Clipless Bike Pedals

If one area of cycling draws confusion like a magnet, it is clipless bike pedals. First off, clipless bike pedals aren’t exactly clipless. These pedals have a kind of clip called a cleat. Then there are all kinds of pedal-and-cleat systems.

In this post, I explain four of the most common pedal/cleat systems used in the cycling world today. You’ll also learn what Peloton pedals on a Peloton bike are and how they work. I’ll also give you recommendations for some of the best clipless pedals on the market and the cycling shoes they’re used with.

I promise to explain each pedal/cleat system as though I were explaining the whole thing to a grade-3 kid. Once you’re done reading this guide, you’ll gain a crystal clear understanding of the whole confusing pedal, cleat, and cycling shoe compatibility thing.

Why Do Cyclists Make Cycling So Complicated?

Just when you thought cycling stuff couldn’t get more complex than the derailleur and bottom bracket, the cyclist starts talking about their clipless bike pedals.

Below is an imaginary conversation between a seasoned bike rider and a complete beginner:

Beginner cyclist: Wait, clipless mountain bike pedals? What does that even mean? Look, your cycling shoes are clipped into your pedals, and now you’re saying you’re using clipless pedals?

Experienced cyclist: Yea, you heard me right. I’m riding clipped-in, and yes, my bike pedals are clipless.

Beginner cyclist: Well, that sounds dumb. Dumber than anything I’ve ever heard. You certainly can’t clip into pedals without clips, right? Why do you guys want to make everything so complicated?

Experienced cyclist: Don’t worry, dude. You’ll understand all this as time goes.

That beginner bike rider was me a few years ago. I found it dumb that someone somewhere decided to describe pedals you actually clip into as clipless.

I later learned everything I needed to learn about bike pedals. And in this guide to clipless bike pedals, I’ll share with you everything I know about pedal and cleat systems. I’ll also handhold you through the cycling shoes that go with these modern pedal systems.

“Clipped” and Clipless Bike Pedals Explained

Why are clipless bike pedals called clipless? With clipless pedals, unlike with flat or platform pedals, your cycling shoes stay attached to the pedals through devices called cleats. But this wasn’t the case initially.

A few years after the invention of the bicycle, a cage-like system that featured straps and toe clips emerged. Look at the picture below to understand what this system looks like. With this new system, the cyclist’s feet remain fastened onto the pedals by straps and a device called a toe clip.

toe clip and straps

The straps/toe clips system bolts onto flat pedals forming a cage. Your feet stay in these cages while you ride. This system holds your feet securely, preventing them from slipping off. This invention positions your feet in a way that powers efficient pedal strokes.

Here’s the thing: this system features clips (toe clips). As you can see, it makes perfect sense to describe these types of pedals as clipped. But they’re not the safest way to keep your feet on the pedals. The straps can catch on roots and cause you to crash.

Enter Toe Clip-less Pedal Systems

As time passed, new pedal systems materialized. But these new pedal systems don’t rely on straps and toe clips. That is, these pedal systems lack clips (toe clips).

For that reason, cycling brands started describing these new pedaling systems as clipless pedals. I bet you now fully grasp how clipless pedals got that confusing name.

2 Main Types of Clipless Shoe Systems

You can ride your bike on the road or off-road. You need a cycling shoe designed for the kind of terrain you mostly ride. Cycling shoe manufacturers have devised two main types of clipless shoe systems namely:

  1. Walkable clipless shoe system
  2. Road clipless shoe system

Let’s see what each clipless shoe system is like.

Walkable Clipless Shoe System

Typically, mountain bike shoes have recessed cleat systems. Recessed means that the cleats stay sunk into the sole of the shoes. The cleats don’t jut outward; they stay hidden in the soles.  That means the cleats don’t touch the ground as you walk. Also, the shoes have relatively thick soles and are also lugged for maximum traction. And you need enough support (traction) as you walk on trails.

You can walk or even hike in these kinds of cycling shoes. At the same time, you get super-efficient pedal power. If you’re a mountain biker, like yours truly, shoes with recessed cleats are what you need. These shoes are also good for commuting, road touring and even competing in a century race.

These cycling shoes are compatible with two-sided clipless pedals. To clip in when wearing these kicks, you don’t need to look down to see which side of the pedal it is.

Road Clipless Shoe System

The road clipless shoe system brings tons of efficiency to your pedal strokes. These shoes are designed specifically for road cycling.

The shoes are super stiff because power transfer is more important than anything else in road cycling. These shoes have protruding cleats, and they typically don’t have lugs.

The cleats have nowhere to hide in the soles because the soles are pretty thin. Also, these road biking kicks are very light, much lighter than mountain biking shoes.

Unlike walkable clipless shoes, road cycling shoes are difficult to walk in. Plus, these lug-less bike shoes don’t offer much traction.

And that’s where cleat covers for road bike shoes come into play (see a cleat cover picture below). Cleat covers make it less awkward to walk in road bike shoes. What’s more, cleat covers increase traction.

bike cleat covers

Let’s now look at bike cleats in greater detail.

4 Different Types of Cycling Cleats

Different kinds of bike pedals exist, that’s why I decided to list down the most common pedal types. Here they are:

  1. SPD bike cleats
  2. SPD-SL cycling cleats
  3. Look Delta Bike cleats
  4. Speedplay bike cleats

If you can only read one section of this clipless pedal guide, let it be this one. Understand each pedal type, and all the confusion you’ve endured all this time will vanish — forever.

So, let’s dive right in.

1. SPD Bike Cleats (Also Called 2-Bolt Cleats)

SPD stands for Shimano Pedaling Dynamics. SPD bike cleats are the most common cleats around. And that’s because they’re the closest it gets to a universal standard.

But while SPD cleats work for road cyclists and even triathlon racers, this cleat system was specifically designed for trail and mountain bikers.

That said, lots of road bike riders and tri cyclists favor SPD pedals over other kinds of pedals. And that’s mostly because SPDs offer great comfort and easier to use compared to other cleat systems.

Many cyclists prefer SPDs over other cleat systems because you can use this cleat type across bike types.

SPD cleats are also known as two-bolt cleats. Why are SPDs called 2-bolt cleats? It’s because these cleats come with two bolts or screws that attach them to the soles.

2-bolt bike cleats

This 2-bolt attachment links you to your cycling shoes somewhat more solidly than other systems. But for that somewhat more stable attachment, you’ll sacrifice a little power transfer. Most riders don’t even notice this power transfer difference — it’s not significant.

Reasons to Choose SPD Cleats

  1. SPD cleats are somewhat universal: They work across bike types. You can use SPDs for mountain biking as well as for road cycling. Also, many spin class bikes are outfitted with SPD cleat-compatible pedals. If you can only have one cleat type and you ride across cycling disciplines, definitely choose SPD cleats. But no single cleat type is a truly universal option.
  2. Compatibility with comfy biking shoes: SPD cleats are designed to be compatible with some of the most comfortable bike shoes.
  3. They work perfectly well with hiking and walking-friendly bike shoes: These cleats work with shoes that are quite easy to walk in, making them great for both road cyclists and trail riders. No more waddling around like a duck.
  4. Great ease of use: SPD cleats are no doubt the easiest to use of all four cleat types. SPDs are pretty easy to clip into and out of, the perfect choice for riding through heavy traffic. They’re also the kind of cleat you want to have at a stoplight.

Disadvantages of SPD Cleats

  1. SPD cleats aren’t 100% universal.
  2. Not ideal for most road-cycling disciplines.

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What are the best cycling shoes with SPD cleats? I recommend the Tommaso Terra 100 Women’s Cycling Shoes. They’re comfy, versatile, and affordable SPD-cleat biking shoes. It’s an all-rounder that’s good for indoor cycling, road biking, and mountain biking. For men, I like the Premium Microtex Bike Shoes with SPD Cleats.

As for SPD-compatible bike pedals, I recommend the Shimano PD-EH500 Dual-sided Platform Pedals.

2. SPD-SL Cycling Cleats (3-Bolt Cleat System)

It’s easy to confuse SPD-SL bike cleats with SPD cleats. However, these two cleat types have little to nothing in common. I feel the manufacturer should find a different name for SPD-SL cleats because they’re dissimilar to SPD cleats.

SL cleats are similar to Look cleats as far as design/style and feel. This cleat type bolts into the sole of your cycling shoes through a set of three bolts.

SPD-SL cleats are a 3-bolt system, and if you join the three corners through their centers, you’ll end up with a triangle. Look at the SPD-SL cleat picture below and see what I mean.

spd sl bike cleats

SPD-SL vs. Look Cleats

Design-wise, SPD-SL cleats are pretty much like Look cleats. Like Look cleats, SL cleats have a triangular shape with three holes, a hole at each corner.

Another similarity between SPD-SL cleats vs. Look cleats is that both cleat types provide the cyclist with lots of space. And this wide platform translates into awesome power transfer.

Additionally, both cleat types offer a certain degree of float. Float means the side-to-side swiveling that allows your feet room to assume a comfortable position that boosts pedaling efficiency. Some cyclists even say that clipless pedals with float help increase pedaling comfort while alleviating knee pain.

But do these similarities mean that SL cleats are compatible with Look pedals? Well, not really. Here’s the thing. You can attach 3-bolt SL cleats to 3-bolt Look shoes. And they’ll fit perfectly.

However, there’s no cleat-pedal compatibility between these two cleat systems. The cleat-pedal fit between them happens to be a fraction of an inch off. And that’s a problem.

SPD-SL cleats aren’t compatible with Look pedals. Likewise, Look cleats aren’t compatible with SPD-SL pedals. That means SPD-SL cleat systems aren’t interchangeable with Look cleat systems. Looks can be deceiving (pun intended), huh?

SPD-SL cleats are designed mainly for road cycling. They work best with the typical stiff road bike shoe. You can expect tons of power transfer from these bike kicks. But they’re not super comfy, and walking in them can be a pain.

Choose SPD-SL Bike Cleats if:

  1. you’re a serious road cyclist that needs cleats that fit some of the best peloton shoes on the market
  2. Value power transfer above comfort
  3. Are OK with cleats that aren’t super versatile

Don’t Choose SPD-SL Bike Cleats if

  1. You mostly do recreational or casual rides and would prefer a versatile cycling shoe/cleat
  2. Comfort is super important to you
  3. Your cycling involves a lot of walking or hiking

The SWISSWELL Men’s SPD-SL/SPD Road Cycling Shoes are a decent and affordable choice. Well, this is more like a beginner’s choice. And you’re never a real cyclist until your bike, shoes, components, and cycling gear cost way more than your cars.

As for SPD-SL pedals that have compatibility with SPD-SL shoes, I recommend the Shimano Ultegra PD-R8000 SPD-SL pedals. Definitely not cheap, but lots of road cyclists love these clipless road cycling pedals for a reason.

3. Look Delta Cycling Cleats

Look bike cleats are some of the most common cleats within the road cycling community. As a mountain biker, I haven’t seen Look cleats on the trails. You’re also highly unlikely to find Look pedals on spin-class bikes. SPD pedals are more like it when it comes to spin-class rigs.

Like SPD-SL cleats, Look cleats are a 3-bolt system that works perfectly with Look pedals. These cleats connect to the shoe through three bolts, and they come with a pretty wide contact platform.

The beauty of Look cleats is that they have compatibility with some of the finest road cycling kicks on the market.

These pedals were developed after years of experimentation, particularly in the decade between 1970 and 1980. During that period, Look took inspiration from ski bindings and modified the idea to address the needs of cyclists.

Look pedals feature a triangular shape just like the 3-bolt cleats they’re compatible with. And just like SPD-SL pedals, Look pedals offer a certain degree of float.

When you clip in, your foot is allowed limited side-to-side movements that set it in a pretty comfortable and efficiency-boosting position. Thanks to this aspect called float, your knees are unlikely to hurt.

With this pedal system, nothing stops in the way of your leg’s full range of motion. What you get is power-packed pedal strokes and a serious amount of power transfer to the chainring.

The general feel when using a Look-style pedal is plasticky-ish. But every pedal stroke accomplishes much.

Reasons to Choose Look-Style Cleats

  • Look cleats and pedals work together to deliver an impressive level of power transfer.
  • Look-style bike cleats boast compatibility with many super stiff, top-of-the-line cycling shoes.
  • They provide incredible pedaling efficiency to road cycling enthusiasts as well as pro-level road cyclists and even triathletes.

Reasons to not Choose Look Delta Cleats

  • Walking in cycling shoes designed to be compatible with Look cleats can be pretty challenging.
  • Also, the shoes offer little traction.
  • Renting a bike while traveling can be a problem because few places have bikes with Look pedals. You’ll want to bring your pedals if you want to ride while in new cities or towns.

Buy Look Delta Cycling Cleats If:

  • If you’re a really good cyclist that craves superior performance at all costs, even if that means enduring a little discomfort
  • You’re OK wearing shoes that are difficult to walk or hike in

Stay Away from Look Cleats If

  1. You’re shopping for gear to use in spin classes
  2. You’re planning on becoming a mountain biker rather than a road cyclist

If you’re looking for a good pair of Look pedals that are also affordable, consider choosing the LOOK Keo 2 Max Road Women’s Cycling Pedals.

The Tommaso Pista Women’s Indoor and Road Cycling Shoes. This cycling shoe offers dual cleat compatibility. The shoe works well with SPD pedals as well as Look Delta pedals. What’s more, these shoe arrives with the Look cleats already fitted.

Note that these shoes fit a little wide, though. That makes them ideal for road cyclists with wide feet. They should also be a great choice for riding a Peloton bike. If your feet swell a bit while riding in the pack, these shoes will provide enough room for your swollen feet.

4. Speedplay Bike Cleats

Speedplay bike cleats are perhaps the least popular of all four types of cycling cleats. But that’s not prevented this pedal system from attracting a fiercely loyal community of cyclists.

In terms of design, Speedplay pedals look different than all the others. First off, these pedals have a circular platform. The pedals impressed me as being finicky, but that’s far from reality.

Speedplay bike cleats are dual-sided and are some of the easiest to clip into and out of. Many riders out there won’t touch any other cleat type/pedal system.

The pedal platform can be pretty wide for some options while it can be narrower or very small for others. It all depends on the cleat model you choose.

These pedals are super light, too, probably the lightest of all 4 types. But it gets even better. The Speedplay pedal system offers quite a bit of adjustability in the float and clip pressure departments.

One key difference between Speedplay cleats and the other 3 cleat systems is that the cleat requires 4 bolts to attach to the shoe. That is, it’s a 4-bolt system as opposed to the more common 2-bolt and 3-bolt systems.

The good thing about this cleat/pedal system is that it’s compatible with many 3-bolt shoes and the pedals they fit. That means you have quite a bit of flexibility when choosing cycling shoes.

5 Reasons to Choose Speedplay Cleats

  1. These cleats and pedals offer the riders lots of adjustability in terms of float and clip pressure.
  2. Speedplay cleats are compatible with certain 3-bolt shoes and pedals.
  3. Speedplay pedals are lighter than most.
  4. They’re high-quality cleats and pedals, the purist cyclist’s dream come true.
  5. Double-sided pedals, clipping in and out is pretty easy.

3 Reasons You Shouldn’t Choose Speedplay Cleats

  1. Speedplay cleats are the least popular in the cycling world, and that makes finding rental bikes with compatible pedals.
  2. Speedplay cleats and pedals are for the most part more expensive than other options.
  3. Not many cycling shoes have Speedplay cleats, so shopping for the best cycling shoes can be hard.

The Speedplay cleat/pedal system is designed for cyclists that want light, tension-adjustable pedals with enough float. These are unique cleats and pedals, and they offer exclusivity in a sense, making those that love them feel as though they were a special community. And they are.

Peloton Cleats and Pedals: What Are Peloton Pedals? 

If you buy a Peloton bike, chances are it’ll come with pedals already attached. Those are Peloton pedals. Peloton pedals are essentially 3-bolt/hole pedals. Good news: Peloton pedals work well with pretty much all 3-hole cleats.

Even though the manufacturer says to not replace those pedals with others, their pedals aren’t usually the best quality.

So, dedicated roadies usually take off these Peloton pedals and screw in the best-quality SPD-SL or Look Delta pedals in their range.

Peloton bikes also come with a pair of cycling shoes. But it’s not a shoe you can use outdoors, so you’ll want to invest in a decent pair of bike shoes.

2-Bolt Cleats vs. 3-Bolt Cleats (Bolts=Holes)

SPDs are the classic 2-hole/bolt cleats. If you hold a bike shoe having SPD cleats with the sole facing up, you’ll likely see a couple of sets of holes on the shoes.

You can only use 2 holes at a time. The rest of the holes help you to reposition the cleat to a position that gives you maximum comfort and power transmission. Usually, bike shoes with 2-hole cleats feature sunk-in cleats.

3-hole/bolt cleats are almost exclusively found on road cycling shoes. This cleat design helps promote stiffness, and more stiffness generates more pedaling efficiency. The reason road cycling shoes have limited walkability is that their cleats are protruded rather than recessed.

Look Delta cleats and SPD-SL are 3-bolt/hole cleats. This cleat system supports three contact points between your shoe and the pedals.

Clipless Pedal Float and Tension Adjustment

Most clipless pedals these days provide a reasonable degree of float. They let your foot make side-to-side movements as they attempt to find a natural placement, one that fosters comfort and pedal stroke efficiency.

Before pedal makers discovered float, it wasn’t uncommon for a cyclist to suffer knee pain caused by foot-knee misalignment.

But having float on your pedals doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t need to have a consult with a bike fitter. A bike fitting expert knows how to play around with the cleat so that the ball of your foot stays perfectly over the pedal while allowing each foot a comfortable range of movement.

This aspect (float) is expressed as a degree and ranges from as low as 6 degrees up to 20 degrees. When I say 6 degrees, I mean a 3-degree movement on either side of an imaginary central line.

Note: Too much float means reduced power while too little or none of it might lead to knee discomfort.

Retention System Pressure/Tension 

This is another critical aspect, one you need to get right. Most clipless pedals today let you adjust clip pressure so you can control how fast you can clip in and out.

It’s best to set the pressure low at first and work your way up. Keep adjusting the pressure until you discover that sweet spot that translates into optimized ease of use and maximum riding efficiency.

How much tension do you need on your clipless pedals? As much as keeps you securely attached to your pedals while allowing glitch-free unclipping. Again, a bike fitter can help you fine-tune tension adjustment.

How to Use Clipless Pedals

First off, make sure to wear fitting shoes. Fitting road shoes fit snugly while allowing enough toe wiggle room. Your feet shouldn’t be slopping all around inside the shoe. Also, you shouldn’t experience heel-lift when using a road shoe.

As for mountain bike shoes, they should fit the same way as road shoes. However, since you’ll walk some of the time mountain biking, have a bit of room around the toe box for comfort.

Find a place that’ll provide support for your hands and start practicing clipping in and out. It’ll probably feel scary initially, but after a bit of practice, it’ll start to feel normal.

Your garage would be a good place. Alternatively, you can clamp your bike on a trainer and learn clipping in and unclipping there.

To clip in, slide your foot forward until you hear a clicking sound. At that point, shift your weight toward the rear of your foot to lock in your foot.

Keep one foot unclipped for some time. Once you’re Ok rolling around safely and balanced with one foot clipped in, clip the other foot in and practice some more.

To unclip, just twist your foot away from the bike and that is it.

Important Clipless Pedal-related Terms to Learn

Here’s a glossary of the most common terms related to riding clipless that cyclists use in everyday conversation:

Bolts and holes: It’s the number of screws/bolts needed to secure the cleat onto the shoe. SPD cleats work perfectly with 2-bolt/hole bike shoes, Look Delta cleats with 3-bolt shoes, and 4-bolt cleats with 4-hole shoes.

Cleat: A metal component that enables you to connect with your pedals and stay locked in for a safe, secure feel and pedaling efficiency.

Clipped/clipless/clip in: You clip into your pedals. When you do that, we say you’ve clipped in, or that you’re riding clipless or clipped in.

Cleat/cycling shoe/pedal compatibility: When choosing clipless pedals, be sure to line up the cleat design with the pedal design.

Eggbeater clipless pedals: Mountain bikers keep talking about eggbeater clipless pedals. But what are eggbeater MTB pedals?

Eggbeaters are a type of clipless MTB pedals made by Crank Brothers. These pedals are popular within the MTB community because they’re quite light and versatile. Why are they called eggbeater clipless pedals? It’s because their design resembles a mixing blade.

Float: Some cleats offer zero float, that is, they have fixed float. But the best clipless pedals for road cycling or mountain biking offer a decent amount of float. Float measures how much side-to-side movement your pedals allow your feet during rides.

Platform: Is the area on your pedals when the forefoot or ball of your foot rests. Generally, the wider the platform, the more comfortable and the greater power transfer.

Retention system pressure/Tension: Tension means how much you need to exert to unclip. Choose pedals with adjustable tension and set it to a moderate status. The tension shouldn’t be too high that you can’t unclip fast enough. Nor should the tension be too low that your feet keep coming off the pedals and destabilizing your ride while reducing pedaling efficiency.

Stack/stack height: This measures the distance between the top tube and the bottom bracket. 

Stiffness: The best road cycling shoes offer a high amount of stiffness. The stiffer the shoes, the more power transfer to the chainring. Less stiff soles can end up losing some of the power transmitted from your pedal strokes.

How to Choose Clipless Bike Pedals: Final Word

You may not understand all of the cleat-pedal systems that exist in the cycling market. But you need to know enough about the most common cleat systems so you can choose compatible cleats, shoes, and pedals.

SPD cleats are the most universal option (most versatile cleat system). But all 4 cleat systems are popular in road cycling and mountain biking to varying degrees.

Once you learn how each cleat type works, you’ll fully understand what kind of cycling shoe works best with it. You’ll also understand what pedal type is compatible with the cleats and shoes you select.

Hopefully, this guide has cleared all or most of the confusion that stood between you and the perfect cleat/shoe/pedal combination.