A Beginner Guide to Bike Cleats

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Bike cleats are a game-changer for cycling enthusiasts, offering a whole new level of efficiency and control on the bike. In this article, we’ll dive into what bike cleats are, how they work, the benefits and drawbacks of using them, the types, how to choose ones for your needs, and more. So, if you’re curious about whether bike cleats are right for you, keep reading!

What Are Bike Cleats and How Do They Work

Bike cleats are small metal or plastic attachments that fit on the sole of your cycling shoes and snap into a set of spring-loaded clips on the face of the pedal. This creates a secure connection between your shoes and the pedals, allowing you to pedal with more power and efficiency.

When you use bike cleats, you’ll notice that your feet are firmly attached to the pedals, providing a stable and secure platform for your pedaling motion. This connection allows you to transfer power more effectively from your legs to the pedals, resulting in a smoother and more efficient pedaling stroke.

The Benefits of Using Bike Cleats

1. Improved Power and Efficiency: With bike cleats, you can engage more muscles in your pedal stroke, especially your glutes and hamstrings. This increased muscle engagement leads to greater power output and improved pedaling efficiency.

2. Better Control and Stability: When your feet are securely attached to the pedals, you’ll experience enhanced control and stability on the bike. This is especially beneficial when riding in challenging terrain or in wet and slippery conditions.

3. Reduced Risk of Injury: Bike cleats promote proper alignment of your feet, knees, and hips, which can help reduce the risk of overuse injuries. By keeping your joints in the correct position, you’ll minimize stress and strain on your body, allowing for a more comfortable and injury-free ride.

4. Consistent Cadence: One of the key advantages of bike cleats is the ability to pull up on the pedals during the upstroke. This motion helps maintain a smooth and consistent cadence, reducing the likelihood of “dead spots” in your pedal stroke and maximizing your overall efficiency.

The Drawbacks of Using Bike Cleats

1. Learning Curve: Using bike cleats requires a learning curve and an adjustment period. It takes time and practice to become comfortable with clipping in and out of the pedals smoothly and efficiently. However, with practice, it becomes second nature.

2. Potential for Falling or Crashing: One of the biggest concerns for new cleat users is the fear of falling or crashing. Failing to unclip in time or properly can result in a topple over, especially when coming to a sudden stop or encountering unexpected obstacles. However, this risk can be minimized by practicing unclipping in a safe and controlled environment.

3. Additional Cost and Maintenance: Using bike cleats means investing in specific cycling shoes, compatible pedals, and cleats themselves. This adds to the overall cost of cycling gear. Additionally, cleats may need occasional replacement due to wear and tear.

4. Reduced Versatility and Convenience: Bike cleats are designed for cycling-specific shoes and pedals, which means you may need to change shoes or pedals for different types of riding or situations. This can be less convenient compared to using regular flat pedals, which allow you to wear any type of shoe.

Types of Bike Cleats

1. SPD (Shimano Pedaling Dynamics)

Let’s start with the most common and versatile type of bike cleats: SPD cleats. These cleats are suitable for various disciplines, including road cycling, mountain biking, touring, commuting, and indoor cycling. What makes them so popular is their practicality and durability.

SPD cleats are small, metal cleats that are recessed into the sole of your cycling shoes. This design allows for easy walking without damaging the cleats or the floor. It’s a feature that comes in handy when you need to make pit stops during long rides or if you’re a commuter who needs to walk around town.

These cleats have two bolts, which attach them to the cycling shoe. The tension and angle of the cleats can be adjusted to suit your preference and riding style. This adjustability ensures proper alignment and reduces the risk of discomfort or injury.

One of the significant features of SPD cleats is their range of float. Float refers to the degree of lateral movement your foot can have on the pedal before releasing. Depending on the model, SPD cleats offer a range of float from 0 to 15 degrees. This float can provide some relief for your joints and help reduce the risk of knee pain or injuries.

2. SPD-SL

If you’re primarily a road cyclist looking for improved performance and aerodynamics, SPD-SL cleats might be the right choice for you. These cleats are a road-specific version of SPD cleats and are designed with speed and efficiency in mind.

Unlike SPD cleats, SPD-SL cleats are larger and made of plastic. They protrude from the sole of your cycling shoes, which means walking in them can be a bit challenging, especially on slippery surfaces. However, the larger surface area offers better power transfer and stability on the pedals.

Similar to SPD cleats, SPD-SL cleats have three bolts for attachment to the shoe. The tension and angle can be adjusted to achieve the desired fit and comfort. However, keep in mind that once you set the tension, it’s not as easily adjustable on the go as with SPD cleats.

When it comes to float, SPD-SL cleats offer a range from 0 to 6 degrees, depending on the color and model. The limited float provides a more locked-in feeling, which can be beneficial for sprinting or climbing. However, it may not be as forgiving on your joints compared to cleats with more float.

3. Look

Another popular type of road-specific bike cleats is Look cleats. These cleats share some similarities with SPD-SL cleats but also have their distinct features. Look cleats are known for their triangular shape and wider platform, which provide better stability and power transfer.

Like SPD-SL cleats, Look cleats are made of plastic and protrude from the sole of your shoes. Walking in them can be a bit challenging, so they are better suited for road cycling rather than commuting or touring.

Look cleats also have three bolts for attachment to the shoe, and the tension and angle can be adjusted to your preference. The wider platform of Look cleats distributes the pressure more evenly across the foot, reducing hot spots and improving comfort on long rides.

In terms of float, Look cleats offer a range from 0 to 9 degrees, depending on the color and model. The additional float compared to SPD-SL cleats can provide some flexibility for your joints, allowing for a more natural pedaling motion.

4. Speedplay

If you’re a road cyclist or triathlete looking for a unique and high-performance option, Speedplay cleats might catch your attention. These cleats have a circular shape and a dual-sided entry, which allows for quick and easy engagement with the pedals.

Speedplay cleats are small, metal cleats that are recessed into the sole of your cycling shoes. This design offers the advantage of walkability without damaging the cleats or the floor. It’s a feature appreciated by those who need to dismount frequently during races or training sessions.

Unlike the previous types of cleats we discussed, Speedplay cleats have four bolts for attachment to the shoe. This design provides a secure connection and allows for adjustments in tension, angle, and fore-aft position. The ability to fine-tune these settings can help you achieve optimal comfort and efficiency on the bike.

In terms of float, Speedplay cleats offer a range from 0 to 15 degrees, depending on the model. This generous float can accommodate different pedaling styles and provide some relief for your joints, especially during long rides or intense efforts.

How to Choose the Right Bike Cleats for Your Needs

Choosing the right bike cleats can significantly enhance your riding experience and prevent discomfort or injury. In this part, I’ll share some tips on how to choose the right bike cleats for your needs and recommend some of the best options on the market.

1. Consider Your Riding Style and Preference

The first factor to consider when choosing bike cleats is your riding style and preference. Different cleat systems are designed for specific types of cycling, such as road cycling, mountain biking, commuting, or indoor cycling. Each discipline has different demands and priorities, so it’s crucial to choose cleats that align with your goals. For example, road cyclists typically prioritize maximum power transfer and aerodynamics, while mountain bikers may prioritize ease of walking and durability.

2. Check Pedal and Shoe Compatibility

Next, you’ll need to consider the compatibility between your pedals and shoes. Different pedal systems require specific cleat designs, and not all cleats are compatible with all shoes. The most common road cleat system is the three-bolt pattern, such as Look Keo or Shimano SPD-SL. Mountain bike cleats, on the other hand, typically use a two-bolt pattern, such as Shimano SPD or Crankbrothers Eggbeater. Before purchasing cleats, check the compatibility with your existing pedals or the pedals you plan to buy. Additionally, ensure that your cycling shoes have the appropriate drill-hole pattern for the cleats you choose.

3. Prioritize Comfort and Injury Prevention

Comfort and injury prevention should be a top priority when selecting bike cleats. One essential factor to consider is the amount of float offered by the cleats. Float refers to the amount of rotational movement your foot has when clipped into the pedals. Some riders prefer a significant amount of float to reduce stress on their knees and ankles, while others prefer a more fixed position for maximum power transfer. It’s crucial to find the right balance that suits your comfort and riding style.

Additionally, consider the adjustability of the cleats. Some cleat systems offer more fine-tuning options for fore-aft and lateral positioning, allowing you to optimize your foot placement on the pedals. Proper alignment can reduce the risk of hotspots, numbness, and discomfort during long rides.

4. Factor in Your Budget and Durability

Budget and durability are also essential considerations when choosing bike cleats. Cleats come in a range of prices, depending on the brand and materials used. Higher-end cleats often offer more adjustability and durability, but they also come with a higher price tag. Consider how often you ride and how frequently you’re willing to replace your cleats. If you’re a casual rider or on a tight budget, there are plenty of affordable options available that still offer excellent performance and durability. 

How to Use Bike Cleats Safely and Effectively

If you’re a cycling enthusiast looking to take your riding experience to the next level, using bike cleats can greatly enhance your performance and efficiency on the bike. However, 

It’s important to know how to use bike cleats safely and effectively to avoid any mishaps or injuries. In this section, we’ll guide you through the process of installing and adjusting bike cleats, clipping and unclipping on the road or trail, improving your pedaling technique, and maintaining your cleats and pedals.

1. Installing and Adjusting Bike Cleats

Installing bike cleats on your shoes and pedals is the first step to using them. Here’s how you can do it safely and effectively:

1. Follow the instructions: Start by reading the instructions provided by the manufacturer of your cleats, pedals, and shoes. Different cleat systems may have specific installation and adjustment procedures, so it’s important to follow the guidelines provided.

2. Align the cleats: Position the cleats on your cycling shoes so that they align with the ball of your foot and the center of the pedal. This will ensure an optimal transfer of power and reduce the risk of knee pain or discomfort.

3. Tighten the bolts: Use the appropriate tools to tighten the bolts that secure the cleats to your shoes. Make sure they are secure, but not overly tight, as you may need to adjust them later for optimal comfort and performance.

4. Set the tension: Set the tension of your pedals to the lowest setting, especially if you’re new to using bike cleats. This will make it easier for you to clip in and out until you become more comfortable with the system.

5. Test the fit: Before hitting the road or trail, it’s important to test the fit and feel of your cleats. You can do this by clipping and unclipping them on a stationary bike or a trainer. Pay attention to any discomfort or instability and make adjustments as needed.

2. Clipping and Unclipping Bike Cleats

Once you have installed and adjusted your bike cleats, it’s time to learn how to clip in and out effectively. Here are some tips to help you master this skill:

1. Clipping in: To clip in, align your foot with the pedal and push down firmly until you hear a click. This indicates that your cleat is securely engaged with the pedal. Practice this motion until it becomes second nature.

2. Unclipping: To unclip, twist your heel outward away from the bike until you feel the cleat release from the pedal. Start by practicing this motion in a safe and traffic-free area until you’re comfortable with the movement.

3. Anticipate when to unclip: It’s important to anticipate when you need to unclip, such as at stop signs, intersections, or when approaching obstacles. This will prevent any sudden surprises and help you maintain control and balance.

4. Unclip one foot at a time: When coming to a stop or preparing to dismount, unclip one foot at a time while keeping the other foot firmly clipped in. This will provide stability and allow for quick acceleration when needed.

3. Improving Your Pedaling Technique

Using bike cleats can also help improve your pedaling technique and efficiency. Here are some tips to keep in mind:

1. Maintain a smooth and circular motion: Rather than pushing and pulling on the pedals, focus on maintaining a smooth and circular motion. This will help you distribute your effort evenly and reduce the risk of muscle fatigue.

2. Monitor your cadence: Use a cadence sensor or a bike computer to monitor your pedaling speed. Aim for a cadence range of 80 to 100 revolutions per minute (rpm) for optimal efficiency and power output.

3. Vary your intensity and duration: Depending on your fitness level and riding goals, vary your pedaling intensity and duration. Incorporate high-cadence spinning drills, low-cadence grinding, and single-leg pedaling exercises to strengthen your muscles and improve your coordination.

4. Seek professional advice: To optimize your pedaling form and posture, consider seeking feedback and advice from a professional coach or a bike fitter. They can provide valuable insights and help you make adjustments that will enhance your performance.

4. Caring for and Maintaining Your Bike Cleats and Pedals

To ensure the longevity and optimal performance of your bike cleats and pedals, it’s important to take care of them. Here are some maintenance tips:

1. Cleaning: Regularly clean your cleats and pedals with a soft brush and a damp cloth to remove dirt and debris. This will prevent any buildup that could affect their functionality.

2. Lubrication: Occasionally lubricate your cleats and pedals with a light oil or grease to prevent squeaking and corrosion. Be sure to use a lubricant that is compatible with the materials of your cleats and pedals.

3. Check for wear and tear: Inspect your cleats and pedals for signs of wear and tear, such as cracks, chips, or loose bolts. Replace them if they are damaged or no longer provide a smooth and secure clipping experience.

4. Keep a spare set: It’s always a good idea to have a spare set of cleats and pedals on hand, especially for emergency situations or when traveling. This way, you’ll be prepared in case of any unexpected issues.

Conclusion

Bike cleats offer numerous benefits to cyclists, including improved power, efficiency, control, and reduced risk of injury. However, they do come with a learning curve and require an investment in specific gear. Whether or not to use bike cleats ultimately depends on your personal preferences, riding style, and goals. If you’re looking to take your cycling performance to the next level, bike cleats are definitely worth considering. Just be prepared for a little practice and adjustment period as you get used to this new way of riding. Happy cycling! 

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AUTHOR

Randy Joycelyn

Randy is the founder and editor of Cycling Soigneur. He has been passionate about cycling since he was a kid. He has been riding bikes for over 10 years. Cycling has just become a part of life.

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