A Guide to Pedal Systems

First published in Cycling Utah
By John Higgins

Cycling pedals are taken for granted by experienced cyclists and viewed with trepidation by new cyclists.  What is their function and role, how do you choose a pedal system, and what do you need to know about using them and looking after them?

In the last issue (Summer 2019) I touched on pedal systems in “A guide to cycling shoes” as the shoes and pedals function interdependently to transfer force to the pedals.  The choice of cycling shoes will influence what pedals you can use, and vice versa. To recap briefly, pedals systems will be broadly categorized as either flat, road or mountain.  Within these 3 broad categories are a range of brands, models, functions and features that can overwhelm a newbie, leading to a Facebook post that says “I just got a new bike – what pedals do I put on it?”  There are many possible answers, and some will be better than others.

The answer to this question is not as simple as might be expected, and will be influenced by an assessment of: the type of bike, the type of riding the person is doing, their experience and confidence level, and future cycling ambitions.

Pedal Categories

Flat pedals are what we all learn to ride on as a kid, or belatedly as an adult.  However Flat pedals (aka platform) are not restricted to kids bikes but show up on lower cost road bikes and mountain bikes, cruisers, hybrids, commuters, e-bikes and some specialty mountain bikes.  Flat pedals may be rubber, metal with serrated teeth  (great for both traction and nasty shin injuries) or studded. Cycling specific shoes are not required.  Just get on and ride!  Therein lie both the pros and cons. Pros: ease of use, no special shoes required, you won’t fall over and land on your hip while trying to get your feet off your pedals, quick and  easy to separate your foot from the pedal.  Cons: loss of energy transfer to the pedal, can result in less efficient power transfer, takes skill and practice to stay in contact with the pedals in bouncy conditions  (i.e mountain biking).

A couple of the cons can be addressed by using Powerstraps or Toe cages (clips) to help retain the feet on the pedals. Clips were the performance enhancing advantage of a bygone era, leading to the advent of the next two categories of “clipless” pedals. This poorly chosen but common name to describe modern pedals relies on historical knowledge to make any sense, and I won’t use it again.

What defines modern cycling pedal systems are three integrated components: the pedals which attach to the bicycle crank arms; the cleats; and the shoes to which the cleats are attached. Putting your foot on the pedal clicks the cleat into the pedal, mechanically attaching the feet to the bike.

Mountain bike pedals are not just for mountain bikes. They can be used on any bike! The salient features are that they are double sided; easy to click into, even easier to detach from, and use a 2 bolt cleat. The 2 bolt cleat pattern in turn defines the shoes that can used with these pedals, and 95% of them will have a lugged outsole that the cleat is recessed into, making for a flat and secure walking surface underfoot. The overarching design principle is easy entry and exit and off-bike walkability.

Road bike pedals are commonly single sided, and relative to mountain bike pedals they can take more force to enter and exit.  The cleats are larger, and use either a 3 or 4 bolt to mount to the shoes.  The relevant cycling shoes will have a relatively smooth outer-sole, from which the cleat will protrude, making walking somewhat awkward. The overarching design principle is “retention” i.e keeping your shoes attached to the pedal. Ease of engagement / disengagement is secondary.

Brands and Models

A few well known brands dominate the local market, but there are a wide array of options. The big names for road pedals are Shimano, Look and Speedplay.  There are a multitude of second tier brands offering Look style pedals and cleats, but the quality and function is often not as good.  All three brands offer a range of models at different price points with different materials and features. As with anything bicycle, your pay more for less (weight), and hopefully better quality.

Mountain bike pedals are dominated by Shimano who invented them, with Crank Bros a popular alternative. Other brands include iSSi, Xpedo, and Speedplay. Shimano offer a slew of options in weight, materials, quality and contact size, but not color!  Some of the other brands bring more bling to your bike, should that be a selection criteria.

Pedal Functions

The two main functions to consider are the ease of engagement/disengagement between shoe/cleat and pedal, and if off bike walking practicality is needed.

Engagement / disengagement.  Connecting your shoe to the pedal takes practice, and while you can attach one foot while stationary, you have to be moving to get the other foot in. Double sided pedals make this easier.  Mountain bike style pedals are easier.  Most pedals have an adjustable tension screw that can  be backed off to make this easier, or tightened to increase the grip the pedal has on the cleat.  However different pedals have different characteristics.  Shimano road pedals can take a lot more oomph to  get in and out of compared to Look and Time and for that reason suit heavier stronger riders more than lightweights.  Speedplay Zero are harder to get in and out of than Speedplay Light Action. If you are a novice, a pedal that is easy to get in and out of will suit you better.

Walkability.  OK, I know the aim of cycling is to be pedaling not walking, but for some people it is the need for good walkability that will influence a pedal choice.  Mountain bike pedals and shoes offer the best walkability and so are popular choices with commuters, bikepackers, and some novices.  Road shoes and pedals will offer a limited amount of traction off the bike, with the best being the Speedplay walkable pedals. These are popular with triathletes who may need good grip in and out of the transition zones while also using road or tri shoes. Spin class aficionados may also value walkability, and to that end spin class bikes typically use either flat pedals or hybrid pedals that use a Shimano mountain bike cleat.

Pedal Features

There are a number of obvious and not so obvious features that may influence your preference and choice

Attachment.  There are 3  options when it comes to defining the attachment options on a pedal: single sided, dual sided and hybrid.  Most road bike pedals are single sided. That means you can only connect your cleat to one side of the pedal.  This keeps the weight and profile of the pedal lower.  The downside is that without a foot in the pedal it usually rotates upside down, requiring a toe flick to turn it over before you can get in.  Not and issue if you are  getting on your bike, going for a ride, and getting off.  It is an issue if during the course of a ride you have frequent stops and have to get going again quickly and easily.  Double sided pedals are easier to get into without having to nudge it around to gain entry, but may be heavier and bulkier.  All mountain bike pedals are double sided, but there are some single sided road pedals  that use a mountain bike cleat.  Hybrid pedals are a double sided pedal with a different attachment on each side.  This is typically a combination of flat and mountain, meaning you can use the pedals with regular shoes and no cleats, or cycling shoes and cleats.  These are popular with commuters or people with one bike for quick errands as well as longer fitness or training rides.  They are often recommended to cyclists moving from flat pedals to click in for the first time, although this is not always a good recommendation. The pedals are heavier and effectively a single sided pedal as far as clicking in goes.  Once the skill of using click in pedals is mastered, the flat side becomes superfluous.

Float.  To prevent achy knees, pedals and cleats are designed with “float”.  This enables your foot to pivot slightly in and out during the pedal stroke. The model of cleat will determine the float.  When you buy pedals the box comes with a set of cleats.  Those cleats will have X degrees of float which will suit most people most of the time.  With mountain bike cleats the float is a set amount in most brands.  With road pedals there are often choices in cleat color which denotes different amounts of  float.  For example, Look Keo grey cleats have 4.5 degree of float and the red cleats have 9 degrees of float.  You may be a candidate for either more or less float than what the stock cleats permit.

Fit Adjustments.  You probably wont give this any consideration at all, but as a bike fitter it is of considerable interest and relevance to me.  The ability to adjust the relationship of the foot to the pedal via the cleat position is a key component of bike fitting.  Adjustments include the fore/aft cleat position  ( how far forward your foot is over the pedal); the medial / lateral position which affects stance width; the cleat rotation which affects the usable float range, and the ability to shim or wedge a pedal to accommodate feet or leg conditions.  Stance width  (how far apart your feet are on the pedals) is a big deal for some cyclists, and often there is a need to increase this.  This can be achieved either through the use of different length pedal spindles  (axles) or aftermarket pedal extenders.  Shimano recently introduced an option for 4mm longer spindles on their Ultegra and DuraAce models of road pedal; iSSi offer 2 additional length options on their mountain bike pedals, and Speedplay have long offered 4 additional different pedal spindle lengths, although only as a custom order or post purchase upgrade.

Power Meter. Pedals have become a vehicle for power meters, with well known USA company Garmin and lesser known Italian company Favero offering road pedals with built in power meters. The Favero Assioma has proven to be reliable and popular, with their single sided pedal power meter having the lowest entry cost to getting power data out of all the power meter options available.  From a technical perspective pedals are considered the least desirable place to have a power meter, but they offer the convenience of easy DIY installation, low cost and ease of transfer between bicycles.

Quality, Durability and Maintenance. Pedals and cleats are things most people put on and forget about, but they take a pounding every time you go riding and are more important. Shimano have the reputation for the best quality, long lasting pedals, but that’s not to say other brands are going to fall apart under your feet.  Most but not all pedals are serviceable i.e. can be pulled apart, cleaned, greased and rebuilt, but many people will replace rather than repair pedals. Speedplay are the most serviceable, but also require regular maintenance in the form of greasing, which many users overlook. Pedals can and do wear out.  That may be the internal bearings, or the external body. A badly worn pedal body leads to shoe/foot instability on the pedal which can show up as power loss and knee pain. Inspect old pedals for signs of excessive wear.  Give them a spin by hand. If there is any grittiness to their rotation have them serviced or replaced.  I’ve been stranded miles from home by a pedal that decided it’s day was done and seized up.  You can ride a bike without a saddle, but you can’t ride a bike without a pedal that goes around. Cleats are designed to wear out. Expect a season or two out of them. Inspect them for missing screws, loose screws and wear.

Getting Started

Anyone who currently rides on flat pedals but is contemplating a performance upgrade to click-in pedals has heard the horror stories of pain and embarrassment from toppling over at a standstill in front of other cyclists and motorists, due to forgetting to disengage in a timely and balanced manner.  Yes, it’s probably going to happen to you at some stage.  Consider it a rite of passage, and step up to the challenge.  There is a short learning period, but you most likely won’t regret the change. It’s part of becoming “one” with your bicycle. If you are nervous about this and on a road bike, I suggest starting with mountain bike style shoes and pedals for a gentler learning curve.  If you are a cautious or relatively low skilled mountain biker and regularly put a foot down, stay on flat / platform pedals.  If you build skill and confidence and want to stay on your bike more often, give click in mountain bike pedals a go.

To build skill and confidence using these pedals, start in a safe, controlled environment.  If you have an indoor trainer, mount your bike on it and use it to practice getting in and out of the pedals.  If you don’t, have someone hold you upright on your bike or lean against a wall or fence and practice.  The next step is to find an open grassy park (without goatheads) where you can ride around slowly and click in and out. Start at a standstill.  Straddle your bike. Get one foot in a pedal, then push off to get the other foot in.  You might need to do a few pedal strokes with just one leg before you can get the other foot connected.  Practice with both feet.  One side will feel more natural than the other, but it is good to be able to do it on both sides. If you fall over it will be a relatively soft landing. The next progression is to practice getting in and out while carrying some momentum along a street that trends gently down – so you don’t have to pedal.  See if you can locate the pedal and click in without having to look down.  Keep your eyes ahead.

Once out and about the key to not falling over at a stop is simply anticipation. Which foot do you want to put down when you stop, disengage from the pedal a few yards before you come to a stop, and as you finish braking lean to that side and put your already detached foot on the ground. If you lose too much speed before disengaging then the action of getting your foot out will tip you out of balance and you will fall on the opposite side. For most pedals you “toe” into the pedal to connect, and twist your heel out to release.  With practice this will become an automatic and largely unconscious action.

Posted in Bike Fitting.

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