastic or metal part that contours to your foot. These are shoe size dependent: S, M, L, XL
-Toe Strap is the plastic or leather strap that feeds through the toe clip and the…
-Pedal Cage, or the metal plate that surrounds the pedal body.

Photo left, Amy Danger, photo right, Brick Lane Bikes

The First Clip-Less Pedals

In 1970, however, Cinelli debuted the first clipless (or without toe clips) pedals, primarily used in track racing. The M71 pedal replaced toe clips and straps with a sole-mounted aluminum cleat that locked the shoe into the chromed steel pedal. Once the cleat was positioned into the pedal, a lever would lock the cleat to the pedal. Then, the rider could “simply” pull the lever to disengage the pedal cleat. These were dubbed “suicide pedals” due to the sketchy nature of using them. The M71 made sense for track racing, as in many events, riders would start from either being held by a spotter or holding themselves up on the wooden fence surrounding the velodrome. For obvious reasons, these pedals didn’t catch on for road racing or street use.

It wasn’t until a decade later that a proper, street-safe clipless pedal system was unveiled. In 1980 NaturaLimits released its Quick Release Cleats, the Look #PP65 in 1984, Time TBT in 1988, Speedplay X in 1989, and Shimano’s road clipless pedal, or the PD7410 1993, and its mountain M737 pedal in 1990.

Even today, many of these brands continue to make clipless pedal systems.

Clipless Means Without Toe Clips

So, your clipless pedals use a retention device, a cleat, that bolts to the bottom of your cycling shoes via either two (MTB/gravel/commuting) or three bolts (road). Because of this cleat, your pedals no longer need a toe clip or toe strap, hence the term “clipless.”

Other terms people have used “cage less,” “click in,” “clip in,” are all misnomers. Toe clips are often called “cages,” yet the pedal cage is, as referenced above, the metal that wraps the pedal body. Other cages on your bicycle are water bottle cages. “Click in” pedals refers to the sound the pedals make when engaging with the cleat, and “clip in” once again refers to the actuation of the cleat and pedal body. Yet, the origin of “clipless” is removing the toe clip foot retention system. 



I hoped you enjoyed this brief breakdown of the term “clipless.” Feel free to add to this commentary below or make a request for another Cycling Etymology feature!