Cycling Cleats Types Explained

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Cleats, clips, shoes, and pedals! Shopping for kit can quickly turn into a dizzying muddle when looking at different types of bike cleats.

With all the different styles, types, brands, and mounts, it can be difficult to know where to start. You don’t want to spend money on gear that doesn’t suit your cycling style – or worse, isn’t compatible.

So we’ve got you covered, with a straightforward guide that will cover all the types of bike cleats, all the types of bike clips, the pros and cons, and how to pick what works best for you.

In this article, we’ll be looking at:

  • What Are Cycling Cleats?
  • How Cycling Cleats Work
  • 6 Factors To Consider When Comparing Types Of Bike Cleats
  • 4 Key Types of Bike Cleats
  • Which Types of Bike Cleats Are Best For You?

Ready to learn all about cycling cleats types?

Let’s get started!

Cycling Cleats Types Explained: Title Image

What are Cycling Cleats?

Attaching your foot to your pedal, or “clipping in”, is standard in all types of cycling.

Despite the name, you still “clip in” to “clipless pedals”. Confused? We’ve got you.

In the past, pedals had large and cumbersome toe clips to lock your foot in. Clipless pedals were popularised in 1985 by the ski brand Look. Their clipless pedals removed the toe clip and instead allowed you to clip into your pedals with cleats, mounted to the bottom of your foot.

This can take a bit of getting used to at first, but it’s simple enough to learn and most agree it’s a great way to cycle once you get the hang of it.

Nowadays, cleats are standard for most types of cycling. Toe clips are reserved for clunky gym equipment and holiday hire bikes.

So, you’re going to want to get to grips with cleats.

Close-up of some yellow cycling cleats left clipped to the pedals on an orange road bike.

How Cycling Cleats Work

Cleats attach to the bottom of your foot. You can then clip your cleat into your pedals, securing your feet to the pedal.

By attaching your foot to the pedal you can transfer force into the chain throughout your full pedal rotation, rather than just on the downward push. So when clipped in power transfer is slightly more efficient.

If you’d like a number to put on it, you’re able to apply 3.7% more force when clipped in, as you’re still mostly pushing downwards through your pedals and into the chain.

That’s not all: when clipped in, you don’t need to worry about shifting out of position or slipping off the pedals altogether.

It’s also easier to control the bike when gripping it with four points of secured contact, rather than just two.

A man in. ared t-shirt compares two different cycling cleats types in a shop.

6 Factors To Consider When Comparing types of bike cleats

#1. Compatibility

What types of bikes and kit are these cleats generally used for? And how compatible with your other kit are they?

#2. Shoe Connection

How does this cleat attach to the bottom of your cycling shoe? In a small point, or a wider and more comfortable base?

And how easy are these cleats to walk around in?

#3. Cycling shoes

What types of shoes are compatible with this cleat? Comfortable and flexible, or stiff and powerful cycling shoes?

#4. Float

How much “wiggle” room does your foot get in this cleat? Your knees can be damaged without proper float and space to move will be more comfortable for your feet.

#5. Clipping/Unclipping

How quickly and easily can you unclip from these cleats? Will you topple off your bike when stopped in traffic if you’re not careful?

#6. Cost

How much are you willing to spend?

4 Key Types of Bike Cleats

#1. SPD (or Two Bolt cleat)

The Shimano Pedaling Dynamics (SPD) Two Bolt bike cleat is small, dynamic, and a favorite for mountain biking.

They’re also used in road cycling, and you’re most likely to find this type of cleat on rental bikes and gym equipment.

They’re comparatively affordable and widely used which means it won’t be hard to find a compatible kit.

The cleat attaches to your foot in a small, two-bolt connection, creating a small point of contact. Pedals are small and the connection is secure but can get sore on long rides.

While SPD-compatible shoes are generally nice and flexible, this isn’t as power efficient. These cleats are often not compatible with high-end cycling shoes.

The cleat is often recessed into your bike shoe, making walking around in your bike shoes fairly easy.

Compatible pedals are often double sides, making it easier to clip in and out than single sides alternatives. So you’ll get moving again quicker after stopping for traffic.

The bottom line: A nice, versatile bike cleat for people who want to do different types of cycling and walk around on the cleats when they stop for a break.

#2. Look’s “Three Bolt” cleat

This was the original clipless cleat and pedal developed by ski brand Look in the 1980s, using technology adapted from ski bindings.

Nowadays the patent has expired and you’ll find clipless cleats from a wide range of brands at affordable rates. You’ll also be able to bolt a three bolt cleat into most cycling shoes.

However, not all three-bolt cleats and corresponding pedals are compatible.

Three-bolt cleats are most popular in road cycling. They’re affordable and easy to find.

Look also offers the delta-style cleat, which is specialized for indoor equipment.

Three bolt-compatible shoes are generally stiffer and connect to the cleat through a wide, triangular base. This means pressure on the ball of the foot is decreased and power transfers into your pedal more efficiently.

The wide plastic cleat gives you a nice amount of float in the pedal. However, the plastic wears down with use. You’ll need to replace these cleats fairly regularly.

Walking around in these cleats is also a pain because the plastic sticks out from the bottom of your shoe.

Finally, in three-bolt cleats, you can only clip into one side of your pedal, so there’s more of a knack to clipping in and you’ll be slower to get moving from a stop.

The bottom line: A great entry point to clipless road cycling, they’re affordable and more comfortable on long rides, but not ideal for commuting or cycling through traffic because clipping in and out can be tricky and they’re a pain to walk around in.

#3. SPD-SL Cleats

Photo of SPD-SL cycling cleats against a white background.

First of all: SPD-SL cleats are entirely different from SPD Two Bolt cleats. The two aren’t compatible. This can be confusing but it’s important.

SLs are more similar to Look’s cleats, because they both use a triangular three-bolt frame.

SLs and Look will usually fit into the same cycling shoes with their three-bolt connection. So you can pick a stiff cycling shoe for these cleats.

However, they have their own distinct pedals, so you need to ensure compatibility.

Whilst you might be able to force a cleat into an incompatible pedal, as they are similar, you’re still better off using equipment that’s designed to work together.

SPD-SLs are generally used for road and triathlon cycling.

Like Look cleats, the wide, triangular mount allows for good power transfer and they’re comfortable over long rides.

The plastic connection allows for good float, but will wear down over time. So you’ll want to make sure you’re replacing it regularly.

SPD-SLs offer three options for the amount of float in the cleat, indicated by color.

Again, the plastic forms a small platform underneath your shoe which is tough to walk around and you’ll need to be careful not to slip.

And, like Looks, SLs only go into one side of your pedal, so don’t expect to quickly and effortlessly clipping in and out.

The bottom line: these cleats are another good entry point into cleats and a great option for road cyclists, just don’t expect to be walking around or moving around quickly whilst stopped at traffic.

#4. Speedplay Cleats

Speedplay cleats are newer, having been popularized in the 1990s. Whilst not as widely used as other types, they’re the go-to for many professional cyclists.

The Speedplay cleat uses four bolts. However, many can still fit into cycling shoes using just three bolts.

Cycling shoes designed specifically for Speedplay cleats are always top tier.

The cleats can also be fitted with plastic covers for walking around, which is a great touch!

You’re able to tailor them to your riding style with adjustable clip pressure and float.

Speedplays will also clip into either side of a pedal which makes stopping and starting easier.

The chief downside is that these are expensive cleats for cyclists who want high-end kit. Recent changes to the company’s manufacture and supply have also caused issues with cross-compatibility and getting replacement parts.

While these issues persist, now might not be the right time to invest in Speedplays.

The bottom line: premium cleats for avid cyclists, who only ride using their own kit.

Rear-view of a cyclist on a pink road bike chasing the pack ahead.

Which Types of Bike Cleats Are Best For You?

Now we’ve established what the different cleats are you’ll hopefully have a better idea of what might work best for you.

It’s also important you understand the other side of the question by getting up to speed on pedals.

As with any kit though, we’d recommend getting yourself into a bike shop to get hands-on and get a feel for what you’re buying.

You’ll be cycling clipped into your perfect cleats in no time!

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Riley Nicholas

Riley Nicholas

One of BikeTips' content creators, Riley spends most of his time on a bike battling the hills of the Chilterns or winds of North Cornwall. Off the bike you're likely to find him writing about cycling or reading about everything else.

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