or……Why Are Cleats Important?
or……Did You Just Undo Your Bike Fit?
The topic of cleats seems to be gaining momentum. As I chat with friends on rides, clients during fittings or drop into my local bike shop the discussion is becoming more and more prevalent….and with good reason.
Consider the equation: 3 hour bike ride = 15,000 pedal revolutions.
Cycling is a non-impact exercise and is indeed often prescribed by physicians to long-time runners as an activity that can give aching joints and knees much needed rest. I’ve done countless fits on former runners, many of which complain of niggling pain here and there as it relates to their knees. Look at those numbers again and think about who put your cleats on. Perhaps a novice bike shop employee who may have had no thought, methodology or training to do so, threw them on and off you went. When I hear these stories it gives me pause and has me scratching my head. The cleat set is such an integral and crucial part of the fit yet its often overlooked. Not having your cleats set thoughtfully and deliberately by a professional or at least someone knowledgable could very well set you up for an uncomfortable fit and an all-together awful experience on your bike.
How then does one go about setting cleats? What do I look for and what’s correct? Cleat placement has three basic aspects:
1 Longitudinal placement…along the length of the shoe
2 Lateral placement…along the width of the shoe
3 Rotational positioning….the rotation of the cleat
Lets look at the first point, longitudinal placement. This is perhaps the most discussed aspect of cleat positioning in the industry and certainly one for which there is the most research conducted. Traditional methodology, of which I’ve yet to find any substantial thought or scientific logic, positions the riders first metatarsal joint directly over the pedal spindle. Why? I’ve little idea as it relates to bike fit aside from the simple geometry of the bike, crank arms and a rider’s foot size and the effort to eliminate “toe overlap”. This is the niggling issue of turning the wheel to such extent that the front tire touches the end of your foot when the cranks are roughly parallel with the horizon. If this served as the rational for any fitter to place your cleats such that this doesn’t happen I do have an issue with that. First, this placement of the cleat..moving them forward towards the toes in order to position the foot rearward may have accomplished the goal of accommodating for toe overlap but this is an exception scenario. How often does toe overlap really occur? Yes, I understand it can be alarming and can actually cause a fall if not corrected quickly but please read further to learn why I just cannot fathom cleat location being dictated by the toe overlap problem.
The primary muscle groups that have, and always will, power a standard upright bike are the gluteus and quads. The lower leg muscles, more dominant being the calves, have never been a huge contributor to power the bike. To be clear, they do help. Indeed beautiful “ankling” has long been a great attribute of many successful professional and amateur cyclists. Repetitive and steady flexion and extension of the ankle joint provides the necessary movement of the foot needed to reduce the circumference the femur travels. In a nutshell: its an assist. Moving cleats forward on the shoe, equal to or beyond the first metatarsal joint will increase the demand for flexion and extension of the ankle joint. It can also cause harm to the achilles tendon.
In an interesting study from Ball State University’s Biomechanics Laboratory the longitudinal placement of cleats was thoroughly evaluated. The initial thought of the study was that longitudinal cleat placement effected power. A number of tests with solid controls were conducted that actually showed power was not impacted by cleat placement. Regardless of the longitudinal location of the cleat power was not effected. What they did find was as the cleat was moved further and further rearward the efficiency of the pedal stroke subsequently increased. Moving the rider’s foot further over the pedal netted good efficiency. I was very happy to find this study in my research. It validated my theory that decreasing the flexion and extension of the ankle joint, the demand to “ankle”, increases efficiency in the pedal stroke. I have been placing mine and my client’s cleats at least 5mm behind their first metatarsal for years based on my own personal experience and theory on longitudinal placement. I’ve also listened closely to my client’s feedback when it comes to my cleat settings, which has been almost entirely positive.
Further work as been done in the field of longitudinal cleat placement by Gotz Heine. He is the pioneer of “arch cleating”. Thats right, affixing cleats to the mid-sole or arch area of the shoe. He’s even developed his own proprietary shoe for such cleat placement. I’ve read much about Mr. Heine’s work and largely agree that it is certainly a more efficient cleat placement than the simple “first metatarsal” method. What I am not sold on is the application of such cleating. For example, I identify myself as a climber and find myself out of the saddle a large part of the time while climbing. The mere thought of doing so with mid-sole cleating begs the question if its right for that scenario. Not being able to drop the heel and subsequently push the pedal down and back intuitively would sacrifice power and leverage when out of the saddle. That aside I’ve read a great deal about Mr. Heine’s work…couple that with my client’s feedback and the Ball State University study and arch cleating is a very compelling proposition!
Lateral placement (stance or Q-Factor) is the second aspect of a cleat set and perhaps the least critical of the three coordinates, albeit still crucial. For some riders it is merely an exercise in moving the foot as far away from the crank arm as possible to avoid brushing it with the shoe on every pedal stroke. Some riders may even require pedal spacers to achieve correct lateral placement. For other riders with smaller feet a more precise orientation can be achieved with the best location allowing the knees to track in parallel line with the hip and foot, an ideal scenario I try to achieve with every rider.
Correct rotational alignment is the last positional aspect and will allow the foot to move freely and take full advantage of cleat systems that allow float. There are a number of cleat alignment systems on the market but I choose to use a simple laser and the human eye, drawing it off the center of the cleat and running the line along the length of the shoe. Proper rotation calls for the cleat to be aligned anywhere from 5mm to well over 1cm from the center of the shoe to the outer edge of the heel when looking at the shoe’s sole. How much off center exactly? Well….it depends on a number of things including the size of the rider’s foot, how tall the rider is and what type of pedal/cleat system they are using. The other aspect that can be a sticky wicket is hip alignment. It is rare for a rider to sit square in the saddle. When rider’s sit with one hip forward of the other it almost always results in an effective leg length discrepancy and forces the rider to sit crooked in the saddle. Ever wonder why one of your knees is always closer to your top tube than the other? Its likely your hip alignment. “Good information Paul but what does that have to do with my cleats?” Well….set the rotation incorrectly based on your needs and you just might perpetually find yourself nearly unclipping one or both of your pedals, at the least forcing the pedal spring mechanism to its furthest reach. You can address this through proper cleat rotation and/or going to a cleat/pedal system that allows for more float. Either way it takes an experienced fitter to identify and prescript for hip alignment issues.
Of course the devil is in the details when it comes to setting cleats. On any cleat set I do, even a la carte cleat appointments, I insist on seeing the client on the bike pedaling. It adds substantial time and effort to the appointment but I’ve yet to engineer another method of checking my work.
As a professional fitter I feel its my job, and part of what the client is paying for, to explain exactly what I am doing throughout a fitting appointment….this includes setting the cleats. What is my thought process and what am I trying to accomplish. Of course I am amenable to editing the boring minutia for clients upon request….it can be very geeky, yawn inducing material…I get that. That is in part why this post is ending. I am sure there are many questions swirling about cleats…
What type of pedal do you suggest? Do I need to shim one of my shoes? Do I need to wedge my shoes? What degree of float do I need? My intent of this blog is to educate cyclists as much as possible on the art and science of fitting. Unfortunately the scope of questions and level of detail in the fitting process makes the subject incredibly complicated and expansive. Look for more digestible, non-sleep inducing bite size morsels of posts on this blog in the future. And by all means if there’s a topic you’d like me to talk about let me know.
Until then, Have a great ride.