For a sport where you’re mostly sitting down, your feet – and what’s on them – are very important. You’ll find anyone who’s even semi-serious about cycling favours pedals that you attach to your foot rather than the flat pedals you might be used to.
And that means adapting your shoes by adding a metal attachment called a cleat. Here’s a guide for how to buy and wear cleats.
Cleats turn you into the cycling equivalent of Kungfu Panda. You become “one with the pedal” as your foot is less likely to slip off and you can pedal more efficiently.
However, cleats mean that you can’t use flat pedals. You need clipless pedals for the cleat to …er … clip into which seems like Orwellian doublespeak if you’re new to the cycling world. The pedals are called clipless – or sometimes clip-in – because, until 1984(!), when a ski company called Look thought to use the same kind of technology that attaches ski boots to skis, bike pedals came with toe-clips and straps.
Short answer: yes. With flat pedals, your muscle energy only powers the bike on the downward pedalling arc. With a cleat, you’re attached to the pedal so you also pull up as your foot completes the arc, powering the bike the whole time.
Being clipped in might be better for riding, but cleats do add a certain level of complexity to stopping because you have to detach your foot from the pedal by twisting your heel away from the bike. It takes some practice and even pros have been known to fall off their bike if they’ve forgotten to unclip when coming to a stop.
There are different cleat styles depending on whether you’re road biking or mountain biking and a whole load of other considerations relating to the terrain and your needs.
We advise new riders to start off with mountain bike cleats and then move on to road cycling specific cleats later on when you’re used to them. This is because mountain bike cleats affix to the pedal with two bolts which allows some slight side-to-side movement compared with three-bolt (or four-bolt) road biking cleats. That movement, called “float”, feels more natural and less rigid, plus it causes less strain on the knees.
Then there’s cleat tension to consider which is about how easy or difficult it is to unclip. If you’re going to be stopping a lot, say, for city riding, lower tension will be better as it takes less effort to rotate your heel out and unclip so you can put your foot down. Again, mountain bike cleat-pedal combinations tend to be easier to clip out.
Lastly, if you plan to walk around in your cycling gear, you’ll want SPD or recessed cleats that fit flush to the sole. Other styles like Look or Shimano (SPD-SL) are much more difficult to walk in.
Whichever cleats you buy, they’ll come with fitting instructions. Most people agree that they should fit in the centre of the ball of your foot so the pedal axle is aligned directly underneath. Part of a good bike fit might involve adjusting your cleat position to take into account your body shape and any differences in the length of your legs (which is very common).
Good shoes in cycling terms means tight, stiff and inflexible because the rigidity helps transfer the power from your leg muscles into the pedal. But cycling shoes form the third part of this holy trinity as the shoes, cleats and pedals all need to be compatible.
Certain shoes fit specific cleats and those cleats then only go with the matching pedals. So, choose the cleat-pedal system that suits your needs and then find shoes that work for that style.
Cleat safety tip!
Being attached to your pedals isn’t the most intuitive thing so practise clipping in and out while stationary before you venture out onto the roads!