One of the more confusing aspects about clipless pedals is the name. Alongside the reason for that name we’ll be covering everything you need to know on how to choose clipless pedals that are right for you.
What should you look for in clipless pedals?
When it comes to clipless pedals and what’s really important in the decision making process, only a handful of criteria apply. These criteria include dimensions, body material, spindle, bearings and bushings, cleat system, weight, and price.
When we’re talking about the dimensions of a road bike pedal I’m talking about length, width, and height.
Across the various disciplines it’s clear the cleat system which connects the shoe to the pedal, doesn’t have a platform to speak of, or very big platforms with pins.
It has to do with how much support is needed, with more support and bigger platforms as we move into rougher terrain (mountain bike disciplines).
Clipless pedals for road bikes don’t have any platform at all, or maybe two small contact points to make engaging the cleat system easier.
Another aspect related to pedal dimensions has to do with a clipless pedal offering dual functionality, e.g. you can use them with- or without cleats.
These pedals are called one-sided clipless pedals. Obviously, when not using cleats, the pedal need to have some sort of platform, and the non-cleat side mimics what we see with standard mountain bike flat pedals.
The stack height is the total height of the pedal and cleat system combined, measured from the center of the spindle.
You want to have this as low as possible to prevent possible contact with the road/trail, especially when cornering.
It’s also important when discussing the efficiency of the pedal stroke, since you want to sit as close to the axle with your foot as possible, to maximise power transfer.
Just think of riding a bike with platform boots and how that would feel. It is less efficient and causes the rotation of the legs to alter, the higher the stack height is. It also less stable and increases the inefficient rocking motion of the body.
Stack height is important to prevent rock strikes in mountain biking. When talking about pedalling efficiency and biodynamics we’re more thinking about stack heigh in relation to road cycling.
The body of a clipless pedal retains the cleat mechanism. It can be made of the following materials:
- Cast aluminum
- Forged aluminum
- (Stainless) steel
- Stamped steel
- Fiberglass composite
The 3 aspects which are important when looking at body material are weight, strength, and price. A tradeoff has to be made between these three, with lighter pedals using more expensive materials like titanium and carbon, to attain the same level of strength of cheaper alternatives like composites and aluminum.
Fiberglass composite and carbon bodies are only used in non-mountainbike disciplines because they are deemed to fragile to deal with pedal strikes. Something which is much less likely to occur, if at all, with road cycling.
Since the body also comes with the bolts that keep the cleat system in place, even in that aspect can you find the tradeoffs mentioned earlier, with regular steel bolts being replaced by either stainless steel or titanium versions, to make them more durable and/or lighter.
The go-to material used for the spindles since forever is chromoly steel. It’s incredibly strong and can be heat-treated to further increase its durability.
The only other material used for the spindle of pedals in general and clipless pedals specifically is titanium. Although almost without exception only the most expensive pedals come with titanium axles.
I didn’t calculate the exact number but judging from experience, it costs around 100 USD to upgrade to titanium axles. The only improvement you get when you do this, is a weight reduction of around 50 grams per pedal pair, and maybe some improvement in its lifespan.
It means it’s one of the financially least effective methods to improve your riding experience.
4. Bearings and bushings
Apart from the cleat system, the bearings and bushings are the most important part of clipless pedals. They are definitely the most important part from a durability standpoint.
Bearing play and the subsequent pedal surface are the most common issues related to clipless pedals. Even a tiny amount of play can quickly deteriorate into your pedal needing servicing, including the replacement of the spindle and all other moving parts.
The bearing setup of a clipless pedal is a very sensible part to spend money on, ensuring many miles with fully functional pedals, and a long-term wise investment.
Bearings are better and more expensive than bushings. Higher quality pedals offer higher quality bigger bearings, and bushings, and offer more bearings, sometimes ditching the usage of bushings altogether.
The clipless pedals than need to be able to take the most abuse are not the most expensive pedals necessarily, but they do offer the highest quality bearings and the highest number of bearings within a certain pedal.
The amount of bearings used within a single pedal can go up to 3. As far as I know there aren’t any clipless pedals using more than a single bushing in a pedal.
High-end mountain bike pedals use Enduro bearings. High-end road bike pedals can use ceramic bearings. I haven’t seen any evidence or research that either one markedly improves rotational efficiency and/or durability.
Shimano is known for offering one of the highest quality bearing setup, with the longest lifespan. They are the only premium clipless pedal manufacturer that still uses cup-and-cone style bearings.
Cleats are the small steel parts located at the bottom of a shoe used with clipless pedals, that attaches to the retention system of the clipless pedal.
We call clipless pedals clipless, because up to the early nineties professional cyclists would use toe clips attached to flat pedals, which would encompass the front of the entire cycling shoe.
When Shimano popularised the use of cleats with their SPD system, these “clips” were removed from pedals thus becoming “clipless pedals”. SPD is shorthand for Shimano Pedalling Dynamics.
SPD cleats are still used for anything but road cycling pedals. Other pedal manufacturers might either be compatible with SPD pedals or have their own proprietary cleat system.
SPD cleats are usually used in a dual-sided format, with the cleat system on both sides of the pedal. Unless you’re dealing with the previously mentioned dual-sided pedals (cleat system and flat pedal platform).
SPD-SL cleats are Shimano’s cleat system designed for road bike pedals. Because road bike pedals are so small and don’t come with their own platform, they tended to be pretty unstable, not offering the amount of support you might want out of a pedal.
To increase stability, support, and power transfer the SPD-SL cleats were introduced somewhere in the nineties. They are much larger than SPD cleats, compensating for the lack of pedal platform in the average road bike pedal.
SPD-SL cleats is the most widely adopted cleat system in the world. The same goes for SPD cleats for other pedals than road bike ones.
SPD-SL cleats and all other proprietary cleat systems for road cycling are single-sided systems, meaning you can only clip into the retention system from one side of the pedal.
Proprietary cleat systems
Other well-known cleat systems are Time’s ATAC system and Look’s KEO system. Both very much resemble the SPD-SL system.
For non-road bike pedals there are Crankbrothers cleats, and those from Hope and HT. Their cleat systems are very similar to Shimano’s SPD.
Which type of cleats are right for you?
The Shimano cleat system, SPD or SPD-SL, has always been a sure bet. They’ve basically refined the system for the last 3 decades, and it works for the far majority of riders.
The other systems have their own benefits, but it’s pretty hard to really establish which one is better under which conditions, since it can be pedal specific. For instance an SPD pedal without a platform can feel really different from one which has a very large one.
It means it’s not just the cleat system that does the trick, but the cleat system within the context of a certain pedal.
If I do have to say something about each cleat system, it would be that they have different float and release aspects.
Float is the amount of movement a cleat system allows for. A human body isn’t meant to move fixed into a pair of pedals. A bit of flex is necessary to allow for long hours of painfree leg movement. And float allows for this amount fo flex.
Float is measured in degrees, which sit between 0 to 10. Some manufacturers offer different cleat types, which allow for a different amount of float.
Cleat that don’t allow for float (0 degrees) are sold. They should not be used since the risk of injury increases with the usage of these cleats. There isn’t a professional bike fitter on earth that would recommend these 0 degree cleats to the average cyclist.
Release, also measured in degrees, is the sideways movement of the heel before the cleat system releases the shoe.
Based on the pedal you’re using, it can vary between 10 to 20 degrees. And just as with float, different cleats allow for different release angles.
How much force you need to exert before the retention system actually releases the cleat, is a function of the system, not the cleat.
Some cleat systems allow for release by moving the foot upwards, not sideways. These systems are meant for beginners, but I do not suggest them wholeheartedly.
It takes very little time and practice to get used to using cleats. If you don’t like them it doesn’t really matter if the way to get out of them is standard or easy.
Weight is always a factor with bicycle components, and more so with road cycling than with any of the other disciplines.
Tried-and-true ways of reducing weight have already been covered, with titanium and carbon leading the pack.
Although it’s usually very hard to reduce weight in a cost-effective way, that isn’t the case with clipless pedals which have a large platform.
These type of pedals can come in composite versions, rather than the more expensive, heavier, yet more durable aluminum versions.
Because the cleat system used for road cycling differs from the other disciplines, there’s no crossover between pedals. E.g. you’ll probably never see somebody trail riding using the SPD-SL system.
Road cycling pedals are the lightest clipless pedals you can find, even lighter than those used for XC. Only a handful are less than 200 grams per pair, while mountain bike clipless pedals add another 100 grams to that number for lightweight MTB pedals (the average being 365 grams).
I’ve bought my fair share of very expensive pedals, although I have to be honest that I would ride just as well if I would have spend less than half the amount of money I did.
The value of any product always has a certain amount of subjectivity associated. You usually feel good having spend X amount because think you have gained a certain benefit.
I’ve already mentioned the usage of titanium axles with pedals, and how it’s one of the least cost effective methods of attaining some marginal gain.
The biggest benefit I’ve gained when buying expensive pedals, is when I bought expensive pedals that offered the best bearing setup. Those were the pedals that lasted longest by far, and usually came with all the other benefits premium clipless pedals offer as well.
Why you should trust us
Johan van Seijen has been riding bicycles since before he could walk. He’s been riding road bikes since before he left school, and half of his ever-expanding collection of bicycles consists of mountain bikes.
From fast road bikes, to gravel rides, to XC and technical trails, he loves everything bicycle-related. He’s a member of the TFC Weesp road cycling club, and lives near one of the most beautiful trails in the Netherlands in Schoorl for which he happily donates yearly to MTB Noordwest.
His passion for bicycles extend towards both building and restoring bikes, which is why he’s the go-to person for bicycles in general and bike components specifically, and the perfect person to review clipless pedals, both for road bikes, mountain bikes, and everything in between.
How we picked and tested
There are hundreds of pedals in all shapes and forms. Buying them all, and testing them would not only cost a fortune, it would also take way too much time. And it’s the reason we create a curated list of clipless pedals we consider reviewing.
This list isn’t created out of thin air but based on known brands who have a reputation of creating quality products. Our initial list comprises around 150 clipless pedals, evenly divided into those meant specifically for road racing and gravel, and those meant for other disciplines, including all mountain bike disciplines, bikepacking and touring, and urban or commuting.
The brands we’ve taken into consideration for our reviews are Chromag, Crankbrothers, Hope, HT, Look, Nukeproof, Ritchey, Shimano, and Time. A lot of brands make pedals which can be used for multiple cycling disciplines.
Since product catalogs age, with existing products being archived and new products added, we keep our list up to date, and refresh articles when necessary.
Rather than creating one big list of all possible clipless pedals for all possible requirements, we create overviews that more specifically target a rider’s need. Clipless mountain bike pedals are very different from lightweight road bike pedals. And the requirements for a pedal used in daily commuting differs markedly from those used for XC racing.
By comparing product specifications and combining it with our real-world experience we draw certain conclusions about the quality of the reviewed clipless pedals, and why they deserve a place within a certain overview.
It’s important to note that any products purchased for testing purposes are acquired using our own money. Our reviews are conducted impartially, and we have neither received sponsorships nor accepted products in exchange for favorable reviews.