In this post I’m going to help you pick the best road bike pedals for you. This might come down to price, weight, how they look or the amount of float*.
(* Huh? Read on to find out what float is)
Fitting the right set of pedals to my road bike has improved my enjoyment of cycling immeasurably. 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, the muscles in my right thigh shrank (fact!).
Now this wasn’t all down to pedals (flat feet and weak stabilising muscles played a part), but when I got the right ones (ooh, you’re itching to know which ones…), the pain went almost overnight.
strap clip in folks, and lets go for a ride (with words…).
(Also I’ll tell you which pedals sorted out my knee pain). Onward!
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
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).
Let’s Start At The Beginning
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’).
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
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 (you can read all about that experience here).
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.
(* apostrophied because spellchecker tells me this is not a word. Neither is apostrophied).
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 pedal wrench (I own this one, made by Park Tools). Using a substantial wrench with a long, easy-to-grip handle makes loosening the pedal spindle from the crank arm a pleasure. Using the small spanner that came free with your first Raleigh BMX is not a pleasure, and is likely to result in a set of bloody knuckles when you slip and ram them against the chain rings.
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.
Proving Pedal 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 newly-released 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…
If you are interested in a comparison of power meter pedals, this post by DC Rainmaker contains all the details.
Best Road Bike Pedals: Buying Options For Sportive Cyclists
So which pedals are right for you?
Here are a selection of choices that might fit the bill.
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’. Whilst there are other pedal manufacturers, my (ill-informed) guess would be that the majority of riders use Shimano, Look or Speedplay pedals;
- 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.
Note: The links below are affiliate links to either Amazon or specialist online cycling retailers. If you click on one and buy something, I’ll get a small commission. You won’t pay any extra, but you will get an immediate happiness boost from knowing that you’ve supported this site.
Shimano Clipless Road Bike Pedals
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 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.
High 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 new R9100 Dura-Ace pedals. The previous version got 4.8 out of 5 stars amongst Wiggle customers (from 150+ reviews). With 2 reviews in at the time of writing, the new design has 5 out of 5. And the price isn’t 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
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 Stainless
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.
When my current pair (finally) wear out, I’ll be buying another set of these pedals.
High end choice: Speedplay Zero Titanium
I did briefly consider buying the titanium version when I bought my stainless steel Speedplays because, you know, titanium…
But at twice the cost of the stainless versions, the 50g weight saving wasn’t quite justifiable (it was close though – come on, 50g, Tour de Frances have been decided on less…..!).
That said, there are a lot of favourable reviews on Wiggle, with many riders saying they detect a noticeable benefit. So they may be worth you looking into.
Top of the range: Speedplay Nanogram Zero Titanium
Whereas the three options above are essentially the same pedal, the Nanogram Zero is total different (albeit it does look very similar….).
Very much aimed at the top end of the market, titanium and alloy replaces stainless steel in the construction. The cleats are made with carbon fibre and alloy.
Just look at the eye-watering price though…
Look Clipless Road Bike Pedals
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.
I hope you found this post useful. If you did, and you’re in the market for a new pair of pedals, I would be very appreciative if you click through one of the links above to begin your search.
Otherwise, I’m interested to know what pedals you use and what you recommend. Let me know by leaving a comment below this post.