One of the most confusing things about moving from running to triathlon is learning all the ins and outs of cycling. Wheel sets, types of tires, and clipless pedals can be difficult to understand if you’re a beginner cyclist.
The different types of bike cleats are one of the things many triathletes struggle to understand.
To make things easier, we’ll be explaining the different types of bike cleats and how to choose the best ones for you in this article.
What are Cleats and Do They Usually Come with Pedals?
A cleat is a small disc-like object that’s bolted onto the underside of your shoe. It fits directly into your pedal (provided you have compatible cleats and pedals), clipping your foot to the pedal for increased pedaling efficiency.
Another complicated thing you may get confused with is what kind of pedals work with cleats. Cleats don’t work with flat pedals. You need special pedals (called clipless pedals… Confusing term!) that are compatible with your cleats.
The good news is that when you buy a set of clipless pedals, they come with compatible cleats. You can bolt them onto your shoes quite easily.
What Bike Cleat System is Best for Triathletes?
There’s no right answer to this question. The type of cleats and pedals that work for you may not be the same as someone else.
It’s a fairly personal thing, and you’ll only really get a good feel for it after you’ve tried a few different types for a decent amount of time.
It’s also important to note that if you’d rather use flat pedals where your feet aren’t clipped in, that’s also okay. Although clipless pedals do improve pedaling efficiency, they aren’t necessarily right for everyone.
Most clipless pedals have very similar mechanisms and weigh a fairly similar amount. The biggest difference is often the materials they’re made of.
Let’s have a look at the different types of cleats you can find on the market.
What are the Different Types of Cleats?
SPD Bike Cleats
SPD cleats are the most common. They’re a two-bolt cleat, which means they attach to your shoe with two bolts.
They’re a good choice for beginners, being easy to get on and off and to clip in, and they work well on both road and tri bikes.
Some riders may prefer a three-bolt system to a two-bolt system. Two bolts, while providing inherent stability as they’re attached to the shoe and clipped into the pedals, can be less stable and more prone to wobbling than three-bolt cleat systems.
You’ll most likely be able to find a decent set of SPD cleats at your nearest bike store or sporting goods store.
The biggest pro of SPD cleats is that they’re quite universal. They fit on a multitude of different pedals, just about any bike (including spin bikes and indoor exercise bikes), and are easy to use.
SPD cleats aren’t complicated when it comes to clipping in and out. They’re fairly safe, as it’s easy to clip out when you come to a traffic light so you can steady yourself, and easy to clip back in when you start up again.
SPDs are also easy to walk with. Some cleats can’t be walked on, or run the risk of damage if walked on, which can be highly inconvenient. SPD cleats are highly-walkable, which is extremely convenient and means you don’t need to be taking your shoes on and off much.
These features, as well as their affordability and general availability, make them an excellent choice for beginner cyclists.
If you’re a more advanced cyclist and have moved on to using high-quality, top-end cycling shoes, there’s a chance that they may not be compatible.
SPD-SL – The Three-Bolt System
SPD-SL cleats use a three-bolt system, which is somewhat more stable than the two-bolt version above.
There’s a large plastic cleat that attaches to the bottom of your shoe, but you’ll need to make sure you bolt it on the right way or it won’t fit into your pedal.
The three-bolt system allows these cleats to have excellent float, which is a slight side-to-side motion. This increases comfort, as you have a slight give in the cleat instead of being bolted in tightly and not being able to move your feet at all without the pedal moving.
Three-bolt cleat systems like the SPD-SLs have a larger platform than the two-bolts, making it more stable and more comfortable underfoot. The contact area between the cleat, the foot, and the pedal is larger and the triangular bolt system adds inherent stability.
The larger surface area and enhanced sturdiness also translate into increased power transfer from the legs to the drivetrain, improving your performance.
These cleats are recommended for triathletes. They’re great for advanced cyclists who are looking for better power transfer and pedaling efficiency, but they’re also comfortable for newbies and don’t have a big learning curve.
The float is another pro on this type of cleat. Float makes a huge difference to comfort when you’re clipped into the pedals, which in turn can have a positive effect on your performance.
Generally, SPD-SL cleats can be purchased in different degrees of float. Zero, 2, and 6 degrees are the options you can choose from, depending on how much freedom of movement you prefer.
If you’re looking for a cleat that you can walk with, the SPD-SL may not be the right choice. Because of its larger size, walking on them can be uncomfortable, not to mention that you may risk breaking a cleat.
They may not be the most versatile choice for riders who want to switch between bikes or want to walk around without changing shoes.
Look Bike Cleats
Look is a company that specializes in bike equipment. They design both pedals and cleats.
Look cleats are also three-bolt systems, have a triangular-shaped, wider platform, and are compatible with most road biking shoes you can find.
Their cleats are also designed to offer some float, which is a thumbs-up for both comfort and usability.
Look cleats have different float options and are good options for advanced cyclists who want engagement with the pedals but don’t mind not being able to walk on their cleats. They’re also really nice and light.
The various engagement options and slight float of these cleats make pedaling easier on the knees. These cleats are recommended for triathletes.
Because Look cleats are made from polymer material, they may wear out more quickly than others. It’s advised to not walk on these cleats, but even a fall can cause damage to them.
Speedplay cleats are slightly less popular than others, but they still do an excellent job. They use a four-bolt system, which may seem excessive, but it offers excellent stability.
The clip on these cleats is circular, and different pedals have different platforms. You may need to do some research to find a platform that’s the right width for you.
Speedplay pedals are dual-sided, meaning you can clip into either side of the pedal and don’t need to waste time turning it to find the clip-in side.
One of the biggest pros about Speedplay pedals and cleats is the dual-sided entry feature. When you unclip your cleat (for example, to support yourself when stopped at a traffic light), the pedal is likely to turn a little.
When it comes time to clip in again and go, there’s no need to look at the pedal and waste time flipping it back upright before you can clip in. Whichever side is closest, you can clip your cleat right in and head off.
Speedplay cleats and pedals are also super easy to adjust to your own preferences. You can adjust the clip pressure (how easy or hard you need to push to get the clip to lock into the pedal).
You can also adjust the float between 0 and 15 degrees, which is an excellent feature for riders who have knee problems and need extra play in their cleat/pedal system.
Speedplay pedals are among the priciest of the lot, although it’s not surprising given how adjustable they are.
Because of the four-bolt system, adjustable float, and variety of platform sizes, they may not be the best choice for beginners who just want something simple and easy to use.
Time Sport Clipless Pedals
Talking about float, Time Sport were the first ones to incorporate it into their pedals. This makes them comfortable and easy on the knees and legs.
They’re also designed with Bioposition technology, which centers the foot closer to the axle to improve efficiency and reduce rocking.
As the pioneer of float technology, Time Sports’ pedals and cleats offer good, effective float to reduce leg and foot fatigue and allow for a touch more foot freedom.
They also incorporate a few other technologies. Bioposition, which we mentioned above, is a strategic positioning of the pedals’ center of gravity closer to the axle, to increase pedaling efficiency.
Q Factor technology allows you to adjust the width and to position your foot laterally. Re-Centering Force is a tech that uses a light amount of spring tension which helps to keep the foot in a neutral position on the pedal, while still allowing enough range of movement to push hard without fatiguing too early.
Despite being the first of its kind with float technology, Time Sport pedals and cleats are much less in demand than others.
Because the demand is not so high for them, if you do specifically want them, they can be harder to find.