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How to choose road bike pedals

Shimano pedals
Stu Bowers
2 Jan 2018

With so many options available, how do you know what pedals are right for you? Cyclist assesses the options.

Saving weight, better aerodynamics, maybe because your mates all have one, or simply because something looks cool…there are countless ways to justify buying the latest gear. But when it comes to your contact points with the bike (handlebars, saddle, pedals) it’s worth selecting more carefully. Pedals in particular provide the vital link between the driving force from your legs and the bike, and are a crucial choice for attaining maximum enjoyment and performance on the bike.

‘It’s a complex bicycle part,’ says Speedplay founder Richard Bryne. ‘It’s the junction between human and machine and is arguably the most important component on the bike. Getting 100% of the energy from the rider through the shoe to the cranks is the goal, and in terms of the ergonomics you need to have a pedal that’s right for your body. You should definitely not be forcing your body to adapt to the pedal.’

Bike fitters are unanimous that correct fit and optimal performance begins at the shoe/pedal interface. A poor choice of saddle might give you a sore backside, but using the wrong pedals or having them incorrectly set up could put you at risk of injury.

Look pedals

Look Keo 2 Max, £69.99

The fundamentals are similar across all brands: a cleat is attached to your shoe and ‘clips in’ to the pedal body to secure your foot to the bike, and is released with a swift twisting movement to the side. There are key differences between brands, however, and a huge variance in price. So how do you narrow down your choices?

Suits you sir

Ronan Descy is co-founder of bike fit specialist Fit And Find ( ‘If I get a client who is large, has no specific set-up abnormalities, and wants something robust and simple, I’d recommend the Shimano SPD-SL system. Both the pedal and cleat can take a lot of punishment. For a smaller, comparatively weaker client they might be inappropriate because they can be too difficult for that sort of rider to disengage from, especially if they’re a beginner. In that case I’d recommend one of the light-action Look pedals.

‘Adjustment is the most important thing,’ Descy adds. ‘In my opinion most pedal/cleat designs are relatively archaic and lack sufficient adjustability. Speedplay is perhaps the exception and is a well thought-out system, but equally it’s not for everyone.’

Misleadingly, modern pedals are known as ‘clipless’, referring to the locking mechanism that does away with the need for the old-school toe-clip and strap. This system was first commercialised by Look in 1984, having developed the concept from its ski bindings. With these early designs the rider’s feet were practically immobilised, which would often lead to knee problems. Modern pedal designs by contrast incorporate ‘float’ to prevent excessive strain on joints and tendons.

Speedplay pedals

Speedplay Zero Chromoly, £109.99

‘There are riders who can ride zero-float cleats where the foot is locked in place, but they probably make up no more than 1% of the total, if that. It’s too risky’, says Descy. ‘Having some float is important, although how much is open to question. Many years ago in bikefitting we were regularly using 9° of float, such as on Look’s red cleats, which is a lot. If riders needed the float adjusted even wider Speedplay offered up to 15°. These days I recommend having as little as you can reasonably get away with. Excessive float can cause the legs to engage stabiliser muscles to prevent the feet from moving too much. This is a waste of energy and detracts from what we want the legs to do – produce power.’

Bryne still recommends erring on the side of more float rather than less. ‘In my opinion it’s safer to start with more. If you have it and you don’t need it that is far less detrimental than not having it when you need it,’ he says.

These days, most riders have a float range of 3°-6° in either direction (heel rotating outwards or inwards). With some systems there is a certain amount of friction so that the foot does not move easily within the range of float. Speedplay again is the exception and has a much looser feel, allowing the feet to move more freely. Some riders like this ‘slick’ sensation while others prefer to feel some resistance. With pedals, as with saddles, a lot comes down to preference.

More than fit

Time pedals

Time Xpresso 12 Titan-Carbon, £224.99

‘A range of riding or comfort issues can originate from the pedals, so personal preferences are important, but pedal choices go beyond just the set-up options they offer,’ says Speedplay’s Bryne. ‘Aerodynamics are an important consideration for some riders, and ease of entry is a big deal for others who prefer double-sided entry and being able to clip in without looking down. Ground clearance or a highly secure locking feel are important for certain types of riders too. It’s really very difficult to tick all these boxes.’

Look’s product manager, Alexandre Lavaud, agrees. ‘It’s hard to pinpoint or choose the one most important thing about pedal design,’ he says. ‘Reliability and security, power transfer, light weight… there needs to be a balance of all these factors. There are pedals that are more suited to beginners as they are simple and easy to use with lower clip in/out tension. Other pedals are dedicated to experienced riders with higher tension and a design developed to optimise power transfer.’

Shimano pedals

Shimano Ultegra 6800 SPD-SL, £124.99

Bryne says, ‘The biggest mistake I see people make is to base a decision on someone else’s experience.’ It’s a point echoed by Descy. ‘A common mistake is not doing enough research prior to purchasing. I see many clients with inappropriate pedals and these people usually have to buy a second set. They might have seen a recommendation on a forum and taken that advice without ever asking why the pedal is good or why it should suit them. Or also, some purchase a very expensive pedal assuming it’s “the best” then find out it doesn’t suit them at all.’ 

Going the distance

For most pedal systems it’s the cleats that hold the key to their suitability – in terms of durability, float and how well you can walk in your shoes. Most brands use colours to identify how much float a cleat has, and while many are still based around the original three-bolt pattern introduced by Look (Speedplay again is the notable exception with its own float-adjustable four-bolt pattern) and appear similar, don’t make the assumption the cleats will work for other brands. Only very few are interchangeable across different systems.

The final factor is consistency. Injury-free riding and optimal pedalling biomechanics are best achieved by regularity with your set-up. Try to avoid a situation where you spend all week riding with one system and then change to a different brand with different attributes for a weekend event. Even a small change in set-up can cause some annoying niggles and aches.

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