The myriad options available means choosing the right pedal and cleat system can be difficult. Platform size, bearing quality, cleat life, compatibility with other bikes — these are just a few of the considerations a rider should have in mind.
At the top of that list, however, should be float. Often we look to the pro peloton for inspiration when choosing new parts. But when it comes to pedal set-up this is one area where your own physiology needs to be the prime factor in making a choice.
It has been a long held opinion that the majority of professional riders advocate the use of a fixed-position cleat — reason being that the fixed position allows for a very power-efficient pedal stroke, as no unwanted movement of the leg is allowed.
But now, even the pros are coming round to the idea that fixed might not be best. Phil Cavell of CycleFit, the London-based bike-fit experts, has worked closely with the Trek-Segafredo WorldTour team, fitting riders such as Fabian Cancellara and Jens Voigt through the years.
He says: “Most riders, even the pros, need some degree of float at certain points within the pedal stroke. Foot flare, tibial or hip variations can all impact on specific needs. Often float is required when a rider might be unaware of a need — at 12 o’clock [the top of the pedal stroke], for example.”
Weighing up the options
Floating cleats were developed to allow a small degree of sideways rotational movement of the foot when clipped into a pedal. This movement, normally in the form of the heel moving towards or away from the bike, allows the foot to centre itself during the pedal stroke.
The main reason riders choose a floating cleat is that the positioning of the cleat on the base of the shoe is slightly less critical than that of a fixed-position cleat. This allows any cyclist to set their own cleat position at home relatively easily.
Different manufacturers offer cleats with varying degrees of float built in, alongside their fixed-position cleats.
Look, for example, offers a cleat with 9° and one with 4.5° of float (red and grey respectively), with the figure denoting how many degrees of heel rotation it takes to disengage the cleat from the mechanism.
Shimano has a centre-floating yellow cleat that gives 6° of movement at both heel and toe, a blue cleat that just pivots at the toe and a red fixed-position cleat.
Speedplay simplifies things by allowing personal adjustments via grub screws to tailor in float from fixed up to 15° of movement.
But do you need float? For most riders a small amount of float can be beneficial and the positive nature of injury prevention far outweighs the perceived slight loss of power transfer efficiency.
When a rider with fixed cleats is sat on the saddle their feet and hips are locked in position, the kinetic chain is closed. Any pressure to stabilise the pedal stroke is taken up wholly by the delicate knee joint; undue pressure can lead to injuries that could have been easily avoided.
Cavell suggests a simple way of diagnosing a need for float is getting someone to video your pedal stroke from a frontal aspect, preferably in slow motion. You should be able to easily recognise a need for float by looking for any lateral foot movement.
Be aware, though, that knee pain can also be caused by too much float as often as it is caused by a lack of float. The amount of float that is best for you is critical and sometimes without proper guidance can be difficult to guess. Different levels of foot, hip and knee stability mean certain pedal/cleat designs work best for the dynamics of certain feet.
How to fit your cleats
Judging the right amount of float is just one aspect of a proper cleat (and bike) set-up and as such cannot — and should not — be the deciding factor when choosing your next set of pedals and cleats.
As with any aspect of bike fit, if you are having pain or other issues it might be time to seek out the advice of an expert. Doing this will eliminate the guesswork involved and might just save you some painful experimentation.
Every rider is an individual and the amount of float in your pedals should reflect that.
Should you have float in your cleats?
Yes: Euan Adams, senior musculoskeletal physiotherapist
Float allows your foot to find its natural position while pedalling, and allows for any discrepancies in cleat position or joint stiffness/muscle weakness through the pedal cycle, which may lead to injury. If you are unsure on cleat set-up or have been experiencing pain while cycling, then it could help to manage it.
No: David Alexander, bike-fit expert, Specialized Bikes
Float is there to deal with any ‘slop’ in the kinetic chain. Most people could do with some, but equally too much can be just as bad as fixed. As long as you get the cleat placed fore/aft, laterally and rotated correctly, and the rider has no issues with the lack of float (i.e. during a fit) then they can be perfectly acceptable.
James Bracey's career has seen him move from geography teacher, to MBR writer, to Cycling Weekly's senior tech writer and video presenter. He possesses an in-depth knowledge of bicycle mechanics, as well as bike fit and coaching qualifications. Bracey enjoys all manner of cycling, from road to gravel and mountain biking.
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