A do-it-yourself guide to fitting cycling cleats

Getting your cleat placement right is important to avoid strain and injury.

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Cycling can be a beautiful and often meditative sport, but sometimes even the smallest of body niggles can make it a downright miserable experience. How you sit on and interact with the bike can make or break your cycling, and that only becomes more true as your mileage increases.

Clipping into your pedals brings numerous performance and bike control benefits, but it does mean you’re effectively locked into pedalling in a set position. Getting this position right is arguably the base to being comfortable and efficient on the bike. Get it wrong and it’s likely your calves, knees, hips, or even your lower back will complain. 

And that brings us to this article – a basic guide to fitting cycling cleats. Here Melbourne-based bike fit expert Stewart Morton of RiderFit.CC provides a brief overview of how he sets up cleats for his clients. His technique matches that used by many of the CyclingTips team when setting up personal and test shoes.

A few points of note before we start

This guide uses Shimano SPD-SL three-bolt road cleats as an example, but the fitting principles covered are relevant to all popular pedal and cleat systems, whether they’re for road cycling, gravel, mountain biking, or more general riding. Consult the user manual belonging to your pedal system if you’re unsure about the initial cleat installation. 

This video and article provide just a basic overview of fitting and setting up cleats for cycling. Morton has years of experience doing this very task, including with countless professional cyclists and teaching the concepts of bike fit to many bike shop-based fitters. Like any good bike fitter, Morton knows there’s no single perfect solution to suit all and while what’s covered here should work well as a baseline for many, it won’t be right for everyone. 

Similarly, other bike fitters may have their own methods and suggestions for what’s best for you, and some believe that a more rearward placement of the cleat (foot further forward over the pedal) is superior. This is a topic for another article, but most simply, Morton suggests a rearward cleat placement is good for cycling disciplines that call for a more stagnant riding position – such as what’s used for competing in Ironman events. The central position covered in this article allows for better ankle movement which can make your pedal stroke more adaptable to varying terrain, saddle positions, and pedalling speeds.

If you’re unsure or unable to find a comfortable position then consult a bike fitter with a positive reputation. 

What you’ll need:

  • A hex key or screwdriver suited to your cleat screws.
  • Masking tape, electrical tape, or similar for masking purposes. 
  • A Sharpie or similar marker pen. 
  • Grease or blue Loctite is recommended for the screw threads. 
  • A torque wrench (often recommended by the pedal or shoe manufacturer, but not a must-have)
  • A pair of helping hands is great, although not essential. 

What you don’t need is a dedicated cleat fitting tool. There are a number of purpose-built tools on the market that have their benefits, but fundamentally they just let you achieve what this guide lays out. The tools won’t produce a better outcome.

Let’s begin. 

Step one: Assessing your natural foot position 

Your goal with cleat fitting is to allow your feet to sit within their natural position. Force the foot into a position that it doesn’t naturally sit in and you’ll quickly introduce strain (and injury) to your body. 

“First thing is to understand how your feet rotate or hang by sitting on the edge of a table,” explains Morton. “This allows you to understand the natural position for your foot, something you want to try to replicate on the bike so that you’re not forcing yourself into an unnatural position.” 

Do your feet hang with heels in, out, or straight? Does a previous injury have the left and right hanging differently? Many popular pedal systems feature float which allows the cleat to freely move from left to right. The goal is to find the position where your foot naturally falls in the middle of the float range. 

Step two: Marking your shoes 

Pop your shoes on with the type of sock you’ll typically wear when cycling. Now have a feel around the ball of your foot. What you want to locate is the first and fifth metatarsal joints – the protruding knuckles of your big toe and little toe. For many people, this will be the widest part of the foot. 

The first and fifth metatarsals are your guide points.

With the first and fifth metatarsals located, place some small segments of electrical or masking tape across the upper of the shoe on either side. This will give you a place to mark your shoes without actually marking your shoes. 

With the tape in place, locate the first and fifth metatarsals again and mark the centre of them with a pen or permanent marker. Many people don’t have even-sized feet and so you should do this for both feet. 

When done you should have a dot or line on both sides of both shoes. 

Step three: Imagining a central line 

The general goal is to set up the cleat so that the centre of the pedal axle falls in the centre between the two dots you just drew on your shoes (hopefully on the tape that’s stuck to your shoes). For many people, these dots will create a diagonal line across the cleat mounting points of the shoe. You want the pedal axle to intersect the middle of this line.

Some cleats, such as Shimano SPD-SLs, offer a small indicator for where this pedal centre is (often seen as subtle lines in the moulding of the cleat). For Shimano SPD, Crank Brothers, or Speedplay Zero this is the centre of the cleat. 

Now install the cleats on your shoes, lined up with your centre point. Leave the bolts just loose enough so that you can fine-tune the angle of the cleats. 

Step four: Dialling in the angle 

Most road cleat systems will allow you to use the edge of a table or desk to dial in the alignment of the cleats. This technique is most useful if you’re aiming to set the cleats at a certain angle (e.g. heel in or heel out) or if you know your left and right cleats need to be placed evenly.

Do your best to eye both the angle of the cleat and its position in relation to the marked points on your shoes. Tighten the cleats into place. 

Step five: Getting on the bike 

This fifth step is best performed on a stationary trainer where there’s little risk of falling over or running into a parked car. This step is also far easier with the assistance of a helper. 

Firstly, you want to verify that your cleat position centres the ball of each foot over the respective pedal axle. This can be done by putting your pedals at 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock and trying to get your eyeline directly above the pedal spindle. Again, this is vastly easier with a helper who can verify this step for you. 

The next step is to pedal and verify that the angle of the cleat is correct. Can you feel any tension in the knee or hip? If so, are you riding against the edge of the pedal float range? As a reminder you want your foot to naturally sit in the middle of the pedal float range. The pressure in your feet should feel even left to right. 

Adjust accordingly. 

Hopefully, by following the above steps you’ll find yourself in a comfortable position. However as noted at the start, this baseline fit may not result in cycling bliss for all and that’s where the world of bike fit can quickly become a tricky game. 

The reality is that some people are simply more susceptible to nuances in fit and the resulting impact they can have on their body (I’m very much in this camp). Sometimes stance width, foot tilt, too much float or too little float, left-to-right stack heights, and many other factors need to be accounted for when correctly setting cleat positions. If you’re not comfortable on the bike then don’t assume your body will adapt. 

Marking cleats for easy replacement 

Cleats wear out and you’ll eventually need to replace them to regain the proper and safe function of your pedal system. The following simple tip is useful if you’ve got a cleat position you love and you’re simply swapping old cleats for new in the same pedal system. It’s also good to do in the event a cleat slips from its well-loved position.

Grab yourself a white paint marker or correction pen and simply trace around the key curves of the old cleat. Let the paint dry. 

Now you can remove the old cleat and install the new cleat between your drawn lines. 

Do note that if you’re changing pedal systems then it’s advised you start fresh with your cleat fitment.

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