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August 3, 2021

How to Pick the Best Pedals for Your Road Bike

Alongside the saddle and the handlebars, the pedals are one of the three points of contact of a rider and their bicycle. They also serve as the sole location for power transfer from a cyclist’s legs, so are one of the most important components to consider when setting up your bike.

Like many other bike parts, it can be difficult to discern what you should be looking for when choosing your pedals, what difference they can make, and which types of pedals are best suited for your needs. Pedal selection is one of the more personal component choices for your bicycle, and you will need to find the correct balance between comfort, versatility, and price; in addition to evaluating the potential performance benefits from different pedals.

What are the Different Types of Pedals?

For the uninitiated, the categorization of pedals can be perplexing: clipless pedals are those that you clip into, platform pedals are also known as flat pedals, and different brands use a range of mechanisms within their pedals. Here is a quick summary:

  • Platform pedals: usually the pedals that come included when you buy a bike, and likely the first pedals you ever used. They are mostly used by beginners, children, and recreational cyclists, but are also the first choice of downhill mountain bikers since they make it easy to remove your foot from the pedal quickly.
  • Clipless pedals: named “clipless” due to their lack of ‘toe straps’ AKA ‘toe clips’, these are the pedals commonly used by avid cyclists and professional racers. They come in many types for use in different disciplines, with SPD pedals typically being used for cyclocross, cross country mountain biking, and, increasingly, gravel riding and bike-packing. Notable variations commonly used for road riding include Look, SPD-SL, and Speedplay. Clipless pedals require special cycling shoes and cleats, mechanisms that are fixed to the shoe and interlock with the pedal – also known as “clipping in”.

Within these two broad categories, there are several features that vary with each style of pedal that are designed to optimize them for use in a particular environment:

  • Float: described as the amount of lateral movement of the foot while clipped into the pedal. Float can also be altered by your choice of cleats, with some even having no float, but different pedal types are made to allow different levels of lateral movement. For those using clipless pedals for the first time, having more float can be useful to find your optimum foot position while on the bike, and can prevent injuries from incorrectly angled cleats.
  • Materials: the materials used to make pedals can affect their durability and weight, and therefore change their application. Lighter plastic and carbon pedals are used by road racing cyclists, while touring cyclists will tend to consider weight as a less important feature and opt for a more durable and versatile material. Some pedals are metal, although this is less common in pedals designed for use on the road. The use of metal in pedals is usually for increased durability and hardness – an important feature for mountain bike pedals – since they will need to withstand hits against rocks and rough surfaces.
  • Shape: the shapes of pedals can vary depending on the style, with SPD and Speedplay pedals generally being smaller with a circular cross-section, and most other clipless pedals approximating a triangle. Shape and size are especially important for power output and distribution – pedals with a larger area are regarded as superior for power transfer as the force applied to the pedal will be spread over a bigger area, easing the strain on a rider’s foot. Larger clipless pedals also come with the benefit of being easier to ride with regular shoes, since the greater surface area allows for more space to place your foot when it is not clipped in. Known as “stack height” the depth of the pedal is also a factor in the shape of the pedal, with lower stack height pedals being favourable for anyone planning to ride off-camber or steeply banked roads.
  • Cleats: almost as important as pedals when it comes to choosing the right fit for you, the cleats are the mechanisms that attach to your cycling shoes, allowing you to clip into your pedals. Cleats are specific to each type of pedal but can also have variation within their type, most significant of which is the amount of float. The system used for interlocking changes depending on the pedal and cleat type, but this is rarely noticeable when riding; all common pedals require downwards pressure to clip in, and a twist of the foot to unclip. Another important distinction within cleats is their method of affixing to the shoe – SDP-SL, Look, and Speedplay cleats use 3 screws to adhere to the shoe, allowing for the angle and position of the cleat to be adjusted, while SPD uses only 2 screws for altering the location of the cleat on the shoe. Most cleats will act as the ‘plug’ and protrude from the shoe, with the pedal being the ‘socket’, but Speedplay is the opposite of this.
  • Polarity: some pedals are double-sided and can be clipped into regardless of which way they are facing, but other options can be clipped into only from one side. This may affect the ease of use, especially for first time users of clipless pedals. SPD and Speedplay pedals are dual-sided, meaning that they can be used with the cleats from either side, while SPD-SL and Look pedals have one side that can be clipped into. This won’t affect the majority of riders on the road as road riding does not require frequent clipping in and unclipping, but one-sided pedals can be disadvantageous to those riding mountain bike and cyclocross.

What is Each Types of Pedal Used for?

When deciding which pedals to opt for, it is necessary to understand what each type of pedal is used for and the design features that enable the pedals to suit their requirements.

Platform pedals

As noted, platform pedals are the most common beginner pedal and will be suited to anyone who is new to riding or is a casual cyclist. They are also extremely useful in mountain bike riding and are the choice of most downhill and enduro cyclists. Their utility does not stop there, though, and it is not obligatory to ditch the platform pedals in order to feel like a proper cyclist. Platform pedals can also be ideal for those wanting to explore on their bikes. As bike-packing and cycling touring becomes increasingly popular, it makes sense to select a pedal that does not require specialized shoes, especially as cycling shoes can be quite difficult to walk around in.

SPD pedals

SPD pedals are the most practical of the clipless pedals and are the most widely used. Appropriate for many disciplines, SPD pedals are perfectly suited for mountain biking and cyclocross. The metal pedals are more robust and durable than pedals made from other materials so are fit for riding among rocks, mud, and dirt. The material and shape of the cleats used with SPD pedals also permit more walking than other cleats, and therefore SPDs are frequently used for gravel riding and cycle touring.

SPD Pedals

SPD-SL and Look pedals

These pedals are those which are commonly favoured by road and track cyclists, especially racing cyclists. Both types are based on similar mechanical designs and have almost identical shapes, optimized for power output, with a consideration of aerodynamics and weight. SPD-SL and Look are rarely used for mountain biking, cyclocross, or gravel riding but can be used for cycle touring.

 

Look pedals

Other variants

There is a wide range of less ubiquitous pedals, including some mentioned here, and variations to adapt pedals for a different use. Notably, Speedplay pedals, used for all-terrain, are a top of the range brand that are the midpoint between SPD and road pedals, combining the light weight of road pedals and the shape of SPD pedals. Platform pedals can be made to approximate clipless pedals with the addition of toe straps – somewhat out of fashion in modern days but still favoured by track sprinters who are concerned about unclipping their feet due to extremely high output of power. Perhaps the most convenient variation is the combination SPD pedal, which features an SPD pedal on one side and a platform pedal on the other, allowing the rider to utilize the best features of both types of pedal. An additional variety, increasingly popular with avid cyclists and racers, is the power pedal, a pedal that comes equipped with a power meter for you to improve yourself and track your riding more precisely.

speedplay pedals

 

What are the Benefits of Each Types of Pedal?

 

As expected, each pedal will have advantages and disadvantages, depending on its design and versatility. Here, we shall examine the pros and cons of the pedals we have discussed.

Pros Cons
Platform Cheap

Versatile, all-terrain appropriate

Robust

Use with any shoe

Easy to remove foot from

Lower power output – no pulling up

Lower stability

Easier to slip foot off

SPD Cheap

Versatile, all-terrain appropriate

Durable, tough

Dual-sided – fast clipping in

Heavy

Smaller area – lower power output

SPD-SL, Look Affordable

Lightweight

Wide range of positions

Stable once clipped in

Variable float

Only used for road and track

Cleats need replacing more often

One-sided

Hard to walk with compatible shoes

Speedplay Lightweight

Variable float

Easier to walk in

Dual-sided

Expensive

Smaller area – lower power output

Power pedal Built-in power meter

Lightweight

Stable once clipped in

Variable float

Expensive

Only used for road and track

One-sided

Hard to walk with compatible shoes

What Pedals are Best for You?

So, how do you choose which pedals to go for? The biggest factor to consider when picking pedals is what you will be using them for. Platform pedals, while very versatile, are not the most practical for progressing in your road cycling. Most bike riders who choose to make the switch to clipless pedals will do so for increased control, comfort, or better power output. Since clipless pedals allow the rider to pull up on the pedals, in addition to pressing down, anyone who is considering competing in road racing will need to use clipless SPD-SL, Speedplay, Look, or another type of road pedal.

However, not everyone is trying to go as fast as they can. So, let’s look at what road riding you are doing and we can decide what will best suit you.

 

Casual road riding – once or twice a week, less than three hours

Whether you are just getting into road cycling, or you have been riding casually for a while, you probably won’t be looking to minimize weight at the cost of a carbon road pedal. To avoid having to frequently adjust and replace your cleats, it is preferable to opt for metal cleats – which are also easier for first time use as you will have no trouble clipping in and unclipping. Equally, if you aren’t interested in investing in a pair of cycling shoes, pedals, and cleats, platform pedals with regular tennis shoes will do just fine – and they are less likely to cause any knee pain from badly angled cleats.

Our choice: platform or SPD

Avoid road riding – more than twice a week, upwards of three hours

If you are starting to ramp up your riding load, you will probably benefit from having the increased stability and comfort that can be achieved with making the switch to clipless pedals, but which ones to choose? SPD pedals are a good long-term investment, you will rarely have to buy new cleats, and your pedals are unlikely to suffer from wear and tear. Equally, you may well be interested in purchasing some sleeker, lighter pedals, more appropriate for road riding. The biggest decider should be how long you intend to spend wearing your cycling shoes off the bike: if you like to ride to a café and meet your buddies, SPDs will be ideal. If you spend just a little time walking in your cycling shoes, go for the SPD-SLs or Look.

Choice: SPD, SPD-SL, or Look

Road racing and training

If you’re planning to start racing and training, pedals designed specifically for the road are a must. The weight difference is a key factor to consider when you’re trying to go as fast as you can, and the SPD-SL and Look pedals are cheap enough to justify the investment. For multidiscipline racers, you might contemplate buying Speedplay pedals, which are renowned for being lightweight and used across terrains, although they are significantly pricier than other pedals. If you are also searching for a power meter to improve your training, go for a set of power pedals.

Choice: SPD-SL, Look, or Speedplay

Long distance road riding

For riders spending hours traversing the country on their bikes – a set of SPD or SPD-SL pedals would seem like the ideal fit. If you stop often on your distance cycles and like to explore on foot, look no further than SPDs, hard-wearing and reliable, they can endure long days of riding. For those of you who like to do your rides with minimal stops, SPD-SL is a better option and much lighter to carry you over the hills.

Choice: SPD or SPD-SL

Cycle touring and bike-packing

The adventurers among you will be looking more for comfort and durability than anything else. If you use your bike as a form of transportation, carrying you to a new location to explore, standard platform pedals may be the ideal option. There’s no need to lug around another pair of shoes or worry about your cleats eroding – just ride in any shoes. However, if your riding will take you over a more challenging parcours, you may well need all the extra power you can get: SPDs will give you that while not compromising on comfort and resilience.

Choice: platform or SPD

 

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