Rules of engagement
Whichever pedal system you choose, achieving the optimum cleat alignment will raise your performance and prevent injury. But it’s not as east as it sounds…
In the words of that James Weldon Johnson song, Dem Bones, ‘Toe bone connected to the foot bone; foot bone connected to the leg bone; leg bone connected to the knee bone…’ and so on. The song is actually based on spiritual and biblical references rather than being an anatomical lesson, but little did Weldon Johnson know he was providing cyclists with sound insight that is particularly relevant to the issue of cleat alignment.
There are three points of connection with a bike: foot to the pedal, buttocks to the saddle and hands to bars. Each interface is affected by the others so when it comes to bike fitting, where’s best to start? Fit experts generally agree that the pedal and shoe interface is the most important, as it’s the most dynamic and also the start point of the kinetic chain. The alignment of your foot on the pedal has a knock-on effect, as the song implies, up the chain to your knees, hips and back. This is why it’s vital to get it right.
Todd Carver, fit and education officer for bike fitting system Retül, says bluntly, ‘If the cleat setting is wrong, everything upwards will also be wrong. In other words, if the cleat is shifted it will most often necessitate a change to saddle position, which will likely necessitate a change to handlebar position. So we always start with the cleat.’
Phil Cavell, director and senior analyst at fitter Cyclefit, is also an advocate of fitting the foot first and puts the importance of properly aligned cleats into perspective: ‘The power from your biggest muscle groups is being pushed into an area about the size of a postage stamp. So the way the foot interacts with the pedal is undeniably critical in the delivery of power.’
Cavell has an interesting analogy: ‘The foot is prince while the pelvis is king,’ implying that anything done to the alignment of the foot will effect things more critical higher up, and could shift a rider’s position on the bike.
Do it yourself?
With potential gains to be had both in terms of comfort and performance with correctly aligned cleats, how can you ensure the best set-up for yourself?
‘In most cases, it’s best practice to have the pedal spindle bisect a line between the first and fifth metatarsal head,’ Carver says. ‘That’s what we call “industry neutral”.’ For those of us without a medical degree, the first metatarsal head is the main knuckle of your big toe (that forms the ball of your foot) and the fifth is the corresponding knuckle of your little toe. If you were to draw a line between the first and fifth metatarsals, the pedal spindle would sit just below the mid-point of that line. This means the pedal spindle should be just behind the ball of the foot when you’re clipped in.
Cavell echoes this thinking and suggests actually drawing a line across the sole of the shoe to represent the desired position between first and fifth metatarsal to help in the process of fitting a cleat once the shoe is off your foot. ‘In addition, it’s important to look at the angle of your foot un-weighted, which is best done by sitting down and lifting your leg up, supporting its weight with your hands, so the lower part and importantly the foot can fully relax. This will give you an idea of the natural angle of the foot and the best way to orientate it for pedalling. It’s important not to fight against your body’s natural position. In other words your feet don’t have to be facing straight ahead to 12 o’clock. If your natural position is heel in or heel out then let the cleat position replicate this. You may need a friend to help with this.
‘You can learn a lot about how your body functions from watching the way your feet strike the ground as you walk, especially when climbing stairs,’ Cavell says. ‘The body is at its most efficient when you are climbing stairs; cycling is merely a bastardised adaptation of this.’
The specialist fitter
Having established the ‘norm’, simply fitting cleats in the middle of the adjustment range won’t necessarily result in the optimum position, and could even cause problems. If all this sounds too much like a minefield, visiting a fit specialist will ensure there’s no guesswork.
A qualified fitter not only offers a great deal of experience and accuracy but a good fitter will certainly be looking at the bigger picture and the overall affect on the body, while also considering your riding style.
‘Cleat placement can depend not just on your body’s parameters but what you are asking of it,’ Carver says. ‘There are times when we do adjust cleats to be forward or back from a neutral position for certain riders. For instance, a sprinter who desires more peak power may set his/her cleats further forward to increase the leverage from the ankle joint. On the other hand, a rider who desires more efficiency for long steady-state efforts such as big climbs may bias the cleat rearward to reduce the foot leverage and reduce the work of the ankle joints.’
So does cleat placement affect power? ‘It does not substantially alter peak power, as typically what you gain in one area you lose in another,’ Cavell says. ‘We see torque and cadence changes, whereby a more rearward foot position [cleats forward] usually pushes cadence up and puts less pressure on the muscles but a forward mounted foot [cleats back] will increase torque generation.’
Cavell explains how with every fit he follows the philosophy ‘reflect, correct, performance enhance’. ‘First we simply measure the length and width of the foot. From here it gets more technical, with the length of the arch being measured, then the heel to the first metatarsal and finally the arch height. This height is measured when weighted through standing and then unpressured to measure the amount of arch drop. All these measurements help to build a complete picture of the foot. The change in the biomechanical chain from being pressured to unpressured can highlight the need for interventions such as a custom insole to increase comfort as well as performance by supporting the medial arch and allowing a greater percentage of power to be transferred.’
Cavell also explains that someone with a high arch when un-weighted can increase foot length through the arch collapsing, pushing the first metatarsal head forward.
‘Foot pronation will also have an effect,’ Cavell says, ‘being either varus [big toe up] or valgus [big toe down], with both potentially having the adverse effect of causing the knee to move laterally during pedalling.’ What we might consider to be relatively small irregularities can have larger consequences on fit and performance, so even once cleats are in the correct position there may still be some tweaks necessary. A qualified fitter can use wedges or shims to align the leg to improve efficiency but due to the many biomechanical factors to be considered, this is not something that riders should attempt to do themselves.
‘Inverting or everting [tilting] the foot by adding wedges has the potential to cause injury,’ warns David Alexander, a Specialized BodyGeometry FIT technician. ‘Given that wedges and shims are placed between the sole and the cleat itself, it is necessary to replicate the cleat placement on any other pairs of cycling shoes too.’
With so much to assess and potentially adjust to find the optimum cleat position it becomes obvious why there’s an advantage from talking to a qualified fitter about your pedal/shoe interface. Plus, they have access to sophisticated measurement and assessment tools. Pressure mapping, for example, is a relatively new technology being implemented at Cyclefit, providing the ability to record pressure distribution in both the shoe and on the saddle, allowing the technician to see in real time how the adjustments of the foot position affect things further up the chain.
Sports scientist and bike fitter James Hewitt provides further insight into the benefits of working with pressure mapping: ‘By combining pressure mapping with a power meter, it enables the fitter to analyse the pedalling motion, including how much mechanical work is needed through a pedal revolution. This is interesting stuff for an athlete, with potentially big performance gains. If the rider is not un-weighting the leg on the back half of the pedal revolution, it can resist the driving leg. For instance if the rider is pushing 250 watts on the driving leg but the opposite leg is resisting by 50 watts there is a lot of inefficiency in the pedal stroke. From here economy can be improved, leaving the rider fresher, workload lessened for the same output and gives watts for free.’
Linked into these numbers is the ability to tailor the cleat position for a specific purpose. Cleats can be placed for pure performance or complete comfort through reviewing the results of pressure mapping and power output together. But Cavell is well aware of the smoke and mirrors effects of some of the available technology. He is a firm believer that technology should remain the servant of the fitter and not the other way round, saying, ‘The fitter should always be the one making decisions, through rigorous thinking and analysis, rather than machines.’
All this begs the question, how much influence do the pedals you choose have on cleat set-up? Carver says, ‘Regardless of the pedal system, cleat fitting still requires a good degree of attention to be paid to the details. Most cleats rotate, shift laterally and adjust fore/aft. This is true for any three-bolt pattern cleat such as Look, Shimano and Time. In my opinion it takes a skilled fitter [not
bike mechanic] to accomplish this task effectively.’
If three-bolt systems can be problematic for the user, Speedplay is different, says Carver. ‘The three axes of cleat adjustment are independent of one another on Speedplay,’ he says, ‘So the fore/aft adjustment is controlled by different bolts to the lateral and rotation adjustments. It’s potentially easier for
a rider to adjust these themselves at home.’
Alexander, however, doesn’t necessarily agree, suggesting that ‘ease of use and adjustability are often exclusive of each other. Depending on your mechanical knowledge, the pedals with most adjustment are often the hardest ones to set up.’ Still, any bike fitter worth his salt should be able to tell you which pedal systems are most suitable for your needs.
Then there’s the question of float – the amount of angular foot movement allowed by a pedal/cleat – which is something that’s commonly discussed with regards set-up. It is often mistaken as a way of compensating for an inaccurate cleat placement, but Carver says, ‘More float is not always better. Actually, riders do not need as much float as they think – once a rider starts to pedal, the foot stays very stable. Float is needed more for a rider to change his or her foot position as they go from seated to standing positions or as the terrain dictates a change. But the amount of float needed for these instances should be no more than about 3°-4° which is available with all pedal/cleat systems.’
What is clear from all of the fitters we questioned is that float is a misunderstood term, and that it should not be considered a way of achieving the foot’s optimal position. The correct procedure is to orientate the cleat such that the foot is ideally positioned in the middle of the float range, such that it still has freedom to move equally inwards and outwards from optimum.
Ultimately, when foot comes to pedal, it’s clear that whether you are able to find the correct placement for yourself or you take advantage of the technical abilities of a fitter, correct placement of the cleat is vital to get the best out of your riding experience, in terms of comfort, injury prevention and performance.
Toe the line
Correct cleat set-up and making adjustments
The current thinking on cleat placement is to position the cleat so that the pedal spindle bisects a line between the first and fifth metatarsal (the knuckles of the big toe and little toe).
Phil Cavell of Cyclefit recommends actually marking the line on the sole of the shoe to act as a visual aid for accurate cleat positioning.
Once the cleats are fitted, make only very small adjustments and preferably in only one direction at a time. For example, only move the cleat fore/aft and not laterally as well. Seemingly tiny adjustments will have a fairly noticeable effect and this way the changes can be accounted for, good or bad.
Remember, you shouldn’t be experiencing discomfort – or worse, pain – in the ankles, knees or hips. So don’t be afraid to revert to the original set-up (marking the starting point with a permanent marker will help) or seek a fitter’s advice if you don’t seem to be getting to the bottom of any potential issues.
Time for a change?
When should you swap your worn cleats for new ones?
Cleats wear out. Not just as a result of riding your bike, but also from walking in them, so be sure to check them regularly.
‘The engagement or float shouldn’t initially change too much with wear and tear,’ says Specialized BodyGeometry FIT technician David Alexander, ‘at least until the lip/engagement area of the cleat is significantly worn. However, given that the body of the pedal has the bulk of the cleat in contact with it, as the cleats wear, they can often begin to “rock”, giving way to adverse knee tracking or discomfort. Any sign of these irregular pedalling mechanics can result in a subsequent injury. As soon as you recognise any unwanted or unexpected movement, this is a sure sign that you need to replace the cleat.
‘If you wish to preserve the life of your cleats for as long as possible, try not to walk in them, or if you must walk short distances then use protective cleat covers.’