How to Choose Pedals and Bike Shoes
When you’re looking at new bikes, you’ll probably notice that many of them don’t come with pedals. It may seem strange at first, but once you realize how many different pedal options exist, it makes sense that bike manufacturers don’t include them—after all, they have no way of knowing what type of pedal you’re going to want. In fact, it’s possible that you don’t even know what type of pedal you want, especially if you’re a newer rider. To make the decision even more difficult, you’ll also need to keep bike shoes in mind when shopping for pedals since not all bike shoes are compatible with all pedals.
While choosing pedals and shoes to go with your new bike might seem like a daunting task, it’s important to weigh all the options carefully to be sure you make the right choice. And don’t worry too much—after reading this article and considering the type of riding you’ll do the most of, the decision should be much easier.
Platform pedals are sometimes included with a bike and are most likely what you had on your childhood bike: flat, wide, and square. They offer a large, stable surface to put your foot on while riding, but because there’s nothing to hold your foot in place, you end up losing a lot of power—and risk your feet slipping off the pedal completely—when using them.
If you only casually ride your bike for short distances (five miles or so) at a time, then platform pedals will work just fine, and save you some dollars. But if you want to start racking up more miles, you’ll want to consider a more efficient method of pedaling.
Toe clips, which are sometimes also referred to as toe cages, can be easily attached to platform pedals as a way to increase pedaling efficiency. The clips hold your feet in the proper position on the pedal, while the straps ensure that your feet stay in place. If you’re not quite ready to make the jump to clipless pedals, investing in a set of toe clips is an easy and inexpensive alternative, though they can be awkward to use at first and are still not the most efficient option.
For maximum pedaling power, clipless is the way to go.
The term “clipless” is a little confusing when talking about bike pedals, since you technically “clip” your feet into them to ride. However, since these pedals do not utilize toe clips, they are therefore considered clipless.
Ideal for riders logging many miles, several days a week, clipless pedals provide the most power and control by essentially turning your feet and legs into extensions of the bike itself. With your shoes attached directly to the pedals, you are able to pull up in addition to pushing down, which means that you lose very little energy throughout the entire pedal stroke.
There are several different styles of clipless pedals, but they all fall into one of two categories: road pedals and off-road pedals.
Road pedals (usually referred to as “SPD-SL” or “Look-style” pedals) utilize a large cleat to provide greater support and evenly distribute pressure across more area. These systems are typically very lightweight, and they provide maximum aerodynamics and efficiency.
Because these cleats are so large, they protrude from the sole of your shoe, making walking around off the bike with them difficult and awkward but since road cyclists don’t typically need to get off their bike and walk during a ride, it doesn’t really matter. If the ability to easily walk around in your bike shoes is important to you, then you’ll want to look at off-road pedals instead.
Most of the road pedals you’ll see will look like this; however, there is another style called Speedplay that has been gaining popularity among racers in the last few years. They are designed with the same goal in mind—maximize power and efficiency—but look and function a little differently. (Unfortunately, Eastern Mountain Sports does not carry Speedplay pedals at this time.)
In comparison to road pedals and cleats, off-road systems (usually called “SPD” pedals; there is also another style referred to as “eggbeater”) are much smaller. The cleats are also recessed into the sole of the shoe, which makes walking around much easier.
These pedal systems still provide plenty of power and pedaling efficiency, but with the additional benefit of being able to better shed debris when riding trails. The ability to easily walk off the bike also comes in handy for situations where you need to hike un-rideable sections of trail.
Off-road pedals are also double-sided, which makes it easier to get back into it without having to look down. Some models allow you to engage your cleat on one side while the other side is like a normal platform pedal for a little extra versatility.
Due to the obvious benefits of using these pedal systems while mountain biking, that is where you will most often see them. However, they can also be used for more casual road riding, commuting, or bike touring since the accompanying bike shoes are often a little more comfortable than shoes for road biking.
CLIPLESS PEDALS AND SHOES WORK TOGETHER
Unless you decide to go with platform pedals—which can be used with just about any shoe—you’ll need to pay special attention to the soles of the bike shoes you look at.
Bike shoes come with one of three bolt patterns in the sole, usually either three-bolt or two-bolt. Some cycling shoes have a four-hole pattern, though these are far less common. The bolt pattern in the shoe’s sole corresponds to the different cleat styles used by the different types of clipless pedals.
When you buy pedals, the cleats are included. Since bike shoes and pedals work together as a system, you’ll need to make sure that the shoes you choose are compatible with the type of pedals you’ve picked.
FINDING THE RIGHT SHOE
Once you’ve decided which pedal best suits your needs, finding a shoe should be easy—just find the most comfortable model with a bolt pattern compatible with your new cleats.
As with pedals, bike shoes also fall into different categories (road, MTB, or recreational/casual); here’s a quick rundown of the characteristics of each.
Shoes for road riding have the stiffest soles, which translates to more powerful pedaling. The soles are usually made of carbon fiber, nylon, or some other lightweight-yet-strong material in order to provide such a high level of stiffness without also weighing you down. The soles also have a three-hole bolt pattern to accept the cleats for road pedals.
The uppers of road shoes also tend to be stiff, though comfortably so, in order to preserve pedaling efficiency and power transfer. Road shoe uppers are typically made of either leather or synthetic leather, with mesh panels to provide ventilation and two or three straps—Velcro or buckle—to offer a more customizable fit.
MTB shoes are also stiff, but not nearly as lightweight as a road shoe. This is due in part to the fact that these shoes also typically have a pretty aggressive tread in order to make hiking those previously mentioned sections of un-rideable trail easier. The tread is also what allows the cleats to be recessed, which makes walking around in general easier than with road shoes.
The uppers also tend to be a bit more rugged than those of road shoes since they have to be able to withstand the abuse of the trail. MTB shoes typically don’t include mesh panels, either, in order to keep out as much mud, water, and other trail gunk as possible. As with road shoes, MTB shoes usually have two or three straps to ensure a good fit.
Designed with—as you may have guessed—casual riding in mind, these shoes will be the most comfortable and easiest to walk in. They’ll have more flexible soles than other bike shoes, and the cleat positioning is similar to that of MTB shoes (recessed).
The uppers of casual bike shoes look a lot like the uppers of light hiking shoes, or regular sneakers. They’ll usually be made of synthetic materials, have mesh panels for ventilation, and utilize laces instead of straps (though some models will have laces and one strap, and some models stick with the two-strap design of other bike shoes).
These shoes are the best choice for riders looking to get into bike commuting or touring.
Bike shoe sizing
Bike shoes are almost always sized using European sizes, so it’s really important to try them on before you invest all that money. If you’re ordering online, be sure to check the size conversion chart before placing your order. If you can temporarily spare the extra dollars, it may be a good idea to order the size you think you need as well as a size up or down (or both) and then keep the size that fits best and return the other(s).
How should bike shoes fit?
When pedaling, you don’t want your foot to move around within the shoe if it does, you’ll just lose the power that you were trying to preserve by buying fancy pedals and shoes in the first place. For this reason, bike shoes should fit snugly, like a glove. As with any shoe, you’ll want a little bit of wiggle room in the toe, but otherwise the shoe should hold your foot tight and not let it slide around. (MTB and casual shoes can be a little looser to accommodate foot swelling as you walk around.)
Bike shoes also tend to not stretch very much, so be sure that they fit properly when you try them on.
ADJUSTING TO CLIPLESS PEDALS
Newer riders are sometimes intimidated by clipless pedals because they think their foot will get stuck in the pedal. While it’s true that this does happen occasionally, it’s nothing to be afraid of—with a little practice, you can easily train yourself to get in and out of the pedal effortlessly.
Practice, practice, practice!
If you’re transitioning from pedals with toe clips to clipless pedals, you’ll have to retrain your foot to swing out to release instead of pulling backward. If you’re making the jump from plain old platform pedals, you’ll have to keep in mind that putting your foot on the ground is now a two-step process.
The easiest way to get used to engaging and releasing the cleats and pedals is to just practice in place. This is easiest with an indoor trainer—just set up your bike, sit on it, and practice getting in and out of the pedals until you can do it without thinking. Without a trainer, try to find a place where you can steady yourself (a wall, a tree, a telephone pole, etc.) and do the same thing.
Eventually, the motion will become second nature as you build up muscle memory.
Adjust the tension
Until you feel comfortable with your clipless pedals, you can ease up the pedal tension to make engaging and releasing easier. The only drawback to having the pedals set to a lower tension is that your feet might accidentally pop out when sprinting or riding through a bumpy section of road or trail. It’s a good idea to firm up the tension again once you’re comfortable with the motion to avoid accidental release.
SHOE AND PEDAL MAINTENANCE
As with any piece of gear, it’s important to make sure your pedals and bike shoes are taken care of. Here are some things to keep in mind:
i) If they’re dirty, brush them off. This applies to both shoes and pedals. If you let the dirt stay, it will work itself into places it doesn’t belong (think shoe seams, cleats, and pedal mechanisms) and cause problems later.
ii) If they’re wet, dry them. With shoes, the best method of drying them out after a wet ride is to stuff them with newspaper and let them sit. With pedals, you can just wipe them down with a towel.
iii) With road shoes, try to walk in them as little as possible. They’re meant to pedal, not walk, and too much ground contact will prematurely wear down the cleats. (You can buy cleat covers separately to protect them when walking, but it’s best to just avoid walking with them as best you can.)
iv) Your cleats will eventually wear out, no matter how well you care for them. When they do, replace them! Worn-out cleats may not engage properly, which will lead to less efficient riding and could potentially even be dangerous.
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