Cycling shoes 101 – The cleats

I will never forget the words my late uncle spoke to me when he bought me my first proper bicycle as a Christmas present when I was 10. It was a Peugeot, and incedently also the same brand as the car that he drove. It instilled into me some kind of proud into the heritage of the brand which could build all forms of transport, from the pleb-like bicyle to the glorious (I thought so at the time) car that he owned. Since then I have come to HATE French cars. Hate is a strong word and if there was a more descriptive way of explaining how inept I find French cars I would certainly use it. However, to get back to my original point, my uncle watched me unwrap this French made metal pony of mine and had a greater smile then I had because of the joy I showed. I was going to ride this little metal pony, one pedal stroke at a time, until one day I can return to it’s motherland and pedal along the drug-spiking frequenters of the Tour-de-Lance where it came from… And then… I saddled my warhorse and gave my first few pedal thrusts and the words bit my eardrums… “No! No Francois! You are pedalling like a frog, don’t put the pedal in the middle of your feet, you are not delivering newspapers you are a cyclist!” And so my first lesson in foot-positions in cycling began.


Cleats are the little thinga-ma-jigs that connect your cycling shoes to the pedals of your bicycle. You know, those little metal pieces that keep you attached to your warhorse when you faceplant on a downhill… When the word is mentioned many-a-cyclist gets flashbacks of how they struggled to make the transition from the old takkie-warrior style of riding to donning the first pair of cycling cleats. There is no denying that cycling with these babies makes you a helluva more efficient as you canproduce power in the upward-part of your pedal stroke in addition to the downward push through pulling on your pedals. Thing is, though, that most riders buy a pair of cycling shoes with the cleats already installed, and are blissfully unaware that the cleats can be adjusted in order to improve their cycling. Here is how:

The basics

The ANGLE is your first step to a perfect cleating setup. Badly angled cleats can cause all sorts of discomfort such as knee pain if not rectified, although this is in very extreme cases and the majority of cyclists will know after the first ride that something major is wrong. A few adjustments to the first angle you try are usually all you need to find one that works for you. Bear in mind your cleat angle might not be the same (in mirror image) for both feet. In the picture below you can see what is meant by “angle” and, as far as possible, the angle shuld fel very natural when you are pedalling. Adjust the cleat to ensure that the angle is right, this is the first step. Move the cleat side-to-side to influence how close the foot sits to the centre-line of the bike. If you ride with your knees wide at the top of the pedal stroke, move your cleats inwards to move the foot outwards. If you ride with knees narrow at the top of the stroke, move the cleats towards the outside of the shoe and the foot inwards.


Cleat location
The cleat can be moved along the length of the foot as well, more towards the heel or toe. The more the cleat is moved forward to the toe, the longer the “lever” of the foot is and the harder the cyclist has to pedal with his calf muscles. This is not ideal in endurance events as calves are relatively small when compared to the rest of the leg and will fatigue easier. The solution is to find a location for the cleats somewhere in the region of the ball of your foot so that the calves to do just the right amount of work, but the cleat should never be positioned too far back as this decreases performance too (and you want big calves from cycling right???).

Road shoes tend to place a tighter limit on rearward cleat location than mtb shoes do, so if you want to move your cleats back further than they will allow, one option is to switch to mtb or the similar ‘sportive’-style shoes that take two-bolt SPD-type cleats.

10 steps to a good cleat set-up

 1 – Start with your cleats in your hand and your shoes on the ground… Well done on step 1 😉

2 –  Slip on those shoes sir.

3 –  Sit on a chair, with your feet firmly on the ground.

4 –  Locate the ball of your foot, the bony part that sticks our of the side of your foot between your biggest toe and your heel.

5 – Try your best to mark the Mark the side of the shoe at the centre point of the ball as accurately as possible. Get someone else to help find it if necessary.

6 – Repeat step 5 for your other paw.

7 – Take the shoes off, and place them on a flat, level surface. Observe…

8 – Hold a straight edge against the mark on the shoe, and transfer the line straight down to the same point on the sole. Mark the spot.

9 – Turn the shoe over and make sure that your mark is visible on the sole.

10 –  Fit cleat, loosely at first, aligning your mark with the point on the cleat where the centre of the pedal axle will be, once you are clipped in. Voila, you are now on your way to cleating perfection and can make the other adjustments mentioned in this article as you wish.

Float and Tension

Lastly, tension is simply how easy it is to get in and out of your pedals. Most pedals have some form of adjuster screw that allows the user to decide how tightly clipped-in they want to be. This is very important sir… Initially we’d advise going for the lightest setting but it’s worth bearing in mind that once it becomes second nature to clip in and out, more tension will be just as easy to use, and much more secure, too. Just remember that it has to be easy enough to clip out – to avoid staying clipped in when you fall with your bike, but steady enough that you don’t unclip mid-way through a rocky downhill and end up donating your shin to mother nature.