If you’ve found your way to this guide, chances are you’re interested in upgrading your bike pedals and possibly getting a pair of cycling shoes as well. Or maybe you’ve recently purchased a new road bike or mountain bike that didn’t come with any pedals (pretty common these days). Either way, the ins and outs of cycling footwear and bike pedals can be confusing, especially for less experienced bikers. In the next few pages, we’ll get you up to speed on the technology behind the various pedal systems and hopefully help you choose a pair that will work for your needs.
Cycling shoes aren't your typical athletic footwear, and most aren’t designed for walking more than short distances. However, the difference they make in your pedaling efficiency is noticeable.
Casual cycling shoes are used for recreational riding. They have softer, more comfortable soles than road and MTB shoes, and most models are comfortable enough to walk moderate distances.
Road bike shoes typically have a smooth, extremely rigid sole made of composite or carbon fiber. This makes road shoes poor for walking in. Road cycling shoes are designed to be lightweight, rigid and breathable, and usually include hook-and-loop straps. All road shoes should be compatible with 3-hole road cleats.
Mountain biking shoes offer more tread and may have a slightly less rigid sole to help navigate off-road terrain, but still aren’t ideal for walking more than a few yards at a time. MTB shoes typically have very aggressive tread for scrambling up steep, slippery trails. All MTB shoes should be compatible with 2-hole cleats.
If a spinning class is part of your regular workout routine and you use clipless pedals on your indoor bike, you may want to look for cycling shoes with recessed cleat mounts. Since the cleats don't protrude from the sole, you can easily walk to and from class. Plus, the recessed cleats won't scratch hardwood floors or tile.
Downhill bike shoes and BMX shoes are much more like skate shoes, except with a slightly stiffer sole. The flat outsole and grippy tread pattern make them ideal counterparts to flat MTB pedals.
Your cycling shoes should feel slightly tighter than regular athletic shoes, but not so tight that they interfere with blood circulation. Be sure to allow for a little room in the toe box. The heel cup of your cycling shoe should be snug enough to hold your heel in place through the entire pedal rotation, and there should be even pressure on the instep when the shoe is laced and you are pressing on the ball of the foot.
Your cycling shoes should be lightweight and durable. Most cycling shoes have a composite outsole. High-end road bike shoes may have a carbon fiber sole, which provides maximum stiffness and weight savings. Combination composite and carbon soles offer similar benefits.
Most cycling shoes are designed to provide ample ventilation to keep your feet cool and dry. If you ride in cold or rainy conditions, you may need additional weather protection. Neoprene booties that slide over the outside of your shoes are a good way to protect feet from penetrating moisture and cold.
Avoid wearing cotton socks for rigorous rides, as they don’t manage moisture well. Cycling socks are typically made with materials like moisture-wicking polyester and merino wool, which help feet breathe and stay dry.
Your pedals and shoes require some care to keep them in good condition. Here are a few things you can do to prolong the life of your gear:
When it comes to choosing a new set of pedals for your bike, there are three main options to consider: flat pedals (also called platform pedals), cage pedals (also called toe clips or toe cages) and clipless pedals.
Platform pedals are basically any flat pedal without a cage. Platforms are usually made of either aluminum or steel, although less expensive models can be made of plastic. Flats range from very basic to high-end downhill models. The major advantage of flat pedals is that you can use them with just about any pair of shoes, and they don't require any special skill to use.
Just a few decades ago, flat pedals with cages were called “toe clips,” and were the only option for cyclists seeking added pedaling efficiency until the invention of modern “clipless” pedals in the mid-1980s. Toe clips feature a plastic cage that surrounds the front of the foot and has adjustable straps to keep the foot securely in place. Toe clips can be a good choice for beginners because they are relatively inexpensive and don’t require special bike shoes. Cage pedals provide improved performance by increasing the pedaling power on the upstroke as well as the downstroke. The drawback, however, is that the straps frequently need to be adjusted, and getting your feet in and out can be tricky until you get accustomed to using them.
The name “clipless pedals” can be confusing to new riders because the action of using them seems analogous to “clipping in.” Rather than relying on large plastic cages (traditionally called clips), clipless pedals contain a spring mechanism that clamps onto a special cleat, which is mounted to the bottom of a bike shoe. The cleat is typically made of metal or hard composite. Clipless pedals are much smaller than platform pedals and are used with shoes designed specifically for cycling (in other words, regular shoes will not work with clipless pedals).
Every pair of clipless pedals should come with a corresponding set of cleats, which must be manually installed on the sole of your bike shoes using small screws (which should also be included). Road pedals are larger and generally only have a spring mechanism on one side. Mountain bike pedals tend to have a dual-sided mechanism for easier entry and exit on the trail.
The most popular style of mountain bike pedals on the market today use the SPD (Shimano Pedaling Dynamics) system with a 2-hole cleat configuration, although this is not the only option. Other brands, like Crank Brothers and Time Sport, also make MTB pedals with 2-hole cleats. Virtually all mountain bike shoes are compatible with 2-hole cleats.
Originally manufactured only by Shimano, several different companies now make SPD pedals. Like all clipless systems, the SPD system consists of a pedal with a spring mechanism and a compatible metal cleat that is affixed to the cycling shoe. To “step in” or “click in” to this type of pedal, simply slide the front end of the cleat into the front notch of the pedal and press down until the mechanism accepts the cleat. To exit the pedal, you must twist your heel laterally, away from the bike. SPD pedals come in both MTB models (2-hole cleat) and SPD-SL road models (3-hole cleat).
Most road pedal systems employ a cleat with three screw holes in a triangular pattern. There are several major manufacturers of 3-hole cleat and pedal systems. LOOK is the original.
Back in the 1980s, LOOK was the first company to pioneer modern clipless pedals, and based their original design on ski bindings. Although the LOOK system is similar to the SPD system, they aren’t compatible (i.e. you can't fit an SPD cleat into a LOOK pedal, and visa versa).
Time Sport makes both road pedals with 3-hole cleats and MTB pedals with 2-hole cleats. Time pedals and cleats are not compatible with SPD or LOOK, and visa versa.
Although less common, clipless pedals with 4-hole cleats do exist, particularly from the brand Speedplay. To mount these cleats to a pair of 3-hole road shoes requires an adapter plate.
Just like choosing a bike, the type of riding you prefer will determine the type of pedals you’ll need.
Casual riders generally shouldn’t need clipless pedals. Flats or cage pedals will work great for most people who only ride short distances around town.
Road cyclists almost always choose a clipless pedal system with a 3-hole cleat for the most efficient energy transfer during long rides.
Mountain bikers often need to get in and out of their pedals quickly on difficult terrain, so cage pedals can get hairy on the trail (if a foot becomes stuck inside the cage, it could result in a fall). Of course, the same can happen with clipless pedals if you’re not used to them. Most mountain bikes come with either flats or no pedals at all. If you're serious about cross-country mountain biking, you may want to consider a clipless system. Downhill riders usually stick with flats.