Well that’s a bold statement to start things off with.
(“Oi cock! This Grimper fella reckons ‘e’s got the ‘ultimate’ guide t’ pedals“, “Nah, tha’s collops mate.”)
Fair point. This post is unlikely to represent the last word written on pedals. But some of you people seem to like it when I write about things. So today I’m writing about pedals.
Anyway, it’s ‘ultimate’ as in Ultimate Warrior, who did not appear to be the ultimate wrestler, never mind warrior.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you introduce a post about pedals.
Why Should You Care About Pedals?
The pedals are one of the three components on your bike that touch you (the others being the saddle and the handlebars). More than that though, they’re the only point at which you transfer the exertions of your muscles into movement on the bike*.
(* Well they should be – let’s politely ignore the fact that my arms jerk the handlebars around when I’m out of the saddle, desperately trying to keep going up a steep incline.)
It’s worth giving at least some thought to making that transfer of effort as efficient as possible.
Furtherly, a poor choice of pedal can cause or exacerbate injury. My long-running knee pain saga (which concluded happily last July) certainly wasn’t helped by using the wrong sort of pedal (the wrong one for me at least).
Let’s Start At The Beginning
Pedals come in all shapes and sizes (within reason). Let’s keep it simple and say there are three main types:
1. Flat pedals
Sometimes known as ‘platform pedals’ (no, me neither, I just looked it up), flat pedals do exactly what they say on the tin. They’re the type of pedal fitted to your old Raleigh Mini Burner, your hybrid and your heavy duty downhill mountain bike.
Some flat pedals come with impressive, and potentially lethal, teeth that stick into the treads of your shoes, in order to aid grip. And also to help you remove that pesky skin that you insist on having on your shins.
2. Pedals with toe clips
Like flat pedals, but with a clip at the toe end of the pedal in which to slide your foot, and straps to hold it in position. The idea is that the pedal remains attached to your shoe, even as you lift your foot on the upward side of your pedal stroke (when the pedal goes from 6 o’clock to 12 o’clock).
Largely superseded by ‘clipless’ pedals for many purposes, you sometimes see them fitted by manufacturers to new hybrid bikes and lower end road bikes (often with the expectation that they’ll be removed and replaced with the rider’s pedal of choice). They’re a fixture on classic bikes used in retro gravel fests such as L’Eroica (“a poem written with a bicycle”).
3. Clipless pedals
The main, dare I say it, defining feature of clipless pedals is that they feature A FUGGING CLIP.
I can see it. There! [Points vigorously at either shoe or pedal depending on pedal system used]
You clip your foot to the pedal. If you pull up to some traffic lights, you clip out (unless you’re some sort of track start balance hero). Then you clip in again and cycle off.
Anyway, whatever you do, the point of such pedals is that you have a cleat attached to your shoe. This cleat then attaches firmly to your pedal, allowing you (theoretically) to deploy power to it throughout the whole of your pedal stroke.
(Yeah, I know they’re called ‘clipless’ because the toestrap brigade had already bagsied the term, ‘clip’).
If you haven’t done so already, I recommend using a clipless pedal if you’re going to be cycling for any significant distances. And I’d classify any sportive training ride as a significant distance.
As I re-discovered this weekend on my hybrid, going clipless-less can lead to your foot losing touch with the pedal on a pretty frequent basis.
I haven’t cycled without clipping in for some years (my hybrid has ‘hybrid’ pedals – clipless on one side; flat on the other – and 99% of the time I wear shoes with cleats). My pedalling wazzockry was actually demonstrating a skill that I’d unlearned – that in order to keep the rising foot attached to the pedal, you actually have to exert a little downward pressure.
So you’re pushing against the pedal that is being forced up as your other (main) leg exerts downward pressure in order to turn the chainrings and power the bike. Now I’m no physicist (unlike my uncle, who I now discover has a Wikipedia entry!), but that doesn’t sound efficient at all.
(It Takes) Diff’rent Strokes
An oft-stated argument in favour of clipless pedals is that they allow you to deploy power throughout the whole pedal stroke. For me, the ‘whole stroke’ is probably a claim too far, but I’m pretty sure I am able to exert force for longer on the pedal than simply the main down stroke (the bit between 2 and 5 on the clock face).
Now crazy as this sounds, in the early days of this blog, I used to consult scientific papers on cycling issues of note (!!). As you can read from the post I wrote on the topic of pedalling technique, my synthesis of their findings was not exactly incisive.
Headline message: sports scientists don’t agree unanimously that being able to apply power throughout the pedal stroke leads to greater efficiency and therefore stronger performance.
Still, most people agree that clipless pedals for road (and, by extension, sportive) cyclists are A GOOD THING. Hundreds (thousands?) of pro cyclists can’t be wrong.
So get over that fear of performing a sideways pratfall (think: Delboy; winebar*) when you prove unable to clip out.
(*UK comedy gold reference – apologies to foreign viewers and those under the age of 27)
Types of Clipless Pedal
Again we start with generalisations.
Clipless pedals fall into two camps: road and mountain bike. As far as I can see, there are two main differences:
- the size of cleat (and thus the pedal): the mountain bike ones tend to be smaller. Road cleats and pedals are wider, providing a larger, stiffer surface area through which power is transmitted; and
- mountain bike pedals are more commonly double-sided, allowing you to clip in whichever way up they’re facing, whilst road pedals generally* have a top (which you clip into) and a bottom (which you don’t).
(* see the next section for the two-sided road biking pedal exception)
As a sportive rider, you’ll want to be choosing road pedals…
Double-sided Sticky Pedal
For many years, I used a pair of Shimano SPD (mountain bike) pedals on a woefully ill-fitting road bike. I used it primarily for commuting in London and I laboured under the belief that mountain bike pedals were easier to clip in and out of (at traffic lights and rising suspension bridges) and that you couldn’t buy a two-sided clipless road pedal.
I obviously hadn’t spent particularly long researching the subject.
Whilst most pedal makers (Shimano, Look, Time etc) stick to one-sided road pedals, a company called Speedplay make a range of two-sided ones. They look like lollipops, which is both cute and irrelevant.
I own a pair of Speedplay Zero pedals and cannot recommend them highly enough. There are more important reasons why I use Speedplays (engage baited breath until the next section), but a nice side benefit is that their two-sided nature means I don’t to think about which way they’re oriented before attempting the clip in.
Oh yes, and that thing about mountain bike cleats being easier to clip in than road ones. I’m pretty sure that’s nonsense. You can adjust the spring tension in most pedals to suit your own clip in/out needs.
What To Look For In A Pedal
That you’ve bought two of them.
Assuming you’ve successfully avoided that potential pitfall, the main things to consider when buying a pedal are:
‘Float’ is the degree of rotational movement about the ball of your fit that a pedal will allow whilst your foot is clipped into it. A pedal with a large amount of float will allow your heel to move from side to side without unclipping. A ski binding (which provided the inspiration for the first clipless pedals) has zero float: the foot (ski boot) is locked in position and no lateral movement is possible.
Most people (if not everyone) have a little lateral rotational movement of their feet when pedalling. Having a pedal that can accommodate this, via float, without sacrificing too much stability and power transfer, means that you’re less likely to force yourself into an unnatural pedal stroke, causing injury.
Choosing the right amount of float is a bit more complicated. Too much float can be unhelpful, since it might allow the rider too much freedom to employ a poor pedal stroke (knees moving sideways for instance), without any correction at all.
As someone with ‘bio-mechanical issues’ in my legs (and hips… and feet…), float was my key consideration in choosing Speedplay pedals. I had them fitted, and the float adjusted to my requirements, by a professional bike fitter. If you are susceptible to pain in your knees, ankles or hips when riding, I recommend you consult a qualified fitter, who can determined exactly what you need.
Do the cleats that come with the pedals fit on your bike shoes – either the ones you own or the ones you plan to buy? If not, is there an adaptor available?
It’s important to think about these things. I bought a pair of Specialized Road Elite (Elite – ha ha ha!) shoes because I’m used to the Specialized fit and they offer good arch support. It would have been disappointing to find that choosing a pair of shoes to help deal with my ‘biomechanical issues’ meant that I couldn’t go with pedals suited to the same purpose (don’t worry though, my shoes and pedal cleats fit just fine).
Most road cleats use three screws in order to attach to the sole of your shoes. They therefore require three holes…
I think (don’t quote me) that the Shimano SPD-SL arrangement of holes is the most common for bike shoes to be compatible with. Other pedal manufacturers, such as Look and Time, might use 3 holes as well, but they’re not necessarily spaced out in the same arrangement. Many shoes are, however, compatible with a number of different cleats (e.g. a quick search on Wiggle finds me a dhb shoe that is compatible with both Shimano SPD-SL and Look Keo cleat/pedal systems).
Speedplay cleats (“stop bleating on about those fugging Speedplays”) attach with four screws, rather than three, and hence need an adaptor in order to fit onto SPD-SL compatible shoes. Which means you have to use seven screws. Per shoe. Which is a lot of screws. In your shoes.
I’d be a hypocrite if I wrote too much under this heading. A fastidious maintainer of mechanical apparatus I am not.
My understanding is that for some pedals (such as my Speedplays), you need to put a bit of extra effort in to keep them clean and lubricated, if you want them to last.
Which reminds me, I really must clean and lubricate my pedals…
How They Look?
As with most things cycling, looks are an important (most important?) consideration. I’ll have to leave this one to your own personal preference.
And then remind you that the pedals are hidden under your shoe when you’re attached to the bike.
How Much Does A Set of Road Pedals Cost?
Good quality pedals start at around £35, with top end models costing between £200 – £250 (excluding the top-of-the-range Speedplay pedal which has a mind-boggling list price of £599!).
What Do You Get When You Pay More
Generally you see the use of higher quality materials and more sophisticated mechanisms as you pay more moolah.
Expensive pedals use carbon and titanium in order to bring the weight down, and the desirability factor up.
Higher-priced pedals will have more ‘adjustability’*, in terms of setting float and the level of tension on the clip.
(* apostrophied because spellchecker tells me this is not a word. Neither is apostrophied).
How To Fit A Pair Of Pedals
This is maybe a topic for a longer post with photos, but the essential message is that it’s very easy… provided you have the right tool.
In this case the right tool is a pedal wrench (I own this one, made by Park Tools). Using a substantial wrench with a long, easy-to-grip handle makes loosening the pedal spindle from the crank arm a pleasure. Using the small spanner that came free with your first Raleigh BMX is not a pleasure, and is likely to result in a set of bloody knuckles when you slip and ram them against the chain rings.
Final pro-tip: the pedal on the left hand side of the bike screws out (and in) the ‘wrong way’. So, for loosening the pedal, you’ll need to turn it clockwise. The right hand pedal follows the normal in/out conventions.
Actually, it turns out that Condor Cycles have conveniently prepared a longer post with photos. Don’t say I never give you anything.
Proving Pedal Power
If you have a healthy disregard for saving money, you can, if you wish, get a power meter that fits inside your pedal and records your power output as you ride. Yes, inside your pedal. What next? Monkey tennis?
After a protracted development period (something like 3 years), with a number of false starts, Garmin released its Vector pedal-based power meter in September 2013. At the very least, it comes in an attractive box (it should do, given the £1,350 cost).
This is not something I’d recommend for your average sportive cyclist (or even your above-average sportive cyclist, since there are cheaper, more accurate power meters available).
If you’re interested, you can take a gander at Garmin’s promo video, which as usual features some glorious scenery (and an annoying voice-over).
Pedal Buying Options For Sportive Cyclists
So which pedals are right for you? Here are a selection of choices that might fit the bill.
I’ll say at the outset, I own and highly recommend a set of Speedplay Zero Stainless pedals (my mid-range choice). I believe that switching to these pedals was a vital component in solving the knee problems that had plagued my cycling for years.
For the other choices, I’ve gone for systems that work well for friends and relatives, and have a large number of positive online reviews.
Note: The links below are affiliate links. If you click on one and buy something, I’ll get a small commission. You won’t pay any extra, but you will get an immediate happiness boost from knowing that you’ve supported this site.
Budget choice: Shimano 105 Carbon SPD-SL (that’s a UK link; click here if you’re in the US)
I was going to suggest the entry-level SPD-SL in this slot (because my brother-in-law-to-be has them and rates them highly) but then I saw that Chain Reaction has the 105 version available for £54.49. As well as being a whopping 39% lower than the RRP, this makes them just £20 more expensive than what I’ll now call my budget-budget choice.
I have Shimano 105 gears on my bike and I’m a big fan. To me, 105 offers the best compromise between performance and price in Shimano’s range. Apparently, and as their name suggests, these pedals are designed to match this groupset.
They also have the word ‘carbon’ in the name, which I’m presuming reflects the presence of carbon in the pedals. And we all like a nice bit of shiny (figuratively) carbon…
Mid-range choice: Speedplay Zero Stainless (click here for US product link)
If you’ve got this far into the post, and you haven’t marked me down as something of a Speedplay zealot, either you’ve not been reading very closely or you’re drunk. And the best time to buy a new component for your bike is when you’re drunk.
- they’re double-sided;
- they look like lovely colourful lollipops;
- they can be adjusted to suit a range of biomechanical peccadilloes (they have up to 15 degrees of float).
What’s not to love?
Top-end choice: Look Keo Blade Carbon Ti (click here for US product link)
If you’re interested in buying these pedals, be aware that Look make a new version (they call it the Keo Blade 2) and online retailers aren’t always clear which they’re selling. I believe my links are to the new pedal because
- it’s not available until May on the site in question (Chain Reaction Cycles); and
- it has three levels of cleat tension (12, 16 and 20Nm), whereas the original only seems to have two (12 and 16Nm).
Oh yeah, and it says “Keo Blade 2” in the page title.
Super whizzbang choice: Speedplay Zero Titanium Nanogram Pedals (click here for US product link)
Lollipops and moonbeams. Titanium and nanograms.
I’ve said already that the RRP is £599. Both Wiggle and Chain Reaction (Chain Reaction in the US) sell them for 20% less than this (which is a not-insignificant £120 off, given the ludicrous starting point).
If you have £480 (or $694 currently) to drop on bike pedals, I can think of no finer display of valour.
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