STEPPING IN: A GUIDE TO GOING CLIPLESS
Clipless pedals offer a wealth of advantages and not only to racers. The most effective and efficient connection between rider and machine but with faster, safer release compared with old school clips and straps.
Back in the day
Clipless pedals have been popular within racing circles since the early 1980s. However, though the external cleat and super stiff soled shoes are incredibly efficient for riding, they’re less conducive to more general everyday riding, let alone commuting. Hobbling is as close as you’ll get to walking and runs the risk of gouging a chunk out of expensive flooring.
Nonetheless, I ran them for many years and not just on my road race bike. Then in 1990, Shimano unveiled their SPD system, referred to affectionately, as Spuds.
Devised for cross country mountain bikers, they use a recessed cleat, which allows you to walk and indeed run with the bike. Little wonder they developed a much bigger following.
Decades later, Look’s three bolt remains the dominant model for road biased riding and SPD for dirt and others. However, there are credible alternatives and those seeking a two-bolt recessed system are spoilt for choice. Similarly, I have run Look Keo patterns on my drop bar mtb builds and SPD on my road bikes.
The former was a means of making my daily driver less appealing to thieves when locked up on London streets. However, the need to carry a pair of loafers or trainers to change into was a pain. There are resin covers that allow them to be converted to flats (and used with regular street shoes) for short commutes. They’re surprisingly effective too.
Look Keo (Pattern)
Look Keo (and their predecessors) are a three-bolt design. One which enables shoes to use incredibly stiff soles. There are two basic types of cleat. The black, which have no float and the reed, which do. Assuming the cleats have been correctly aligned, knee trouble shouldn’t present, and of the two, the black offer a snappier entry/release.
However, “Float” (permitting small amounts of movement) places less strain on the joints, so arguably a better choice for those who are susceptible to knee, and related problems. These are also single-sided, which isn’t overly problematic. These weighted designs mean clipping in is straightforward but requires a more definite knack when re-engaging, say in slow-moving traffic, or need to steady yourself on a particularly slippery stretch of road.
At the other extreme, the relatively generous platform offers a lot of support to the feet, which has obvious benefits on longer rides-hence their continued popularity within Audax and sportive contexts. The design’s popularity means it’s inexpensive to get started with. A system comprising of entry level pedals, cleats and shoes start at £ . Cheaper still, if you’re prepared to shop around, or happy to go with older models.
Shimano SL & Time
The SL is Shimano’s Look Rival, using a similar 3 bolt exposed cleat and work to the same principle. Time (system) also works to the same principles. Regardless of brand, these single sided designs have a wider surface area, which offers some additional (tangible) stability when you’re climbing, or accelerating hard, out of the saddle. Shimano SL cleats are also offered with 0, 2, 4 and 6 degrees of float.
Time Twin Bolt
Time is another brand who offers external and recessed systems, although unlike Look, their cleats are not made by third parties.
Speedplay are another road design that uses their own unique cleat but a double-sided model, which overcomes some of the entry issues. That said, it’s worth nothing these are most compatible with shoes employing a four-bolt cleat drilling.
Shimano and their homages also offer single sided road pedals that employ the same pattern cleat as that associated with their cross country dual sided counterparts. Models such as these A520 are very practical for general road riding, audax, training and commuting. The wider platform area offers excellent support, which becomes apparent on longer rides and yes, when climbing.
The relatively open design is also very useful, shedding mud and similar grot along wet, wintry roads. Wellgo RC713 are a more compact pattern that offers greater ground clearance. Aside from racing, can come in useful on bikes with longer cranks and lower bottom bracket height.
Sometimes referred to as “Best of both Worlds” these usually have a flat platform one side, a recessed cleat on the other. However, it can also refer to those designed for Spinning and similar stationary training bikes.
These Exustar are Keo one side, SPD the other. No longer in production, they stayed on my fixed gear winter/trainer since it didn’t matter which shoes I’d put on!
More traditional hybrid designs are intended so you can ride in cycling shoes, or tackle shorter commutes/utility runs in trainers/street shoes. They also come in handy when tackling more difficult terrain or scooting along in stop-start rush hour traffic. Genetic Schizo etc. These models with external cages are also designed to provide greater stability to the feet, when accelerating and climbing.
Dual sided models using cleat mechanisms on both sides, though designed primarily for mountain bike duties make excellent transition to cyclo cross, gravel and other duties. Mud shedding ability has improved greatly since Shimano first introduced them. Time Atac are widely regarded as the most effective in crud-shedding stakes. However, I particularly like the ability to just press in and accelerate away.
An obvious choice for a rough stuff touring build, such as my Univega but particularly useful on a fixed gear bike. Where you don’t want to be left floundering at the lights For these reasons, my Holdsworth runs a dual sided Time ATAC and my fixed gear winter trainer, these Wellgo M094B .
Most SPD pattern cleats are interchangeable with Shimano and play very nicely, with other pedals. Some are that bit more precise but this unlikely to present any issue in the real world, until of course, they get worn.
Features/Details to Consider (All Systems)
Cro-moly axles arguably strike the best balance between weight, strength and cost. Titanium and other exotica are nice but doesn’t offer huge benefits, unless of course, you are a light rider with bike(s) on calorie-controlled diets.
Powder coated finishes are generally very durable and hold their looks, whatever the elements throw at them. ED coated and similar finishes are the next best thing. Magnesium bodies aren’t overly common but are an easy way of saving grams.
However, it is a very reactive metal, so a hard-wearing finish is particularly important. Continuing this theme, those attaching to the cranks via 8mm key might top in the aesthetic stakes. However, those attaching via 15mm pedal wrenches allow more torque, so budging stubborn/weathered units is that bit easier.
Price will typically dictate quality. Sealed bearings save a lot of hassle and extend service intervals. My preference is toward the cartridge type. However, balls can also lead long and serviceable lives. Just strip and lubricate with a good quality waterproof grease. Frequency will vary but as a rough rule of thumb, annually on bikes in moderate service, every six months on those seeing harsh weather and/or high mileages. I have a set of original SPD still going very strong, some 30 years later.
Cleat & Mechanism Care/Maintenance
Look Keo cleats as we established earlier, are not designed to be walked in. However, cleat covers can make short distance hobbling safer, while protecting the cleats themselves against premature wear. Recessed metal cleats by design lead easier lives in this respect and they are designed to be walked in.
That said, some are hardier than others. The one minor downside to Time’s otherwise excellent system is the brass cleat, which in my experience, are that bit softer, so wear faster-especially if you are regularly riding off-road during winter.
Regardless of brand, or pattern, do regular visual checks and if entry/release starts becoming less reliable, replace. I failed to do this once and found myself desperately trying to re-engage my foot while hurtling down a descent on my fixed. Managed to avert disaster but almost in short-changing territory- you have been warned.
Cleat hardware tends to get forgotten. Given their proximity to wet, gritty and muddy ingress is also prone to seizing. Adding a decent lick of quality grease when installing is a great start. However, stripping and re-greasing every three to six months is a sure way of ensuring they’re easily removed when replacement’s needed. I’ve found Park Tool Polylube 1000 particularly effective.
The 4mm Allen heads are also prone to rounding off. Slightly chewed examples can be coaxed out with a T25 torx. In fact, I tend to go this route, especially if I haven’t greased the threaded sections in a while. In more extreme situations, they may need to be drilled out. Hardly a big job but unnecessary and easily avoided.
A quick shot of lube, such as Juice Lubes JL69 maintenance spray, or a light-middleweight chain lube should keep the cleat mechanism slick and trouble free.
Whatever system you settle for, cleat alignment is essential for knee and joint health. Take your time when installing them and a specialist “bike fit” service would be money well spent if you have a history/susceptibility of joint issues.
Along with cleat condition, release tension needs to be correctly set. This is a very personal, rider-centric thing. Usually this is adjusted by a 3mm Allen key at the pedals’ rear (but can vary depending on brand/model) + denotes more tension – less. So it's easier to disengage a foot.
Clipless newbies are advised to start with minimum tension and ramp up as confidence grows and you’ve found that personal sweet spot.
Prices & Personal Preferences
Single Sided Look Keo types start from around the £25 (including cleats) Similar money for entry-level, store branded shoes. Potentially you can get started at £50. Similar story with recessed, twin bolt models.
Some dual sided flat/SPD patterns give change from £15, making them perfect for commuting and hack bikes. These tend to use ball-bearings. Stripping and re-greasing makes a big different to their refinement. However, if you get a year, or two out of them, they won’t owe you anything.
I err toward the mid-range. I’m quite impressed by these Wellgo MO94 (see above), which give change from £40 and HT Leopard 878 but prefer the Time XC4 for my TT bike. Steve errs toward the dual sided flat/SPD models such as these Genetic Executive or the Genetic Schizo . The latter are his faves for touring.
PUBLISHED MARCH 2020