Making up one of the three contact points you have with the bike, clipless pedals are a necessity for any road rider. Clipping into your pedals not only makes for a stable connection for laying down watts, they also hold your feet in the correct position and help you maintain efficiency as your cadence increases.
What are clipless pedals?
Clipless pedals have a nonsensical name, referring to the lack of a ‘toe clip’, like those used exclusively before the mid-1980s.
These pedals allow you to ‘clip’ directly into the pedal for a mechanical connection to a cleat, which is bolted to the underside of a purpose-built shoe. Most shoes designed for road cycling feature three bolt holes in the sole, while mountain bike shoes rely on two — there are also four-bolt shoes explicitly designed for a specific pedal system, more on that later.
While each pedal system varies slightly, the mechanics are more or less the same; step down on the pedal platform to clip in, and twist at the ankle to unclip. Where they do vary is the release tension, float, platform size, stack height and reliability.
Depending on your confidence and experience as a rider, what you’re looking for in a pedal will vary slightly.
What to look for in road cycling pedals
Each brand uses a slightly different cleat system, and some offer more refined adjustment than others. For example, with Shimano and Look style cleats; fore and aft, side to side and cleat angle are all adjusted at the same time, while Speedplay uses a separate set of bolts to modify each axis.
Float refers to how many degrees your heel can move side to side when clipped into the pedal. Depending on your pedal brand of choice, you can buy fixed cleats with zero degrees of float all the way up to 15-degrees with Speedplay (which can also be adjusted).
While some pro riders talk about the benefits of being ‘locked in’ with a zero float cleat, the majority of people’s joints benefit from some degree of movement. Most pedal systems will have a bit of friction built into the float while others have a resistance-free feel to them—which is right for you will depend on your personal preference.
When it comes to road bike pedals, each respective brand makes claims about their system offering the biggest pedalling platform or surface area. It is an essential factor to take into account as a pedal with a larger surface area will distribute your pedalling force over a bigger section of your foot, meaning five hours into your all-day epic, you shouldn’t get those uncomfortable hot spots in your feet.
For beginners, being able to kick your foot out of a pedal in desperation when you misjudge the timing of a traffic light is vital to prevent not only a bruised ego but also a sore spot on your hip. At the same time, the last thing you want when responding to an attack in a road race, or in a bunch sprint is for your foot to unclip.
Most pedals that use an actual spring will allow for the release tension to be adjusted with a pinch bolt, while others like those that use a carbon leaf spring for retention may offer some degree of adjustability, but often with a few extra steps.
Stack height refers to the distance between the pedal axle and the bottom of your foot. Ideally, you want your foot as close as possible because as the crank goes around it’s easier to stay on top of the axle the smaller the distance, and it also reduces the loss of energy to twisting. It also sets you up for a lower overall position, aiding aerodynamics.
It’s also essential to note stack height if you’re swapping pedal systems because you may have to adjust your saddle height as well.
Pedals are often the most neglected and rarely maintained part of a bike, and with brands trying to shave weight anywhere they can, this often happens in the bushings and bearings. Some only require a squirt of grease here and there, while other’s need to be fully disassembled with purpose-built tools.
Reliability also applies to cleats and how often you have to replace the hardware, with some lasting considerably longer than others.
Best road cycling pedals you can buy today
Shimano 105 R7000 SPD SL
Verdict: A great quality pedal that punches well above its weight considering the price
- Weight: 265g
- Price: £95 / $150 / AU$150
+ Prime example of trickle-down tech, offering almost the same performance as more expensive models
– Centre stainless steel pad has been removed for the latest version
Shimano pedals have become some of the most popular on the market for good reason; they are some of the most user-friendly and reliable of the bunch. The silky smooth bearings will spin for ages before they get crunchy, and the retention mechanism on the rear of the body means they always hang right side up.
Using large plastic cleats available in 0, 5 or 9-degrees of float, Shimano road cleats are reasonably easy to walk in, don’t break the bank, and last quite some time even without café covers.
When we are talking in terms of how we spend our hard-earned cash on bike components, for Shimano pedal users, these are the winning ticket because they are virtually the same as the range-topping Dura-Ace pedals at a fraction of the cost. Yes, the higher-end models offer a slightly lower stack height, increased ground clearance and an extra set of bearings, but these have little effect on stability, security or durability. You still get the same wide pedalling platform, stainless steel plates on the top of the pedal body to prevent premature wear and plenty of adjustability through the cleats and release tension.
Shimano Ultegra R8000 SPD SL
Verdict: A balance between price and performance, a popular pedal thanks to its durable performance
- Weight: 248g
- Price: £150 / $200 / AU$275
+ Middle of the road pricing, they just work plain and simple
– Minor differences to small to be perceivable
Ultegra serves as the privateer racer product range in Shimano’s lineup for its performance to price ratio, and the R8000 pedals are no exception. They borrow heavily from the Dura-Ace pedals and feature a wide carbon composite body for a stable and supportive pedalling platform. With a stack height of 10mm, they are 0.7mm shorter than their predecessors and gone is the removable stainless steel plate; instead, you get three stainless steel pads bonded onto the pedal body to prevent wear.
Tipping the scales 37g lighter than the 105 version, the R8000 pedals are supplied with the six-degree-float yellow cleats and standard mounting hardware. They spin on a stainless steel axle and two bearings which don’t require a break-in period and always settle with the spring down for easy clip-ins. As introduced with the 6800 version, the Ultegra pedals are also available in a +4mm axle version if your hips and knees need a bit of extra distance away from the crank.
Shimano Dura-Ace SPD SL
Verdict: The market leader comes with hyper-smooth bearings but at 228 grams, weight weenies won’t be impressed
- Weight: 228g
- Price: £225 / $280 / AU$370
+ Super smooth, reliable and easy retention adjustment
– Price, not weight weenie friendly
It’s hard to be a weight weenie and ride Shimano pedals as they’re not exactly feathery light. But, for those that count grams and prefer Shimano pedals and cleats, the Dura-Ace pedals are your obvious choice — just don’t expect them to come cheap. Based around a moulded composite body, the old screw on stainless steel plate is replaced with three smaller plates which are bonded on (as with Ultegra). The Dura-Ace pedals also get an extra needle bearing to provide better support and long term durability. The stack height is roughly 2mm lower than the R8000 version, and the Dura-Ace pedals come in the standard and +4mm axle for those who need a slightly longer q-factor.
Weighing in at 228g, it is a surprise to see Shimano still not use a titanium axle, as all of its competitors do to further shave grams.
It is worth mentioning that the top end Shimano pedals come with the brand’s blue cleats as standard, which only offer 2-degrees of float.
Time Xpresso 10
Verdict: Featherweight but at the cost of durability and professional servicing
- Weight: 195g
- Price: £140 / $195 / AU$300
+ Weight weenies dream, angular and lateral float
– Not user-serviceable
Time’s Xpresso pedals are easily the lightest in the bunch, and the iClic system allows for unique joint-friendly float. Unlike the majority of the clipless pedals on the market, where clipping in requires overcoming spring tension, the iClic mechanism uses a carbon leaf spring to hold the rear clasp open, and like the heel piece of a ski binding when you press down closes down on the cleat.
Even with this light touch system to engage the pedal, there is no shortage of hold with the power down, but the lack of a spring mechanism at the back to weight the pedal down means it may settle upside down when you unclip.
The cleats allow for 5-degrees of angular float (heel angle) and 2.5mm of lateral movement. Unlike Speedplay’s frictionless action, the movement feels more controlled and is likely to please those with sensitive joints. Time cleats have always been known to wear out pretty quickly, and although they have gotten better over the years still don’t quite match the longevity of the other brands.
The other downside is the bearings are not technically rider-serviceable. It is possible to crack them open with a bit of elbow grease, but Time doesn’t make tools available to the home mechanic.
Look Keo Blade
Verdict: A simple design and solid hold, but with limited adjustability.
- Weight: 220g
- Price: £155 / $160 / AU$200
+ Positive engagement, lightweight
– Carbon blade easily damaged, side to side rocking
Look pioneered the clipless pedal in 1984, and the Keo Blade is the brand’s top-end offering. The French outfit has updated the design over the years, and the Keo Blade uses a carbon leaf spring in place of a traditional spring for cleat retention — opposite to Time’s system.
In using a leaf spring, Look can make a pretty light pedal, however like Time, with the lack of weight at the back, they don’t always settle in the right position and can leave you pawing at the pedal when taking off from a stoplight.
Unfortunately, the carbon leaf spring design isn’t conducive to tension adjustment; however, Look offers multiple versions at differing levels of release tension force. It’s a job anyone who can hold an Allen key can complete, but it’s more involved than the other pedals systems. With the carbon blade located on the bottom of the pedal, it’s also vulnerable to damage.
Look’s cleats are available in 0-, 4.5- and 9-degree float options and the design is often ‘borrowed’ by offshoot pedals brands like Exustar and Ritchey.
A common complaint with Keo pedals is the lateral rocking, and once a bit of grit gets in there, they are also prone to squeaking.
Speedplay Zero Chromoly
Verdict: Aero, lightweight, dual-sided entry and good clearance make this an attractive option for racers
- Weight: 216g
- Price: £150 / $145 / AU$210
+ Adjustability and dual side entry
– Require a bit of maintenance and no release tension adjustability
Speedplay’s Zeros are commonly called lollypops because of their small circular pedal body. With dual side entry, the big difference in this system is that the spring mechanism is located in the cleat rather than on the pedal.
The cleats are highly adjustable with anywhere from zero to 15-degrees of float on offer with the turn of two small limiting screws. With that, the fore-and-aft and side-to-side adjustment are isolated into separate plates meaning they are adjusted independently of one another. The brand also offers a range of spindle lengths and different base plates for even more adjustability. With the majority of the hardware being in the cleat, Speedplay has an edge when it comes to cornering clearance.
Some shoe brands also offer unique Speedplay specific shoes with four holes drilled in the sole, allowing the already low 11.5mm stack height to get even smaller. The cleat is available in two specs; a standard version with a metal-base plate, and a dimpled ‘aero walkable’ cleat. We can’t speak for any aero benefit from the dimples, but the walkable version, as the name suggests features a replaceable rubberised cover, adding plenty of traction, and further extending the life of the cleat.
Spinning on needle bearings, they do require a refresh of grease every so often; however, this process takes all of five minutes to complete and only requires a small Phillips head screwdriver, a grease gun and a cloth rag. The cleats also need a bit of love, with the spring periodically requiring a drop of dry lube.
Speedplay offers many versions of the Zero including Aero, Pave, Light Action, Nanogram, and stainless axle. We’ve tried them all, and just like the Shimano SPD SL, the benefits of the pricier versions are marginal at best.
Look Keo 2 Max
Verdict: A good allrounder in terms of price, adjustability and weight
- Weight: 260g
- Price: £80 / $115 / AU$150
+ Adjustable release tension, price
– Side to side rocking
The Keo Max follow the same design as the Keo Blade, but instead of a carbon leaf spring for cleat retention, you get a standard steel coil spring. While it adds a bit of weight and loses some cool factor, this system allows more release tension adjustability. The added weight at the back of the pedal also helps the body to settle in the right orientation for easy clip-ins.
It’s available in carbon and non-carbon versions, the difference between them being about 10 grams.
They use the same cleats as the Keo Blades available in 0, 4.5 and 9-degrees of float.