There are two basic things to sort out when it comes to setting up your cleats: the angle of the cleat on the sole of your shoe, and its fore-aft position.
Finding the correct angle is your first job whether you’re just starting out with your first pair of clipless pedals or you’re an experienced rider setting up a new pair of shoes and pedals.
Badly angled cleats can cause knee pain if not rectified, although it is usually obvious from the start if they are not right and most people wouldn’t go as far as to injure themselves. Most clipless pedal systems have some ‘float’ built in, which lessens the need for absolute accuracy when you’re setting them up.
A few adjustments to the first angle you try are usually all you need to find one that works for you. Bear in mind your cleat angle might not be the same (in mirror image) for both feet.
The other job is the cleat’s fore-aft location. This is less obviously critical to comfort and staying pain and injury free, so it quite often doesn’t get the same amount of attention.
Most bike fitters’ advice is simply to place the middle of the cleat under the ball of the foot. This corresponds nicely with where trained cyclists tend to position their feet when they’re riding on flat pedals; it means that plantarflexion, or pushing down the forefoot during the downstroke, can contribute to a ‘rounder’ pedalling action that produces power over a greater part of the pedalling circle.
It does not, however, ensure that this is what actually happens. There is evidence that in many cases it does not happen at all and that any useful plantarflexion is more imagined than real; the ankle remains almost immobile and the lower leg muscles work mainly to stabilise the ankle.
If the muscles of the lower leg are doing nothing more than stabilising the ankle, then you may wonder why they are being asked to work at all.
If the ankle is held immobile throughout the pedal stroke, the foot can contribute nothing to the pedalling action – although that didn’t seem to impede Jacques Anquetil, the first man to win the Tour de France five times and who famously pedalled with locked ankles in
a distinctive toe-down style.
In fact, it is rare that the ankle is held perfectly rigid and you can see ‘ankling’ in most cyclists, even though it might not be the sort that is most effective.
Much more common is the tendency for the heel to drop during the downstroke in a motion that is the exact opposite of the ankling action beloved of early cycling writers. So the excessive plantarflexion of the classic ankling technique may be a myth and not even desirable, but heel drop is widespread among serious cyclists.
Why heel drop happens varies: some people may simply find pedalling feels ‘easier’, since dropping the heel through the downstroke reduces the sensation of resistance in the pedals; others actually may not be able to generate the lower leg muscle force required for foot plantarflexion and therefore unconsciously drop their heel as they push against the pedals. A third reason is saddle height; too low, and the rider may drop the heel in an attempt to find a more efficient leg extension.
The underlying problem in the middle case is the work required of the calf muscles. Think of the foot as a lever with the ankle as the fulcrum and the heel and ball of the foot as the opposing lever arm ends. The calf muscles pull on the heel via the Achilles tendon to push down the forefoot. The further away from the ankle the point of application of downward force by the ball of the foot, the harder the calf muscles must pull on the Achilles tendon.
On the ball
Locating the cleats towards the front of the shoe sole increases the effective length of the forefoot lever arm and makes life harder for the calf muscles, which will tire more quickly when riding hard, and eventually cramp.
There’s a very easy way to deal with this: move the cleats back along the shoe sole to reduce the length of the forefoot lever arm. This need not go as far as proponents of the ‘tarsometatarsal’ cleat position recommend, which places them almost under the arch of the foot. This undoubtedly reduces the muscular effort required of the calf muscles as shown in a 2008 study by Litzenberger, Illes, Hren, Reichel and Sabo, who reported a reduction of as much as 20 per cent in calf muscle activity.
This is, of course, the foot position of untrained cyclists riding on flat pedals; with the arch of the foot on the pedal, the lower leg does little or no work, making pedalling feel less demanding. The problem with this type of pedalling action is self-evident: the foot is unable to contribute either to the generation of power or to the fluidity of the pedal stroke.
So the answer is to find a location for the cleats somewhere in the region of the ball of your foot so that the calves to do just the right amount of work.
Variations in foot proportion require the provision of some adjustment if the cleat is to be placed directly under the ball of the foot, but this is only part of the story. Two cyclists with identically proportioned feet may prefer different cleat locations depending on the varying strengths of their calf muscles.
Road shoes tend to place a tighter limit on rearward cleat location than mtb shoes do, so if you want to move your cleats back further than they will allow, one option is to switch to mtb or the similar ‘sportive’-style shoes that take two-bolt SPD-type cleats.
Most people will see no need to shift their cleats backwards – or forwards – from their current position. However, it can be worth checking your cleat position and not just because of a sore Achilles tendon or calf cramps.
Playing around a little with them may help correct an inefficient pedalling action caused by dropping the heel on the downstroke and may even allow you to produce genuinely useful ankling and with it more power.
Cleats: Fore and aft
Move the cleat side-to-side to influence how close the foot sits to the centre-line of the bike. If you ride with your knees wide at the top of the pedal stroke, move your cleats inwards to move the foot outwards. If you ride with knees narrow at the top of the stroke, move the cleats towards the outside of the shoe and the foot inwards.
10 easy steps to cleat set-up
It is generally accepted that positioning the cleats so that the centre of the pedal axle will be in line with the ball of your foot is biomechanically the optimum for pedalling efficiency and power transfer. In order to make sure this is the case, with your shoe and pedal combination follow these simple steps.
1 – Start with cleats removed from the shoe (at this point perhaps it is also an opportunity to think about fitting some new cleats too, as they are inexpensive to replace and wear down relatively easily).
2 – In your normal cycling socks, put your shoe on, and tighten as normal.
3 – Sit down, but with both feet on the ground.
4 – Feel, by pressing with your thumb or finger, along the inside edge of the shoe to locate the ball of your foot. This should be fairly easy to locate, as it is the bony knuckle protruding sideways at the bottom of your big toe.
5 – Mark the side of the shoe at the centre point of the ball as accurately as possible. Get someone else to help find it if necessary.
6 – Do the same for the other foot.
7 – Take the shoes off, and place them on a flat, level surface.
8 – Hold a straight edge against the mark on the shoe, and transfer the line straight down to the same point on the sole.
9 – Turn the shoe over and make sure that your mark is visible on the sole.
10 – Fit cleat, loosely, aligning your mark with the point on the cleat where the centre of the pedal axle will be, once you are clipped in. Most cleats provide a marker on the side, by way of a notch or line to indicate the centre of the pedal axle, so it is just a case of lining up your mark with theirs.
Plantar flexion: good
Plantar flexion, or pushing down the forefoot during the down-stroke, can contribute to a ‘rounder’ pedalling action although that does not necessarily result in increased power. In many cases although the foot appears plantarflexed, the ankle remains almost immobile and the lower leg muscles just stabilise the ankle.
Excessive plantar flexion: bad
Some people may find pedalling simply feels ‘easier’ when dropping their heel during the down-stroke as it reduces the sensation of resistance in the pedals. Dropping your heel can also be a sign of incorrect bike fit, if your saddle is too low you may drop the heel in an attempt to find a more efficient leg extension.
Ball of foot: good
A location for the cleats in the region of the ball of your foot allows the calves to do just the right amount of work. Variations in foot proportion such as the relative lengths of the big toe and overall foot length may require some adjustment so that the cleat is placed near the ball of the foot without being too far backward or forward.
Moving the cleats back along the shoe sole to reduce the length of the forefoot lever arm reduces the muscular effort required and makes pedalling less demanding. But this is not a recommended practice, as the foot can’t contribute to the generation of power or to the fluidity of the stroke.
Float and tension – what are they, then?
Tension is simply how easy it is to get in and out of your pedals. Most have some form of adjuster screw that allows the user to decide how tightly clipped-in they want to be. Initially we’d advise going for the lightest setting but it’s worth bearing in mind that once it becomes second nature to clip in and out, more tension will be just as easy to use, and much more secure, too.
The amount of float is dictated by fitting different cleats to suit. Look offers three cleats: black is fixed, grey* gives 4.5° and red gives 9°. Shimano’s red cleats are fixed and the yellow* ones give 6°.
While many pro racers prefer a super-accurate set-up and minimal float, even they can get it wrong – recent rumours suggest the knee injury that forced Sir Bradley Wiggins out of this year’s Tour de France may have been caused by an incorrectly aligned cleat.
* These are supplied as standard with the pedals from each manufacturer