Which Clipless Pedals To Use – Look, SPD Or SPD-SL

For new cyclists wanting to get into racing, the question of which pedals to use almost always crops up. The simple answer is that it really depends on personal preference, but it helps to know what kind of kit is available. And as with most things, the jargon can really be like another language to the confused newcomer. Especially when you have to learn that clipless pedals are the ones you clip into, and what you thought were clipless are actually flat or platform pedals. Perhaps the best known brands in the pedals market are made by Look and Shimano, but there are several others also. For road bikes you can use Look or Shimano SPD-SL, which have three points of attachment. If you are a mountain biker, you will probably need to aim for a flat pedal or a two-point SPD model.

I will take you through some of the options available depending on what kind of cycling you do, and hope to cut through and explain some of the jargon to demystify it and enable you to make informed choices for your own bike.

Clipless Pedals For Beginners

For the majority of us, our first bikes – the ones we rode as kids – always had flat pedals. These are great when you are learning to ride, or for recreational cycling at all ages. Even commuters are probably best off using platform pedals like these because of our busy city streets and the need for stop-start riding, and putting our foot down on the road in stationary traffic.

For racing though, either pure cycle racing or in triathlon cycling, the situation is different. You will be on clear roads and will want to put as much power into the bike as you can muster. Importantly, you will want to do this secure in the knowledge that your feet are not going to slip off the pedals and cause you a nasty injury. For this type of cycling, the older solution was to attach pedal clips, which are like small cages that you slide your feet into and then strap them in securely. This enabled the rider to concentrate on racing rather than worrying about slipping off the pedals in wet weather.

As time passed by and technology evolved, these cages were no longer necessary, because new clipless pedals were developed. These allow you to wear a stiff-soled cycling shoe with a cleat on the bottom, which attaches directly to the pedal itself and clips securely in so that your foot is locked in place. Apart from solving the problem of the feet slipping in wet weather, using a clipless design rather than the old platforms means that you can increase your racing speed by pushing down with one foot and pulling up with the other, since you are actually attached to the bike pedals. The type of pedals and shoes you use will depend on what kind of biking you do, as road systems are different from mountain biking ones. Here’s a quick training video showing you how to clip in and how to stop safely. As he advises, it is best to practise clipping in and disengaging while somebody holds your bike for you, or use a doorway so you can hold yourself up with your arms, until you are comfortable with the pedals and cleats.

The general rule is that you twist your heel outwards, away from the bike to disengage your foot, and of course, it makes sense to lean in that direction. If you lean left to disengage your right foot from its pedal, you will end up doing what most people do at least once – falling flat on your face in the most embarrassing way in front of lots of other sneering road users! Let’s take a look at some of the systems available.

Look Pedals And Cleats For Road Cycling

Whichever pedal system you opt for, you are going to need three components: the pedals themselves, the matching cleats, and a pair of cycling shoes which can accommodate those cleats. Look and SPD SL pedals and cleats are fairly similar and have been around for several years. They are primarily used for road cycling rather than mountain biking. The shoes and cleats use the 3-bolt format, and you will need to choose Look cleats for Look pedals (using a shoe which has a 3-hole layout), or Shimano SPD SL cleats for SPD SL pedals. You can’t mix and match, and very often when you buy new pedals, there will be a pair of cleats included. But always check before buying, as you might need to buy cleats separately, especially if you use ones with a higher degree of float.

Look Keo 2 Max Carbon PedalsLook Keo 2 Max Carbon PedalsLook Keo Easy Plus PedalsLook Keo Easy Plus PedalsLook Keo Classic 2 PedalsLook Keo Classic 2 Pedals

One piece of jargon that you will need to know is ‘float’. For serious racers, it is important to get your feet attached firmly to the pedals so that no energy is lost during a race. But the top level guys – the pros – will be training with technique coaches in proper teams. They will hone their skills to squeeze every last drop of energy out of themselves to get a win. For most of us other mere mortals, perhaps our technique or our biomechanics is not quite up to scratch, and this can lead to problems, especially with the knees, when using fixed cleats.

So ‘float’ is the degree of freedom we get to move our feet on pedals without accidentally exiting them. The two types are the racers ‘fixed’ and the ones with various degrees of float. This is where Look and SPD SL clipless pedals are no longer related. The Table below highlights the differences between the two, to help you decide which to buy, so that you can ride without getting any repetitive strain injuries or knee problems.

LOOK Cleats Shimano SPD-SL Cleats
Black – Fixed
Gray – 4.5 deg float
Red – 9 deg float
Red – Fixed
Yellow – 6 deg float

You will notice that red Look cleats have the highest float at 9 degrees of angular freedom, whereas the red Shimano cleats are the fixed zero degrees ones. So it is important to check which brand you are buying. Here is a clip by Bryan from Shimano about how to attach your SPD SL cleats to your cycling shoes.

SPD Pedals And Cleats For Mountain Biking And Touring

If you go off road and do a lot of mountain biking, the chances are you will need a totally different system of pedals, cleats and shoes called Shimano SPD. The main difference in the shoe and cleat arrangement is that for road shoes using SPD-SL and Look, the cleats are raised from the outsole of the shoe, making it pretty difficult to walk in them. In contrast, most SPD shoes have a rubber tread into which the cleat is recessed. This means you can walk about in the shoes, and still clip in when on the bike. This makes SPD shoes great for tourers, as long as you choose shoes which have a relatively flexible sole.

With the SPD pedal system, getting going does not require you to find the correct side of the pedal. There are several dual pedals which allow you to clip in one side, but use the other as a standard platform type. This is great if you are new to clipless styles, as it allows you to practise clipping and out with one foot while just using the flat pedal with your other foot. So if you find it difficult to clip out, you can just put your other foot down on the ground instead of toppling over.

SPD is a 2-bolt system which, like the 3-bolt Look and SPDSL systems, are fully adjustable to suit your riding style. Here’s Bryan from Shimano (again), with a clip about how to install your SPD cleats onto a pair of SPD compatible shoes.

The main points to remember when installing your cleats, whatever style you use, is to grease the bolts so that you can get them out easily later on when you need to replace the cleats. And when tightening them, be firm yet gentle. Don’t grind them in with all your might, or you’ll ruin the threads and make them impossible to remove later on.

The pedals themselves are more open than the corresponding road ones, which allows you to clean any mud or grime out of them easily after a session on the cross country trails.

Shimano PD-M540 MTB PedalShimano PD-M540 MTB PedalShimano PD-M520 MTB PedalShimano PD-M520 MTB PedalShimano PD M530 SLX Trail CliplessShimano PD M530 SLX Trail Clipless

It is worth pointing out that there are several other pedal types on the market also, and for road cycling you should also consider Speedplay pedals which are very good. And for mountain biking a lot of people are raving about the Crank Brothers pedals.

The main thing to remember is that if you are looking for road pedals, aim to get Look, SPD-SL or Speedplay, and if you are a mountain biker, get yourself some SPD or Crank Brothers Eggbeater pedals. Try them out if you can at your local cycling store, and chat to the staff in there to make sure you end up buying the right product for you and your riding style. See you on the road!


Neil (nickname Ironman) is an avid runner and sports fan, who writes about all things triathlon-related, especially running and cycling. He also writes about sports injuries and regaining fitness - mainly from personal experience rather than academic knowledge - although he does study that too!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *