Condensed Answer: In the past, track cyclists relied on toe clips to prevent their feet from coming off the pedals. Currently, toe clips are found only on rented track bikes and in Japanese Keirin races.
Otherwise, most professionals use clipless pedals coupled with a double strap for maximum foot retention.
The Purpose of Toe Clips
Toe clips and other foot retention systems have two main goals:
- Prevent foot slippage during pedaling. (If the foot of a cyclist slips unexpectedly, an accident may happen.)
- Facilitate maximum insertion of force during pedaling
Toe clips accomplish this task via a metal cage that ensures consistent foot positioning and a set of straps holding the cyclist’s feet.
The Benefits of Toe Clips
Тое clips come with the following advantages:
- Compatible with Different Shoe Types
Unlike clipless pedals, toe clips can be coupled with non-cycling-specific shoes. This approach saves money by eliminating the need to buy extra gear.
Toe clips are affordable. In some cases, the rider may even get them for free.
- Lower Failure Point
Once the strap is tightened it becomes close to impossible for the foot to slidе out. Also, since toe clips are mechanically simple, the failure rate of the system is low.
The universal fit that toe clips offer is why you see them on rented track bikes.
Clipless pedals, on other hand, are more technical and require specific cycling shoes with cleats. Thus, it makes less sense to put them on a bike that’s going to be ridden by a great number of people who don’t have the needed equipment.
Why Don’t The Pros Use Toe Clips Anymore
Toe clips have the following cons:
- Difficult to operate
An experienced rider using clipless pedals can hop on a bike and get “locked-in” in a few seconds. The procedure is fast and does not require the use of one’s arms.
With toe clips, the rider has to use their hands to tighten the straps on each side. The procedure is slower and creates an opportunity to lose balance.
- More Effort to Get Out
Toe clips are more difficult to get out of. With experience, the process becomes fast but can’t match the speed of clipless pedals.
- A Cycling Shoe is Needed Anyway
In the name of maximum efficiency, pros have no choice but to rely on cycling shoes. Cycling shoes come with a rigid sole in order to maximize the power reaching the pedals.
And if a specific cycling shoe is used, one of toe clips’ benefits (the ability to use different shoe types) becomes irrelevant. This is an indirect stimulation to go all the way and use cleats and clipless pedals.
Ultimately, the pros have quit using toe clips because clipless pedals are just as efficient but also more convenient and faster to get in and out of.
The Foot Retention System Used By The Pros
Professional track cyclists use clipless pedals with double straps. The double straps provide the following benefits:
- No movement of the foot inside the shoe
The double strap prevents the rider’s feet from moving from side to side as well as up and down during aggressive acceleration. The goal is to ensure maximum pedaling efficiency by eliminating movement that doesn’t contribute to forward motion.
- No Foot Slipping
The additional straps reduce the chances of foot slippage. Of course, clipless pedals help with that task too, but since track cyclists always ride in high gear (large chainring), they have to generate lots of power. Sometimes clipless systems aren’t enough to keep the rider’s feet on the pedals.
This leads to a logical question – why do road cyclists rely solely on clipless pedals and do not use straps?
The first reason is the geared transmission. Road cyclists have a number of gears to choose from according to the terrain. The gears reduce the torque needed to accelerate the bicycle.
The second reason is safety. Track cyclists are riding on a velodrome which represents a predictable environment as far architecture and gradient go. Conversely, road cyclists cover diverse terrain with constantly changing demands. Also, road cyclists are riding on paved roads that cause more damage to the rider’s body during a fall.
If road cyclists were to use straps in addition to clipless pedals, their feet will remain attached to the pedals even during crashes. The aftermath could include extremely serious injuries.
Of course, accidents happen often on the track too. In those situations, the double retention system results in dangerous falls because the rider can’t get away from the bike. However, the performance that straps offer is considered worth the risk.
Japanese Keirin Races
It may come as a surprise to some, but track cyclists in Japan continue to use toe cages to this day when competing in the so-called Keirin races.
A Keirin race is the Japanese form of track cycling. In Keirin races, the competitors stay behind a pacer until the last lap and a half. Then, the race ends with an all-out sprint.
Keirin racing emerged as a legal gambling sport in Japan to raise money for the post-war Japanese government. Keirin races continue to this day. The total betting budgets reach billions of dollars.
The bikes used in Keirin races are NJS approved. The term NJS stands for Nihon Jitensha Shinkōkai and represents the Japanese equivalent of the UCI (The Union Cycliste Internationale).
Every single component (including the lock nuts) used by a Keirin bike has to be NJS approved. The main goal of the policy is to ensure that all bikes are as close as possible to each other and ride about the same.
By making all bikes similar, the machine factor is equalized and no one rider has a technical advantage.
Clipless pedals are forbidden in Japanese Keirin races. The racers must use certified toe clips and straps with slotted cleats. Hence why you don’t see standard road pedals in such races.
This approach to pedals is explained by the need to maintain the same standard across all bikes. Unlike toe clips, clipless pedals come in a greater variety making it more difficult to come up with an equalized line-up.
Also, toe clips complement the look of steel Keirin bikes (carbon is forbidden in Japanese Keirin races.)