You need feet, as Bernard Bresslaw was among the first to point out, to stand up straight with, you need feet to kick your friends; you need feet to keep your socks on, and stop your legs from fraying at the ends. Also, you need feet to pedal.
Superficially, the relationship between feet and pedals is uncomplicated: you put your foot on the pedal and push. I was taught to keep the ball of the foot over the pedal's axle but, especially since the Great Cycling began, after the July bombs, I see all kinds of styles: feet splayed or turned in bear-style, or with stilettos hooked against the back of the pedal, or with tippy-toes barely making contact. All of these people move along at a reasonable lick, and most of them don't show the pain, so we have to conclude that it works for them.
Still, there can be hidden complications: when you pedal wrong, you're wasting a lot of energy, and possibly storing up some nasty knee problems for later on. When it comes to knee trouble, I like to think I speak with authority. In the days when I rode a Brompton fold-up, my knees started playing me up something shocking, to the point where I had to lay off the bikes altogether. When I finally got back in the saddle, it was to discover that I had lost my freedom: to avoid being curled up in agony after the first couple of furlongs, I had to keep my feet fixed to the pedals.
This is not much of a penalty: I only stopped wearing toe-clips in the first place because it was awkward to fit them to the Brompton's folding pedal. Toe-clips make life so much easier: no danger of feet slipping on the pedals, effort used far more efficiently (because you're pushing the pedal through its whole rotation, not just at the top of a stroke).
But a depressing proportion of cyclists won't even consider toe-clips: they worry about getting their feet into them properly, or getting them out again in a hurry. The first problem is mostly a matter of practice, and having the right pedals. The best have a tab at the back that sticks up when you aren't wearing the clips; as you start pedalling, you press your foot backwards on the tab, and the clips rotate smoothly up on to the front of your shoe. Getting out shouldn't be a problem, unless you've pulled the straps very tight: the easiest thing is to pull the right strap tight and leave the left - kerbside - loose, so you can stick your foot out for support.
There is one indisputable problem with toe-clips, though: they bugger up your shoes. Plastic ones are a little kinder than old-fashioned steel, but also hold the foot less securely. Having ruined a couple of decent pairs of shoes this autumn, I decided to try cleated cycling shoes, as used by all the racers and couriers I know. These lock your sole to a specially designed pedal - to get out, you twist the foot sideways. I do have one highly experienced chum who won't touch cleats in traffic, because he reckons that in a scrape it could take just that split-second extra to extricate his feet. A couple of months in, I'm conflicted: knees do seem better, so far I've had no hairy moments, and the tiny pedals look rather stylish when the bike is parked. But being tied to cycling shoes is a pain.
There may be an alternative. Rivendell Bicycle Works of California, which runs my favourite bike website (www.rivendell bicycles.com), advertises something called "Power Grips" - wide straps that loop over the top of the foot. It claims these hold your feet snugly, are kinder to shoes than clips, and easier to get in and out of. I'll need some convincing before I invest, particularly after a costly brush with Rivendell's overseas shipping rates; if anybody has experience, let me know. Otherwise, it may be back to scuffed shoes.