Shimano SPD vs SPD-SL: Which Pedals Are Better for You

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If you’re a cyclist, you know that choosing the right pedals can make a significant impact on your riding experience. Shimano, one of the leading manufacturers of cycling components, offers two popular options: SPD and SPD-SL. Both are clipless pedals that provide a secure connection between your shoes and the bike, but they have different designs, features, and benefits. In this article, we’ll compare and contrast SPD and SPD-SL pedals to help you decide which one is more suitable for your needs and preferences.

SPD vs SPD-SL: Compatibility

First up, we have SPD pedals. SPD stands for Shimano Pedaling Dynamics, and these pedals use a two-bolt system. This type of pedal is commonly found on mountain bikes but can also be used for road cycling. One of the main advantages of SPD pedals is their versatility.

When it comes to shoes, SPD pedals are compatible with most mountain bike shoes and some road shoes. This means you have a wide range of footwear options to choose from. Whether you’re hitting the trails or cruising on the open road, you can use the same pair of shoes with your SPD pedals.

In terms of walking, SPD pedals are a winner. The recessed cleat design allows for easy walking, making them ideal for riders who frequently dismount or need to walk around off the bike. So, if you’re planning to do some exploring on foot during your cycling adventures, SPD pedals are a great choice.

Some popular shoes and cleats that work with SPD pedals include the Shimano SH-ME7 mountain bike shoes and the Shimano SH56 multi-release cleats.

Next, we have SPD-SL pedals. SPD-SL stands for Shimano Pedaling Dynamics – Super Light. These pedals use a three-bolt system and are commonly used for road cycling. If you’re serious about road racing or looking to maximize power transfer, SPD-SL pedals are worth considering.

When it comes to shoes, SPD-SL pedals are compatible with most road cycling shoes and some mountain bike shoes. If you’re a road cyclist, you’ll have a wide range of shoe options to choose from. However, if you plan on hitting the trails with your mountain bike, you might need a different pair of shoes.

In terms of performance, SPD-SL pedals offer a more aerodynamic and stiff platform compared to SPD pedals. This can result in better power transfer and efficiency, especially during high-speed rides and races. However, it’s important to note that the increased stiffness might not be as comfortable for longer rides or when walking off the bike.

Some popular shoes and cleats that work with SPD-SL pedals include the Shimano RP9 road cycling shoes and the Shimano SM-SH11 cleats.

Pros and Cons

Now that we’ve explored the compatibility of SPD and SPD-SL pedals, let’s summarize the pros and cons of each system:

SPD Pedals:

  • Pros: More versatile, can use the same shoes for different bikes and terrains, easier to walk in.
  • Cons: Less aerodynamic, less stiff, less power transfer.

SPD-SL Pedals:

  • Pros: More aerodynamic, more stiff, more power transfer.
  • Cons: Less versatile, need different shoes for different bikes and terrains, harder to walk in.

SPD vs SPD-SL: Performance

One of the main features of SPD pedals is that they allow riders to clip in and out quickly and easily, making them ideal for technical terrain where frequent foot contact is required.

In off-road cycling, traction and stability are crucial. SPD pedals provide a secure connection between the shoe and pedal, allowing riders to confidently tackle challenging trails. The small cleat design and recessed mounting system also make it easier to walk when off the bike.

However, in terms of pure performance on the road, SPD pedals have some drawbacks. The smaller cleat size reduces the contact area between the shoe and pedal, resulting in less efficient power transfer. This can lead to a loss of speed and energy compared to larger road-specific pedal systems.

Unlike SPD pedals, SPD-SL pedals feature a larger cleat and a wider platform, providing a more stable and efficient pedaling experience. The larger contact area between the shoe and pedal ensures better power transfer, allowing riders to generate more speed with each pedal stroke.

While SPD-SL pedals excel in terms of speed and efficiency, they are less versatile than SPD pedals. The larger cleat design makes it more challenging to walk in road shoes, and the fixed connection between the shoe and pedal may not be ideal for riders who need to frequently clip in and out, such as in stop-and-go urban traffic or during group rides with frequent stops.

Pros and Cons

To summarize the performance differences between SPD and SPD-SL pedals, here are some pros and cons of each system:

SPD Pedals:

  • Pros: More control in technical off-road terrain; Greater maneuverability for precise foot placement; Enhanced safety with easy clip-in and clip-out.
  • Cons: Less smooth and consistent power transfer compared to road-specific pedals; Lower efficiency, resulting in reduced speed on the road.

SPD-SL Pedals:

  • Pros: Smoother and more consistent power transfer for increased efficiency; Improved speed and performance on the road; Greater stability and power for long-distance rides.
  • Cons: Less control and maneuverability in off-road or stop-and-go situations; Limited walkability due to the larger cleat design.

SPD vs SPD-SL: Comfort

SPD pedals have a smaller contact area between the pedal and the shoe compared to SPD-SL pedals. This smaller contact area can lead to increased pressure and hot spots on the foot, especially during longer rides. If you’ve ever experienced discomfort or pain in your feet while cycling, it could be due to the smaller contact area of SPD pedals.

On the other hand, SPD-SL pedals, commonly used in road cycling, have a larger contact area between the pedal and the shoe. This larger contact area helps distribute the pressure more evenly, reducing the likelihood of hot spots and discomfort. If you prioritize comfort on your rides, SPD-SL pedals may be a better option for you.

Let’s dive deeper into how each pedal system affects the comfort of the rider:

SPD Pedals:

  • Pros: More adjustable: SPD pedals offer a greater range of adjustability, allowing you to find the perfect cleat position for your feet; More forgiving: The smaller contact area of SPD pedals makes them more forgiving when it comes to cleat placement; More adaptable: SPD pedals are compatible with a wide range of shoes, including those designed for off-road riding.
  • Cons: More cramped: The smaller contact area means your foot is more confined on the pedal, which can feel cramped, especially during long rides; More painful: The increased pressure on a smaller surface area can lead to discomfort and even pain in certain areas of the foot; More fatiguing: The lack of support and larger pressure points can contribute to foot fatigue over time.

SPD-SL Pedals:

  • Pros: More spacious: The larger contact area of SPD-SL pedals provides more room for your foot to spread out, reducing the feeling of confinement; More comfortable: The even distribution of pressure across the foot minimizes hot spots and discomfort, resulting in a more comfortable ride; More supportive: The wider platform of SPD-SL pedals offers better support for your foot, reducing the strain on your muscles and joints.
  • Cons: Less adjustable: SPD-SL pedals have less adjustability compared to SPD pedals, which may make it more challenging to find the optimal cleat position; Less forgiving: The larger contact area means that cleat misalignment can have a more significant impact on your comfort and performance; Less adaptable: SPD-SL pedals are primarily designed for road cycling shoes, limiting their compatibility with other types of footwear.

SPD vs SPD-SL: Ease of Use

Let’s start with SPD pedals. Another one of the biggest advantages of SPD pedals is their ease of clipping in and out. The design of the pedal allows for easy engagement and disengagement, even in muddy or slippery conditions.

With SPD pedals, you don’t have to worry about fumbling to find the right side of the pedal, as they are dual-sided. This means you can clip in no matter which side of the pedal is facing up. This feature is particularly useful when you’re starting from a standstill or need to quickly clip in during a busy intersection.

On the other hand, SPD-SL pedals are often preferred by road cyclists and racers who prioritize power transfer and efficiency, which we have mentioned before. While they may not be as beginner-friendly as SPD pedals, they offer a more secure and stable connection between the shoe and the pedal.

One of the key differences between SPD and SPD-SL pedals is the single-sided design of the latter. This means that you need to make sure the cleat on your shoe aligns perfectly with the pedal before clipping in. This can take some practice, especially in traffic or crowded situations where you may not have the luxury of time to align your foot perfectly.

To help you decide which pedal system is best for you, let’s break down the pros and cons of each:

SPD Pedals:

  • Pros: SPD pedals are more user-friendly and accessible, making them a great choice for beginners. They are also more practical in situations where you need to quickly clip in and out, such as commuting or mountain biking. 
  • Cons: While SPD pedals are easy to use, they do sacrifice some security and stability. The smaller cleat and pedal interface may not provide the same level of power transfer as SPD-SL pedals, which can be a drawback for more serious racers.

SPD-SL Pedals:

  • Pros: SPD-SL pedals offer a more secure and stable connection, providing better power transfer and efficiency. They are a favorite among road cyclists who prioritize performance. 
  • Cons: The learning curve for clipping in and out of SPD-SL pedals can be steeper, especially in busy or high-pressure situations. They are also less practical for activities that require frequent clipping in and out, such as commuting or mountain biking.

SPD vs SPD-SL: Maintenance

Another one of the key differences between SPD and SPD-SL pedals is their durability and resistance to wear and tear. SPD pedals are known for their ruggedness and ability to withstand rough conditions. Their mechanism is simpler and more robust, which makes them less prone to damage. This means that SPD pedals generally require less maintenance and can last longer before needing replacement.

On the other hand, SPD-SL pedals are more delicate and prone to wear and tear. Their mechanism is more complex, with a larger contact area and a stiffer platform. While this design provides better power transfer and stability, it also means that the pedals are more susceptible to damage. The cleats on SPD-SL pedals can wear out relatively quickly, especially if you frequently walk in them. As a result, SPD-SL pedals require more maintenance and may need replacement more often.

When it comes to servicing and replacing parts, SPD pedals have the advantage. The design of SPD pedals allows for easier and cheaper maintenance. The cleats are replaceable and can be easily swapped out when they wear down. Additionally, if any part of the pedal mechanism needs servicing or replacement, it can usually be done with basic tools and minimal hassle.

On the other hand, servicing and replacing parts on SPD-SL pedals can be more challenging and expensive. The cleats on SPD-SL pedals are not as easily replaceable as those on SPD pedals. They require specific tools and may require professional assistance. If any part of the pedal mechanism needs servicing or replacement, it can be more complex and costly.

Pros and Cons

To summarize, here are the pros and cons of each pedal system when it comes to maintenance:

SPD Pedals:

  • Pros: More durable, resistant to wear and tear, simpler mechanism, easier and cheaper to service and replace.
  • Cons: Less refined, less elegant, less performance-oriented.

SPD-SL Pedals:

  • Pros: More refined, more elegant, more performance-oriented.
  • Cons: Less durable, more prone to wear and tear, more complex and expensive mechanism, harder and costlier to service and replace.

SPD vs SPD-SL: Stack Height

Stack height is an important factor to consider when choosing pedals for your bike. It refers to the distance between the pedal and the shoe and can have a significant impact on your pedaling efficiency and biomechanics.

SPD pedals have a higher stack height compared to SPD-SL pedals, which means that your foot is positioned farther away from the pedal axle. This can be advantageous in certain situations, such as when riding on rough terrain or in muddy conditions, as it provides more clearance between the pedal and the ground.

On the other hand, SPD-SL pedals have a lower stack height. This means that your foot is positioned closer to the pedal axle, resulting in a more direct transfer of power from your legs to the pedals. The lower stack height of SPD-SL pedals also promotes better biomechanical alignment, reducing the risk of knee pain or discomfort during long rides.

To better understand how stack height affects the rider, let’s consider a few examples. Imagine you’re tackling a technical trail on your mountain bike with SPD pedals. The higher stack height allows you to navigate obstacles with ease, as your foot is less likely to strike rocks or roots. However, the higher stack height can also lead to more flex in the shoe, which may result in a slight loss of power when pedaling.

Now, let’s switch gears and imagine you’re participating in a road race with SPD-SL pedals. The lower stack height of these pedals provides a more efficient transfer of power, allowing you to generate maximum speed. Additionally, the lower stack height promotes proper alignment of your knees, reducing the risk of injury and improving pedaling efficiency.

While each pedal system has its advantages and disadvantages in terms of stack height, it ultimately comes down to personal preference and the type of cycling you enjoy. Here’s a breakdown of the pros and cons of each system:

SPD Pedals:

  • Pros: More clearance between the pedal and the ground, ideal for off-road riding; Increased leverage when pedaling, especially useful when climbing steep terrain; More comfort for riders who prefer a slightly higher stack height.
  • Cons: The higher stack height may result in more flex in the shoe, leading to a slight loss of power; The increased stack height may put more stress on the knees during long rides.

SPD-SL Pedals:

  • Pros: Lower stack height allows for a more direct transfer of power from the legs to the pedals; Better biomechanical alignment of the knees, reducing the risk of knee pain or discomfort; Increased stiffness for optimal power transfer, ideal for road cycling and racing.
  • Cons: Less clearance between the pedal and the ground, making them less suitable for off-road or gravel riding; Reduced leverage compared to SPD pedals, which may be noticeable when climbing steep hills; Some riders may find the lower stack height less comfortable, especially if they prefer a higher foot position.

SPD vs SPD-SL: Weight

Let’s start by talking about SPD pedals. When it comes to weight, SPD pedals have the advantage over SPD-SL pedals. They are generally lighter, which means that riders have less rotational mass to accelerate and decelerate.

The weight advantage of SPD pedals can have a noticeable impact on a rider’s performance. With less weight on the feet, riders can feel more agile and responsive on the bike. This is particularly beneficial in off-road riding, where quick and precise movements are often required. Additionally, the lighter weight of SPD pedals can contribute to a more comfortable riding experience, especially on long-distance rides.

On the other hand, SPD-SL pedals are generally heavier than SPD pedals.

The added weight of SPD-SL pedals means that riders have more rotational mass to accelerate and decelerate. While this may seem like a disadvantage, the weight distribution can actually work in favor of road cyclists. The additional weight provides a sense of stability and can contribute to a smoother pedal stroke, especially at higher speeds. Additionally, the increased weight can lead to a more efficient transfer of power from the legs to the pedals, resulting in improved performance.

SPD Pedals:

  • Pros: More agile, more responsive, more comfortable.
  • Cons: Less stable, less smooth, less efficient.

SPD-SL Pedals:

  • Pros: More stable, more smooth, more efficient.
  • Cons: Less agile, less responsive, less comfortable.

SPD vs SPD-SL: Float

Float refers to the amount of angular movement allowed by the pedal and cleat when you’re clipped in. It’s important because it can affect the alignment and health of your joints, particularly your knees. Having the right amount of float can reduce the risk of injury and improve comfort on long rides.

SPD pedals offer more float compared to SPD-SL pedals. This means that when you’re clipped in, your feet can rotate more freely on the pedals. This can be beneficial for riders who prefer a natural foot movement and those who have knee issues.

Imagine you’re climbing a steep hill on your mountain bike. As you pedal, your feet naturally want to move from side to side to find the most comfortable position. With SPD pedals, you have the freedom to make those adjustments without feeling restricted. This can reduce strain on your knees and improve your overall comfort on the bike.

On the other hand, SPD-SL pedals offer less float compared to SPD pedals. This means that your feet have less freedom to rotate on the pedals once you’re clipped in. The cleats on SPD-SL pedals have a fixed position, which provides a more secure and locked-in feeling.

If you’re a road cyclist who values efficiency and power transfer, SPD-SL pedals may be the better option for you. The reduced float allows for a more stable and controlled pedaling motion, which can enhance your performance on the bike. The fixed position of the cleats also provides a more precise connection between your feet and the pedals.

Pros and Cons of Each System

SPD Pedals:

  • Pros: The increased float of SPD pedals allows for a more natural foot movement, making them more comfortable for riders who prefer a bit of wiggle room. They are also more forgiving when it comes to knee alignment, making them a good choice for riders with knee issues.
  • Cons: The trade-off for more float is less precision and consistency. The freedom of movement can sometimes lead to a less efficient pedaling stroke, especially when you’re putting down maximum power.

SPD-SL Pedals:

  • Pros: The reduced float of SPD-SL pedals provides a more precise and controlled pedaling motion, which can be advantageous for road cyclists who prioritize efficiency and power transfer. The fixed position of the cleats ensures a secure connection between your feet and the pedals.
  • Cons: The decreased float can feel less natural and comfortable, especially for riders who prefer a bit more movement. They are also less forgiving when it comes to knee alignment, so proper bike fit and cleat positioning are crucial.

SPD vs SPD-SL: Release Tension

Release tension refers to the force required to unclip from the pedal and the cleat. It plays a crucial role in the security and ease of use for riders.

SPD pedals have lower release tension. This means that riders can unclip more easily and quickly from the pedals compared to SPD-SL. For beginners or riders who frequently need to put a foot down, the lower release tension of SPD pedals can be a game-changer. It allows for quick and effortless unclipping, providing a sense of security and ease. This can be particularly beneficial in situations where sudden stops or technical maneuvers are required, such as mountain biking or urban commuting.

Unlike SPD pedals, SPD-SL pedals have higher release tension. This means that riders need more force and time to unclip from the pedals. The higher release tension of SPD-SL pedals offers enhanced security, stability, and confidence to riders during high-speed road cycling. By requiring a deliberate and intentional motion to unclip, SPD-SL pedals ensure that riders stay securely connected to their bikes, especially during sprints, climbs, and fast-paced group rides.

Pros and Cons

Let’s take a closer look at the pros and cons of each pedal system in terms of release tension:

SPD Pedals:

  • Pros: The lower release tension makes SPD pedals more convenient and accessible for beginners and riders who need to frequently unclip. They provide a quick and effortless unclipping experience.
  • Cons: However, the lower release tension of SPD pedals may compromise the security and stability for riders during intense or high-speed cycling. Riders may accidentally unclip, leading to potential falls or loss of control.

SPD-SL Pedals:

  • Pros: The higher release tension of SPD-SL pedals offers enhanced security, stability, and confidence to riders during high-speed road cycling. Riders can be assured of a secure connection to their bikes during intense efforts.
  • Cons: However, the higher release tension can make unclipping more challenging, especially for beginners or riders who need to frequently put a foot down. It requires more force and deliberate motion to unclip, which may lead to slower and less intuitive release.

Conclusion

When it comes to choosing between Shimano SPD and SPD-SL pedals, it ultimately depends on your riding style, preferences, and goals. SPD pedals are a versatile option that excels in off-road riding and provides a more comfortable and forgiving experience. On the other hand, SPD-SL pedals are designed for road cycling and offer better power transfer and efficiency. Consider factors such as compatibility, performance, comfort, ease of use, maintenance, stack height, weight, float, and release tension to make an informed decision that suits your needs. Happy pedaling!

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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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