When anyone first starts cycling, it’s advised that they buy – after the bike of course – a pair of cycling shoes and clipless pedals. The benefits of using these over flat pedals in terms of comfort and efficiency are nothing to sneeze at, but there is a learning curve to clipping in and out.
The key benefit of cycling with clipless pedals is that they allow you to utilize more key muscles throughout the pedal stroke, generating more power through the entire rotation of the crank, particularly in the upstroke when the hamstring is engaged.
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The majority of newly-minted roadies will end up with Shimano SPD SL pedals – these are widely stocked and don’t cost an arm and a leg. However, there’s a variety of different clipless systems and each version comes with pros and cons.
We explain the different pedal systems below to inform you of what to look for before you go shopping.
Our pick of the best clipless pedals
With each product you’ll find a ‘Buy Now’ link, by clicking the link we may receive a commission from the retailer – this does not affect the amount you pay.
Pedal systems: Look Keo
Look pioneered clipless pedals back in the Eighties, and they’ve maintained a huge presence in the market ever since.
The pedals use a three-bolt design, with a large surface area to the cleat that can make walking a little cumbersome but provides a good contact patch. While some Look pedals use a standard coil spring for cleat retention, the fancy ones utilize a carbon leafspring.
Good for – General road riding and racing
Pedal Systems: Shimano SPD double-sided
More commonly used by mountain bikers, gravel grinders and commuters, SPDs have been around for 20 years and they’ve seen little change since.
The twin sided pedals mean clipping in is easy, and the cleat uses a two bolt system and is recessed into the shoe which allows for easy walking off the bike. Being made of metal and away from contact with the ground, the cleats can last for years.
The contact patch is a touch smaller than road specific pedals, but the pedal body is designed to clear mud, making them idea for mix surface riding; combine with the walkability also makes them a good choice for commuting.
Good for – Mountain biking, cyclocross, touring, commuting
Pedal systems: Shimano SPD one-sided
This system combines an SPD clipless mechanism with a flat pedal – which makes them a great option for people who feel nervous about having their feet attached to the pedals, or commuters who want to be able to quickly get a foot on the pedal without having to search for the contact or look down. The shape also means you can use them with your regular street shoes if you please.
Combing two systems into one does mean that these pedals are a little heavier than other options, so they’re not really favored by those after pure performance.
Good for – Leisure riding, off-road, commuting
Pedal systems: Speedplay
Speedplay’s ‘lollipops’ are road specific pedals that gain their pedaling platform from the cleat, as opposed to the pedal itself. This means the cleat houses all the moving parts and requires the occasional drop of dry lube to keep things running smoothly.
The benefit of Speedplay pedals is that they offer a huge amount of adjustability — cleat position is adjustable in three separate planes, and each can be fine-tuned independent of the others. Bike fitters love them, particularly when setting up anyone with knee pain.
The simplicity and double-sided nature also mean they’re easy to get into and they’re light, too.
Good for – Road racing (especially criteriums)
Read more: Speedplay Zero Cromoly review
Pedal systems: Shimano SPD SL
Shimano’s SPD SL pedals use a three bolt cleat system, similar to Look Keo pedals.
The key difference is that the cleats and pedals are much broader, creating a wider platform and in theory offering greater power transfer.
Just like the Looks, the cleats come in three different colours, each denoting a different level of float. Again, like the Looks, it’s a system that is widely used by the professional peloton.
Just don’t expect to walk around on them with ease – and especially not on tile or polished concrete floors.
Good for – Road riding, racing, general riding, commuting
Pedal systems: Time Xpresso
While Time pedals also use a three-bolt system – you remembered correctly, like Look and Shimano – they actually work in reverse of most other road pedals.
The carbon leaf spring keeps the mechanism open until you push down, clamping it shut on the cleat with a loud snap — similar to a ski binding.
The cleat is one of the biggest on the market, so offers a very supportive platform to push on. They’re also quite cheap to replace, which is always a bonus.
The Xpresso system boasts lateral (side to side) float, and low stack height, said to increase power transfer efficiency.
Good for – Racing, road riding
Read more: Time Xpresso 6 pedals review
Watch: How to fit and remove pedals
Our pick of the best clipless pedals
Once you’ve selected a pedal system, you’ll find yourself faced with more decisions: all pedal systems are available at a wide range of price points.
You can get a basic pair of clipless pedals for less than £50 / $50 – and they’ll do the job. Spend more, and the mechanism will be more refined, offering more adjustable cleat tension and in some cases providing a stronger interface with the cleat – which will be a welcome improvement for racers, but beginners might actually want something more forgiving.
More expensive pedals will also be lighter, and higher quality materials and bearings, making them longer lasting.
Here’s a look at some of the options on the market that we recommend. With each product is a ‘Buy Now’ or ‘Best Deal’ link. If you click on this then we may receive a small amount of money from the retailer when you purchase the item. This doesn’t affect the amount you pay.
Shimano Ultegra pedals
Shimano’s Ultegra pedals won a place in our Editor’s Choice awards, impressing us with a low stack height, wide platform and a design really not far off that of the top end Dura Ace models – all at a lower price. These are great quality pedals that will be durable.
Though the RRP is more expensive than Shimano 105 options, you can find some great deals if you shop around.
Look Keo 2 Max Blade Road Pedals
Look use carbon leaf spring in place of the more common metal spring for cleat retention, cutting the weight, and providing a satisfying tactile snap when you clip in.
As per all Look cleats, they are quick to wear down though, requiring regular replacement unless you’re conscientious enough to use cleat covers.
TIME Xpresso 6 Pedals
A slightly more affordable version of the TIME Xpresso 15 pedals (which retail at a jaw dropping £400 / $600), the Xpresso 6’s are a little heavier (213g) but considerably more affordable.
Offering an alternative to the major players (Speedplay, Look, Shimano), they provide 2.5mm of lateral side-to-side float to give your knees a break, but don’t allow for alterations to cleat release tension.
Shimano 105 SPD pedals
Shimano’s 105 pedals are extremely similar to their Ultegra and Dura-Ace counterparts, the main difference being the pedal body is carbon reinforced, instead of carbon fibre.
The stainless steel wear pad has been minimised, with the middle pad removed. Nonetheless, they are a quality pedal, offering value for money that’s ideal for anyone who wants reliability without breaking the bank.
Speedplay Zero Cromoly
Speedplay’s pedal system is ideal for anyone with knee niggles, because they offer tons of adjustability – the fore-aft, side to side, release angle and float can be altered independently.
The pedal body itself is compact, but this connects with a significantly larger cleat – creating a wide contact at the sole. The pedal is double sided, too – making clipping in super quick which will suit criterium races.
Speedplay pedals can be expensive to change the axels out for more exotic materials, but the Zero Cromoly version sits at the lower end of the scale.
Look Keo Classic 3 pedals
A second option from Look, these are great starter pedals. Trading the carbon blade for a coil spring based mechanism makes for easy release tension adjustment, and a large contact patch provides a stable pedaling platform.
A suitably priced and easy option for beginners to take their first steps into the world of clipless pedals.
How to fit and remove clipless pedals
Watch the video below to learn our mechanic Al’s top tips on clipless pedal installation and removal.
The key thing to remember about pedals is that the left and right ones are threaded differently. The right pedal has a normal thread, so that you tighten it by turning the pedal spindle clockwise in the crank arm. The left pedal has a reverse thread, so that you tighten it counter-clockwise to prevent it from coming loose as you pedal.
So, it’s important not to get your left and right pedals mixed up as cross threading a pedal will ruin the pedal and crank. With many clipless pedal systems, such as those from Shimano and Look, it’s pretty obvious which way around they go, as the pedal has a definite front and rear.
But with other systems such as Speedplay, many MTB-type clip less pedals and platform-type pedals it’s harder to work out.
Most will have L or R printed or embossed on the pedal body or the wrench flats on the axel, so it’s worth taking a look before starting to screw them back in. Above all, go carefully and hand screw the pedal to make sure that it’s threading in correctly, only using a spanner or allen key once you have it most of the way in.
It’s very easy to strip the threads from an aluminium crank arm and expensive to replace it if you do, so if you’re not sure the pedal is going in correctly unscrew it and start again. Make sure to add a dollop of grease or anti-seize to the threads to prevent them from getting stuck.
Many pedals will have both allen key sockets in the end of the spindle and wrench flats where the threads end. Using a pedal wrench will afford much more leverage than most allen keys.
Some pedals such as newer Shimano Dura-Ace, Ultegra and 105 only have allen key sockets so if you use these it’s worth getting a chunky 8mm allen key so that you have enough leverage to loosen the pedal in the crank.
Competitive cyclists now often ride with a power meter and many of the options available are pedal-based.
This has the benefit of being easily transferred between bikes, but often the pedal needs to be tightened to a specific torque value to obtain accurate readings. This means that you will need a torque wrench – a pricy bit of kit, but fairly insignificant relative to the cost of the power meter itself.