In To cleat or not to cleat – that is the question, Part 1 I talked about what are the reasons in favor or against using cycling shoes with cleats on a mountain bike.
In part 2 of this article, I will concentrate more on how cycling shoes with cleats work and about my own experience with using cleats.
How do cycling shoes with cleats work?
The cycling shoe has a metal bit (cleat) that is able to attach to the bike pedals. When placing the shoe on the pedal and applying a small amount of force, the cleat on the shoe will lock into position in the pedal. From this moment on the shoe is attached to the bike – “normal” straight cycling movements with the legs will keep the shoes attached to the pedals.
Detaching from the pedals works by rotation sideways. When the rider rotates its heel outwards, away from the bike, the cleat with pop out of the attached pedal and the shoe will once again be detached from the pedal.
Why did I chose the Shimano SPD cleat system?
I bought the Shimano PD-M770 Deore XT SPD system because it was recommended to me by several friends including in the shop where I bought the shoes. The properties of the SPD system is that the rider has little freedom when moving the cycling shoe sideways before the shoe is detached from the pedals. This might sound as a disadvantage but it is not. While cycling, the rider has little reason to rotate its ankle (and shoe) from side to side – most of the power goes to pedaling in the direction of movement. In some cases while riding, the shoe will rotate a bit to the left or to the right but this is taken into consideration by the SPD system that allows rotation of up to 4° sideways before the shoe will detach from the pedal.
Other cleat-pedal systems like the CrankBrothers system gives the rider a more loose position on the pedals compared to the SPD system. This might be more comfortable for some riders while cycling, but it becomes a disadvantage when trying to quickly detach from the pedal. This is because the pedal will allow more freedom in sideways rotation before actually detaching from the pedal. I would say that this is not recommended for beginners that only start riding with cleats.
My personal experience with the Shimano SH-R086L SPD cycling shoes
I must say I was surprised from the first moment. I used the SH-Ro86L with cleats and Shimano pedals, both of the SPD system. Attaching to the pedals was very easy even for a hesitating beginner’s foot like mine. Because the SPD cleat-pedal is much smaller than a regular pedal and because the cleat itself and the attaching point on the pedal are even smaller than that (around 3-4 cm) it should be more difficult for a beginner to find the right foot position that attaches to the pedal. But Shimano did a great work with the shoe: its sole has a special funnel-like shape that guides the pedal into the cleat area. This makes attaching surprisingly quick and easy.
Detaching from the pedal, which is in my opinion more important than attaching to the pedal, is also surprisingly quick and easy. It is enough to slightly turn the heel away from the bike to cause the shoe to detach from the pedal.
The Park City Flying Dog trail starts as smooth dirt singletracks going uphill. This was a good start for myself – a cleat novice. It gave me time to get used to the cleats without having to detach too many times in the process. Later, when going even higher on the trails I encountered some rocks that forced me to put one feet on the ground. Overcoming those rocks wouldn’t have been such hard work, hadn’t the air been so thin. I often found myself gasping for vital oxygen. This made climbing much more difficult.
The fact is though that even that later on the trail I more often had to detach the shoe and put my foot on the ground to keep myself stable, I never had an issue with the cleats. Detaching the cleat from the pedal was a piece of cake.
After few days I went up a different path (a much steeper one in Park City). This time I had a different (rental) bike with a different pair of Shimano pedals. I was still using my new Shimano SH-R086L cycling shoes. With the new pair of pedals I had difficulties attaching and detaching, difficulties I didn’t encounter with the first pair I had in Park City. At the last moment before descending from the mountain and while standing with one foot on the ground already (!) I got myself into a position that didn’t let me detach the cleat from the pedal. This caused me knee pain for several days but now I am fine again. This second pair of pedals was simply not good, as I had several problems with it. My estimation is that it was either defect (it was a rental bike) or it was set to be too tight.
After a long time in which I had major concerns about using cleats on a mountain bike I am now happy to say that I broke loos. I can only urge MTB cyclists to try out cleats. Using cleats on a mountain bike is maybe not for all riding styles but If you ride XC style or just riding trails for fun: go out, practice on a flat and soft surface (lawn?) and give it a try – I am sure you will not be disappointed!