Drive My Bike

Understanding Clipless Pedals – Two Common Systems

It seems like a lot of people are searching for information on clipless pedals these days, so I thought I’d write a bit more about what I’ve learned recently. For this post, I’m going to explain two of the most common clipless systems available: “Look” and “SPD”.

Clipless Cleat Comparison (Look and SPD)

When I started shopping for clipless pedals I really had no idea what I wanted or needed, I just knew that I wanted some shoes that I could use both on my bike and on the spinning machines at our gym. I have learned a lot since then, and I settled on Shimano’s SPD system for my Trek mountain bike, which I use for commuting. At the same time I’m also watching over my friend Jake’s sweet road bike while he’s in Africa for a year, and his bike and shoes are based on the Look system, so I’ve also had a little experience with that lately.

Let’s talk about these two common clipless systems, Look (primarily for road bikes), and Shimano SPD (originally for mountain bikes, but now also found on road bikes).

In the picture above the Look system is on the left, and the SPD system is on the right. You can see that one of the biggest differences is that the Look cleat is much larger, probably three times the size of the SPD cleat.

Here’s what the Look pedal looks like:


Here’s a close up of the Look cleat and Look pedal next to each other:


And here’s a side view of the Look system when it is clipped in:


Both of these systems operate almost the same when it comes to clipping in and out of the pedals. You begin to engage the pedal by hooking the front (toe side) of the cleat in the front of the pedal, and then you press down with your heel to make the cleat “clip in” to the pedal. To remove your shoe from the pedal, you push your heel to the side, rotating your entire foot away from the bike, which causes the pedal clamp to disengage from the cleat and “unclip”.

Here’s what the SPD pedal looks like:


You’ll notice that this pedal looks similar to a non-clipless pedal. That is because it has a standard pedal on the other side, which allows you to use regular shoes as well. I chose this because I wasn’t sure how committed I was to riding clipless all the time, and I figured that in bad weather I would still be wearing my Neos overshoes and would need a regular pedal. I have to say that I like my clipless system so much that I’m not sure I would buy these double sided pedals again if I had it to do over. The “clip only” pedals are smaller, lighter, and double sided, so you don’t have to fumble around getting the clip right side up when clipping in. Of course clip only pedals would mean that I’d have to find some serious cold weather overshoes to fit over my clipless shoes, and those get expensive. The weather is pretty nice for now, so I’m figuring that I’ll cross that bridge later when the weather gets nasty.

Here’s a close up of the SPD cleat and SPD pedal next to each other:


And here’s a side view of the SPD system when it is clipped in:


Again, unclipping the SPD system is done in the same manner as the Look system, by rotating your heel sideways, away from the bike.

So which system is better?

Unfortunately I can’t answer that for you, but the kind of bike you’re riding can help narrow your decision.

If you are primarily riding a road bike, then you might choose to use either system, although you’re probably more likely to come across a road bike with a Look system.

If you are primarily riding a mountain bike, then you’re probably going to choose Shimano’s SPD system. There are other mountain bike systems out there, but from what I’ve seen SPD is the most common.

If you find yourself riding both road and mountain bikes, and you’d like to have a system that can be used with both, then you probably want to go with the SPD system. That way you can buy a single pair of shoes, and use them with all your bikes.

There are other clipless systems out there, but I’ve focused on two of the most common systems. When I go to the spinning class at my gym the machines have double sided pedals, with Look clips on one side, and SPD clips on the other. While that works in the gym, a pedal like that would be too large and heavy, so it wouldn’t be very practical on a real bicycle.

Shimano makes a system for road bikes they call SPD-SL, and it is very similar to a Look system. Crank Brothers make their unique “Eggbeater” system (named for the way the pedals look) which is primarily aimed at mountain bikes. There are numerous other clipless systems available, but you’ll have to do your own research to decide what’s best for you.

When you purchase a clipless system, you’ll buy at least two things:

1) The pedals, which usually come with a set of matching cleats

2) The shoes, which will have a drilled panel on the sole designed to accommodate a certain kind of cleats. Some shoes can accommodate multiple types of cleats. Be sure they’ll work with the pedals you choose.

One of the best things to do would probably be to go to your local bike shop and spend some time with one of the knowledgeable staff members discussing your needs, and seeing what they recommend. I bought my pedals at REI, and the folks there were very helpful.

This post described the different systems, so next time I’m going to get into more detail about the different pedals and shoes that are available.

As I’m sure you can tell, I really like riding clipless now. I rode with normal shoes the other day, and it felt just plain weird, and I really missed the added power from clipping in. I’m sold on clipless pedals, and if you’re thinking about making the switch I hope this information will be helpful.

UPDATE: You can read more about clipless shoes in the next post here. You can read about installing cleats on your shoes here.

21 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Nice informative article. I don’t use clipless pedals on my bicycles. I’d probably be a lot more efficient if I did.


Comment by Greg

Good article. All I can remember is the first time I “clipped in” – and fell on my face in the middle of a busy intersection.

Comment by Trek Bikes

This is fantastic – thanks for a great, thorough explanation. I’m on my 6-week anniversary of bike commuting and there really is no turning back. It is time to invest in some clipless system, though, and your post is helping me get there. Thanks!

Comment by k

I would definitely practice clipping in and out before actually hitting the road!! I spent about an hour riding in circles in a vacant parking lot and fell 3-4 times, tearing up both knees (the price we pay!). I felt much more comfortable hitting the road when I trained myslef to say “turn your foot” whenever I knew I was coming to a stop. SPD are great on any bike.

Comment by Joe

Well done. I’m happy with what I got – Shimano SPD-SL for my road bike, but it would have been nice to have seen your explanation first.

Comment by FarFlungHeel

[…] can’t walk on road shoes).  See your local bike shop for details, or check out the plethora of internet articles discussing the […]

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[…] […]

Pingback by Anonymous

it is great to have a brand you can recognise. The Shimano 105 Pd-5700 Road Bike Pedals Black is certainly that and will be a perfect acquisition.

Comment by Shimano Pedal

Nice article thanks. I have been on my clipless SPD pedals on my mountain bike for about 6 months now and I would not revert back to normal pedals ever.

I have just bought a road bike and I was contemplating purchasing the road pedals but for eae of use and being familiar with SPD I stuck with the SPD pedals for my road bike too. Still splashed oput on some road shoes as I didn’t want to use my mountain bike shoes on the roadster.

Word of advice practise in a park on the grass first, I got laughed at by a bunch of kids as I toppled over again and again, but it will save your life from toppling over in front of a HGV on a set of traffic lights.

My SPD pedals also have a cage around them so you can just about get away with using normal trainers on them for runs to the shops if needed.

Comment by Goonz

very helpfull – it´s pretty necessery that people take time to bring serious information about such a subject to help other – Big thanks for that!

Comment by Michael

Trying to decide which way to go and wanted to thank you for this post I know you posted this long ago, but you answered questions for me that I felt really dumb for asking the bike shop. As if I should be born with this knowledge or something…LOL Thanks again!

Comment by ftroopmom

20+ web pages, and this is the first one to truly explain things. Thank you so much.

Comment by Matt Lind (@gomattlind)

Very good summary on clipless systems! I bought my first clipless pedals and shoes yesterday and rode today for the first time. I’m learning a lot with your posts. Thanks!

Comment by Marcio Mesquita

informative post thanks vm. filled in the gaps in my knowledge.

long term flat pedal mountain bike rider who’ll now be adding some spd clipless to my new road bike when it arrives next week.

if that works well then i’ll ditch the flats on themtb next! rt

Comment by rt

Excellent explanation. I am just getting back into some off road biking, and it’s been a few years. As with all things, technology moves on. I raced with toe clips way back. The SPD system looks good, just will take some getting use to! Thank you for this extremely useful article! Off to the local bike store it is then!!

Comment by Mark Finding

Thanks for a really clear explanation. Now I know exactly what I need!

Comment by David Slovick

hi u have a nice blog. I wanna say thanks for publishing this cool posts with us. Keep up this great work!

Comment by een sexdate

Considering I’ve only bought my first road bike in the last year (and it’s not even carbon fiber..) it became apparent to me very quickly I needed to learn a lot and learn fast. This is easily the best and most useful thing I’ve read to educate in a basic way what an SPD/Look system is, and the differences between. So a very big thank you! I imagine when I do invest my training times will drastically drop. Well, this and aerobars anyway…

Thanks again.

Comment by pandahill

Thank you for the clear and concise explanation.

Comment by Lionel

I am looking to upgrade from my 11 yo hybrid with regular pedals to a road bike with cleats. This article helped clarify things immensely!

Comment by Pat Wagner

[…] For hardcore riders, there are some clipless offerings available, though parents need to make sure that their kids know how to properly use the system before sending them off to hit the trails. The Diadora Phantom Jr mentioned above can be used with or without cleats, giving your child a chance to try them out on flats before making the switch to a clipless system like SPD or Look. […]

Pingback by Youth MTB Shoes That Won’t Blow The Budget – 站点标题

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