Like your saddle and handlebars, your cycling shoes and pedals are important contact points between you and your bike. So its good idea to make sure you have the right set up for comfortable efficient riding.
Cycling Shoes and Pedals – The History
Cycling shoes and pedals generally fit into two main categories. One category is where the shoes and the pedals clip together (ironically referred to as Clipless pedals). The other category is where the pedals are traditional platform pedals the vast majority of people are used too.
Now is probably a reasonable time for a history lesson, on how cycling pedals have developed over the years. In the very beginning cycling pedals had a large flat surface for the foot to rest on. These are known as platform pedals and they can be used with any type of shoes.
Over the years, road cyclists looking to eek out some more performance moved to the cage type of pedals. These were much smaller and lighter, and featured a simple axel and cage round the edges to support the foot. Attached to the cage pedal cyclist developed clips and straps. Clips and straps held the cyclists foot in place and prevented it from slipping around during the pedal stroke.
Modern pedals are now referred to as ‘Clipless’ pedals. This is because they have done away with the traditional ‘Clips and Straps’ used with cage pedals. Instead they use intricate cleat and lock mechanism systems to keep the cycling shoes and pedals securely attached.
Mechanically Attached to your Bike? Really?
You might be fairly new to cycling or could be lacking a little in confidence whilst riding. If so, being physically attached to your bike may sound like madness. Especially if you need to make a speedy dismount.
However, attaching your foot to your pedal produces a huge performance advantage over regular platform pedals. As usual, your legs push on the downward portion of the pedal stroke. But with clipless pedals you can ‘pull’ the pedal through bottom and back up the pedal stroke. Securing your feet in one position also has improvements for the transfer of power from you to your bike.
The optimal position for your foot is to have the axel of the pedal directly under the ball of your foot. Cycling shoes and pedals make sure that your foot is always in the correct position whilst you’re riding. This can have benefits for your muscles and joints as the position your foot is in throughout your pedal stroke is constant.
We’d highly recommend that you take the plunge into the world of clipless pedals. Learning to ride with clipless pedals can seem daunting, and yes, there’s every chance you might end up with some grazed knees. But once you’ve got the hang of them, it really becomes second nature. Its just like riding a bike….
So, How do Clipless Cycling Shoes and Pedals work?
Clipless pedals have two main components, the pedal itself and the cleat which attaches to the sole of your shoes. So, you’ve fitted your pedals and attached your cleats, but how do clipless cycling shoes and pedals actually work?
How do I Clip in and How do I Un-Clip
In a nutshell, the pedal has a built in spring mechanism, so when you put your foot on the pedal and press down you’ll feel a click. Now you’re ‘clipped in’ and your foot is attached to the pedal. To ‘un-clip’ simply rotate your ankle horizontally away from your bike and you should feel the pedal release and your foot is now free. Easy-peasy.
Well not exactly. The unclip twisting action is basically common to all clipless cycling shoes and pedals but the the clip-in mechanism varies from manufacturer to manufacturer. We’ll run through the most common types of clipless systems below, but most systems usually require you to engage the cleat to the pedal toe first down, which acts as a hook for the cleat and then press the heel of your foot down to engage the spring mechanism. The images below should help explain the action, but its not too difficult to get the hang of.
The spring mechanism on the pedals has tension adjustment making it easier or harder to un-clip. The spring mechanism can also be overpowered by large forces, the pedals are designed this way to release your foot in the event an accident or crash. So when you’re setting the tension on your pedals, you want to make sure the tension is tight enough to keep you clipped and not pulling out of the pedals through normal cycling, but not so tight that the is difficult to un-clip or wont release in an accident.
Practise Makes Perfect
Using clipless cycling shoes and pedals can be a little unnerving, but with a little practise it really does become a natural part of riding your bike. If you ask any keen cyclist riding clipless, virtually all of them whilst getting used to the system, have rolled up to a set of lights, stopped, forgot to unclip and had a comedy slow motion sideways topple.
If you’re worried about that, don’t be, it happens to everyone and its these little mistakes that you learn from and in turn become better, more confident rider!
Different Types of Clipless Pedals
Here we’re going to run through the different bicycle cleat-pedal systems available. Generally speaking clipless cycling shoes and pedals come in two variants, road or mountain bike. As the vast majority of commuting is done on road, we’ll start there first.
The majority of pedals and cleats designed for road bikes are based around a 3 bolt deign. In which a triangular shaped cleat is bolted to the sole of your shoes using three bolts. The big cleat design means your feet have a larger area to push down which improves power transfer to your bike and foot stability. But the downside to this is that the larger cleat can make it more difficult to walk in your cycling shoes.The four major manufacturers of road clipless pedals are Shimano, Look, Time and Speedplay.
Shimano – SPD SL
The Shimano road clipless pedal system is termed the SPD SL. Like Shimano groupsets, their SPD SL pedals come in a wide range of price points and performance levels. From super lightweight carbon pedals for road racing to budget aluminium bodied pedals for the occasional social cyclist. The SPD SL utilises the same cleat design right through the range, however there are a different cleat specs which offer you more or less float. (the free range of rotational movement when you’re clipped in)
Look – Keo
Like Shimano, Look pedals are also very popular amongst road cyclists. The clipless pedal system from look is terms the ‘Keo’. Also like Shimano, the Look Keo system uses a triangular shaped cleat with a three bolt system. Look offer a wide variety of pedals starting with a plastic composite pedal right through to combination of carbon body and titanium spindles for the super weight conscious. Look have also developed pedals which incorporate power meter technology to record a riders power output during ride. The Keo system uses three different cleats, which are coloured black, grey or red. The different cleats offer you different amounts of float, in 0 degrees, 4.5 degrees or 9 degress respectively.
Speedplay – Zero
Making a shift from the more traditional three bolt road pedal offerings is a company called Speedplay. Where as Look and Shimano pedals have the clipless mechanism mounted on the pedal and the cleat ‘clips in’, the Speedplay Zero system is set up the other way round. The Speedplay cleats contain the clipless mechanism and are attached to the sole of your shoe via a four bolt system.
Because the complex bits of the system are mounted to your feet, this means the Speedplay pedal is very simple. The pedal body is just a simple disc shape, its so simple that its dual sided so you can clip in when the pedal is either way up. This is quite unique in road cycling as all other systems are single sided. The down side of this, is that the cleat is quite bulky and you can damage them by walking on rougher surfaces.
Time – i-Clic
The Time road pedal system is termed the i-Clic. The Time i-Clic system uses a three bolt system, like Shimano and Look. But the i-Click system works a bit different to the Shimano SPD-SL and Look Keo systems. Where the difference lies is how the clipless system work, the shimano and look systems are a closed system in that you have to force the cleat into the pedal until the spring loaded mechanism clips in. The i-Clic system is an open system, in the when you unclip, the mechanism remains open until you put the cleat back on on the pedal and the i-Clic system snaps shut. The open i-Clic system means that clipping into the pedals is much easier, especially in the wet when your cleats can be slippy.
Mountain Bike Pedals
Mountain bike pedals and cleats are based around a simpler two bolt design. The cleats for mountain bikes are generally much smaller than those for road bikes. This is because mountain bikers occasion need to dismount or dab a foot and the smaller cleat design means that you can shed mud or dirt more easily which may block you clipping in. The smaller cleats allows mountain bike shoes to have more tread than their road cycling counterparts, making them much easier to walk in.
Another added bonus of smaller cleats is that virtually all mountain bike pedals are dual sided (like speed play road pedals). The smaller cleat design does however mean that there is less area for you to push down on which can make it feel like your feet wrap round the pedals if you have more flexible soled shoes. Shimano, Look, Time, Crank Brothers and Mavic are the most common manufacturers of clipless mountain bike pedals.
Shimano – SPD
Top of the list and by far the most common brand of clipless mountain bike pedals are Shimano. The mountain bike version of clipless pedals is termed the SPD. For the top levels of Shimano groupset, XTR and XT, Shimano have pedals which correspond to their performance and price points. For more basic pedals Shimano use number to differentiate between the different models. Each type of pedal often comes in three variants, Race, Trial and occasionally Touring. The Race version, which is a small lightweight pedal designed for cross country riding. The Trail features the same SPD mechanism as the Race but has an additional metal cage surrounding the pedal to give your feet more support. The Touring version is very similar to the Trail, but the Touring version is only single sided for the SPD.
Look – S-Track
The Look S-Track system is a modular system of pedals where you can match different pedal bodies to a range of pedal cages to make the pedal that is right for you. The Look S-Track clipless pedal bodies come in three options, the S-Track, the S-Track Race and the S-Track Carbon Ti with the weight decreasing and the price increasing for each option.
The S-Track has three cage options, the Trail cage, the Saucer cage and the LT cage. The Trail cage is a robust aluminium cage which surround the pedal and protects it from all that aggressive adventure mountain biking can throw at it. The Saucer cage is designed for cross country riding and has the best weight to surface area contact ratio. Finally the LT cage is used for LT cages are for leisure riding, it has a large surface area for foot stability and security.
Time – ATAC
The Time mountain bike clipless pedal system is called the ATAC. The Time ATAC pedals come in three variants, the XC, the XM and the DH. Each of the pedals has the same clipless mechanism. The XC is a lightweight pedal aimed at the cross country mountain biker. The XM are sturdier pedals than the XC and have increased area aimed at enduro mountain bikers. The DH is aimed at the downhill and freeride mountain bikers and has a solid axel for maximum stability. The ATAC system is a simple but well thought out design. The clipless mechanism holds the cleat in by two simple bars this design means that just by clipping in will clear the ATAC system of any debris. (Mavic have also started producing pedals using the ATAC system)
Crank Brothers – Eggbeater
Crank Brothers pedals are based around a unique design with a really open design which gives you the ability to clip in from 4 sides over the usual 2, which they have called the eggbeater. The open eggbeater design also means that the pedal clears mud really well too. Simialr to the Time ATAC range the Crank brothers come in three main ranges, the eggbeater range, the candy range and the mallet range.
The eggbeater range are aimed at cross country riding and are basically the bare clipless mechanism of the pedals to save weight. The eggbeaters come in a range of prices and weight (Crank Brothers claim that the eggbeater 11 is the lightest pedal in the world). The Candy range is aimed at trail and enduro riders. The Candy is basically the eggbeater pedal with a small cage surrounding the mechanism for extra support. The Mallet is a heavy duty pedal aimed at the downhill and freeride riders. The Mallet has a large cage for maximum foot support on fast downhills.
Choosing the right clipless pedal cleats
When you buy a set of clipless cycling shoes and pedals, the cleats designed for the pedals will be in the box. The cleats are specific to the clipless system and generally are not compatible with other systems.
Different colour coded cleats are available to for many of the three bolt systems. The colours relate to how much ‘float’ the system will have when you’re clipped in. Float is the amount of rotational movement your foot will have when clipped in, pivoting around the ball of your foot. Float is quite important, if your cleats are not perfectly aligned and your feet and fixed in place too tightly this can lead to knee pain and injuries.
Shimano SPD-SL Pedal Cleats
- Yellow 6° Float (provided with most Shimano SPD-SL pedals)
- Blue 2° Float (provided with high performance pedals SPD-SL pedals)
- Red 0° Float
Look Pedal Cleats
- Red 9° Float
- Grey 4.5° Float
- Black 0° Float
For those new to the world of cycling, you may have seen cyclist hobbling round in some pretty odd looking footwear. These are dedicated cycling shoes with the specific attachment points on the soles for the cleats of your clipless pedals. The shoes are specifically designed to give you better comfort and pedalling efficiency. Cycling shoes and pedals are generally split into road and off road designs.
|Type of Cycling Shoes||Road Shoes||Off Road Shoes|
|Sole Tread||None||Rugged Tread|
|Sole Stiffness||Very Stiff||Stiff|
|Cleat Styles||Protruding Cleat||Recessed Cleat|
|Number of Cleat Bolts||3 or 4 Bolts||2 Bolts|
The majority of road shoes have a three bolt design for attaching cleats like the Shimano SPD-SL or Look KEO systems or a four bolt design for attaching cleats like the Speedplay Zero.
Road cycling shoes tend to have very stiff soles. Top end shoes soles are made from solid carbon fibre. Stiff soles mean that you transfer the maximum amount of power from your feet to your bike. Road cycling shoes tend to have very little in the way of tread, meaning that the large cleats protrude from the bottom of the shoe making it easier to engage the pedals and clip in.
Stiff soles and lack of tread does have its downsides, particularly if you have to walk in your cycling shoes. The protruding cleat at the ball of your foot makes your toes at quite an acute angle upwards, the stiff sole offers very little in the way of flex and the lack of tread makes them very slippery in the wet or smooth surfaces.
Off Road Shoes
All off road shoes feature a two bolt design for attaching cleats. There is a huge variety in types of off road shoes from aggressive off road racing shoes, to shoes which appear quite like normal trainers. Like road shoes, the off road shoes designed for racing have very stiff soles but the less aggressive race orientated shoes have more flexible, comfortable soles.
Off road cyclists tend to dismount more often and so off road shoes have tread for grip in the mud. The off road cleats are much smaller allowing them to be recessed within the treads of the shoes which makes the shoes much more comfortable to walk in.
Conclusion – Cycling Shoes and Pedals
Your cycling shoes and pedals are important contact points between you and your bike. So its good idea to make sure you’ve got the right set up for your commute. Your cycling shoes and pedal combination needs to be matched to your needs.
So if you need to be fairly mobile off your bike, for walking in the office or getting on public transport then it would be better to use an off road set up. If travelling on foot isn’t a priority then a road set up will give you better performance and comfort whilst you ride.
Well there you have our guide to cycling shoes and pedals for commuting! We hope you found this post useful. Let us know how we did in the comments!