[This article was last updated on November 24, 2017]
Clipless pedals are popular because they provide a firm, secure connection between bike and rider that's easier to release than the previous system of straps and slotted cleats. But which of the many systems is best for you?
Because they hold your feet in the right place on the pedals and keep them there, clipless pedals are more efficient than regular shoes and flat pedals. They're also much easier to get out of than the clip and strap pedals enthusiast riders and racers used before the 1980s
Shoes for clipless pedals have stiff soles, which also improves efficiency and comfort.
Count the bolts
There are two types of clipless pedal. Pedals for road racing follow the original concept introduced by Look in 1984. The cleat stands proud of the sole and is attached by three bolts. This allows an uncomplicated, very rigid sole, but is awkward to walk in.
In 1990, Shimano introduced its SPD (Shimano Pedalling Dynamics) design. A smaller metal cleat is mounted to the shoe with two bolts, and fits in a recess in the sole. The recessed cleat makes it easier to walk in SPD shoes, and helps guide the cleat into the mechanism, making it easier to clip in. Originally intended for mountain biking, it's become very popular with commuting and recreational riders too.
Look's three-bolt standard dominates road pedals and shoes
Many companies now make pedals whose cleats fit three-bolt and two-bolt shoes.
Three-bolt clipless pedals are single-sided, with one exception that we'll get to shortly. To get into them you have to catch the front tip of the pedal with the cleat. This is a bit fiddly at first, but becomes second nature after a bit of practice.
Two-bolt pedals are usually double-sided. This makes entry very easy; after a very small amount of practice you learn to just stomp on the pedal and away you go.
Soles for two-bolt cleats have a recess to allow walking
That difference is a factor in which system's best for you. If you're clipping and unclipping a lot — while commuting, for example — then the easier clip-in action of two-bolt systems means you won't find yourself fumbling with the pedals as you set off from the lights.
If sheer performance is more of a priority, then a three-bolt system is the way to go. The larger cleat spreads the pedalling load over more of the sole, which is more comfortable and efficient, and three-bolt shoes are lighter because there's no extra rubber around the cleat to make them walkable.
For example, a pair of size 40 Shimano XC61 two-bolt shoes weighs a claimed 632g. Shimano's R170 road shoes have the same £150 RRP, but weigh 500g per pair in size 40.
Speedplay pedals work best with shoes that have their special four-hole fitting
One company, Speedplay, has bucked the consensus. Its pedals are double-sided, the mechanism is part of the cleat and that cleat has a four-bolt mounting. A three-bolt adapter is included with them, as few shoemakers have a suitable shoe in their line. More about Speedplay below.
The earliest clipless pedals held your feet in a fixed position on the pedals. This soon turned out to be a problem for some riders whose knees got sore, leading to serious problems in some cases. The answer was to slightly modify the design so that the foot could move a little. This rotational float is a feature of most modern clipless pedals. In some it can be adjusted either by choice of cleat or by adjuster screws.
Stack it up
The distance between pedal axle and shoe sole is known as the stack height. A lower stack helps make your foot more stable on the pedal, and by lowering your position on the bike will make it slightly more stable in corners.
What's in a name?
Old school pedals with clips and straps (CC-BY 2.0 by ktk17028:Flickr)
In case you're wondering why they're called clipless pedals, it's because pedals used to have metal cages, called toe clips, and leather straps to hold the shoe in place. Racing shoes had cleats that were slotted to fit the cage of the pedal. To get out, you had to loosen the strap. Falling over at traffic lights behind a busload of schoolkids was not unknown.
Clipless pedals get their contradictory name, then, because they don't have the metal clips of yore.
We've mentioned a stand-out model or two of every major pedal design here, but you really can't go wrong with any of the current systems. The one you choose will reflect your own personal requirements.
For a mere 20 quid, these double-sided mountain bike pedals are a brilliant entry into clipless pedals. The low price is not reflected in the build quality, which is excellent, or the performance, which is also excellent.
Entry and exit is positive and easy, tension adjustment is simple and you can use them for everything from commuting to cyclo-cross.
The small cleat means that there's a small contact patch but that's a minor disadvantage unless speed and performance is paramount.
Shimano's PD-T400 Click'R pedals have a mechanism that's incredibly light, so it's very easy to release your shoes from the pedals. They're a useful option for cyclists keen to try clipless pedals for the first time.
You're held firmly in place against an upwards exit, but only very slight pressure down and sideways is necessary to get you out, and the pivoting pedal body inside the plastic surround makes it very easy to get in too. They come with Shimano Multi-release cleats, which make things even easier.
The relatively low price of Xpresso 2s makes them a sensible place to start if you're a newcomer to road-specific click-in pedals. They're light, easy to use and very easy to adjust to different foot position and release preferences, though they're not the most durable.
Time Xpresso pedals are popular because they're easy to click into, offer just the right amount of float adjustment for many riders and they're light. At about 220g per pair the entry level Xpresso 2s only weigh 25g more than the carbon Xpresso 8s at £124.99.
The M324 is a solidly built and dependable commuting pedal for riders who want to switch easily between cleats and flats. If you're a big mile commuter or tourer they won't disappoint.
The guts of the pedal is a well-finished Aluminium body that houses serviceable cup and cone bearings. A metal cage is bolted on for riding in flats, and on the other side you get an adjustable tension SPD binding for when you've got your cleats on. The pedals are very well finished and run smoothly from the off, and the fact that they're easy to strip down is a bonus.
The SPD mechanism is the same as you'll find on many of Shimano's other pedals, with a good range of tension adjustment and enough float for most knees. The cage is nice and grippy and performs well in the wet as well as the dry.
The Look Keo Classic 3s are good mid-level pedals that offer a decent base for power transfer, have an easy-to-use adjustable mechanism, and are well made and robust.
You can buy cheaper pedals, but the £40 RRP is a really good price, especially bearing in mind that they are genuine Look units. Overall the Classic 3s are really good pedals. They look good on the bike, perform well and have a good contact area for better power transfer.
Shimano's cheapest carbon-bodied pedals have an old-school steel spring for the retention plate, but are nevertheless reasonably light. The SPD-SL design provides tension adjustment so you can make it harder or easier to release, and like the Look Keo it has a large, broad contact patch with the cleat for stability.
Look invented the first successful clipless pedal, and has spent 30 years refining it. These pedals use a fibreglass spring rather than a steel one to save weight. That means you can't adjust the release tension, so for riders who want an easier exit, Look also makes another version with an 8Nm spring. If you get the wrong version you can get a dealer to change the spring.
The Keo 2 Max Blades are a decent weight for their price, and have a wide platform that gives a stable interface between cleat and pedal.
Those who love Speedplays rave about the low weight, adjustability, and shallow stack. A recent redesign of the cleat added a rubber aero cover that makes them far easier to walk in than the previous version, or many other systems.However, it's undeniable they need more looking after than most pedals and they're susceptible to clogging from even the smallest amount of dirt.
But if you have knees that are in any way fragile, or you want pedals that are incredibly easy to enter and release but fit stiff-soled road racing shoes, their free float and double-sided designs make Speedplays well worth considering.
The Time Xpresso 15 pedals are extremely light and clipping in/twisting out could hardly be easier. The downside is the price, and the cleats wear noticeably faster than those of other brands.
At just 140g for the pair, they're phenomenally light thanks to carbon bodies, titanium axles, aluminium top plates and ceramic bearings. Clipping in is very easy thanks to a spring mechanism that stays open after you click out.
At just 120g/pair these race-day-only pedals are Speedplay's demonstration that the Zero design can be made extraordinarily light. Speedplay has often displayed superlight bikes at trade shows; these pedals help make bikes like those even lighter.
The low weight is achieved by the use of every lightweight material you can think of: carbon-reinforced thermoplastic bodies; ceramic bearings; titanium axles; titanium bolts; and aluminium top plates. The cleats have been lightened too with carbon fiber replacing the plastic and aluminium fasteners instead of steel. They're bonkers expensive, but you have to admire the fanaticism.
Our official grumpy Northerner, John has been riding bikes for over 30 years since discovering as an uncoordinated teen that a sport could be fun if it didn't require you to catch a ball or get in the way of a hulking prop forward.
Road touring was followed by mountain biking and a career racing in the mud that was as brief as it was unsuccessful.
Somewhere along the line came the discovery that he could string a few words together, followed by the even more remarkable discovery that people were mug enough to pay for this rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work. He's pretty certain he's worked for even more bike publications than Mat Brett.
The inevitable 30-something MAMIL transition saw him shift to skinny tyres and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.