For all the years I’ve been cycling (as an adult), I’ve spent the majority of them using SPD MTB cleats and pedals with mountain bike shoes. It was so long ago that I don’t remember how I came to make that decision… that point in time when you ask yourself, should I go clipless (aka to clip-in)? And what types of cycling cleats would suit me best?
So whether you’re riding a road bike, mountain bike, hybrid, gravel or cyclocross, let’s dive into the what, how, why’s and when’s of using clipless pedals and the types of cleats you can choose from.
What Are Clipless Pedals?
First of all, clipless pedals aren’t even actually clipless so to speak as the actual action is to clip, or snap, into them. Back in the day, the most efficient pedals were the ones with toe clips that kept your foot in place on the pedal.
So when they invented a pedal that no longer needed the toe clips… Well, we can see where this is going, right?!
The actual pedals of course attach to your bike and then you need cleats attached to your shoes which snap into the pedal, locking your foot in place.
The whole point of clipless pedals and locking your foot in place is to help you to generate power through the pull on the “upstroke” as opposed to just when you push on the downstroke. That right there is one of the biggest advantages of clipping in…
Types of Cycling Cleats & Pedal Systems
As a cyclist (yes you are!), there are different types of cycling cleats and pedal systems that you can use to improve your ‘performance’ and efficiency. The choice of cleats and pedals you use will primarily depend on the type of cycling you’re doing, which shoes you have and also on your confidence and comfort.
Here are some of the most common types:
Flat / Platform Pedals
These days, new bikes don’t come with pedals but if you’re lucky enough to get pedals, they’re likely to be the bog standard flat pedals which don’t need cleats. They’re mostly used for casual cycling, mountain biking, and BMX riding and are easy to use with any type of shoe like regular trainers.
Toe Clips and Straps
Toe clips (also known as toe cages) are metal or plastic cages that attach to platform pedals. You wear regular shoes for these pedals which are then secured with straps. Yes, they’re not as efficient as dedicated cycling shoes and cleats but they do provide some level of foot stability and control.
SPD (Shimano Pedaling Dynamics) / SPD-MTB
I feel like I’m learning here too because I was today years old when I found out SPD stands for Shimano pedalling Dynamics. I actually call these SPD-MTB – where cleats have two holes and are compatible with two-bolt SPD-style pedal systems.
SPD-MTB cleats and pedals are popular for mountain biking, touring, and commuting. They offer a good balance between walkability (the cleats are often recessed in the shoe) and power transfer.
SPD cleats are often used in combination with mountain biking shoes and alot of people find them easier to “clip out” off.
SPD-SL Road Cleats
SPD-SL cleats and pedals are designed for road cycling with three-bolt compatibility. They provide a secure connection and a wide platform for efficient power transfer.
Look Keo cleats are commonly used in road cycling. They have a three-bolt pattern and are compatible with Look Keo pedal systems. These cleats provide a secure connection between the shoe and pedal, optimising power transfer.
Speedplay cleats have a unique four-bolt pattern and are popular among road cyclists. They offer a large range of adjustability and a low stack height, which can benefit those seeking a precise fit and maximum power transfer.
The Benefits of Using Clipless Pedals & Cleats
If you’re anything like me, you can do with all the extra power you can get. Power has never been my strong point so being able to recruit as many muscle groups as possible when cycling really helps.
Evening out your pedal stroke – both pushing and pulling – will keep you more balanced in the long term and reduce the risk of injury.
Another area that clipless pedals really give you an advantage is for climbing. Again, the focus isn’t just on the push phase and you can utilise the pull phase to help power you up that hill.
Last (maybe?) but not least, being clipped into your pedals means that your feet are in the best possible position. This will definitely be true if you get yourself a bike fit. It also means your feet will stay in place should you end up riding over some not so smooth surfaces.
Are There Any Disadvantages of Clipping in?
Well, the potential disadvantages aren’t exactly related to clipping in; they’re more really related to the mechanism itself. Like, if your cleat snaps. This happened back in the day to a friend of mine just as we were heading out of London city centre to Richmond Park.
Luckily for us, we were within walking distance of a local bike shop. Taking spares, and tools can mitigate this risk but I kinda feel like we could end up taking enough spare parts to build a whole new bike if we worried about everything.
Your best bet is to check your cleats before and after each ride, as the screws can work themselves loose on occasion.
The only other annoying thing I can think of is if there is any walking involved. Technically, you should be riding, but if you’re bike packing or riding to run some errands, clipless shoes or shoes with cleats on the bottom are not the safest or most comfortable option to walk in.
You can mitigate this by using SPD MTB cleats on shoes which have a recess meaning the sole of the shoe sits flush with the ground allowing you to walk as normal.
Will You Fall Over When You Clip-in?
Although lots of people say that falling when you first clip in is mandatory, it really is a personal thing. I’ve been lucky and never made it to the floor; once as I was approaching a zebra crossing a pedestrian stepped out in the road so I stopped without thinking.
Luckily there was a bus next to me which I used to keep myself from falling even though embarrassingly I landed right next to the driver’s window. I don’t remember another incident, so it sounds like I got off pretty lightly?!
Either way, I’m pretty sure that the whole clipping in and clipping out does get easier and will become second nature for you in no time at all!
And here’s a tip to avoid falling – as you’re coming to anything that might require a stop, unclip slightly earlier but keep your foot in place. That way if the lights change or the junction is clear for example you can just clip straight back in and get going. Sorted.
Tips To Gain Confidence Clipping In and Out
Here are all the best tips I could find on how to ride with clipless pedals. Try all the different options to see which ones help you to gain some confidence when clipped in on your bike:
- You can buy cycling cleats which have a varying amount of float. Cleat float is the degree of movement offered by the cleat within the pedal before it releases and you ‘clip out’ of your clipless pedals.
- The tension on your cleats is adjustable so go with the loose(st) setting first and then tighten them over time, if they start to feel too loose.
- Use a turbo trainer indoors to practise clipping in and out
- Practice riding with one cycling shoe and a trainer on the other foot
- Try clipping in and clipping out while stationary to get used to the twist motion
- Go for a short test ride around your living room, garden or around the block
- Work out what your balance foot is and what your power foot is. Personally, I always unclip my right and leave my left clipped in and up, ready to power away from the junction. If you can learn to unclip your left foot then it means your foot won’t be on the ground on the side of traffic.
- Unclip early before you have to stop, when you’re slowing and anticipate leaning towards the unclipped foot
Q: Are they easy to clip in and out of?
As mentioned above you can adjust the tension of your set up. You can also buy ‘light action’ versions which allow for more “float”.
Q: How can I make sure I’m trying to clip in the right side?
Doing my research I learnt that SPD-SL pedals are weighted so will hang down the same way each time with the back of the spd pedals at the bottom. I did just look over to my bike (it’s in the bedroom next to me! haha!) and it seems to be true!
The Best Clipless Pedals For Beginners
The Shimano M324 Combination Pedals (for two-bolt cleats) are my ride or die. They were the pedals I put on my hybrid bike I used for commuting, and on my first road bike when my hybrid got stolen.
A double-sided pedal is perfect for beginners to build confidence and is simply just versatile and convenient. They’re heavier than three-bolt cleats but they wind for ease of use.
My First SPD SL Pedals & Road Cleats
When I got my first ever Liv bike – the Avail – back in 2019, I decided there was no better time to make the transition to SPD-SL for road riding.
I purchased the Shimano PD-R550 SPD SL Road Pedals and matching Shimano cleats after getting some feedback and advice in a cycling forum. I kinda didn’t wanna splurge on pedals but I didn’t wanna go too cheap as the Liv Avail had such a great specification.
Any other pedals I should check out?
I haven’t tried them myself, but I’ve heard on the grapevine that the Speedplay pedal and cleat system is so good! Apparently it’s like having Di2 (electronic gear shifting) …you won’t want to go back to manual!
One really good point that was made to me when chatting about the upcoming cyclocross season is that using SPD MTB was the best option as that is what most people used. In the case of an emergency it means you’re more likely to be able to find someone who can help you out. Good thinking, huh?!
Liv Macha Comp Road Shoes
I got my first pair of these shoes at the end of 2018 and started off using them for indoor sessions on the watt bike as I hadn’t yet switched to SPD-SL on my outdoor road bike. Since then, I’ve not worn any other cycling shoes as they fit so perfectly.
The Macha Comp Road Shoes first caught my eye, ironically, because they’re all black, sleek and understated. I’m not sure when it happened, but I turned into someone who is super sensitive about not looking like a Christmas tree when on the bike and black shoes will look good with any and everything!
I do now have a pair of the Liv Macha Pro shoes, the carbon version, in a very mermaid-like violet but as a lot of Liv kits are purple, they go perfectly with pretty much everything.
Another feature which made them the best choice of road shoe for me is the fastening mechanism – a BOA dial – that allows you to close the shoe easily to make it the perfect fit for each foot.
In the past, when my shoes were velcro only, there would be gaps gaping and eventually the velcro would lose some of its stickiness.
The fit leaves me enough room to wear socks comfortably and I’ve thankfully never suffered from numb toes or had any other negative side effects from wearing these shoes on the bike!
Which System Should I Use For Cyclocross?
For the first few years of riding cyclocross I used flat pedals and combination mountain bike pedals, mountain bike cleats and shoes. It’s only recently (around 2022 / 2023) that I changed the type of pedal I use to double sided SPD-MTB.
It was more of a confidence thing but also cost as I hadn’t yet gotten any shoes that could take compatible cleats. So to begin with, I rode in a a pair of Salomon Women’s Supercross Shoes which are made for trail running and stood up well to all the cyclocross action.
Check Out: What To Expect At Your First Cyclocross Race
Last Notes On Cycling Cleats
If you find a pair of shoes you love which are made for 3-bolt cleats, you can purchase a cleat adapter / adaptor plate (try Shimano SM-SH40) that attaches to the bottom of your cycling shoe enabling you to mount 2-bolt cleats.
If you don’t get a chance to have a bike fit to get your cleats fitted, the advice I was given was to mount the cleats as far back ball of the foot as the shoe allows to start with then you can adjust after trying on your ride.
Oh and a tip if you’re using SPD-SL, especially on long rides with cafe stops; get yourself some cleat covers. They’ll help you walk in your cycling shoes and prevent you damaging the cleats or getting them caked with dirt and mud.
So, Should You Start Using Clip-in Pedals?
There is no law saying you have to make the switch from flat pedals to clipless. Unless you’re a pro the gains are probably marginal but still worthwhile if you feel comfortable using them. I know plenty of cyclists who choose not to clip in and are still managing to get on that podium in amateur races!
So to clip in or not to clip in… what’s your preference?!