Of the three points of contact between you and your bike – the saddle, bar and pedals – your pedals have the most work to do. As well as keeping your feet in place as they spin at up to and sometime over 100rpm, they also have to provide a solid platform to push against so you can generate the power needed to propel you and your machine forwards. All of which is a long-winded way of saying that choosing the best road bike pedal for your riding style is crucial.
Clipless pedal systems evolved out of the old pedal and toe-clip setup. Whereas toeclips relied on your foot being strapped into a clip attached to the pedal, clipless pedals use a cleat that's fastened to the sole of your shoe to engage mechanically with the pedal, similar to a ski binding. Generally speaking, to clip into your pedals, you step onto the pedal's face and push your foot forwards to engage the cleat, and to release your foot, you simply rotate it outwards.
Although most clipless systems use similar technology, there are still lots of variations and huge price differences. Here we have a brief guide outlining what to look for when choosing a clipless pedal, as well as our pick of the top road pedals currently available. (You may also like to see our guide on how to use clipless pedals)
What to look for when buying a clipless pedal:
Cleats vary in design depending on the pedal, but the majority fasten to the soles of your shoes with three bolts. Look first came up with this three-point fastening system and it's become pretty much the standard for road pedals – Shimano, Time, Mavic and many others all use the same three-bolt pattern. Speedplay is the notable exception, with its four-bolt pattern (but then the American company effectively reverses the entire system but mounting the clip mechanism onto your shoes rather than building it into the pedals). To use these, you'll need four-bolt shoes or an adapter.
Most pedals have float so your feet can rotate slightly as you pedal. Float is measured in degrees and refers to the amount your foot can move before it's released from the pedal. It's there to allow your feet to fall into the most natural, comfortable position while pedalling and to reduce the stress on your knees if your cleats aren't perfectly positioned.
Some cleats are zero-float, or fixed, which means they release your foot with only the slightest of movements. They need to be very carefully set up for the sake of your knees. Most cleats, however, tend to offer something in the range of 3-9 degrees of float. The thing to bear in mind is the more float you have, the further you have to twist your foot in order to release it.
If you are unsure about how much float is right for you, don't worry. Your pedal choice won't lock you into one particular setting: you can experiment by adjusting the settings on the pedal or running different cleats.
Most pedals allow you to adjust the pedals' release tension – the amount of force required to disengage your foot from the mechanism. If you're a beginner, start off with a low tension for easier release. This will also make it easier to clip into the pedal. As you become more confident riding with clipless pedals you can increase the tension for a more secure connection between you and your bike.
This is measured from the middle of the pedal axle to the sole of the shoe. The lower the stack height the better, as it places your foot closer to the axle for the best possible efficiency. You may need to adjust your saddle height if you change pedals as every model has a slightly different stack height.
Below is a selection of some of the best road bike pedals BikeRadar's experts have tested. It's only a short list but should give you a good idea of what to look for…
Best road bike pedals for racers
Speedplay Zero Aero
£230 / AU$399
Normally double-sided, Speedplay sacrifices one of the faces on its Zero Aero pedals for a dimpled aerodynamic surface
Speedplay had previously claimed its double-sided Zero pedals to be the most aerodynamic on the market – that is, until the dimpled singled-sized Zero Aero model was released.
We’ve yet to see any wind tunnel numbers so can't pass comment on the Zero Aero's aerodynamic advantages, but for what it’s worth, Bradley Wiggins chose the Speedplay Aero Pedal (and Walkable Cleat) for his 54.526km hour record.
When you get down to the guts of the Zero Aero, it’s pretty much identical to the standard model. The locking mechanism is still in the cleat, they still rotate on the same needle bearings, which require some maintenance, and they still have the same 11.5mm stack height on three-hole shoes. Really, the only major differences are the dimpled underside of the pedal and the price.
Weight: 212g pair (stainless steel axles)
Best road bike pedals for weight weenies
Time Expresso 15
Since their launch, Time’s Xpressos have always been lighter than the competition, but shedding grams is expensive. The entry-level Xpresso 12s only weigh around 100g per pair more than these top-of-the range 15s.
Central to the Xpresso design is its carbon flexion blade, which, unlike a steel spring, remains open until cleat entry snaps it shut. You can easily adjust between its three tension settings by using a screwdriver to turn an eccentric triangular cam against the blade. This customises resistance for the built-in +/- 5 degrees of smooth float that has always been a major selling point for Time pedals to riders with knee concerns.
The Xpresso 15 shares the Xpresso 12 Titan Carbon’s hollow titanium axle, carbon body and interchangeable alloy plate to protect the body from cleat abrasion. The price difference is down to the 15’s use of CeramicSpeed bearings, which are very low friction, and save around 11g per pedal, bringing the Xpresso 15s in at an amazing 71g each, although two cleats plus six bolts weigh 87g extra.
Best road bike pedals for people on a budget
Boardman Road Team
£25 / AU$TBC
Looking for robust functionality at a bargain price? Look no further than the Boardman Road team pedals
The Road Team pedals' alloy bodies are finished in flat gloss black, which means they can be tricky to clip into when wet (though a strip of skateboard grip tape will cure this). But the dual-compound cleats that come with the Boardman pedals are very good, and have a textured surface that goes some way to eliminating any slippages due to the pedals' shiny finish. Inside the pedal bodies are two CNC-machined chromoly axles that run on bushed and sealed bearings.
The cleats offer seven degrees of float and weigh 46g a pair. Replacements cost £12.99. Entry and exit is met with a solid snap, tension can be adjusted via a 4mm Allen key and the 60x89mm platform gives a solid base to really put the power down.
If you’re taking your first steps into clipless or are after a low-priced pair for your second bike, the Teams are a great option. Just be wary that these are slippery when wet.
Best road bike pedals for all-round greatness
Shimano Ultegra SPD-SL 6800
£119 / AU$209
Shimano's Ultegra pedals – light, smooth and dependable
There are a few great things about Shimano SPD-SL pedals. They're dependable. They require virtually no maintenance. The wide platform gives a sure-footed connection to your bike. You have three choices of cleats for float options (fixed, one-degree and six-degrees). Tension is easily adjustable. And, perhaps best of all, they're not fussy – you can put a foot down in mud or snow, then kick your foot on the pedal a couple of times, clip in and go.
The latest Ultegra iteration, the SPD-SL 6800, features a carbon body that spins on two sets of bearings around a stainless steel spindle. Up top, the stainless steel contact plate is replaceable, but good luck wearing that thing out.
Ultegra is often seen as being almost as good as the top-end Dura-Ace, just a bit heavier – and a whole lot cheaper. The SPD-SL 6800 exemplifies this view.
Best road bike pedals for riders with dodgy knees
Dial in the settings you need to keep your knees happy with the Keywin Carbon pedals
New Zealand’s Keywin pedal system has a unique design that locks the cleat and pedal tightly together, yet allows six degrees of float with an axle that moves inside the pedal body.
Once engaged, the pedal system works well. The super-snug mating of the large cleat and large pedal makes for a secure connection between you and your bike. After two months of use, we've noticed zero perceptible slop in the system – no rock or play either side-to-side or fore-aft.
And yet, the six degrees of float inside the pedal body itself provides comfortable lateral movement. Stack height is 14mm, which is in line with industry standards. When pedalling, they feel virtually indistinguishable from our trusty Shimano Ultegra pedals.