Guide To Pedals
 

Bike Pedal Buyers Guide

The last thing you want your pedals to do is hold you up when you're trying to go. That’s why it's important to have the right pedals for your bike and cycling style so that they can help improve your performance while keeping you safe and comfortable on the road or trail. Whether you're a mountain biker, a road rider or just someone who rides around town, there are different types of pedals for each style of riding.


Types of Bike Pedal

There are three main types of pedals: flat, clipped and clipless. Here's a breakdown:


Flat Pedals Image

Flat pedals

Best For General Purpose Cycling or Mountain Biking


Flat pedals (also called platform pedals) have a flat surface that you can use either with cycling specific shoes or regular shoes.


These are often used for commuting and casual riding. They're inexpensive, easy to maintain and provide the versatility to jump off the bike and continue to walk in the shoes you’ve been riding in.


For MTB riding, flat pedals provide a wide, stable connection point between your foot and the bike, allowing you to move your feet and adjust your body weight to the trail's demands. A good set of flat pedals will put you securely in control of your bike with the option to easily take your foot off the pedal to regain balance and “dab” the floor should you need to. As flat pedals lack a "clip-in" mechanism, you’re relying on the friction between your shoe and the pedal to provide traction. Flat pedals will feature pins that stick out from the flat surface to provide additional grip. On some pedals the pins will be adjustable, letting you tune the grip they provide to your liking.


 
Clipped Pedals Image

Clipped pedals (caged or toe-strap)

Best for : recreational riders, commuters and fitness cycling.


Clipped pedals are effectively a flat pedal with a “toe clip” attached to it. This toe clip can be in the form of a cage that goes around the toe box of your shoe, or a strap attached to the pedal that wraps around your shoe, Clipped pedals are typically an entry level pedal that provides more pedalling efficiency than a standard flat pedal, as you can pull up on the pedal as well as push down, safe in the knowledge your foot won’t float off the pedal.


Clipped pedals can also be known as caged pedals or toe strap pedals.


 
Clipless Pedals Image

Types of Clipless Pedals

Best for : road and mountain biking, long journeys, competition.


Clipless pedals generally do away with the old style toe strap (ie ‘clipless’) and instead require a cleat to be fixed to the bottom of a cycling specific shoe, which then “clips” into the pedals. To the new cyclist - yes, it’s confusing!


There’s then two types of clipless pedal, MTB style and Road style.


  • MTB style clipless pedals typically have multiple entry points where the cleat can attach to pedal, the most common being a dual sided pedal enabling. Road style pedals mostly have a single entry point into the pedal (with the exception of Speedplay, a dual sided road pedal system), making it slightly more difficult to clip into when you first set off, however the security and therefore pedalling efficiency is much greater. MTB style pedals are designed to deal with the demands of off-road riding, specifically the ability to still clip in when mud gets in the way of the cleat or pedal.
  • Road pedal clipless systems are designed for cleaner scenarios and therefore aren’t so well equipped to clear dirt out of the way. So if the majority of your riding will be on smooth surfaces, a road pedal is for you, but if you plan on mostly riding off road, or even mixing it up and taking on mixed terrains, the MTB style of pedal is your best bet.
MTB STYLE CLIPLESS IMAGE

MTB Style Clipless Pedals

Best for Mountain Biking, Gravel Riding and riding on mixed terrains.


Clipless MTB pedals connect to matching shoes with cleats (a metal peg on the sole of the shoe). The cleat then attached to the pedal, so when you push down on the pedal, all of your power is put straight into propelling you forward. When you want to come to a stop, simply twist you heel outwards and the cleat will unclip from the pedal and you’ll be able to put your foot down. New pedals can feel a little stiff, so it’s a good idea to back off the tension in the pedals to begin with (this is usually done with an allen key, but the pedals will come with instructions as to how to do this).


Mountain bike pedals with secure clip-in capabilities provide you a solid, dependable connection to your bike and enable you to push and pull on the pedals simultaneously for optimal power transmission. Because they lack the clips and straps of toe-clips or cages, they are referred to as "clipless." These multi-sided pedals are made to shed mud easily when riding off-road and enable easy clip-in. All types of off-road riding, including cross-country, enduro, gravel, and downhill, are perfect for them.


Mountain bike clipless pedals need to be used with mountain bike specific shoes. Typically mountain bike pedals use a two bolt cleat system, so you need to make sure that the shoes you buy are compatible with this. Mountain bike shoes will also have more grip on the bottom for walking around, meaning if you have to dismount your bike and push it up a steep hill for example, you’ll have plenty of grip walking in the mud.


2 bolt CLIPLESS IMAGE

Two bolt mountain biking clip-in system

Off-road cycling, commuting, and touring are the main uses of the two-bolt clip-in cleat/pedal combo.


A smaller metal cleat is used in this arrangement, and it is fastened to the cycling shoe with two bolts. It is simpler to clip in because the pedal's clip-in mechanism is on both sides. It is simpler to walk in mountain bike clip-in shoes than road clip-in shoes as the cleat is sunk into the tread of some shoes.


 
ROAD STYLE CLIPLESS IMAGE

Road Style Clipless Pedals

Clipless road pedals are the most efficient pedal system available, providing the most secure connection between you and the bike. This minimises energy waste by enabling you to push and pull on the pedals simultaneously. Whether you are climbing or sprinting, road pedals boost your stability and guarantee excellent power transmission. Road pedals designed for high performance are stiff to ensure that every watt of power you generate is delivered to the road.


Types of Road Style Clipless Pedals

While all road pedals function similarly, they all have different cleats, so always make sure the drillings in your shoes are compatible with the pedal system you intend to use. Due to the wider cleats and incompatibility with the recessed cleat drillings seen on mountain bike shoes, road pedals must be used with road shoes.


Most road pedals use a 3 bolt cleat system which is what road shoes will come with.


Speedplay pedals require a 4 bolt cleat system, requiring the use of an adapter plate to make them compatible with all road shoes. Look, who still manufactures high-performance pedals today and uses carbon pedal bodies to make some of the lightest pedals on the market, created the first clipless pedals.


Three bolt clip-in system

Road cycling is the primary use for the three-bolt system, sometimes referred to as SPD-SL under the Shimano brand name. The three bolts are used to fasten the wide plastic cleat to your shoe. Because the pedal's clip-in mechanism is one-sided only, you must make sure the pedal is positioned correctly before attempting to clip it in. Due to the way in which the pedal is weighted, you will have to “flick” the top of the pedal forward with your tie, which will then put you in the right place to clip in.


Three-bolt clip-in systems for road cycling give the pedal a bigger, more solid platform as the contact area between the cleat and pedal has a larger surface area, improving performance and power transmission. However, these are not ideal for walking in because the cleats are big and stick out of the tread of the shoe.


3 bolt CLIPLESS IMAGE

Four bolt clip-in system

Speedplay pedals require a 4 bolt cleat system, requiring the use of an adapter plate to make them compatible with all road shoes. Look, who still manufactures high-performance pedals today and uses carbon pedal bodies to make some of the lightest pedals on the market, created the first clipless pedals.


These are sometimes referred to as 'light action' pedals.


Speedplay cleats
Speedplay pedal
 

Which Pedal Type Is Right For Me?

Mountain bike and trail bike riders often prefer flat pedals

This is because they allow for changing your foot position when riding over rough terrain.


Flat pedals are ideal for a variety of different riding styles. Mountain bike and trail bike riders often prefer flat pedals because they allow for changing your foot position when riding over rough terrain. This is helpful for navigating obstacles, climbing hills and riding down steep descents.


When it comes to mountain biking and trail biking flat pedals may seem like an obvious choice but there are other scenarios where they can be beneficial too. If you're looking to get into mountain biking or want to improve your skills then starting out on these types of trails with flat shoes can help you get used to manoeuvring around difficult terrain more quickly than if you were wearing clipless shoes as well as improving balance and stability in general which will make it easier when going off-road later down the line.


Racers typically choose clipless pedals

This is because they deliver greater power to the pedal, because you can pull up on them as well as push down on them, offering superior power transfer compared with flat pedals (which only allow pushing). Some riders find this extra strength useful when climbing hills with steep grades that require additional effort from your legs and feet.


When choosing clipless pedals it's important to consider whether you'll walk in your cycling shoes. Mountain bike shoes have recessed cleats that make walking easier.


If you're a beginner, or if you plan on walking around with your cycling shoes on, you would be better off starting with flat pedals. Once you build up confidence on the bike, and maybe find that you feel your feet aren’t as securely connected to the pedals as you’d like, it might be time to try clipless pedals.


 

How To Ride With Clipless Pedals & Shoes

  • Set the clip tension on the pedal nice and loose. You don't need them really tight, unless you're performing stunts or want to do very aggressive climbing. Shimano SPD pedals can be adjusted with an allen key in the direction of the minus sign (other types of pedals adjust in a similar way).
  • Practise clipping and unclipping while leaning up against a wall, post, fence, etc. Practise both feet, several times - you'll find you have a favoured foot, so practise especially hard with the other one!
  • Go for a ride on a quiet road or smooth track. When you've got a nice pace going, clip in and out a few times (without stopping) to get the hang of it.
  • When you're ready to stop, give yourself plenty of time to unclip! Remember you can pedal quite easily with one pedal clipped in (your non-standing foot!) and one out, just resting on the pedal, before you stop.
  • Unclip with a firm, swift motion, rather than trying to tease your foot out gradually. Don't try to unclip both feet at the same time.
 
Cleats

Types of Cleats

Cleats are small devices that sit between your cycling shoes and your clipless pedals. They often wear from walking in your shoes, as they protrude from the shoe in order to clip-in and grip the bike pedal firmly.


What are the differences between mountain bike cleats and road cleats?

To avoid obstructing your mountain bike shoes' sticky lugs, mountain bike pedal cleats are smaller than road pedal cleats and are recessed into the sole. For stability while cornering or on challenging areas, the pedals are dual or multi-sided so you can swiftly clip back in if you have taken your foot out of the pedal. When you are riding loose, rooty, or rocky parts of a mountain bike, being clipped in can help you manoeuvre your bike more easily, and the stable connection can boost your confidence.


Compared to the platform of road pedals, some mountain bike pedals are rather tiny. They are small and shed dirt with ease, but have a very small surface area. There are pedals available which provide the best of both worlds, a flat pedal with a clip in mechanism inbuilt, giving you a bigger surface to support your feet against.


What do the different colour cleats mean?

Some manufacturers of three-bolt road cleats, including Look and Shimano, color-code them. This is to show how much "float" the cleat allows for. Once the cleat is secured to the pedal, the minimal amount of lateral rotation possible is referred to as "float."


Without any float, you risk a knee injury as 0° float pedals have to be set up exactly right according to your pedalling style. This is difficult to get right yourself, so it’s always best to go for a cleat with some float built in to give you more margin for error. Brands that provide cleats in the box with their pedals will always provide a cleat with float built in.


Depending on the float, Shimano and Look assign different colours to their cleats:


Shimano SPD-SL Pedal Cleats
  • Red 0° Float
  • Blue 2° Float (provided with high-end e.g. Dura-Ace SPD-SL pedals)
  • Yellow 6° Float (provided with most Shimano SPD-SL pedals)
Look Pedal Cleats
  • Black 0° Float
  • Grey 4.5° Float
  • Red 9° Float

Conclusion

The best pedal for you will depend on what kind of riding you do. In general, flat pedals are the most versatile, while clipless pedals offer the greatest benefits to racers and enthusiasts.


Pedals FAQ

While all road pedals function similarly, they all have different cleats, so always make sure the drillings in your shoes are compatible with the pedal system you intend to use. Due to the wider cleats and incompatibility with the recessed cleat drillings seen on mountain bike shoes, road pedals must be used with road shoes.Most road pedals use a 3 bolt cleat system which is what road shoes will come with.Speedplay pedals require a 4 bolt cleat system, requiring the use of an adapter plate to make them compatible with all road shoes. Look, who still manufactures high-performance pedals today and uses carbon pedal bodies to make some of the lightest pedals on the market, created the first clipless pedals.

Consider both the pedals and the cleats when selecting a new system. Every pedal system allows some float, which is the range of motion between the cleat and the pedal that is measured in degrees. As you press down on the pedals, your foot may rotate a greater amount the more float a pedal has. Some systems, like Shimano SPD-SL, provide a variety of cleats with varying levels of float. To avoid any knee pain or injuries, it's critical that you set up your shoes and pedals properly.Plastic cleats need to be checked and replaced often since they wear out quickly if you walk around in them a lot. Badly worn cleats can cause your foot to detach from the pedal which can be dangerous, so it’s important you keep checking your cleats for wear.

In contrast to mountain bike pedals, most road pedals are single-sided, as the frequency at which you will clip in and out of your pedals is much smaller on the road. Speedplay is an outlier to this rule. These pedals have two sides, are smaller, and some people find it simpler to clip them in while moving.

Shimano and Speedplay both have Light Action road pedals if you want to test clipped pedals but are unsure of how simple they are to use. The pedal includes a light action mechanism that makes it simpler to clip in and out. Shimano has a minimal maintenance sealed cartridge axle unit and a large pedal platform to promote foot-pedal stability. These are specifically designed for cyclists who would like to experiment with clipping in but would prefer a quicker release so they can experience the comfort and power transfer to the pedals without feeling constrained.

Clipless pedals are designed to attach your shoes to the pedals securely, however they’re also designed to unclip when they need to. So if you were to fall off your bike, you can be assured that you won’t remain attached to the bike by your feet, they will automatically detach.If you’re new to clipless pedals, it’s a good idea to lower the tension between the cleat and pedal while you get used to it. This adjustment is made on the pedal (there’ll be instructions with the pedals on how to do this).It’s also a good idea to practice clipping in and clipping out of the pedals, perhaps by holding onto a wall while you clip in and out, just to get used to the motion and feel of it.

In general, clipless pedals are significantly more efficient than flat pedals. On flats, as your foot isn’t fixed in place, some of the force you produce with each pedal stroke is wasted.. When you’re clipped in, a much greater proportion of this energy goes into forward motion.

The term clipless can be confusing. Why would pedals which clip in and out be called clipless? The answer is that up until the 1980s when they were introduced, the options were plain (flat) pedals, or pedals with a toe clip and straps.The mechanism for these pedals draws heavily on ski binding technology and was made popular by a French ski binding manufacturer called Look. A cleat is attached to the bottom of a rigid cycling shoe and special pedals are attached to the cranks. Most work by positioning the front of the cleat in the pedal and then pressing down until the cleat is engaged with a firm click.Getting in and, more importantly, out of the pedals can put a lot of people off using them. In fact, many a cyclist has had an embarrassing moment when they stop (voluntarily or perhaps through exhaustion) without clipping out!

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Author

Sian Botteley / Nik Hudson
06/07/2022