Step on it

As soon as you clip into your pedals, you become part of the bike. Here’s how to pick the platform you’ll click with

Pedals play the role of supporter, provider and confidant. They transfer your energy to the bike, support your foot position to maintain comfort and joint alignment, and give you the confidence to sprint or descend at full speed. Finding the perfect pair will make all the difference to your ride.

Making the leap to clipless pedals is a milestone in any cyclist’s life. Who, on first trying them, hasn’t experienced that flash of panic at a set of traffic lights when you feel yourself falling inexorably towards the bonnet of a sportscar? But once you’ve mastered the clipless pedal, few go back.

Clipless pedals are the rider’s only ‘fixed’ connection to the bike and so provide a stack of performance benefits, but the flipside is that poor quality pedals or incorrect set-up can leave you with an uncomfortable ride or, worse, serious joint problems.

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Look back in time

Today there are about half a dozen serious contenders to choose from, but go back to 1984 and there was only one. That was the year when French ski and binding company Look produced its clunky white PP65 clipless pedals and persuaded Bernard Hinault to use them at the following year’s Tour. Look wasn’t the first company to make a clipless pedal, but it was the first to make a commercially successful version. Previous attempts by other manufacturers involved horrors such as manual-release systems – potential death traps in a high-speed crash. Look’s quick-release mechanism proved that clipless pedals could be effective and safe.

Thierry Fournier, MD of Look, cites the reason for the success as ‘probably a mix of real mechanical ability learned from years of ski binding manufacture and a true marketing skill with the creation from scratch of the best pro team to support the product and immediate victories at the Tour’.

The principles remain the same today – the mechanism is based on a sprung-loaded retainer that engages with a plastic cleat – and you’d be forgiven for thinking that, compared to other components, the clipless pedal hasn’t changed much since 1984. But Fournier is quick to remind us, ‘The technological difference between Hinault’s first pedal and the Kéo Blade today is huge. Saying the design is the same would be like saying bikes haven’t changed because they still have two wheels, two triangles and a fork. Materials, weight, kinematics, clip-in and out performance, even their size is totally different.’ He’s got a point, although Fournier does concede, ‘Despite the changes, if you notice a strong family resemblence between the design of our current models and the first models, it might not be a total surprise. How could we abandon a design used by millions of satisfied customers?’

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In 1986 Greg LeMond won the Tour de France using Look pedals and the system enjoyed a massive surge of publicity. Despite Irishman Stephen Roche winning the following year’s race (1987) using toe-clips and straps – the last man to do so – their days were already numbered. Toe-clips were resigned to the annals of history and toe straps were relegated to the role of securing tools and tubes to the underside of saddles.

In the new wave of pedal technology that followed, Adidas revealed its Systeme 3 pedal and shoe combo in 1988 to almost universal derision, while in 1992 Diadora produced the Power Drive, a pedal so heavy and reluctant to release the rider’s foot it was amazing there were no lawsuits. For a brief period between in the late 1980s and early 1990s another French outfit, Time, challenged Look’s dominance with its original full-float design, which allowed much more foot movement than other designs available at that point. But again Look saw off its rivals, and those that remained often used elements of the Look system under licence.

In the early days Look manufactured a number of pedals for Campagnolo and Shimano, who sold them under their own brands. ‘These companies are technically very demanding and it was a great experience to develop products with them. However, some Taiwanese brands were not so strict in their respect of patents. We had to sue a couple and we signed a temporary licence with others,’ Fournier says.

These days the main patent is in the public domain but Fournier reveals Look has ‘dozens of new ones ongoing. It is somehow a great recognition to be copied, but we’re very cautious because one day the copy could become a good one.’ This partly explains why so many systems these days appear similar to those early Looks. Interestingly, Campagnolo has never really featured in the pedals market, and although it still makes a pedal – the ProFit Plus – sightings of it are very rare.

Worth the weight?

A new pair of clipless pedals will set you back anything from £30 to £600, so what are you getting for splashing substantially more of your hard earned at the upper end – even before taking into account the cost of compatible shoes? The expensive versions mostly use much the same mechanisms as their cheaper brethren, so you are investing in more exotic materials to keep weight down. Carbon, titanium, magnesium and ceramic components will shave a few grams, but in many cases it won’t impact hugely on functionality. It’s a familiar tale of less costing more. But remember that a pedal is a rotating mass, so it’s impact is proportionally greater than static parts. Taking that to extremes is Speedplay’s Nano pedal.

‘It was designed as a money-no-object performance pedal for racing only,’ states Speedplay co-founder and pedal designer Richard Bryne. ‘It wasn’t designed for everyday riding. It’s made specifically for racers who want every technical advantage possible for the most important events.’

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However, they may not suit every type of rider. Some pros are known to prefer steel- axled pedals, finding them stiffer under foot. It’s a contentious point, as Bryne explains: ‘Titanium is lighter than steel, but it’s not as strong. That’s why Speedplay’s titanium spindles have a rider weight limit of 185 pounds (83.9 kg). But our US-made titanium spindles aren’t measurably more flexible than our steel spindles, which have no rider limits imposed.’ It’s worth checking if a weight limit is imposed by the brand you intend to buy. A (ahem) big-boned rider who is on the wrong side of 85kg could find they need something more robust.

Bearings also feature prominently in the weight-versus-performance debate. Steel bearings aren’t light, but are best suited to supporting the pedal spindle and allowing it to turn freely under load. The best option is two or even three bearings per axle to fully support it and deliver reliable performance. Some manufacturers substitute bearings with bushings to save weight (found on many super-lightweight designs) but a word of caution: they may require more frequent maintenance in order to ensure longevity.

Of course, there will always be those who prefer long-term durability over short-term performance and weight saving. Jon Fry, former pro team mechanic now at Surrey-based Corridori Cycles, says, ‘You can’t really beat using proper bearings. They last a long time plus you can usually replace them once they go. With bushes or some needle-roller designs all you can do is pack them with grease to get some extra wear out of them.’

If you want to get obsessive about weight, Ultralite Sports  has just produced a titanium pedal that weighs a mere 36g (112g for both pedals plus cleats) and looks like little more than a spring- loaded spindle. However, some manufacturers believe the real area for development lies not in weight saving, but in better performance through improved support for the foot.

Which platform do I need?

There’s not much point in designing a pedal that’s light or aerodynamic if the rider’s power is not effectively transferred or, worse, alignment issues cause agony on the road.

Shimano product manager Tim Gerrits suggests the recent trend is to reduce stack height and provide a wider platform. ‘Contact surface width has changed a lot. Our current generation has very high stability thanks to wider bodies, stainless steel striker plates but also larger-diameter axles. This means the pedal transfers power to the bike efficiently. Biomechanically, reducing stack height is also better for increased pedalling efficiency.’ Appearances can be deceptive, though. Speedplay’s ‘lollipop’ design might not look like it will give the same level of support as wider platforms but Bryne says ‘the inverted cleat actually provides a larger cleat-to-shoe contact area than other brands’.

Modern clipless pedals need to take our human inefficiencies into account. ‘Early systems assumed perfect body position, with everything straight and machine-like,’ Gerrits says. ‘But pro riders found the human body isn’t a machine – our joints don’t operate at perfect angles – and the system was causing unwanted stress on ankle, knee and hip joints. That was when
we started working on floating designs that seem to be good for older riders too. As we age, there’s a natural change in hip position and floating cleats combined with a wider platform helps, allowing more free movement of the joints.’

Finding your float

Gerrits has touched upon possibly one of the most debated issues for pedals: is float a good or a bad thing?

Float refers to the amount of rotational freedom – heel movement in and out – a pedal allows your foot while clipped in. Depending on the system and type of cleat you use, float will range from zero degrees (fixed) to around 15°. Zero float – locking your foot into place – may potentially provide the best power transfer, but could be horribly uncomfortable, not to mention physically damaging if the alignment is off.

Altering the amount of float usually involves changing cleats, with the exception of Speedplay’s Zero, which offers ‘set-screw style’ float adjustment that allows control of the cleat’s float range on a single cleat.

‘For anyone, it’s safest to start people on a red Look Kéo cleat – that’s 9° of float,’ says Ronan Descy, bike fitter for Cadence Performance in London. ‘But a lot of people find it’s too much. That’s why, when I’m fitting someone to their bike, I tend to opt for the grey Kéo cleats. Most people work best with a small degree of float – between 4° and 6°. It’s less common for people to be able
to deal with 0° [black].

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‘In my opinion, if there’s too much float you end up engaging subsidiary muscles to support that excessive movement. They’re pushing down on the downstroke and the heel is moving inwards because it can, not because
it actually needs to. That’s a waste of energy and it’s just twisting the knee.’

Adrian Timmis, former Tour de France finisher and pro rider-turned-physio and bike fit specialist with Cadence Sport in Staffordshire, adds, ‘The standard amount of float in most pedal systems allows you to make mistakes in cleat alignment and get away with it to some degree. From a stability point of view, though, the less float you can handle as a rider the better in terms of joint health and power delivery, but for most people that’s not really an option and
I certainly wouldn’t recommend zero-float cleats for beginners.’ That said, he also believes many riders err on the side of too much float. ‘I’ve never met a rider who needed 15° of float,’ says Timmis, who himself rides on Speedplay pedals.

‘People get fixated on float when improved stability to reduce lateral movement by using wedges and shims is just as important in helping reduce knee problems,’ he adds. ‘I’d say that an orthotic insert is probably a much better investment in terms of helping joint problems than “X” degrees of float, no matter what the pedal system.’

And for the final hurrah there’s ‘Q Factor’ to consider – not the length of time you’ll have to wait to buy your pedals, but the distance of the pedal (and ultimately your foot) from the crank (where the pedals screw in). By adjusting the Q Factor – either through pedal spindle or cleat alterations – you can alter the distance between your feet. ‘This lateral adjustment is difficult to get right without the aid of a bike fitter,’ says Descy. ‘Some people have the sensitivity to know if they need to be nearer to or further way from the crank, but others will have no idea. You really need a third party to tell you what you need.’ The message, then, is it’s probably best not to mess too much with this dark art without an expert eye on hand.

Cleat fitting

Bike fitter Ronan Descy explains the basics of correct cleat position

‘This method of fitting is called “new neutral”,’ says Descy. ‘The old-fashioned method of setting up cleats was simply to put them below the ball of the foot. Studies have shown that having the cleat further back is better biomechanically. Depending on how your foot is structured, the distance behind the ball of the foot increases or decreases between 3mm and 11mm.’

With your foot in the shoe make a mark on the sole to show the position of the knuckle behind the first metatarsal – the big toe. Then mark the knuckle behind the fifth metatarsal – your little toe.

Take off the shoe and draw two parallel lines across the shoe
sole, according to your marks. Set the cleat so that the pedal axle falls half way between those two lines. (Cleats usually have a mark to indicate the axle centre.)

‘Setting up cleats is also dependent on activity,’ Descy adds. ‘If you’re doing very long distances, such as 24-hour races, then it can be beneficial to put the cleat even further back than new neutral. It taxes the lower leg less and places less pressure on the foot. If you’re a sprinter or riding a criterium, then you want the cleat closer to the ball of the foot because that provides more spring in the pedal stroke.’

Angular adjustments – ‘flair’ – are harder to assign theory to, as they’re dependent on the individual. ‘Some people have extremely sensitive knees, sensitive to tiny changes in position, while with others you can simply bolt a cleat on and they can ride without injury,’ says Descy. One way to work out your foot angle is to let your feet hang by sitting on the edge of a worktop or similar, and observing their natural tendency. ‘For me the best thing, if you’re not with a bike fitter, is to simply feel it,’ Descy says. ‘Get on the bike and say to yourself, does my heel need to come in or come out?’

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