For performance-minded cyclists and triathletes, clipless pedals are a no-brainer. The real decision making comes in choosing between the different types of clipless bike pedals, such as SPD pedals, LOOK pedals, and Speedplay pedals.
Just as prices vary for different pedal options, so does performance and reliability. Common styles like SPD cleats and pedals have become a household name for their dependable and universal clipless design.
But when considering all factors like weight, aerodynamics, and functionality, styles like SPD-SL and Speedplay Zero Aero are standout choices for triathlon and road cycling. Use this article as a guide into the best types of clipless pedals for paved road purposes, along with featured products in each category.
Shimano Pedals: SPD & SPD-SL
Since its release in 1990, SPD pedals have remained to be one of the most popular types of clipless pedals for many different uses.
SPD stands for Shimano Pedaling Dynamics. The standard SPD type uses a simple two-bolt cleat attachment that’s most common for mountain biking, gravel biking, cyclocross, and off-road riding. However, standard SPD cleats and pedals are not limited to these uses and function just fine for road, triathlon, and just about any form of cycling.
What’s the Difference Between SPD vs SPD-SL?
The main difference between SPD and SPD-SL pedals is that the SPD-SL type is more intended for paved road purposes and features a unique design and clip-in system.
Shimano’s SPD-SL cleat uses a triangular three-bolt shoe attachment and offers varying levels of float, which is the degree to which your feet can pivot and rotate while remaining engaged with the pedal. SPD-SL cleats with red tips are completely fixed (0°), while blue offers a subtle 2°, and yellow provides 6° of float.
Shimano SPD-SL Pedals are Preferred for Paved Roads
Unlike standard SPD pedals that allow cyclists to clip-in on either side of the pedal, most SPD-SL pedals have just one side that allow clip-in capabilities or designated top and bottom of the pedal. This is another defining characteristic that makes SPD pedals a preferred choice for mountain bikes, and Shimano SPD-SL pedals more common for paved road riding, such as triathlon.
You’ll notice that SPD-SL cleats and pedals have a similar shape and function as other three-bolt designs, such as pedals from LOOK and Time. This style of clipless pedals for road bikes all perform similarly, with the most differences being weight, price, and product quality.
Featured Shimano Clipless Pedals
Shimano Dura-Ace PD-R9100 is one of the best options among SPD-SL pedals for triathlon, road biking, and time trial purposes. They also come with a 4mm long axle option, which is a nice adjustment for wider-hipped athletes.
Featuring an injection-molded carbon-composite body, the PD-R9100 are some of the lightest SPD-SL pedals weighing in at a mere 228 grams as a pair. They offer an extra-wide platform design that delivers efficient power transfer. The wide-bearing placement also provides a more stable, uniform distribution of load, which can be beneficial for climbing or high-wattage situations.
The Shimano Dura-Ace PD-R9100 go for about $280 for the pair. Learn more by visiting bike.shimano.com.
LOOK has been a long-standing leading in the cycling industry, especially in the categories of road and triathlon pedals.
LOOK pedals continue to push the envelope on high-end performance, such as their Tour-proven KEO Blade Carbon Ceramic pedal, a freakishly-minimal ceramic carbon blend weighing just 220 grams for the pair. But LOOK also offers several high-ROI entry-level options, like the KEO Max and KEO Classic models that can be found under $100.
LOOK Cleats and Pedals are Made for Road Performance
Not only do the KEO pedals have a similar design as the Shimano SPD-SL, but LOOK cleats also come in three different colors, each representing a specific range of float. The black is the most rigid at 0° float, while grey provides a Goldy Lock’s 4.5° and red a full 9°.
LOOK’s cleats, such as the Delta cleat and Keo cleat, are not great when walking is required, so they’re certainly more of a performance option. The nice thing is that most bike shops offer replacement cleats, and they’re typically only about $20.
Featured LOOK Pedals and Cleats
We already mentioned the Blade Carbon Ceramic pedals, which are a performance-minded option priced at $250. An alternative option for $100 less and weighing only ten grams more is the flagship KEO Carbon Blade.
Both options have the same 67mm-wide platform area that provides significant contact and connection to the bike while enabling athletes to maximize their power-to-weight ratio. They’re a great minimalist option that’s ideal for time trialists and road cyclists alike.
In the world of clipless pedals, Speedplay has been a pack leader for the last three decades. The brand shows no signs of slowing down, as Speedplay continues to push the envelope in designing proven, record-breaking products that also lend to finding the perfect degree of fit and comfort.
Recognized for their lollipop shape and unique cleat design, Speedplay pedals are a prevalent choice among road cyclists and triathletes. Not only does the brand specialize in performance-minded pedals and cleats that are optimized for aerodynamics and power transmission, but Speedplay cleats deliver a high degree of adjustability and functionality.
The Spotlight on Speedplay Cleats
While the lollipop pedals are undoubtedly unique to the eye, the distinctions athletes desire are in Speedplay cleats. With a simple Allan wrench adjustment (which can be done with most multitools), athletes can precisely set the amount of float, or where the pedal engagement starts and stops with an inward and outward rotation.
Elite athletes and experienced cyclists will typically know exactly how much float they prefer, and many lean on the side of less being more. As such, Speedplay cleats can be dialed-in with minimal amounts of float, providing a more rigid and reliable connection to the bike. Conversely, they can be opened up to allow a considerable amount of float before disengaging from the pedal.
Speedplay cleats may seem like a cashy investment, typically priced around $55. But the functionality and longevity they deliver is indisputable. Speedplay cleats will often last for many, many years and will never compromise on performance.
Best Speedplay Pedals and Cleats for Triathlon and Road?
Speedplay X Series and Zero Aero are a couple of options that come highly-recommend, especially for triathlon and time trials. Speedplay X Series cleats are made from titanium, so they’re incredibly lightweight yet durable and well-suited for various paved courses.
Speedplay Zero Aero cleats a widely popular choice for triathlon and time trials, and for good reason. Aerodynamically proven at the highest level, the Zero Aero cleats were the system of choice in setting the Ironman World Record of 7:35:39, as well as both the US Men’s and UCI Men’s Hour Records.
Although the base of Speedplay pedals appears very small, the actual area of contact between the cleat and the pedal is very similar to LOOK, Shimano, and other clipless pedal types. Speedplay’s X Series and Zero Aero are both highly-recommend options for high-performance cyclists or competitive multisport athletes.
Bike Pedal Basics & FAQs
As much as there is to learn about the different clipless pedal and cleat options, there are still many questions that arise. Learn more below about the defining characteristics of clipless pedals, SPD vs SPD-SL pedals, and common questions that often come up.
What are Clipless Pedals? And Why Do They Call Them That?
Despite the name indicating a “clip-less” system, clipless pedals are in fact a clip-like attachment that connects the pedal to a cleat, which is usually affixed to a cycling shoe.
The name clipless derived as an extension from clip pedals, which are defined by their simple cage and toe strap mechanism that’s typically installed on standard platform pedals.
What are the Benefits of Clipless vs Flat Pedals vs Toe-Straps?
One popular study looked at the effects of the pull-up action during cycling with clipless pedals vs flats. The study found that flat pedals had a 9% reduction in power1 compared to clipless pedals among elite athletes.
Brandon Kuhn’s compelling master’s thesis tested clipless, toe-strap, and flat pedal types at short burst intervals of 30 seconds. Kuhn found clipless pedals provided a 7.9% power improvement compared to toe-strap pedals2 and a 9% improvement over flats.
The guys over at MBR also conducted a similar, short-burst study comparing flats with clipless pedals. They also found average wattage to be 9.1% better with clipless vs flat pedals.
The science points to 9% being the magic number when comparing clipless pedals’ performance advantages vs flat pedals.
What’s the Difference Between Clip vs Clipless Pedals?
The difference between clip and clipless pedals is a confusing topic. There’s still a lot of misinformation on the web that inaccurately defines what clipless means in relation to clip pedals.
Yes, the names are counterintuitive and confusing. But these simple and accurate definitions clear the confusion:
- Clip pedals are the simple cage and toe strap system (see image above) that’s typically installed on a standard platform pedal. These are the less advanced pedal cage and strap mechanisms that cater to any type of shoe.
- Clipless pedals are the more advanced two-part systems that combine a clip-in pedal and cleat attachment to any standard cycling shoe. This shoe-to-pedal clip attachment provides a more secure connection to the bike, which benefits power transfer.
Both types of pedals have their advantages depending on the use. Compared to clip pedals, clipless provides a more secure connection to the bike, helping cyclists realize greater power output and athletic performance.
But for those looking for a simple pedal upgrade that will boose performance but will also be easy to install and use, clip pedals provide irrefutable ROI compared to pedaling with flats.
As for clipless pedals, contrary to their name sounding less advanced or lacking clip-in capabilities, this type is the gold standard in road cycling, triathlon, and mountain bike racing.
The type of riding when clip and flat pedals are better are typically downhill mountain biking, commuting, or beginner cyclists just getting started.
How do Clipless Pedals Work?
Unlike clip pedals that use a simple cage and toe strap system, clipless pedals work by connecting the pedal to cleat, typically attached to a cycling shoe. Clipless pedals are two-part systems (cleat and pedal) and provide a more secure and solid connection to the bike. Not only do clipless work by increasing power transfer, but they can also be beneficial for bike handling and stability.
In addition to road cycling and triathlon, clipless pedals are a sound option for all types of bike riding, including touring, bikepacking, and adventure cycling. As the depth in clipless technology continues to progress, we can expect to see more high-performance designs in the not too distant future.
Do Triathletes Need Clipless Pedals and Cycling Shoes?
The short answer is no; triathletes do not need clipless pedals. While there are benefits of clipless pedals, triathletes can absolutely use flat pedals or toe cages, which are more common on road bikes. Additionally, beginners using flats or cages (with running shoes) can minimize footwear changes in T1 and T2, thereby saving time and simplifying transitions.
However, all competitive multisport athletes use clipless pedals and cycling shoes. In addition to 9% gains that can be had with power output, clipless has been shown to help buffer energy expenditure with key running muscles.
In terms of biomechanical efficiency, one study found that the group using clipless pedals showed less electromyographic activity in the primary cycling muscles (biceps femoris and gastrocnemius lateralis), which indicates greater pedaling economy and energy efficiency.3
For athletes coming off their triathlon bike and into a marathon or half-marathon, every ounce of energy conservation is critical for performance. Next to components like aero bars, clipless pedals are a must for competitive triathletes.
1. Mornieux G, Stapelfeldt B, Gollhofer A, Belli A. Effects of pedal type and pull-up action during cycling. Int J Sports Med. 2008 Oct;29(10):817-22. doi: 10.1055/s-2008-1038374. Epub 2008 Apr 17. PMID: 18418807. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18418807/
2. Kuhn, Brandon, “A Comparison Of Three Bicycle Pedal Types And Power Output” (2012). Master’s Theses. 119. https://scholars.fhsu.edu/theses/119
3. Cruz CF, Bankoff AD. Electromyography in cycling: difference between clipless pedal and toe clip pedal. Electromyogr Clin Neurophysiol. 2001 Jun;41(4):247-52. PMID: 11441642. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11441642/