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Many decisions in life are very confusing. Choosing the correct pedals for you doesn’t have to be one of those things. Follow this guide to find the right pedals for you.
We should probably open this guide with the proclamation that we are going to be the change we want to see and one of the changes that we are advocating for is ridding the cycling world of the term “clipless pedals” to refer to pedals that you clip into. If you are unfamiliar with the etymology of this term in cycling, read on for our brief history lesson. For everyone else more familiar with the term, we hope that you agree with us that we should evolve and adapt our terminology to more clearly reflect the types of pedals available. So, from here onward we will refer to these pedals as clip-in or clip pedals. Now, let’s dig into the rest of this pedal guide.
There are 2 main types of bicycle pedals: platform and clip-in. In this guide we are going to digging into the ins-and-outs of clip-in pedals, but if you want to learn more about platform pedals just click this link here (Guide to Platform Pedals).
Since the human body is not a very powerful motor, cyclist have continually been on a quest to find ways to make the bicycle as efficient as possible; making the most of the little horsepower we can put out. One way to do this is to mechanically connect your foot/shoe to the pedal, engaging your power input not only on the frontside down-stroke of the pedal but also the backside up-stroke. An early remedy for this was the advent of ‘toe clips’ (or simply ‘clips’), which are metal or plastic cages with straps that attached to platform pedals which you’d then slide your foot into to create foot-retention. Toe clips worked well enough, but somewhere along the line people realized this retention could be “clipped” in and out of faster, hold more securely, as well as be safer when unclipping is necessary. Thus, the they went on to design the modern ‘clipless’ pedal system that used a cleat mounted to the bottom of the shoe to mechanically engage directly with the pedal. Since they didn’t have the toe “clip” cage or straps they were called clipless. Toe cages and straps are fairly uncommon these days, so it makes more sense to refer to modern pedals as clip-in or clip pedals
Now, that our history lesson is out of the way, let’s dig in. The clip-in pedal system consists of the pedals, cleats, and cycling specific shoes. The cleat is attached to the bottom of a cycling shoe by short bolts. These shoes tend to have a much stiffer sole than that of a flat pedal shoe. This is to give a solid surface to bolt the cleat to and to increase the efficiency of energy output. Generally, road shoes/cleats will have a 3-bolt pattern with minimal tread on the sole for walking. The mountain combination uses just 2 bolts and the cleat sits recessed within a much more robust tread pattern designed to help grip if you need to hike-a-bike. Some shoes will incorporate both 2-bolt and 3-bolt patterns allowing you to choose from either MTB or road style pedals. MTB pedals tend to have dual-sided entry while road pedals tend to have a single-sided entry where the back of the pedal is weighted ensuring the pedal is oriented correctly for toe-in entry.
There are a few variations of cleats and pedals that are by far the most common, so you will often hear their names used to reference the style of pedal/cleat combo. On the road side the Look-style pedal is named after the brand that designed these original. Since then, this design has been used by a ton of other brands. Shimano’s SPD-SL is very similar to the Look version with a broader pedal platform for improved comfort and power. Shimano tends to reign supreme on the MTB side, as well, with their SPD cleats and pedals. Again, this style has been licensed by many other brands. It is also the standard for spin classes, so look for a 2-bolt compatible shoe and some SPD cleats if you like cranking out the miles indoors. There are several other brands that will have their own unique designs like Crank Brothers, TIME, HT and more. Luckily, cleats are included with new pedals and easily replaceable when they wear out.
While clip-in pedals are great for the performance cyclist, it can be quite intimidating for beginners. Clip-in pedals require some practice to learn how to engage, or more importantly how to disengage the cleat from the pedal. This learning curve often leads to tipping over situations when coming to a stop that generally bruises the rider’s ego more than their body.
When moving to clip-in pedals, a good way to practice is to setup your bike in your doorway/hallway, so that you can reach the walls with your hands to balance yourself while clicking in and out of your pedals. Almost all clip-in pedals use the same motions to engage and disengage the cleat. To clip in, move your pedal to the 2 o’clock position, toe in the front of the cleat to the pedal and push down with your heel until you feel a click. To disengage, simply rotate your heel away from the bike until the pedal releases. After getting comfortable with that, you can move to a low traffic road/parking lot/grassy patch and apply your newly learned techniques while riding.
When the cleat is engaged with the pedal, the amount of wiggle room you have before disengaging the pedal is called ‘float’. Since the cleat is mounted near the ball of your foot, this translates to how far your heel can rotate inboard or outboard before the pedal unclips. The desired amount of float is mostly determined by rider preference. However, increased float can reduce pedal efficiency (very slightly) but tends to be kinder to those with knee issues. Pedals with more float may feel a bit “slippery” on the pedal, while pedals with less float offer more bike control.
How much force needed to disengage your cleat from your pedal is known as ‘tension.’ Usually pedals will have some sort of screw to adjust how much tension a pedal has but some brands use different cleats or spacers to increase tension. For most beginner riders it’s a good idea to keep your tension on the lower end, so that you can easily disengage your foot in an emergency. As your skills improve and you want to input more bike control through the pedals, you can dial up the engagement to help keep your feet planted even under aggressive riding.
If you really wanted to nerd out on pedal selection you can get into spindle and pedal body materials, bearing types, and gram counting but the good thing is that any pedals from reputable brands are all pretty good, even at the lower costs of entry. We’ve found that the primary differences between entry-level pedals and top-level is weight and bearing quality. For competitive cyclists the top-tier pedals will absolutely be worth the cost. For most other riders we think the sweet spot is the mid-tier pedals. These tend to be quite competitive on weight and bearing quality without a massive jump in price.
At first glance, installing may seem like a no-brainer screw on affair and, for the most part it is but there are a few tricks and details to know before you jump in. First, make sure that your threads on your pedals and crank are clean and lightly lubed with grease. While not required, installing pedal washers is a good idea. Second, pedals have a handedness. This means that there is a right-side pedal and a left-side pedal which are usually denoted on the pedal or spindle in some way. This handedness is because the left pedal is oppositely threaded, to not unthread under pedaling forces. When installing your pedals, we recommend working with your bike upright on its wheels. The right (drive side) pedal will install with your normal righty-tighty movement, while the left pedal will install with a lefty-tight movement. Lastly, be sure to apply a fair bit of force to seat your pedals, but don’t over-torque.
We want to make sure you can go from shopping to riding as soon as possible. Our expert Gear Advisors are available to help you cater your protection setup with just the right combination of pedals, cleats, and shoes. Contact a Gear Advisor: 888-880-3811, Mon-Fri: 7:30am to 7pm, Sat-Sun: 9am to 5pm (PST)