Clipless pedals are one of the most widely adopted technological trends in cycling in the last half century. They enable powerful, efficient pedalling with far greater comfort than was available with traditional open pedals with toe clips and leather straps. There is one caveat though; in order to deliver all this goodness, the shoe cleat does need to be fitted properly and be correctly adjusted.
Because this is a biomechanical adjustment – specific to the individual dynamics of your pedalling action it has to be very accurately done, otherwise you risk discomfort, poor power transfer and even injury.
To take that risk away, here is a simple step-by-step guide to fitting clipless pedal cleats to twin-bolt MTB and three bolt Road shoes as these two cleat styles are by far the most common.
Removing old cleats and prepping for new ones
The first thing to know is are these replacement cleats?
If so, and assuming you’re happy with the current cleat positioning, then replacing them is as simple as removing the old cleats and fitting new cleats in their position.
TIP: Make sure you pick ALL of the dirt and small gritty bits from the heads of the old cleat bolts before you start to remove them. If the cleats are particularly old and corroded, then let some WD-40 penetrate the area for an hour. This will help you loosen them.
When you’ve unscrewed the old cleats, take a minute to pick the dirt and grime out from the inside of the threaded bolt receivers – these are retained inside the midsole of the shoe. Add a very small spot of grease to the threaded inside surfaces of the receivers (to make tightening more accurate and to enable easy release when this set finally wear out).
When you removed the old cleat, they will have left a mark, a ‘footprint’ of their position from the serrated underside of cleat. Simply use these footprint marks as guides. Place the new cleat literally into the depressions made by the old one. Add the drilled guide plate, insert the bolts and tighten to the manufacturers specific torque requirements.
Also, use a 4mm Allen key with well-defined edges and a tight fit to the bolt head. It sounds daft, but Allen keys of the same size vary in very tiny amounts. Slightly undersized Allen keys can lead to rounded bolt heads. Shimano SPD bolts (for road and mountain bike cleats) are durable, quite well formed and have deep sockets in their heads – other brands can vary in the hardness and definition of their heads and require more care during fitting and removal.
Fitting new cleats to new shoes – with an old pair as a guide
If this is a fitting session for a new pair of clipless shoes and you already have an old set or a secondary pair with cleat set up in a position that you’re happy with, then these can be used as a guide to positioning the new cleats on the new shoes.
Remember, if you’re using other shoes as a visual guide, different brand/model shoes will have marginally different position of the cleat slots. Nevertheless; standing the old and new shoes – on the same side, next to each other, on their heels – will give you a good understanding of the position in the new slots and the degree of angle (cleat ‘toe-in’) that you’ll be looking to achieve to mimic your old ones.
Fitting cleats to NEW Shoes – with no old shoe as a guide
MTB – twin bolt
If you don’t have an existing, or old pair, to use as a guide, then the best way to understand how your body likes to position your feet on the pedals, is to ride with some flat pedals in casual shoes. Take careful note about the position of your feet on the flat pedals. Where in relation to the pedal axle are your feet? Generally; it’ll be just behind and inboard of the big-toe joint. Also, look at the angle your feet naturally take on the pedals. You’ll be looking to get close to this foot position with your clipless shoes.
It’s worth remembering at this juncture; Clipless shoes offer a limited range of cleat adjustment, which might not be able to exactly match your flat pedal position in some extreme cases. Most clipless shoes will train wayward heel-in ‘ten-to-two’ pedalling actions into something more like ‘five to one’.
Perform the same flat pedal test now wearing your new clipless shoes – without cleats and get a feel for how those shoes feel when pedalling resting on the flat pedals. Sometimes, the more structured feel of cycling shoes can make you hold your feet differently to soft trainers. Remember clipless cycling shoes without cleats can present a very slippery surface to the pedal, so take great care not to slip.
Fit the clipless pedals to your bike. Adjust the spring tension to minimum. Fit the cleat to the bottom of the shoes following the instructions of your manufacturer. There are no left of right cleats with Shimano, however, off-road pedal models from Time/Mavic and CrankBrothers build two different angle release profiles into each cleat so (the cleats feature markings to determine whether they need to go on the left or right shoes depending on the amount of release angle you want). Make sure, if you’re using those brands and models, you’ve figured out which angle release you’re after before you start.
Using your notes from the flat pedal rides, set the cleats to the respective slot position and angle to mimic the flat pedal stance. Do the bolts up so the cleat will not turn under finger pressure, but not fully tight.
Go for a short ride, try to get a feel for the new cleat position.
Even better than a ride on the road, is a ride on a turbo trainer – this allows you to study the position of your shoe on the pedal in detail, without the risk of crashing into anything (or anyone).
Be aware that while the cleat bolts are still not at full torque, dramatic angular foot movement will pull the cleat from your desired position and potentially damage the outside face of the cleat pocket. Make any angular foot movements small and deliberate – this way you can make small detail adjustment on foot angle without hurting the shoe.
When you think you’ve got it right. Carefully release the cleats from the pedals trying not to disturb the final ‘correct’ position.
Assuming you’ve successfully managed to do that. Torque the two bolts to the recommended setting usually somewhere around 5-6Nm.
It’s worth taking the appropriate Allen key on the next couple of rides in case the position needs a tweak, as you get warmer, your muscles tighten and the miles take effect.
Road – Three bolt
By and large, the same techniques that you used to ascertain the MTB cleat position (above), hold true for setting up a three bolt road cleat. Identifying marks left on the outsole of used shoes from the old removed cleats will help locate new cleats.
Similarly, when fitting cleats that are new to shoes that are new, old or spare clipless shoes will help you get a ball-park idea of your normal cleat position and angle for the new pair.
Without old or spare shoes, the choices for finding the appropriate cleat position are to use flat pedals to assess your foot position and angle on the pedals, though this can be tricky with road shoes that have smooth, hard outsoles. You can either remove the pedals pins, or slip and old sock of the shoe, just to give some grip without scratching the outside. Take a ride and make a note of the shoe position in relation to the pedal and axle. (Having a friend handy to record this detail is easier than having to look yourself).
Because road cleats are usually made of plastic, rather than the metal that is used on MTB cleats, it is a bit easier to tighten the new cleats on new shoes to a torque that will allow you to enter and exit the shoes during the trial positioning/angle phase, without leaving undue ‘set’ marks on the outsole.
As with the mountain bike shoe cleats, when setting up the road cleats and performing the initial rides. Keep the pedal spring tension low, so that you’re able to easily clip out should you need to.
Justin Loretz – @mtbgenie