Fitting the right set of pedals to my road bike has improved my enjoyment of cycling immeasurably. As they say, er, pedals maketh the
For too long it seems I used the wrong pedals. In the end I developed chronic pain in my knee, I couldn’t ride for more than an hour, and the muscles in my right thigh shrank (fact!).
When I got the right pedals (and the left ones), the pain went almost overnight.
In this post, I’m going to attempt to provide a guide to pedals in general and then sort out the best road bike pedals in 2021.
strap clip in and lets go for a ride (with words…)
Right, This Is How It’s Gonna Work
The first half of the post provides a rough guide to the world of road bike pedals.
I look at the types of pedal available, what exactly is a ‘clipless’ pedal, what is ‘float’, whether power through the whole pedal stroke is important.
And. So. Much. More.
Then, in the second half I look at the specific road bike pedal ranges offered by Shimano, Speedplay and Look.
If I had to guess (and I find guessing a lot easier than actual research), I’d say those three manufacturers provide the vast majority of pedals in use by road cyclists right now. At the very least, they all make durable, high quality products.
I’ll (try!) to explain where each pedal model sits in the respective manufacturer’s range, in terms of price and materials used (with lighter weight tending to correlate with higher price).
If you’re already committed to one of these brands (you’ve owned them before, you already have the cleats attached to your bike shoe) you can pick an upgrade.
If you’re new to this whole road pedal thang, you can get a sense of what’s out there.
Righty ho? On with the show.
Recommended Pedals Mentioned In This Post
- Speedplay Zero Stainless – these are the ones I use – click here for latest prices
- Shimano 105 pedals – the best combo of performance and value amongst Shimano’s line-up – click here for latest prices
- Shimano Dura Ace R9100 Carbon pedals – Shimano’s top-of-the-range pedal is actually not overly expensive and, you know, carbon… – click here for latest prices
Note: This post contains affiliate links. If you click on one and buy something, I get a commission. You won’t pay any extra.
Why Should You Care About Pedals?
The pedals are one of the three components on your bike that touch you (the others being the saddle and the handlebars). More than that though, they’re the only point at which you transfer the exertions of your muscles into movement on the bike*.
(* Well they should be – let’s politely ignore the fact that my arms jerk the handlebars around when I’m out of the saddle, desperately trying to keep going up a steep incline.)
It’s worth giving at least some thought to making that transfer of effort as efficient as possible.
Furtherly, a poor choice of pedal can cause or exacerbate injury. My long-running knee pain saga (of which you can read more here) certainly wasn’t helped by using the wrong sort of pedal (the wrong one for me at least).
So we’re agreed: using the right set of pedals is important.
The Ultimate Guide To Pedals For Road Cycling
[Listen to the collops on this guy – the ‘ultimate’ guide, he says…]
Pedals come in all shapes and sizes (within reason). Let’s keep it simple and say there are three main types:
1. Flat pedals
Sometimes known as ‘platform pedals’ (no, me neither, I just looked it up), flat pedals do exactly what they say on the tin. They’re the type of pedal fitted to your old Raleigh Mini Burner, your hybrid and your heavy duty downhill mountain bike.
Some flat pedals come with impressive, and potentially lethal, teeth that stick into the treads of your shoes, in order to aid grip. And also to help you remove that pesky skin that you insist on having on your shins.
2. Pedals with toe clips
Like flat pedals, but with a clip at the toe end of the pedal in which to slide your foot, and straps to hold it in position. The idea is that the pedal remains attached to your shoe, even as you lift your foot on the upward side of your pedal stroke (when the pedal goes from 6 o’clock to 12 o’clock).
Largely superseded by ‘clipless’ pedals for many purposes, you sometimes see them fitted by manufacturers to new hybrid bikes and lower end road bikes (often with the expectation that they’ll be removed and replaced with the rider’s pedal of choice). They’re a fixture on classic bikes used in retro gravel fests such as L’Eroica (“a poem written with a bicycle”).
3. Clipless pedals
The main, dare I say it, defining feature of clipless pedals is that they feature A FUGGING CLIP.
I can see it. There! [Points vigorously at either shoe or pedal depending on pedal system used]
You clip your foot to the pedal. If you pull up to some traffic lights, you clip out (unless you’re some sort of track start balance hero). Then you clip in again and cycle off.
Anyway, whatever you do, the point of such pedals is that you have a cleat attached to your shoe. This cleat then attaches firmly to your pedal, allowing you (theoretically) to deploy power to it throughout the whole of your pedal stroke.
(Yeah, I know they’re called ‘clipless’ because the toestrap brigade had already bagsied the term, ‘clip’).
Should You Fit Clipless Pedals To A Road Bike?
If you haven’t done so already, I recommend using a clipless pedal if you’re going to be cycling for any significant distances. And I’d classify any sportive training ride as a significant distance.
As I re-discovered this weekend on my hybrid, going clipless-less can lead to your foot losing touch with the pedal on a pretty frequent basis.
I haven’t cycled without clipping in for some years (my hybrid has ‘hybrid’ pedals – clipless on one side; flat on the other – and 99% of the time I wear shoes with cleats). My pedalling wazzockry was actually demonstrating a skill that I’d unlearned – that in order to keep the rising foot attached to the pedal, you actually have to exert a little downward pressure.
So you’re pushing against the pedal that is being forced up as your other (main) leg exerts downward pressure in order to turn the chainrings and power the bike. Now I’m no physicist (unlike my uncle, who I now discover has a Wikipedia entry!), but that doesn’t sound efficient at all.
(It Takes) Diff’rent Strokes
An oft-stated argument in favour of clipless pedals is that they allow you to deploy power throughout the whole pedal stroke. For me, the ‘whole stroke’ is probably a claim too far, but I’m pretty sure I am able to exert force for longer on the pedal than simply the main down stroke (the bit between 2 and 5 on the clock face).
Now crazy as this sounds, in the early days of this blog, I used to consult scientific papers on cycling issues of note (!!). As you can read from the post I wrote on the topic of pedalling technique, my synthesis of their findings was not exactly incisive.
Headline message: sports scientists don’t agree unanimously that being able to apply power throughout the pedal stroke leads to greater efficiency and therefore stronger performance.
Still, most people agree that clipless pedals for road (and, by extension, sportive) cyclists are A GOOD THING. Hundreds (thousands?) of pro cyclists can’t be wrong.
So get over that fear of performing a sideways pratfall (think: Delboy; winebar*) when you prove unable to clip out.
(*UK comedy gold reference – apologies to foreign viewers and those under the age of 27)
Types of Clipless Pedal
Again we start with generalisations.
Clipless pedals fall into two camps: road and mountain bike. As far as I can see, there are two main differences:
- the size of cleat (and thus the pedal): the mountain bike ones tend to be smaller. Road cleats and pedals are wider, providing a larger, stiffer surface area through which power is transmitted; and
- mountain bike pedals are more commonly double-sided, allowing you to clip in whichever way up they’re facing, whilst road pedals generally* have a top (which you clip into) and a bottom (which you don’t).
(* see the next section for the two-sided road biking pedal exception)
As a sportive rider, you’ll want to be choosing road pedals…
Double-sided Sticky Pedal
For many years, I used a pair of Shimano SPD (mountain bike) pedals on a woefully ill-fitting road bike. I used it primarily for commuting in London and I laboured under the belief that mountain bike pedals were easier to clip in and out of (at traffic lights and rising suspension bridges) and that you couldn’t buy a two-sided clipless road pedal.
I obviously hadn’t spent particularly long researching the subject.
Whilst most pedal makers (Shimano, Look, Time etc) stick to one-sided road pedals, a company called Speedplay make a range of two-sided ones. They look like lollipops, which is both cute and irrelevant.
I own a pair of Speedplay Zero pedals and cannot recommend them highly enough. There are more important reasons why I use Speedplays (engage baited breath until the next section), but a nice side benefit is that their two-sided nature means I don’t to think about which way they’re oriented before attempting the clip in.
Oh yes, and that thing about mountain bike cleats being easier to clip in than road ones. I’m pretty sure that’s nonsense. You can adjust the spring tension in most pedals to suit your own clip in/out needs.
What To Look For In A Pedal
Well, the first thing to look for is that you’ve bought two of them.
Assuming you’ve successfully avoided that potential pitfall, the main things to consider when buying a pedal are:
‘Float’ is the degree of rotational movement about the ball of your fit that a pedal will allow whilst your foot is clipped into it. A pedal with a large amount of float will allow your heel to move from side to side without unclipping. A ski binding (which provided the inspiration for the first clipless pedals) has zero float: the foot (ski boot) is locked in position and no lateral movement is possible.
Most people (if not everyone) have a little lateral rotational movement of their feet when pedalling. Having a pedal that can accommodate this, via float, without sacrificing too much stability and power transfer, means that you’re less likely to force yourself into an unnatural pedal stroke, causing injury.
Choosing the right amount of float is a bit more complicated. Too much float can be unhelpful, since it might allow the rider too much freedom to employ a poor pedal stroke (knees moving sideways for instance), without any correction at all.
As someone with ‘bio-mechanical issues’ in my legs (and hips… and feet…), float was my key consideration in choosing Speedplay pedals. I had them fitted, and the float adjusted to my requirements, by a professional bike fitter.
If you are susceptible to pain in your knees, ankles or hips when riding, I recommend you consult a qualified fitter, who can determined exactly what you need.
Do the cleats that come with the pedals fit on your bike shoes – either the ones you own or the ones you plan to buy? If not, is there an adaptor available?
It’s important to think about these things. I bought a pair of Specialized Road Elite (Elite – ha ha ha!) shoes because I’m used to the Specialized fit and they offer good arch support. It would have been disappointing to find that choosing a pair of shoes to help deal with my ‘biomechanical issues’ meant that I couldn’t go with pedals suited to the same purpose (don’t worry though, my shoes and pedal cleats fit just fine).
Most road cleats use three screws in order to attach to the sole of your shoes. They therefore require three holes…
I think (don’t quote me) that the Shimano SPD-SL arrangement of holes is the most common for bike shoes to be compatible with. Other pedal manufacturers, such as Look and Time, might use 3 holes as well, but they’re not necessarily spaced out in the same arrangement. Many shoes are, however, compatible with a number of different cleats (e.g. a quick search on Wiggle finds me a dhb shoe that is compatible with both Shimano SPD-SL and Look Keo cleat/pedal systems).
Speedplay cleats (“stop bleating on about those fugging Speedplays”) attach with four screws, rather than three, and hence need an adaptor in order to fit onto SPD-SL compatible shoes. Which means you have to use seven screws. Per shoe. Which is a lot of screws. In your shoes.
I’d be a hypocrite if I wrote too much under this heading. A fastidious maintainer of mechanical apparatus I am not.
My understanding is that for some pedals (such as my Speedplays), you need to put a bit of extra effort in to keep them clean and lubricated, if you want them to last.
Which reminds me, I really must clean and lubricate my pedals…
How They Look?
As with most things cycling, looks are an important (most important?) consideration. I’ll have to leave this one to your own personal preference.
And then remind you that the pedals are hidden under your shoe when you’re attached to the bike.
How Much Does A Set of Road Pedals Cost?
Good quality pedals start at around £35/$50, with top end models costing between £200 – £250 / $250-300 (excluding the top-of-the-range Speedplay pedal which has a mind-boggling list price of £599!).
What Do You Get When You Pay More?
Generally you see the use of higher quality materials and more sophisticated mechanisms as you pay more moolah.
Expensive pedals use carbon and titanium in order to bring the weight down, and the desirability factor up.
Higher-priced pedals will have more ‘adjustability’, in terms of setting float and the level of tension on the clip.
How To Fit A Pair Of Pedals
This is maybe a topic for a longer post with photos, but the essential message is that it’s very easy… provided you have the right tool.
In this case the right tool is a
Final pro-tip: the pedal on the left hand side of the bike screws out (and in) the ‘wrong way’. So, for loosening the pedal, you’ll need to turn it clockwise. The right hand pedal follows the normal in/out conventions.
Actually, it turns out that Condor Cycles have conveniently prepared a longer post with photos. Don’t say I never give you anything.
Pedals With Power?
If you have a healthy disregard for saving money, you can, if you wish, get a power meter that fits inside your pedal and records your power output as you ride. Yes, inside your pedal. What next? Monkey tennis?
After a protracted development period (something like 3 years), with a number of false starts, Garmin released its Vector pedal-based power meter in September 2013. At the very least, it came in an attractive box (which it should do, given the price).
Since then, Garmin has released a further two generations of its Vector pedals and other manufacturers have entered the market with competing products.
The pedal power meter market is now a three horse race between Garmin (Vector 3), Powertap (with its P1 and newer P2 pedals) and the Favero Assioma (which sounds, unfortunately, like a medical condition).
I wouldn’t recommend that your first set of clipless pedals be power meter pedals (unless you bathe in money). Even single-sided systems (where power is measured on one side, and then doubled) cost north of £400/$500. You might want to check you get on with clipless pedals before you drop that sort of cash…
Best Road Bike Pedals 2021: Buying Options For Sportive Cyclists
I’ll say at the outset, I own and highly recommend a set of Speedplay Zero Stainless pedals (my mid-range choice). I believe that switching to these pedals was a vital component in solving the knee problems that had plagued my cycling for years.
The pedal-buying ‘landscape’ can be a confusing one (particularly when those crazy continentals get involved). I’ve tried to simplify things by:
- Concentrating on the three main pedal ‘families’ (as mentioned, defined by my guesswork rather than actual research);
- Setting out the model ranges in a reasonably coherent order (generally starting with the lowest cost and then moving up the price spectrum). If nothing else, you can identify whether you’re a lower cost guy or a middle of the range gal and identify the starting point of your search accordingly.
Shimano Clipless Road Bike Pedals 2021
Shimano’s road pedal range follows its usual naming convention. Dura-Ace, Ultegra and 105 all get their own dedicated pedal, with a price point to match its position in the range. ‘Below 105’ (Tiagra and Sora in gearspeak) is covered by a single pedal, catchily named the R540 SPD SL. Lovely.
The amount of float (see my guide below for more on ‘float’) is dictated by which cleats you buy, not the pedal itself. Red cleats give zero float, blue provide two degrees, yellow give you six.
Value choice: Shimano R540
Shimano’s entry level road pedal. They work the same as more expensive models in the range but the materials aren’t as high tech (that said, they’re not made of iron…). The clip in mechanism can be set be quite loose so a good choice for beginners.
Over 2,000 reviews on the Wiggle website (most of them positive) can’t be wrong…
Mid-range choice: Shimano 105 pedals
The 105 pedal uses the same spring-based mechanism as the R540s for keeping the cleat on your shoe attached to the pedal (on your bikes…). In fact all of Shimano’s range uses essentially the same mechanism.
The body of the pedals are made of carbon in order to reduce weight (versus the R540s). That weight comes in at ~285g for the pair. With Ultegra and Dura-Ace not being significantly lighter, many people view the 105s are being the best value pedal in Shimano’s range.
Higher-end choice: Shimano Ultegra pedals
Road cyclists are not immune from cognitive dissonance. We can simultaneously accept the arguments in favour of the 105 pedals being the best value choice, only to make exactly the same argument in favour of the more expensive Ultegras.
But, we say, the Ultegras are also great same value because, once again, they’re cheaper than the Dura-Ace and, once again, only marginally heavier.
And so, because we fancy the Ultegras, we buy the Ultegras and all is right with the world.
Top of the range: Shimano Dura-Ace pedals
Oh but I’ll never buy a full Dura-Ace groupset. Too expensive. Excessive for my bike.
But, I think, wouldn’t it be nice to treat myself to one ‘ickle Dura-Ace component…?
These are the newer R9100 Dura-Ace pedals. The previous version got 4.8 out of 5 stars amongst Wiggle customers (from 150+ reviews). With 65 reviews in at the time of writing, the new design has 4.9 out of 5. And the price isn’t too bad for ‘top of the range’.
And one extra bearing in the axle system versus the Ultegras. Who says Shimano doesn’t give you anything?
Speedplay Clipless Road Bike Pedals 2021
There are two main differences between Speedplay pedals and those made by Shimano and Look:
- The “springy bit” that holds the cleat onto the pedal is located within the cleat, rather than within the pedal – this means it can be (and… is) double-sided; and
- ‘Float’ (see above) is super (micro-)adjustable: up to 15 degrees (versus, say, 6 degrees for one of the Shimano cleat options)
They are more expensive versus other manufacturers, but for me it was worth it to spend more – I’ve been very happy with mine and will buy again.
(Ooh and don’t they look like lovely colourful lollipops…? You can pretty much pick any colour for any of these pedals so, er, go wild…!)
Mid-range choice: Speedplay Zero
These are the pedals that I’ve owned for over four years now. They’re still going strong, even though I ride in pretty miserable conditions and don’t look after them quite as well as I should.
I bought them as a result of a bike fit, where the fitter said that the large amount of float afforded by Speedplay would help resolve my knee pain. And he was right.
I now have two pairs of these pedals (on different bikes…) – one is the original pair, which are still going strong after nearly 7 years. You can read my long term review of them here.
High end choice: Speedplay Aero
Unlike the standard Speedplay Zero stainless pedals, the Aero versions are not double sided. They have to be facing the right way up in order to clip in to the cleats on your shoes (so like virtually every other road bike pedal out there).
On the flip side (ha!), they are, as the name suggests, designed to be more aerodynamic than the standard Zero pedals. So you’ll go faster (guaranteed).
The aerodynamic benefit is delivered by the small frontal area, the dimpled surface and the streamlined profile. I’m no expert on drag coefficients and the like, but Bradley Wiggins is. He used them when setting his world hour record in 2015. Which is quite a strong endorsement.
Look Clipless Road Bike Pedals 2021
Whilst there could well be more Shimano road pedals in the world (a guess), if there is a ‘standard’ for clip in systems then it would be the one used by Look. If you look (ha) at third party manufactured pedals (e.g. power meter ones) then often they’ll use Keo cleats.
The Look road pedal range is somewhat muddled, with similar sounding names thrown around in different combinations (trust the French to be complicated). I’ve tried to simplify things by listing them in order of price and therefore, hopefully, specification…
Value choice: Keo Classic 3
Look’s base model, the Classic 3s comprise a body made of ‘composite’ (posh plastic) around a chromoly steel spindle.
The spring tension on the pedal is adjustable on a somewhat arbitrary scale from 8 (beginner) to 12 (experienced).
Wiggle purchasers seem happy with them (4.6 out of 5…).
Mid range choice 1: Keo 2 Max
Positioned by Look as being for Gran Fondos (and therefore presumably for sportives), Keo 2 Max pedals are in the same price ballpark as Shimano 105.
They’re a touch lighter than the Keo Classics. A touch wider. Probably a touch better looking.
In other words, for the Cockneys, a right touch.
Mid range choice 2: Keo Blade
The ‘Blade’ nomenclature refers to the fact that the bit that provides the tension, holding the cleat onto the pedal is a blade (rather than a spring).
Apparently this makes them easier and quicker to clip in and out of, and the pedals themselves more aero (hashtag more aero).
(Almost) Top of the range: Keo Blade Carbon
These pedals again use a blade to provide tension on the cleat. This time the blade material is carbon (which is also what the pedals themselves are made of).
In addition to the carbon blade, this version of the Keo Blade has a ‘completely redesigned’ spindle, which provides more rigidity and therefore saves 2 watts at 100 RPM. Every little helps!
Top of the range: Keo Blade Carbon Titanium
Carbon blade once again. Indeed carbon body once again.
The titanium is found in the pedal spindles (not that you can tell from the photo). The standard Blade Carbon has a chromoly spindle.
Why do you want titanium spindles? To save weight of course (15g per pedal). These are super light (95g each) and super aero pedals. With a super price tag to match.
Conclusion: Best Road Bike Pedals
Well, the best road bike pedals are those that suit your needs (which I admit is not the most helpful of statements).
That comes down to the price you can afford to pay, durability, compatibility with kit you already have, or to accommodate an injury or avoid a potential one.
I hope you found this post helpful as part of your research.
I’m interested to know what pedals you use and what you recommend.
Let me know by leaving a comment below this post.