First let me clear up a terminology issue. What I call clip-in pedals are usually called “clipless”. This odd term is do distinguish them from old-school pedals with toe clips and straps. “Clipless” have a cleat on the bottom of the shoe that hooks into a mechanism on the pedal. I’ll keep calling them “clip-in” pedals because I think it describes their function better.
I always assumed recumbents need clip-in pedals because your feet are sticking out front, so the weight of your legs would cause you to slip off the pedals. There are pros and cons to using clip-ins, on any bike.
The biggest pro of clip-ins is that they can make your pedaling more efficient. The biggest con is you need to clip out to put your foot down. Many of us, when first trying them out, have had an embarrassing slow speed crash caused by not getting a foot out in time. The situation is worse on recumbents, which are wobbly at slow speeds, plus your foot has a longer way to travel to get it to the ground when stopping. On a recent ride I had one of the slow speed crashes because I lost my momentum doing a hairpin turn on a pedestrian overpass, and didn’t get my foot out in time.
I’ve been riding ‘bents off and on for almost 20 years and it never occurred to me to see if I really need clip-ins. Then I noticed on last Sunday’s ride with my recumbent group that most of the other riders were not using them. So, before yesterday’s ride, I swapped out my pedals for flat mountain pedals.
Some mountain bikers also don’t like clip-ins because they are more likely to need to put a foot down when encountering unexpected obstacles. But they also still want a very grippy pedal so their feet don’t slide around. Flat (also called “platform”) mountain pedals are a compromise that addresses this problem.
I got in the habit of using flat mountain pedals on my uprights because I often go on combination bike/hikes where I’m dismounting more often, and also like to wear walking shoes which are more comfortable hiking with than biking shoes with cleats. So I tried this combination on my recumbent. And it works great! I spent a morning happily cruising around, stopping and restarting, and doing hairpin turns. As far as pedaling efficiency, there was no noticeable difference. And there is no sign of a tendency for your foot to slip off the pedal. This will be my set up of choice in the future.
Clip-ins and Pedal Efficiency
I think this issue is a bit overblown, at least for recreational riders. For racing, of course you want any marginal gain you can get. But on my upright bike I have a pair of pedals that are flat on one side (with a grippy surface like a flat mountain pedal) and clip-in on the others. I should time myself on the same route with this bike, with regular shoes vs. clip-in bike shoes. I have compared them qualitatively and noticed little difference. I’ve done group rides both ways and don’t have any more trouble keeping up with the regular shoes vs. biking shoes. If I ever do something competitive like a time trial I’ll definitely use my clip-in bike shoes, but for recreational riding, the flat pedals are great for me.