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by Dave Rome
August 21, 2018
Photography by David Rome
What good is a pair of road cycling shoes without pedals to go with them? In this third round of CT Recommends, we take a look at what CT staffers are using for road pedals.
Ultimately, there really are only four main players when it comes to road-oriented, three-hole pedal systems: Shimano, Look, Speedplay, and Time. There are others to consider, such as Keywin and Coombe, but you’ll be hard pressed to find any of these alternatives in your local bunches. Given this, it shouldn’t be too surprising to see that our team’s preferences are split amongst the mainstream brands. Many of us have used many others, but we retain our go-to choices. Read on to learn more about our personal choices, and why we all went that way.
Want to skip straight to our recommendations? Click the links below:
– Shimano SPD-SL
– Look Keo Blade
– Speedplay Zero
– Time Xpresso
Mountain bike pedals have to be engineered with a broader approach that more evenly prioritises both on-bike and off-bike use. Road pedals, on the other hand, have the luxury of a far more narrowly focused approach. After all, it’s unlikely you’ll need to walk far when you’re out on a road ride, and so there’s greater emphasis on foot support, stability, and security. Road pedals also aim to keep you closer to the pedal axle for better biomechanical efficiency, they’re shaped for improved cornering clearance, and as always in the road world, weight and aerodynamics are often considered in high regard.
The topic of road versus mountain bike pedals is a hotly debated one and is something we plan to revisit in near time. Until then, here are our picks.
Shimano’s SPD-SL system has remained fundamentally unchanged for many years. Each new generation of pedals typically only receives minor improvements, often to slightly reduce weight.
Shimano’s SPD-SL system is the clear favourite amongst our team, with US tech editor James Huang, CyclingTips founder Wade Wallace, roving reporter Dave Everett, Australia senior editor Matt de Neef, US editor-in-chief Neal Rogers, and myself all going this route.
SPD-SL pedals are much like Shimano’s groupsets: reliable, functional, easy to use, readily available, and without significant cost. As I’ve covered in my review of Shimano Dura-Ace R9100 pedals, Shimano is simply the best once you factor in all-out durability and dependability. They’re not the lightest or most adjustable, but they just work. Adding to their popularity is the fact that they’ve often been included as standard equipment on many entry-level road bikes.
Even better, those attributes hold true throughout nearly the entire SPD-SL range. For example, the PD-R550 is simply the best budget road pedal going; spending more earns you lower weights and improved bearings, but essentially no difference in stability, security, or longevity. The top-end Dura-Ace pedal does offer a lower stack height and increased clearance angle, thanks to its slimmer bearing design, but it’s a minor advantage that not many will consider to be important.
Add in the relatively low price, widespread availability, and decent durability of the large plastic cleat, and Shimano also set the benchmark for running costs. The cleat’s generously wide platform and softer co-molded contact points even make it far better to walk in than you’d expect, even decent to walk in, even on those dreaded tiled cafe floors. Other makes have sought to catch up in this regard, but SPD-SL still remains the best option in that respect.
On paper, Shimano pedals aren’t the best at any one thing. However, they’ve proven their place in the real world.
While some of the team arrived to Shimano pedals from their first road bikes, others got here through issues or failure elsewhere. For example, Neal recalls his break-up with Speedplay vividly.
“I got sick of them clogging up with dirt. There was one specific ride; I remember it clearly. I forgot to pee before I left the house, was out riding on local dirt roads, pulled into the first porta potty, saw that the ground was muddy, and had a decision to make: unclip and risk clogging up the cleat, or continue riding and hold my bladder. I refused to have my bladder held hostage by my equipment. I unclipped, got off, peed, and could not clip in for the remainder of the ride. It wasn’t the first time something like that had happened, but it was the last straw. When I got home, I ordered three sets of Shimano pedals. Haven’t switched back since.”
Wade’s move to Shimano is similar to that of Neal’s, but for a different reason.
“I used to use Speedplay and still think they are the best pedals in the business, but they failed me so many times (three catastrophic failures in big races/events), admittedly because of my lack of maintenance. I switched to Shimano, which have been flawless ever since.”
Personally, I’m in a similar boat. I used to swear by Look pedals, but the stability of earlier Keo versions would quickly degrade due to pedal body wear. This issue is now fixed, but Look’s bearing durability and serviceability doesn’t hold a candle to Shimano’s. Despite being a weight weenie at heart, I made the decision to have the weight penalty of Shimano and haven’t felt compelled to change since.
The Look Keo Blade has proven a popular and lighter alternative to Shimano pedals. The regular Look Keo is slightly heavier, but offers tension adjustment and more rugged durability.
Look created the clipless road pedal market in 1984, and remain a strong competitor to Shimano, especially by users of other groupsets. The Keo platform – essentially a downsized version of the original Delta format – launched in 2004, and the current Keo Blade faithfully uses the same cleat design that Look debuted 14 years ago, but with a carbon fibre leaf spring in place of a wound steel spring to hold that cleat in place. Replacing that chunk of steel with a thin sliver of carbon fibre leads to an impressively low weight, as low as 248g (including cleats). There’s no traditional tension adjustment as a result, but Look at least offer three different Blade stiffnesses that can be swapped to provide the same functionality.
Interestingly, the Look Keo cleat fitment is the most widely borrowed (copied) of all the systems on the market. If you’re looking at pedals with internal powermeters, they’ll more than likely use the Keo cleat. Likewise, road pedals from the likes of Wellgo, Exustar, HT and Ritchey all use the Keo cleat design too. Part of this wider usage is likely due to Shimano keeping a tight reign on its design, but it also sings praise for how popular the Look system is.
A key figure behind the CyclingTips Emporium, Mitch Wells, is one member who loves the Look Keo Blade.
“I started with (Shimano) 105s that came with my first roadie. When I built a custom bike up for the first time, the Look Keo Blade had just been launched and looked pretty attractive, so I went with the Look Blade Carbon Cromo. I haven’t looked back. The biggest positive changes over Shimano are the solid, loud, and confidence-inspiring clip-in feel and sound. No second guessing if you’ve clipped in or not. My current set has about 14,000km and are still going strong without a single service or bearing replacement.”
CT site developer Josh Kadis shares Mitch’s pedal choice.
“I was skeptical when the Blades first came out a few years ago, but I’ve liked them so far. I’ve used Look or Look-compatible pedals for most of the time I’ve been riding, with a couple of forays into Time and (Shimano) SPD-SL.”
The Keo Blade features a solid carbon fibre leaf spring that snaps the rear jaw of the pedal shut on the cleat. In the event of a direct impact, though, this spring (or the surrounding material) can break.
Caley Fretz is another Look Keo Blade user, but for a very different (and very honest) reason.
“At some point a couple years ago, Look sent over a bunch of pairs and now I have so many it’s easy to keep them on whatever test bikes I have in. Previously my pick was Shimano because they’re bombproof. I have broken a couple of Keos, but I usually break them by groading too hard and smashing the blades on rocks. Basically, I killed them because I’m dumb.”
As happy as Mitch is, he has run into one issue.
“I have had a few weird squeaks coming from the worn metal faceplate, but a drop of chain lube quietens them down for a few months.”
It’s an issue also reported by James, and one that he has remedied in the past by changing to aftermarket cleats from Exustar.
The Zero Stainless is arguably the most popular pedal in Speedplay’s range.
Hailing from the USA, Speedplay take a completely different approach to pedal design then the other three listed. Instead of clipping a solid cleat into a sprung pedal body, Speedplay reverse the system and put the sprung mechanism in the cleat. Doing so affords Speedplay, and its lollipop-like Zero pedals, the clear advantage of dual-sided entry without a cost to cornering clearance.
Many Speedplay users favour the modern aesthetics and low weight that such a minimalist pedal design provides. However, it is worth noting that as a complete system (including cleat), both Look and Time beat Speedplay’s lightest offering in the weight war (sorry Shimano, you come in last). And while on the topic of weight, Stewart Morton of bike fitting company RiderFit.cc warns that a common mistake riders make “is chasing the lightest and usually the most expensive pedal as part of a new bike build. The lighter pedals usually have a shorter spindle (to save weight) and this can have negative effects on knee tracking by creating a stance width that is too narrow for the rider. Common problems, as a result, can present as lateral foot pain, symptoms of iliotibial band syndrome, knee pain, and a lack of power.“
That said, many bike fitters have also long loved the Speedplay system for its adjustability. Four different spindle lengths are available, along with different base plates that afford a huge range of fore-aft adjustability. Speedplay cleats are also the easiest of the four major systems when it comes to compensating for different leg lengths. Only recently has Shimano added a choice in pedal axle lengths (standard or +4mm), and it’s likely Speedplay’s success encouraged such an option.
Australian tech Matt Wikstrom switched from Time to Look for just such a reason.
“My move to Speedplay (about 10 years ago) was all in pursuit of extra cleat adjustment, and it’s something I still prize along with the double-sided entry for the pedals. I use the aluminium 3-hole-adapter baseplate for my cleats because it offers extra fore-aft adjustment and isn’t prone to cracking like the standard plastic adapter baseplate. I’ve found a dry lube works well for the cleat springs, but I always forget to use it as often as I should. I keep using the cleats long after they should have been replaced, which has probably accelerated wear on the pedals, but I’ve still gotten at least a few years before as noticeable rock develops in my pedal stroke.”
The newer Speedplay Aero Walkable cleat has taken the pedal system from being horrible to walk with, to one that’s pretty decent.
There’s no denying that Speedplay has some real benefits, but as Matt states, they’re the highest maintenance option suggested here and are therefore not for everyone. The pedals themselves run on tiny needle bearings and need periodic greasing (easily done with a grease gun). Likewise, as Neal noted, you need to be especially careful of what you step in to prevent fouling the cleat mechanism with debris, and on occasion, it’s suggested to lube the cleats with a dry lube. I remember a bike fitter friend used to say “Speedplay are not a pedal for Sydney”, a reference to the reliability issues that would surface through constant clipping in and out at lights.
Time’s Xpresso pedal offers the lightest system weight and the most generous float. It’s also known to be an exceptionally easy system to get in and out of.
While his first preference is Shimano, James did throw in a suggestion for Time pedals. They’re very lightweight, the lower-priced options are very appealing in terms of value for the money, their unique retention system is especially easy to engage, the float is particularly smooth in feel and generous in range, and recent changes to the cleats have made them nearly as good to walk in as Shimano.
Time pedals have historically had issues with bearing durability, though, and while that aspect seems to have improved, it’s still a big unknown. And even more troubling is the fact that they’re technically not user serviceable. While the retaining collar for the axle assembly can be removed at home, the official tools aren’t made available to consumers.
“I’ve been toying with the idea of switching to Time, but still currently prefer Shimano. Time offer smoother float and a lower weight. And the cheap Time pedals are pretty damned good. But I’m not switching until I know the bearings are sufficiently durable.”
Time (pun intended) will tell if these pedals can lure James away from the old faithful.
What road pedal systems have you tried and settled on? What do you wish was different or better?