I remember a review of a high-spec Ducati where the reviewer spent 90 percent of the article berating the bike: the suspension was too stiff, the clutch too heavy and the engine cooked his calves. However, the reviewer had been riding a performance machine through city traffic – clearly conditions that weren't appropriate for the bike's intended purpose. All was forgiven in the final sentence, when he got the machine into the open road where it was in its element.
The Body Mechanic is a physiotherapy, bike fitting studio and repair workshop, and we spend a lot of time adjusting, repairing, replacing and swapping pedal systems to suit riders and the location-specific demands of their riding.
All too frequently, issues and even injuries have arisen due to the pedal not being suited to a rider's conditions. These issues (often including knee, shin and foot pain) could have been prevented if the rider had made a decision based on the design qualities and faults of the pedal and cleat, rather than following trends, succumbing to marketing hyperbole, or buying based on price.
Below is my analysis of a few road pedal systems that I hope will allow you to identify the most appropriate and effective tool for the job — and ensure you’re not the one on a Ducati in traffic.
The racer – Speedplay
Class-leading ground clearance, lightweight, and the ability to clip in on either side at the start of a race makes the Speedplay (Zero) a favourite among bike racers. Additionally, its greatly adjustable cleat position, spindle length options and totally unsprung float (especially when paired up with a four-hole Speedplay-specific shoe) means this model is the go-to for many bikefitters.
As with most high-performance machines, the Speedplay pedal and cleats both require regular maintenance in the form of lubrication. Don't opt for this system if you are a 'set and forget' rider! Also, do not get this system if you're putting your foot down in roadside dirt, snow or the like.
Speedplays aren't for the lazy mechanic – these pedals need more attention than other popular systems
In addition, in order to achieve their weight and design benefits, Speedplays are highly susceptible to premature wear and tear on both the contact points and the fastening screws. Speedplay's solutions are often clunky and expensive. While the new walkable cleat is surely to help, there are multiple aftermarket add-ons (which the rider must pay for) intended to make up for design limitations: baseplate protector plates, baseplate extender plates, and cleat protector kits.
The commuter – Shimano SPD
Shimano SPD (mountain bike) pedal and cleat system really is the true do-anything pedal, as at home negotiating rush hour traffic as it is when the bike is hub deep in mud. The double-sided pedal access comes into its own as you battle vehicles (and other commuters) at the traffic lights.
If walking up and down stairs, or across your office foyer is part of your daily grind, having the steel cleat protected by the lugs of your shoes is a must. It doesn’t offer the same cleat surface area as dedicated road models, but with a stiff-soled shoe, it’s rarely an issue.
The protective lugs on many mountain bike shoes can actually make clipping in difficult, and may restrict the freedom of your float.
The statistician – Garmin Vector
As the major in-pedal power meter on the market, the Garmin Vector is a popular choice that defines your pedal system. Using the Look KeO system, it offers a wide pedal platform and durable cleat, resistant to wear both when clipped in and when walking.
The large rubber bumpers on the cleat surface used to improve cleat durability also happen to grip the pedal, therefore increasing the resistance of the cleat float. We commonly swap the cleats to the Look KeO to improve float freedom. In addition, we have seen the pedals themselves become unstable due to bearing wear following prolonged use.
The all-rounder – Shimano SPD-SL
Offering a wide contact platform, Shimano SPD-SL are a solid all-round choice
With the Shimano SPD MTB pedal as the do-anything, the Shimano SPD-SL road pedal system is there with a little more performance. The large pedal platform combined with a durable (and relatively cheap) plastic cleat keeps the contact points intact, and floating freely (in the yellow and blue models) for months. The rubber bumpers on the cleats also allow acceptable ground contact when not clipped in.
With a similar pedal platform as the Shimano, the Look KeO system also deserves a mention in this category, with only its smaller and less durable cleat design making it slightly less stable.
The large cleat size can result in twisting/warping of the cleat shape when installed onto smaller shoes or shoes with a contoured baseplate (Specialized, Bontrager, Fizik, even some Shimano models). This can cause issues with the interface between the cleat and pedal, ranging from difficulty clipping in, to restriction of cleat float, to foot position issues. Our regular solution is to install wedges underneath the cleats to afford level cleats, and grease the leading edges of the pedals.
What this all means
All of the points above can be explained in fine detail. However this article isn't intended to be a rant about the frustrations of working with pedal and cleat systems, nor an endorsement of any particular brand.
Rather, my hope is that when you come to review your system and whether it's meeting your needs, you're fully informed about its merits and limitations. Much as you wouldn't choose a World Rally racecar for your family runabout, nor should you choose a pedal and cleat based on its number of Tour de France stage victories — unless you're intending to win a stage yourself!
The Body Mechanic series on BikeRadar covers topics from bike fit to injury prevention to how your component selections actually affect you. The Body Mechanic is a Sydney-based physiotherapy, bike fitting and cycle repair workshop established in 2008 by physiotherapist and former NSW elite state road cycling champion Blair Martin.