Best Bike Pedals and Cleats – The Complete Guide

Along with your hands and derrière, your feet are one of only three contact points you have with your bike. But unlike the other two your feet have a big job to do – they’re the point through which all your effort is turned into forward motion. For this reason a lot of thought has gone into designing the most suitable pedal and shoe combinations for different types of riding. In this guide we’ll take a look at the different options out there and help you decide which is best for you.

Cycling Shoe with Pedal

First of all, why do we need special shoes and pedals for bike riding? Why not just stick with trainers and the plastic pedals that come on your bike when you pick it up from the store? Well, nothing really. These pedals (let’s call them ‘flat’ pedals) work well enough and if you’re just pootling around then trainers are fine. But if you want to get the most out of your riding, and certainly if you want to train, race or ride competitively, dedicated shoes and pedals are essential.

Why? Well, it’s all about power transfer and stability. Flimsy trainers bend when you push down on the pedal, meaning some of your power output is wasted. Special bike shoes like the tommaso Milano  with a stiff sole will mean a lot less of your effort gets wasted, and they’re also tough enough to cope with the odd spill.

Even with dedicated shoes, though, feet can slip off pedals easily. This is what first led riders to use toe-clips and straps, like these from NAMUCUO.

The straps tie your foot to the pedal, with the toe-clip holding your shoe in the optimum position. But you can probably see the problem here – what if you want to get your foot out? Or what if you have a fall? Being tied in isn’t ideal sometimes.

This is where modern pedal designs come in. They’re often referred to as ‘clipless’ pedals because they do away with these toe clips and straps. They still ‘clip’ your shoe in to the pedal, keeping your foot in the optimum position, ensuring maximum power transfer and minimum wasted effort. The pedals have spring mechanisms inside to allow you to ‘unclip’, whether that’s deliberately by twisting your foot or in a sudden fall. In this way they’re a little like ski bindings – in fact, that’s exactly what inspired French company LOOK when they first designed them back in the 1980s.

There are a number of manufacturers of these types of pedals including Shimano, Time, LOOK, Speedplay, Nukeproof and Crank Brothers. All of their systems do effectively the same thing and it often comes down to riding style and personal preference when deciding which ones are for you. 

Road Riding Vs. Off-Road Riding

The type of pedal you’ll choose is determined by whether you ride predominantly on the road or off it, even if that’s only rarely. Road pedals are slightly bigger than their off-road brothers (we’ll call them ‘MTB pedals’ from here on for the purpose of this guide, short for ‘mountain bike pedals’, though they’re just as popular for cyclocross and gravel riding). This is for one reason: power. Road riders tend to push out more power for longer than off-roaders, and every wasted watt counts. For professional riders sprinting for the line this could mean the difference between winning and losing.

Clipless road pedals like the Shimano PDR540 are a great choice for road riders, and come supplied with a ‘cleat’.

This cleat attaches to the bottom of your shoes (more on those later) and clips into the pedal. If you’ve ever tried skiing, the ‘click’ as you engage will feel familiar. As the road pedal is quite large, so is the cleat. It sits proud of the sole of the shoe, meaning that when riding it feels like a normal pedal but off the bike you feel a little like you’re walking on back-to-front high heels. Road pedals like these are designed to be used with cycling shoes like the Shimano RP1.

These shoes aren’t designed for walking – they have no grip on the sole – and holes beneath the ball of the foot allow the cleat to be screwed tight. You can set the exact position of the cleat, and on the bike they make a huge difference. With stiff soles and your foot clamped into the most efficient position, they’re the most effective way of riding a bike on the road or in a spin class.

But what about that walking part? If you ride off-road there is often a lot of jumping on and off the bike, opening gates, crossing streams and generally messing about. Shoes with the cleat sitting proud could be a problem here, right?

Correct, and this is where MTB pedals come in. They’re a little smaller than road pedals, but have two main advantages. Firstly they’re multi-sided (road pedals only allow the cleat to engage on one side) so it’s easier to clip in once you get back on the bike. Second, the cleat is smaller and can be recessed into the sole of the shoe.

MTB pedals like the Shimano PDM520 model above work with MTB shoes, a good example being Shimano’s SH-ME301 pictured below. The smaller cleat sits within the base of the shoe in amongst the sole’s grip, which means it’s easier to walk and you can scramble up grassy, mucky banks with ease. Being smaller, the cleats and pedals collect less muck and shake off any they do gather with ease. By the way, you can use these cleats on road shoes like the Shimano RP100 above, but they work best with MTB shoes.

Shimano SH ME301

Lastly, downhill mountain bikers and those riding technical off-road terrain predominantly use super-tough flat pedals. They don’t have any cleat or way to clip you to the pedal, instead they have pins like on these Nukeproof Electron Evo pedals that sit proud of the pedal and grab your shoes.

For flat pedals any shoe will do, though dedicated MTB shoes like Five Ten’s Freerider Elements will last a lot longer than a pair of your old pumps. They have a stiff tacky soul that grabs the pins and holds you tight, still allowing you to take your foot off easily.

OK, let’s take a look at the different types of pedals and cleats out there. To keep things clear we’ve highlighted where they sit on the road/MTB/flat pedal split. Remember, you can use flat-soled road shoes with both road and MTB pedals, but MTB shoes with a recessed cleat position will only take the smaller MTB-style cleat – there simply isn’t enough room for that larger road cleat.

Oh, and one more thing – cleats wear out, either from the wear and tear of riding or being worn down walking. Replacement cleats are easy to come by.

1. Shimano SPD (MTB)

Shimano, one of the world’s foremost manufacturers of cycling equipment, released their SPD pedals way back in 1990. Standing for ‘Shimano Pedalling Dynamics’ their PDM-520 model is shown above. They’re predominantly designed for mountain biking, but for all types of commuting, everyday riding and off-road biking they’re a solid choice, with the accompanying cleat attaching to your shoes with two bolts in the sole. The cleats can be bought separately in case you need extras or a replacement set.

The cleats have a small amount of lateral ‘float’, around four to six degrees. Float is the angle of lateral rotation the cleat permits, which means you’re not clamped in tight to the pedal but instead have some movement. This is important – you don’t want to be riding in an unnatural position for hours on end, and float allows your ankles, knees and hips to move a little when pedaling.

2. Look Keo (ROAD)

French brand LOOK invented the first ever ‘clipless’ pedal in 1984, taking the idea of ski binding technology into the world of cycling. They come with LOOK’s Delta cleats. As discussed above, being a road pedal the cleat stands proud of the sole of the shoe, attached using a three-bolt system.

Once again replacement cleats are available, with LOOK offering three float options (red nine-degree, grey 4.5-degree, black zero-degree movement).

3. Shimano SPD-SL (ROAD)

The Shimano PDR540 pedals shown above are their version of the original clipless road pedals introduced by Look. Shimano road pedals are available in many styles, with aluminium and lighter carbon versions. Again, the cleats come with the pedals and you can buy them separately.

The cleats are available with either a six-degree (yellow version), a two-degree (blue) or zero-degree float (red). Zero-degrees means you’re clamped in tight!

4. Crank Brothers Egg Beater (MTB)

Crank Brothers pedals look a little different and are designed for off-road use. Take a look and see if you can figure out why they called them ‘egg beaters’!

They’re unique in that they offer four-sided entry, so they’re popular with MTB racers who can’t afford to waste a second clipping in. They’re also light, weighing less than 300 grams a pair, and shed muck really well. The cleats look slightly different to Shimano’s SPD version, but they do the same job and are available separately, coming with either a 10-degree or 15-degree float.

5. Speedplay (ROAD)

Speedplay pedals are the lowest profile road pedals on the market with a large contact area. This means they’re aerodynamic, offer efficient power transfer and also give a few extra millimeters of clearance when cornering. If you’re sprinting, the ability to pedal around a bend in the road could be the difference between victory and second place.

The cleats offer between zero and 15 degrees of float and are available separately. The cleat’s design also makes it slightly easier to walk than Shimano or LOOK cleats.

6. Time XPresso (ROAD)

Another French brand, Time make road pedals that look like fighter jets. Uniquely, you can adjust the ‘Q-factor’ of these pedals. This is the lateral distance between your feet on the bike. Replacement cleats are again available,

7. Time XC 2 (MTB)

Time also make off-road pedals, their XC 2 model being very lightweight. The compatible cleat here is Time’s ATAC.

8. Nukeproof Electron Evo (Flat)

Big, tough and ready for anything, these are a solid pedal for hard riding. There’s no cleat, instead the pins grip your shoes (and shred your ankles if you’re unlucky – a good reason to wear shin guards like the Fox Launch Pro shown below).

9. Crank Brothers Doubleshot (MTB/Flat)

These half flat, half clip-in Doubleshot pedals let you tackle the most diverse riding conditions. They use the same cleat system as all Crank Brothers pedals, as shown with the Egg Beaters above.

Using Clipless Pedals

You might be thinking about stepping into the world of clipless pedals but are a little reticent. Will I be able to use them? Will I get stuck? Are they safe?

Well, to answer the last question first, yes they are. The spring mechanism that releases the cleat is very sophisticated, and you are able to adjust how much force is required to unclip in any case. Much like the ski binding, they work and work well. They do take a little getting used to, but once you’ve mastered it the action of clipping in and out of your pedals soon becomes second nature.

They will transform your riding too. You’ll find yourself able to ride further and with less effort when less of your energy is wasted and it’s all turned into propelling you forwards. You are also able to make far more effective use of the whole pedal stroke – when pedaling clipped in you can drag your foot backwards and pull it up to generate even more power. Think of your pedal stroke like a clock face – with clipless pedals you can pedal all the way around, but without you can only really do it from midday to six.

So, what are you waiting for? Clip in, let’s go!

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