Although we’ve said “SPD” in the headline and will keep referring to Shimano pedals, the principles are the same for any clipless pedal system. The only real difference is that most non-Shimano systems like Time and Crank Bros have a bit more “float” between cleat and pedal, so you can get away with less precise cleat alignment. It’s still best to take the time to get it right, though, as those pedals both release at a certain angle from straight ahead – if your cleat isn’t aligned correctly you’ll find that your natural foot angle is closer to the release angle in one direction. Needless to say, premature release is always worth avoiding.
There are some very elaborate methods of lining cleats up, involving tape measures, protractors, set squares, white paint, spirit levels, ranging poles and theodolites. This isn’t one of them – we’re relying on judging by eye and a soupçon of trial and error. For most people this’ll work just fine, but if you have particularly wacky biomechanics and/or are planning to ride intergalactic mileages you may wish to get a bona fide professional to help you out.
3mm and 4mm Allen keys, anti-seize, pair of feet, one good eye, possibly a sharp Stanley knife.
The key to getting SPD cleats lined up is to ensure that they’re not trying to pull your legs in directions that they don’t want to go. SPD-related knee issues are generally down to twisting the knee, and the way to avoid that is to accommodate the natural angle of your lower leg. It’s tempting to just line the cleat up with the slots in the shoe, but that’s unlikely to be a good idea. Sit on a high stool, let your legs dangle and take a look at which way they’re pointing. They usually won’t be pointing straight ahead – the editorial pins here are quite clearly of the duck-footed persuasion, which is the most common arrangement. It’s by no means guaranteed that they’ll be symmetrical, either, so you’ll need to align the cleats differently on each shoe.
In the bag of cleat bits you’ll find the cleats themselves, a pair of extra plates with holes in and four bolts. The key thing to get right is to have the right end of the cleat at the front – on Shimano cleats the pointy bit goes nearest the toe and the square end nearest the heel. Crank Bros cleats can be fitted in two ways and give different amounts of float in each – refer to the instructions. While we’re talking cleats, note that Shimano ones come in two flavours. Single Release cleats will only disengage when you twist your foot inwards or outwards, Multi-Release ones will also disengage if you pull up hard. You want Single Release ones. Trust us on this.
Underneath the shoe you’ll find a pair of slots and a sliding plate with four threaded holes in it. If you can’t see such a thing and you’re sure that you’ve got clipless-compatible shoes, it’ll be hidden under part of the sole. This is often the case with trainer-style shoes with lugged rubber soles. There’ll be an obvious rectangular section that you’ll need to cut around with a sharp knife and then pull clear of the shoe. If you end up with slots in the sole but no threaded holes, you’ll need to add a suitable plate inside.
Having identified all the important bits, it’s time to bring them together. The serrated bit of the cleat goes against the sole of the shoe – the teeth will dig in when you tighten the bolts to help keep the cleat in place. The “double washer” plate sits in the recess on the other side of the cleat, and the bolts will pass through the holes (duh) and thread into the inserts in the shoe. But before putting the bolts in…
…get a generous coating of anti-seize on the bolt threads and, importantly, on the plate under where the bolt heads will end up. Anti-seize is great stuff in a does-what-it-says-on-the-tin kind of way. Unlike grease, which is designed to lubricate things that move past one another, anti-seize is intended to sit between surfaces that would otherwise be in static contact. Without it, the chances of getting your cleats off a few months down the line without enlisting the help of Mssrs Black and Decker are slim to remote. And if you’re taking pictures of it, clean your hands before picking up the camera, because it’s a pain to clean it off that grippy rubbery stuff that the bits of cameras you hold tend to be made of.
Most shoes have two pairs of threaded holes. If you need your cleats at one extreme of fore-aft adjustment or other you’ll need to use the appropriate pair, but chances are you’ll be somewhere in the middle and can use either, thus having a spare pair should you manage to strip the threads in one. For now, position the cleat in the centre of the slots. You’ll notice that you can move the cleat sideways too – again, start with it in the middle.
This is also where we take account of your wonky feet from the first step. You want to rotate the cleat slightly on the shoe so that when it’s engaged in the pedal, your foot is pointing in (or somewhere close to) its natural direction. If we take the Official BM Plates Of Meat as an example, they like to arrange themselves heels-in, so the front of the cleats need to be pointing towards the inside of the shoe. A little bit of rotation at the cleat makes quite a big difference to the foot, so don’t go mad, although you can’t turn the cleats very far anyway. It’s worth noting that knees aren’t symmetrically constructed, and you’re less likely to embadgerise them by having your toes pointing out too far than having them pointing in too far. If in doubt err on the side of Chaplin.
You’ve now got a “first draft” cleat position. Tighten the bolts just a little – you want the cleat to be fairly firm but without those teeth digging into the sole too much yet. Once the cleat’s taken a set in the sole, small adjustments get difficult. Get hold of a bike and loosen the springs in the pedals off as much as possible. With brand-new cleats this’ll mean you can clip out of the pedals without the bolts having to be fully tightened. You may at this point also realise that your pedals are both ancient, cheap and tatty and feel an almost overwhelming urge to buy a new pair.
Put the shoe on, get on to the bike and clip in. If you put your foot on the pedal and it goes straight in, that’s a promising sign for alignment. You need to check three axes. First is foot angle as previously discussed. If you didn’t have to consciously twist your foot to engage the cleat, it’s probably right. As a further check, let your foot sit at its natural angle on the pedal while clipped in, and then gently twist your heel in and out so you can feel the release points. If they’re about the same angle either side of neutral, you’ve got it.
The other two axes are fore-aft and in-out. The traditional ideal is for the cleat to be under the ball of your foot. You can assess this visually from the saddle by holding your foot horizontally and eyeballing the pedal axle – if it appears to be emerging from under the wide part of the shoe you’re somewhere near. If you like, you can mark the side of the shoe with a dab of paint or some tape to help. You’ll usually be able to get a feel for the fore-aft position by putting some pressure on the pedal too – it’s a remarkably stiff shoe that won’t give you any sense at all of where the pedal’s located.
For average-sized feet, having the cleat central side-to-side should work (unless there’s something a bit odd with your shoes), but riders with particularly narrow or wide feet may need to tweak the cleats this way too. If you’ve got very wide feet you may need to move the cleats towards the inside of the shoe to get clearance from the cranks. Don’t go mad, though, or you end up with lots of unsupported foot hanging off the outside of the pedal.
If you need to change anything, get off the bike, take off the shoe, loosen the bolts, move the cleat and retighten the bolts to “testing tightness” before checking on the bike again. Or, in our case, pick all the bits of grit and soil out of the bolts first – it’s a good idea to do all this on a hard surface… When you think you’re there, go for a spin around the block and if it all feels good, snug the bolts down hard. Again, don’t go crazy – there aren’t usually many threads in the shoe inserts and it’s not hard to strip them. Tighten the bolts alternately, a little at a time. Some people like to put a dab of silicone sealant in the bolt heads to stop them filling with dirt, which can help when you need to undo them, but we’re generally too lazy.