Budget road pedals compared: Shimano vs. Look vs. Time

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Fancy composite bodies, carbon-fiber springs, ceramic bearings, ultralight weights, titanium hardware, aero schmero — high-end road pedals are chock-full of all sorts of fancy marketing buzz words and expensive technology. But the budget-minded among us only care about one thing: what’s the best option for the money? CyclingTips US technical editor James Huang gathered up value-minded samples from Shimano, Look, and Time to see which reigns supreme.

Top-end pedals are better than they’ve ever been, but they’re also pricier and present questionable value propositions to those riding on a more realistic budget. Sure, you could save a few grams or gain a few features by spending more, but is it really necessary? For most riders, that answer is a definitive “no.”

Lower-range models often cost less than a third of flagship pedals, offering such similar performance levels that most of us would never be able to tell the difference from the saddle. The sub-$100 arena is particularly competitive, and the value offered there is exceptionally high. Consumers have noticed, too: According to online retail giant Wiggle, the top-selling road pedals all hover around the US$80 price point, which is where this review will focus.

That segment of the road pedal market is crowded with a wide range of options, including plenty of generic labels. For this review, however, I opted to stick with the three major brands and evaluate the most suitable models from each. Look recently released a revamped Keo Classic 3; Shimano tosses its PD-R550 into the ring; and Time offers up its Xpresso 4, freshly updated after a recent company sale to Rossignol. The official retail prices listed here vary quite a bit, especially in different regions, but street prices for all three are generally closely aligned. Speedplay’s least-expensive option fell too far outside the target price window, so that brand isn’t included here.

I evaluated each of these pedals primarily on their core competencies: ease of clipping in and out, float, foot stability, durability, and serviceability. Other factors such as weight and release tension were considered, too, albeit with less emphasis.

Third place: Look Keo Classic 3: 273g/pair plus 67g/pair for cleats and hardware; US$80 / AU$78 / £40 / €47

Of all the major brands, Look has been in the clipless pedal game longer than anyone. Look’s first pedal debuted back in 1983, and it was the first brand to gain widespread acceptance in the pro peloton. That original Delta cleat interface gave way to the newer Keo platform in 2004, but even so, that adds up to more than three decades of experience.

So how could the Keo Classic 3 — a pedal that was completely redesigned just a few months ago — finish third in a group of three?

Look Keo Classic 3 pedals
The Look Keo Classic 3 gained a major redesign relative to the Classic 2. The new body is wider with a larger surface area for the cleat, and now resembles much more closely Look’s higher-end models.

Look may have had the most amount of time to tweak and refine its product, but the fact of the matter is that its core functionality has changed little since it was first introduced. In other words, its strongest assets remain as true as ever, but Look has also done little to address its deficiencies in the meantime.

The Keo Classic 3 is an easy pedal to use. The composite body consistently hangs at the same angle so it quickly becomes second nature to find the front of the pedal with the nose of the cleat, and there’s no fumbling about or awkwardly looking down as you make your way across an intersection after the light turns green.

Engagement is positive and snappy, and the release motion is similarly rich with both audible and tactile feedback; just twist your foot and clip out, as usual. There’s a generous range of release tension adjustment, too, which should readily accommodate both beginners and more seasoned riders alike.

Look Keo Classic 3 pedals
The Look Keo Classic 3’s reinforced nylon pedal body is admirably trim and tidy.

Once you’re clipped in, though, the Keos deliver the sloppiest attachment of the bunch. There’s noticeable out-of-plane rocking that I find off-putting, and over time, that movement is often accompanied by an annoying creaking. Both issues have plagued Keos since day one, and it remains a mystery to me why Look has yet to address them.

The stock cleats provide 4.5° of rotational float, but even that feels behind-the-times in some ways. The movement itself is reasonably fluid, but only the rear of the cleat is free to move; the toe is basically fixed. Some riders might prefer a center of rotation located closer to the ball of the foot for a more natural feel.

One bright spot with the Keo Classic 3 is bearing durability, where Look has a strong and lengthy track record. While this test wasn’t long enough to truly evaluate years of abuse, prior experience suggests that the Keo Classic 3s will hold up well to wet weather, and when needed, the maintenance process is straightforward: just remove the axle assembly with the dedicated tool (which is cheap and easy to obtain), fill the body with grease, and reinstall the cartridge. Done. Given proper attention, the bearings should practically last forever.

Look Keo Classic 3 pedals
The redesigned Look Keo Classic 3 body offers better support for the cleat relative to the Classic 2 – at least in theory.

Unfortunately, the body isn’t likely to last as long.

Whereas the other two pedals in this test have stainless steel wear plates on the body, the Keo Classic 3 has just a bare fiber-reinforced composite body. History has proven that this setup will be prone to wear, which, in this case, will make an already-sloppy interface even more so.

Adding insult to injury is the fact that the Keo cleats are the least amenable to walking. The hard plastic wears pretty well, but it’s noticeably slippery on hard surfaces (including asphalt). Tread carefully.

In short, Look may be the elder statesman when it comes to clipless pedals, but even the most experienced veteran can be outclassed by newer rivals. This old dog needs to learn some new tricks.

Look Keo Classic 3 pedals
Look has a strong history of durability for its pedal axle bearings. The Keo Classic 3 pedals spin smoothly straight out of the box, and are easy to service if and when necessary.

One note if you already have a set of Look Keo Classic 3 pedals (or any Keo pedals, for that matter): many of the issues described above can be eliminated by switching to aftermarket cleats from Exustar. This setup eliminates the out-of-plane rocking as well as the intermittent creaking associated with that movement, and the bi-material version offers more secure footing when walking on hard surfaces, too.

Swapping to Exustar cleats is a tactic I’ve successfully used in the past when evaluating other Keos, and in my opinion, it transforms the performance of the pedals from what-could-have-been to how-it-should-be. One shouldn’t be forced to spend extra on aftermarket cleats to extract a level of performance that should have been provided stock, though, particularly on a pedal so keenly focused on value.

Second place: Time Xpresso 4: 234g/pair plus 87g for cleats and hardware, US$100 / AU$150 / £60 / €75

Time’s Xpresso 4 design is unquestionably superior to the Look and Shimano from a technological standpoint, and on paper, these should be the runaway winner. However, lingering questions about the pedals’ long-term reliability keep it from occupying the top spot.

Time Xpresso pedals
The Time Xpresso 4 pedals are packed with impressive technology and a highly progressive design. On paper, they’re the best available at this price point.

A pair of Xpresso pedals and cleats weighs just 321g — just 16g heavier than Shimano Dura-Ace. And yet despite that feathery weight, the Xpresso 4s still provide a wonderfully stable platform with no out-of-plane movement, plus heaps of contact area between the pedal body’s stainless steel wear plates and the cleat that you can genuinely feel underfoot. Unlike the Look and Shimano, the Time’s float is self-centering, meaning the retention spring is constantly working to keeping your foot in position. It’s a very subtle effect, though, and the generous 15° of float is the most natural-feeling of the bunch, with both rotational and translational movement (centered over the ball of your foot, not the toe) to keep your joints happy over the long haul.

Time’s long-running iClic interface is incredibly clever, too, and requires the lowest amount of effort to engage by a wide margin, which should be especially appealing to lighter-weight riders. Every other pedal forces you to counteract the full force of the retention spring when clipping in, but iClic features a nifty intermediate position on the rear latch that holds it partially open after you remove your foot.

In effect, iClic is akin to an old-fashioned mousetrap. Whereas every other pedal makes you pull the rear latch back all the way every time you clip in, the iClic is like having a little hunk of cheese already loaded; it takes only a small fraction of the total effort to snap the trap shut.

Time Xpresso pedals
The carbon fiber spring lends a distinctly snappy feel to the Time Xpresso 4 pedals, and also helps reduce weight.

Of the three pedals here, the Xpresso 4 is also the only one to feature a fancy carbon fiber spring. This helps bring the weight down, and also lends a more instant feel to the engagement and release. Release tension is adjusted in three discrete steps — unlike the much finer adjustability of Look and Shimano — but the range is nevertheless still well-suited for a broad range of rider types.

Moreover, the Xpresso 4 offers a lower stack height than either Shimano or Look (meaning your feet sit slightly closer to the pedal axle), and the dual-density cleats are reasonably easy to walk in.

So what’s the problem?

Unfortunately, Time pedals have a rather pockmarked durability record, including everything from prematurely seized bearings and cleats, to bodies that unexpectedly crack and disintegrate while riding. This doesn’t apply to all Time road pedals, of course, and while I don’t have hard numbers on which to base my opinion, it doesn’t take much internet sleuthing to determine that the failure rate has been higher than its competition.

Time Xpresso pedals
The ultra-flat bodies help keep your feet closer to the pedal spindle than the Look and Shimano ones, but it’s unlikely most people will notice.

Time insists that all of those issues were addressed after new owner Rossignol moved pedal production to the same ISO 9001-certified factory in France where the company produces its ski bindings. According to Ryan Green of Time USA, the quality and consistency of the pedal bodies has been improved, the material itself is better than it was before, and both the manufacturing process and tooling are more modern.

Green says that the cleats are now made of tougher materials, too, and the bearings seem better-protected against weather with noticeably tighter seals than before. All of this bodes well for long-term durability, but nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether those changes will truly stand the test of time (no pun intended).

Even if all of Green’s claims ring true, however, the sad fact remains that Time’s pedal bearings still aren’t user-serviceable. The tool required for axle disassembly isn’t offered to consumers, so a contaminated or seized bearing will relegate the entire pedal to the trash bin.

Time Xpresso pedals
The stainless steel wear plates should greatly extend the longevity of the composite pedal bodies.

I’ll continue to evaluate these pedals over the next year to see how this test set works out, and will continue to monitor the collective experience of other Time Xpresso users to see if things have changed. But in the meantime, value-minded riders usually aren’t the ones willing to take a chance with questionable reliability, and for that reason alone, the Xpresso 4 pedals earn a second-tier spot on the podium — at least for now.

Almost, Time. Almost.

First place: Shimano PD-R550: 310g/pair, plus 70g for cleats and hardware, US$100 / AU$89 / £62 / €59

Despite being the heaviest of the trio (59g more than the Xpresso 4; 40g more than the Keo Classic 3), the Shimano PD-R550 pedals win this three-way battle for one simple reason: they just flat-out work, nailing every critical test while displaying no major flaws.

Shimano PD-R550 pedals
The Shimano PD-R550 pedals are one-third the cost of the top-end Dura-Ace ones, but virtually identical in terms of what you can feel from the saddle.

Like the Keos, cleat engagement and release is extremely positive with ample feedback you can both hear and feel before reassuringly powering away from traffic lights. The float isn’t quite as silky-smooth as the Xpressos, but the combination of rotational and translational movement makes for a similarly natural feel. They’re also nearly as stable while pedaling with no out-of-plane rocking, and the adjustment range on the release tension is generously wide.

If history has revealed any one category where Shimano’s pedals excel, however, it’s long-term durability.

Stainless steel plates molded into the PD-R550’s fiber-composite body prevent premature wear, and the SPD-SL cleats are tough and seemingly everlasting, yet also remarkably grippy when on foot (two guesses what cleats Chris Froome wore when he was running up Mont Ventoux  at the 2016 Tour de France). To further sweeten the deal, the bearings in the PD-R550 pedals are both extremely long-lasting yet freely spinning. The bodies always settle in the best position for re-engagement after you clip out, and unlike the Times, which require a lengthy break-in period, the Shimanos spin this way straight out of the box.

Shimano PD-R550 pedals
The wide body and generous amount of surface contact area make for a secure and stable feel. Stainless steel plates make for smoother-feeling float, and they also prevent wear on the resin body.

Even if those bearings ever do eventually give way to water, Shimano makes the requisite tool cheap and easy to obtain, and the overhaul process is just as easy as on the Keos.

In some ways, the Shimanos are my pick here not because they excel in any one performance category, but because they consistently do everything very well while exhibiting no downsides (major or minor). It’s impossible to go wrong here.

Put another way, the Shimano PD-R550s are like good chocolate ice cream: not always the most exciting option in the freezer, but always dependable and satisfying.

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