Pedals and cleats

Beginner

When you buy your first bike, especially if you buy it brand new, you will notice that it doesn’t come fully equipped.  More specifically, it will probably come without pedals!  The reason for this is that pedals are a very personal item.  There are lots of different brands and models out there – each with attributes that some people like and others do not.  (note that I’m primarily talking about clipless pedals here, not the old-school “rat trap” (flat) ones, or the even older ones that have clips and leather straps to hold your tennis shoes in.)
Old-school clip pedals

“Rat trap” flat pedals

So, you’re probably asking yourself – what type of pedals should I get?  If you’re just starting out in cycling, I’d actually recommend starting with a set of flat pedals – the kind with no clips or cleats.  This will allow you to get adjusted to riding without one more thing to distract you (i.e. clipping in and out). 

Once you get more comfortable on your bike you should consider moving up to clipless pedals.  They allow you to take advantage of the upward pedal stroke in addition to the downward stroke (which is all you get with flat pedals), and generally make cycling more efficient and enjoyable. 

There are two basic types of modern clipless pedals:  mountain bike style and road bike style.  Mountain bike pedals allow clipping in on either side of the pedal.  And the cleats that mount on your shoe are recessed so it’s easier to walk when you’re not on your bike.  Because they are recessed, however, they are a bit tougher to clip into.  And the pedals and shoes are not as light or as efficient as road pedals.  Road bike pedals are slightly easier to clip into because they stick out more, but they do require that you flip the pedal to the right side, since the clips are only on one side of the pedal.  (See this link for more information on learning to clip in and out of pedals)  So, you generally have to look down at your foot for a second until your muscle memory lets you do it “by heart”.  As with everything for the road bike, this type of pedal is designed for maximum efficiency, so they’re the preferred way to go.  That said, however, mountain bike style pedals are the preferred choice of many road cyclists.  (Shimano SPDs are the universal standard here, but there are lots of other brands and styles.)

Whichever pedals you choose, they will come with a matching set of cleats to mount to your cycling shoes.  These generally mount with three or four screws and need to be properly adjusted so that the right part of your foot lines up with the axis of your pedal.  You can do it by feel to some degree, but it’s best left up to a professional bike fitter at first.  If you mess this up, you can cause a lot of pain in your knees and hips.

“Look-style” clipless pedals
 

Intermediate

As I mention in the shoes section, pedals are one of the things you might want to consider spending some money on to get a higher-end model.  This is because they are part of the “rotating weight” of the bike system.  In other words, when you’re riding, you’re constantly lifting your pedals and shoes, over and over and over.  For example, if your average cadence (the speed at which you pedal) is 90 revolutions per minute, in a typical two-hour ride you will have rotated your pedals over 10,000 times!  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that lifting a little less weight each one of those times can be very beneficial!  (Note, we’re really talking about inertial weight here, since your pedals and shoes are supported by your crankarms.  But the point is still valid!)

There are tons of different brands and models of clipless pedals out there.  The original ones were made by Look, modeled after their ski bindings.  Shimano makes very popular ones, as do Speedplay and Time.  The best bang for your buck currently, in my opinion, are the Look Keo Max 2 Carbon pedals.  You can find them on-line for around $150 a set and they’re very light.  Other high-end carbon pedals will set you back more like $300 to $500.

If possible, try before you buy – pedals are a very personal thing, which, again, is why bikes don’t come with them.  Each brand and model has a slightly different feel to them, and you will likely be partial to one more than another.  The degree of “float” they offer is one factor (how much you can twist your foot before it becomes unclipped).  More float gives you more freedom, but can also feel too sloppy.  Another factor is the cleats themselves.  If you’re going to be walking in your cycling shoes at all (i.e. you like to stop for breakfast or a cup of coffee after a morning ride), you might want to consider ones that give you a wider platform to walk on.  Some brands require “coffee shop covers” to go over the cleats in order to make them usable for walking.  Otherwise they can be unstable and/or slippery.  As mentioned above, if you plan on doing a lot of walking in your cycling shoes, you should consider mountain bike pedals and cleats.  The cleats are recessed so you can walk much easier.  (At the sacrifice of much heavier pedals and shoes, however…)

Various examples of cycling shoe cleats

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