Why is Cycling Cleat Maintenance so Important?
As a bike fitter, the one piece of cycling equipment I see that suffers from abject neglect is the cleats. Out of sight, out of mind seems to be the pervading attitude toward what in effect are two of the five direct contact points between person and machine. Most cycling enthusiasts use cycling-specific shoes with cleats screwed to the sole, which in turn are used to attach the feet to the bicycle pedals. This makes them a crucial component of the bike-body interface and the one where your power output literally meets the pedal. A lack of cycling cleat maintenance can be a contributing factor to:
- foot pain or numbness
- knee pain
- achilles tendon pain
- difficulty getting in and out of the pedals, including falling over when stopping
- loss of efficiency converting muscle force to pedaling force
While I know some cyclists are fastidious about inspecting, maintaining, replacing, and adjusting their cleats, I will venture to say that the majority don’t give them a second thought. Let’s take a moment to give them the attention they deserve. The article will be divided into three parts:
- Adjustment (separate article)
CYCLING CLEAT MAINTENANCE – PART 1: INSPECTION
Turn your cycling shoes over and look at the bottom of them. Each should have a piece of plastic or metal screwed to the bottom that interfaces with the pedals. We are inspecting for:
When Cleats Wear
Cleats wear out and need replacing, which may come as a surprise to some cyclists. Far too many people push the limits of cleat integrity before replacing them. Murphy’s Law counsels us that a cleat will break at the most remote distance from home or assistance, leaving the hapless cyclist to pedal mostly with one leg while the other attempts to find some semblance of connection to the pedal.
Which bits of the cleat wear out? It depends on the type of cleat, but the primary physical interface with the pedal which is commonly the front engagement point on 3-hole road and 2-hole mountain bike cleats. The rear engagement points can also wear, as can any anti-slip features – which don’t affect function on the bike, but can affect your ability to stay upright off the bike. The best way to assess wear is to compare the used cleats to a brand-new set.
Check Those Screws
Missing screws: depending on the style of cleat (road or mountain), and brand, there may be either 2, 3 or 4 mounting screws holding the cleat to the shoe. Make sure all are present and accounted for. A three-hole cleat sporting only two screws is not uncommon, and a recipe for cleat misalignment and resulting biomechanical problems that may be experienced somewhere else, like the knee.
Screw Tightness: are the screws tight enough? They can gradually work loose over time. I recently checked my own cleat screws before a major event, and all were somewhat loose! There has been more than one DNF due to a cleat coming off a shoe during an event, and it is easily preventable. How tight do they need to be? 4 – 5 nM is a common manufacturer recommended torque range. If you can easily tighten them by hand, they are too loose.
Note 1: Cleat screws should be inserted with a dab of grease, not secured with Loctite.
Note 2: Speedplay cleats are a different beast. The suggested torque applies to the initial plate mounted to the shoes, not to the screws attaching the cleat to the plate. Note 1 also applies to base plate mounting screws as well – dab with grease. However the cleat retaining screws have loctite on them.
Screw Length: too short and there is not enough thread engagement to maintain a secure hold. Too long and you have one or more pointy things poking into your foot from underneath. Remove the footbed and walk your fingers up to the forefoot of the shoe. If the screws are too long you will feel them protruding and making a defined lump in the forefoot area. This is more commonly an issue when cleats ship with two different screw lengths, and the installer figures more is better, or the cleat has been modified with a wedge or shim, and the appropriate screw length was either not available or not selected.
There are 3 dimensions to alignment, which I’ll cover in adjustment, but as a general guideline (there will be exceptions) the cleat location should be mirrored from one shoe to another. Look at the cleats to see if they are positioned this way. You can get an extra perspective by aligning the shoes sole to sole and looking at them from the side. If one cleat is unintentionally further forward or back, in or out, or rotated relative to the other, it could be a sign that the alignment is off. Misalignment is a common cause of difficulty getting in and out of the pedals.
Another cause of difficulty getting in/out of the pedals is an obstruction wedged somewhere in the cleat. This may be dirt, mud, grass, pebbles, chewing gum, road tar/bitumen, dog poop or any number of other possibilities that you have unintentionally trodden in while out of the pedals. Often my first task in working on a client’s cleats is to de-gunk them, using a cleat pick. These tools are also excellent for prying mud out of the recess in the screw head in order to adjust the screws.
CYCLING CLEAT MAINTENANCE PART 2: REPLACEMENT
How long do cleats last? It depends on many factors:
- cycling mileage
- frequency of engagement/ disengagement
- amount of time walking around in cycling shoes off the bike
- type of surface you are walking on
A commuter is likely to wear out cleats significantly faster and over a shorter distance than a fastidious fitness rider or racer who clips in at the start and out at the end and track stands at any lights or stop signs en route.
Riders who always put the same foot down at stops will wear that cleat out a lot faster than the one on the other side. You might only need to replace one. To the best of my knowledge there is not a cleat wear gauge like there is a chain wear gauge, so knowing when to replace cleats is a subjective assessment. Some cyclists will replace cleats as a routine annual maintenance activity, and others will wait until they literally break apart.
You can replace worn cleats yourself, have it done at a bike shop, or seek the services of a bike fitter to get it “done right”. When replacing the cleats the first question to ask is do we replace same with same or same with different? Inexperienced cyclists sometimes assume all cleats are equal, which can lead to some unfortunate consequences.
Pedal Brand / Model Compatibility
Cleats interface with pedals, and for the most part are brand specific, and sometimes model specific. Meaning you cannot use one brand of cleat on a different brand of pedal. There are exceptions where aftermarket accessory companies provide cleats to work with other brands, but read the fine print.
- Shimano road pedals come in different models. There are also 3 models of Shimano road cleat. All are cross-compatible.
Look road pedals may be KEO or DELTA. The cleats look superficially similar but are not cross-compatible. A KEO cleat is needed for a KEO pedal (of which there are several models). I personally recommend the Grip version which has an antislip layer on the bottom for better traction off the bike.
- Speedplay used to have 3 different road pedals, each with a specific cleat. Under Wahoo ownership, the Speeplay cleats are now interchangeable with the different pedal options.
- Time Pedals (road and mountain) require Time cleats.
- Mountain Bike pedals are brand specific. Shimano pedals need Shimano cleats. Crank Bros pedals need Crank Bros cleats. Note that some second-tier pedal brands don’t have their own cleats but recommend one of the major brands.
For any particular pedal brand/model, there may be two or three cleat options that vary in some way. This may be ease of engagement/disengagement, stance width, or float range. The float range is the amount of rotational free play on the pedal, and can vary from none to a lot! Often this is fixed and determined by the cleat design, but on Wahoo Speedplay Zero pedals it is adjustable. You or your bike fitter may have a reason to recommend one model of cleat over the other, and this may be different than what was originally supplied with the pedals. For example, Shimano Dura-Ace pedals ship with SH-12 (blue) cleats with a very narrow float range. Debatably too narrow for your typical recreational rider, in which case the SH-11 (yellow) cleats with more float may be a better choice.
Cleat DO IT YOURSELF Replacement
If you are happy with the location of your cleats, you can replace them yourself by:
- selecting the appropriate model, per the notes above. Purchase cleats from your local bike shop or a reputable online bike store. Buyer beware: there are counterfeit Shimano cleats available on Amazon and from less conscientious online bike stores. The easiest way for your to know they are counterfeit is the price will be way less than the regular retail price. Seems like a bargain until you find you can’t clip in or out very well. There are visible telltale signs as well to the astute observer, but bottom line is – they are different and don’t play well with the Shimano pedals. Save yourself the anguish and buy right the first time.
- Marking the location of the existing cleat. You can do this with a sharpy outline onto your shoe sole, or just mark on the shoe sole the key indents of the cleat to use as reference points to help with cleat placement.
- Removing the old cleat. Most times easy, sometimes hard. Usually needs a 4mm hex wrench. Sometimes 3mm. Sometimes a screwdriver. A cleat pick is handy for cleaning out the wrench head to get a positive purchase with the tool.
- Installing the new cleat. Grease the bolt threads, and loosely tighten the bolts. Finesse the forward / back, side to side, and rotational alignment to match the old cleats. The Cleat Key is a brilliant tool for really dialing in the rotational alignment. Then tighten up to the recommended torque, commonly 4 – 6 nM–this is firmly hand-tight without straining!
CYCLING CLEAT MAINTENANCE PART 3: ADJUSTMENT
HOW to adjust the cleats is a whole separate article and skill set, so stay tuned – that will be coming up soon!
For bicyclists using cycling shoes and cleats (not flat pedals), the cleats are an important connection point between the bike and the body. The tires might be where the rubber meets the road, but the cleats are where the power hits the pedal. Give them the attention and respect they deserve. Inspect them regularly, replace them before they are completely trashed, and adjust them carefully.
John is an elite level bike fitter who works with non-elite cyclists – although a few have won races! Many don’t race at all, but ride for fun, fitness, or to compete against themselves. John has worked with 18-80 year olds (and younger and older), novices, age groupers, masters racers and all levels of weekend warrior. These include road riders, mountain bikers, triathletes, tandem riders, tourers, commuters, bike packers and gravel riders and racers. All share a love of cycling and just wanted to ride more comfortably, and in many cases faster. John is the owner of Fit Kit Systems, and provides bike fitting services through BikeFitr (bikefitr.com)