How to choose clipless road pedals

Ease of use, cost, shoe compatibility and other considerations

Clipless pedals are a much more efficient way of riding a road bike that using platform pedals. Here we explore the different basic types so you can select what's best for you.

Why are they called 'clipless', you ask? Because in between the flat pedal and this modern pedal, there was the toe-strap or toe-clip pedal, where riders would tighten a strap over the top of their shoe to attach it to the pedal. A primary downside to this design was that you had to reach down and loosen the strap before removing your foot, which wasn't exactly ideal. Now, clipless pedals allow you to 'clip in' by pressing down and 'clip out' simply by pivoting your foot.   

Each type of road pedals must be used with a compatible cleat – a piece of plastic that is bolted onto the bottom of a cycling shoe, usually with three Allen bolts. If you're a beginner, you may want to consider using mountain bike shoes and pedals; the benefits there are a shoe that's easier to walk in and a double-sided pedal that can be easy to get in and out of.

Road pedal cleat design

Cleats vary in design depending on the pedal, but the majority fasten to the sole of the shoe in the same way. Look's original three-point fastening system is the most common fixing pattern for road pedals. Shimano, Look, Time, Mavic and many others use this three-bolt pattern, and most shoes have three holes for this reason. Speedplay is a notable difference, with a four-bolt pattern. To use these, you'll need four-bolt shoes or an adapter.

If you choose mountain bike SPD-style pedals, you will need mountain-bike or commuter-style shoes that have a two-bolt fastening pattern.

Whatever pedal you choose, make sure you follow the manufacturer's recommendation for compatible cleats. Cleats wear out over time, but are easily replaceable.

Most road pedals use cleats with a three-bolt pattern:

As contradictory as it sounds, clipless pedals 'clip in' to pedals with a stepping down motion, then unclip with an ankle-out twist of the foot. Most systems use a three-bolt pattern to affix the cleat to the shoe


Most pedals and cleats have a degree of float to allow your feet to pivot slightly as you pedal. Float is measured in degrees and is the amount by which the foot can move before releasing from the pedal. Some cleats are zero-float, or fixed, which, as you can imagine, keeps your feet 'locked in' to the pedal. Other cleats are in the six-degree range. Most riders prefer a little bit of float, and many bike fitters insist that this wiggle room can help keep knees healthy.

Exactly how the cleat floats is something you want to consider too. Speedplay is well known for its ice-like feel, with virtually no friction in the float. Some riders like this feeling; others do not. Most pedals have a small amount of friction built into the system, and some pedals can be adjusted for a tighter or looser feel. 

If you are unsure about what float is right for you, the good news is that your pedal choice won't lock you into one particular setting: you experiment with the settings on the pedal, and with different cleats.

Road pedals have varying degrees of 'float' or built-in pivoting. speedplay pedals are well known for their ice-like slippery feel, which some riders love but others do not. most pedals have more subdued float:

Speedplay pedals are unique in that the engagement mechanism is on the cleat, which bolts to the shoe. Speedplay pedals have very free, ice-like float

Release tension

Most pedals enable you to adjust the release tension of the mechanism. If you're a beginner, start off with a low tension for easier release. This will also make it easier to engage the pedal.

Mountain bike cleat

A double-sided mountain bike pedal can be an ideal starting point for beginners. The mechanism can be adjusted for easy entry and release, and the double-sided design makes clipping in simple. Shimano's original SPD design is still widely used and the mountain bike design has proved popular among commuters and tourers. Another advantage of SPDs is that the cleat can be recessed into the shoe's sole, enabling you to safely walk without damaging or slipping on the cleat.

You may want to consider starting with mountain bike pedals, which have a two-bolt pattern but can be used with mountain bike or commuter shoes, which are much easier to walk in than stiff road shoes:

Mountain bike pedals are a good choice for many beginners – plus you can use them on your mountain bike too!

Pedal material

As with most everything else on a bike, the more you pay, the lighter the pedals will be. All-carbon wünder models can get down into the 250g weight range, and well up into the US$350 / £220 range. But there are plenty of long-lasting, good-performing alloy/composite models like Shimano's new R550 that weigh a respectable 309g without breaking the bank at US$99 / £59.

Stack height

This is measured from the middle of the pedal axle to the sole of the shoe. The lower the stack height the better, because it places your foot closest to the axle's centre for the best possible efficiency. You may need to adjust your saddle height if swapping between pedals with different stack heights.

Ben Delaney

US Editor-in-Chief
Ben has been writing about bikes since 2000, covering everything from the Tour de France to Asian manufacturing to kids' bikes. The former editor-in-chief of VeloNews, he began racing in college while getting a journalism degree at the University of New Mexico. Based in the cycling-crazed city of Boulder, Colorado, with his wife and two kids, Ben enjoys riding most every day.
  • Discipline: Road (paved or otherwise), cyclocross and sometimes mountain. His tri-curious phase seems to have passed, thankfully
  • Preferred Terrain: Quiet mountain roads leading to places unknown
  • Current Bikes: Scott Foil Team, Trek Boone 5, Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL4, Marinoni fixed gear, Santa Cruz Roadster TT bike
  • Dream Bike: A BMC Teammachine SLR01 with disc brakes and clearance for 30mm tires (doesn't yet exist)
  • Beer of Choice: Saison Dupont
  • Location: Boulder, CO, USA

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