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Unable to clip out of my pedals, I knew in an instant that I was going down. Funny thing, but right at the moment I began toppling over into the trailside scrub brush, Troy was actually the first person who come to mind. “Wait,” I asked myself as gravity abandoned me and a variety of rocks and gravel began forcing their way into and under my skin, “Did he really have a point about not using road pedals on a gravel bike ride?!”
As I have alluded to here before, when it comes to bike setup and proper mechanics, Troy is the man. Far more conscientious than me, where Troy breaks out a torque wrench to double-check all the fittings before test riding a bike, I instead rely on the supposition that the seat binder is tight and that the brakes work properly before a test ride. (Quick question: who would you rather have setting up your bike?)
But it wasn’t Troy’s pro-level wrenching skills that made his smiling visage flash in my mind as I plummeted to the ground. No, it was actually the joke he made at David’s expense a few weeks prior that reminded me about my choice of pedals.
THE INSIDE SCOOP
Okay, so I’ll let you all in on a little secret: If any of you found the action photos used in the Cannondale Topstone test (RBA, June 2020) a tad low on the action scale, well, there’s a reason for that. See, just minutes into the photo shoot, while he was making a slow-speed U-turn to make another pass in front of John Ker’s camera, David lost his balance and inadvertently fell over. The result? No scraped elbows for David. No, the result was much worse, with a badly broken leg that required an immediate trip to the ER where a variety of plates, screws and a titanium rod were used to put his bones back in place.
“Not that anyone could accuse us of being insensitive, but when Troy and I first spoke about the crash as David was being carted off into surgery, we were laughing—but just a little!”
Not that anyone could accuse us of being insensitive (actually, we really can be), but when Troy and I first spoke about the crash as David was being carted off into surgery, we were laughing—but just a little! See, Troy was quick to make the point that he had repeatedly warned David about the pitfalls of using road pedals in the dirt. “It was about three years ago when I first warned him about it,” Troy recalled. “But the worse outcome I thought could happen would maybe be a broken wrist, not all the damage he incurred as if he had been sending it down some high-speed chute!”
IN THE MIRROR
I nodded affirmatively. “Yeah, stupid kid. If only he listened!” The truth, of course, was that, unless I’m specifically testing gravel shoes, I always end up using my Look clipless road pedals for my local dual-purpose rides. Sure, I have a choice of Crankbrothers, Time and Shimano dirt pedals to choose from, but since most of my gravel test bikes get at least as many miles under them on the road, it’s easiest to just stick with my regular Look road pedals. And since I always ride a few miles on the road before I get to the dirt, it’s also just plain easier to keep the same pedals on the bike.
Truth be told, though, I also prefer maintaining as much road bike cred as I can whenever I blow past all the over-dressed and over-suspended mountain bikers crawling up the Brown Mountain fire-road climb with their slow-speed, 65t rear cassettes!
Although prior to my crash I had been descending the Brown Mountain fire road at speed, like David, I, too, was going less than 3 mph when I keeled over. Coincidentally, I also happened to be aboard the same Topstone test bike that he had crashed on. Fortunately, unlike David, all I came away with was a scuffed-up knee, and soon enough, I was back putting that sweet Lefty suspension fork through its paces over the rain ruts.
As we all know, whether on dirt or pavement, crashes happen. As I sit here writing this with an ice pack on my knee, I’m already anticipating another fun-filled loop up and down Brown Mountain—and yes, most likely with my road pedals.
Still, having spent my formative years as a mountain biker before evolving into a gravel geek, over the years I have relied on a variety of mountain bike pedals.
“I also prefer maintaining as much road bike cred as I can whenever I blow past all the over-dressed and over-suspended mountain bikers with their slow-speed, 65t rear cassettes!”
All credit for mountain clipless goes to Shimano, who in 1990 ushered in their clipless SPD (Shimano Pedal Dynamics) system, which has since become a generic term for most dirt bike pedal and shoe combinations. (Historical note: Boone Lennon, who invented the famous Scott aero bars used by Greg LeMond to win the 1989 Tour de France, also designed an early non-mechanical clipless mountain bike pedal that used a button and slotted track interface.)
As much as Troy scoffs at David and I using road pedals on the dirt, it’s not as if we don’t understand his argument about the difference in design and practicality between the two. It’s just that many of the SoCal fire roads we ride on are not much rougher than the savage city streets we most often ride on. So, with little need to do any walking (and few things are worse than traversing a rock garden with road cleats!), the road combo works good enough.
But, there is no doubt a time and place for mountain bike pedals. Just as I do when it comes to Dirty Kanza, when I rode the White Rim trail in Moab aboard the Open WI.DE. last year (RBA, July 2020), I knew the terrain would be rugged and there would be plenty of walking, so it was an easy decision to run a gravel shoe/ pedal combo.
Whereas both road and dirt pedals have adjustable float, the most notable differences between them are
that the former relies on a one-sided design, while mountain bike pedals are two-sided and often with a bigger platform.
Figuring that somewhere between David’s injury and Troy making fun of us both there could be a teachable moment, in addition to Troy’s seasoned and scientific reasoning on why off-road pedals and shoes should always be used for off-road riding, we also assembled a guide to some of the better road and gravel pedals on the market.
TROY’S PEDAL-TECH BREAKDOWN
While I, too, am guilty of occasionally riding road pedals on unpaved roads, it is normally an impromptu detour. If you ask me, a dirt-oriented pedal is always a better option for gravel riding if you could only have one. When I look at a pedal, I think about how it functions mechanically. Not the float or the tension, but why it was designed in a certain way.
Most road-pedal systems have a triangular cleat that is placed nose first into a fixed spot and then a retention clip holds to the back pushing forward. The cleat bottoms out on the pedal’s platform and is designed to offer a very large and stable base. More (downward) pressure (standing or sprinting) only means things are more secure. To unclip, you need to remove pressure (seated is easiest) and rotate your heel out. The amount of float will determine how far you need to rotate before the release starts.
On the flip side, most dirt-oriented pedals work completely opposite to that. The cleats are mounted with two bolts and provide far more float. The pedal has a spring closure, but it contacts the sole of the shoe and is opened further with pressure. The cleat clips in, but the system relies on the shoe’s tread to press on the side of the pedal for support and to limit how far the pedal opens. Normally, this support and tension is unchanged no matter the position. In some cases, it may get looser when standing or under pressure if the shoe tread doesn’t contact the pedal initially.
“Most dirt cleats are also designed to allow you to roll your foot to get out, something that you cannot do on a road pedal.”
This means when you are standing or have more pressure on the pedals (descending) that the pedals will actually be slightly easier to exit. Most dirt cleats are also designed to allow you to roll your foot to get out, something that you cannot do on a road pedal. The easiest and fastest way out of a dirt pedal is with a bit of pressure and the same heel-out motion you do on road pedals. This is where people get them confused, because they both use a heel-out movement to get out, and they think they work the same.
The added pressure on the dirt pedal pushes against the retention spring, which opens it up for release; this is not the case on the road. All of this added movement in dirt pedals means you may need a lot more float so you don’t accidentally come out when riding with a lot of body English.
The downside to dirt pedals is that they rely on the shoe, so if your shoes are worn, it can negatively affect the experience, but really it’s not like the negative effects of road pedals when you need to roll your foot out and it won’t—just ask David and Zap who both hit the ground. The negative on a dirt pedal is your cleats feel too loose and/or your foot comes out too easily, because the tread on the shoe is worn or there is the incorrect gap between shoe, cleat and pedal.
Why wouldn’t you want dirt pedals on the road? Sprinting hard enough could offer enough stress to pull the cleat from the retention on the pedal. But, the real reason is that dirt pedals wear the shoe slightly, and this can cause your ankle to rock. When your ankle and knee are not in alignment, there can be a significant loss of power and cause pain. This is amplified by high cadence, which is more common on road rides. Some dirt pedals like Crankbrothers offer offset spacers to make up for wearing shoes or just the slight gap that some shoes have.
With all that said, I personally ride Speedplay Zero pedals on the road because of a bad knee and hip that cause my ankle to require more float on one side. The Zero pedal has adjustable float from 0 (fixed) to 15 degrees independently. They work a bit different and are a bit better releasing under pressure, but are terribly hard to walk in no matter the surface, and if it’s dirty, they get clogged and will be non-functioning. This is probably the last reason that dirt-oriented pedals are a better overall option if you had to choose. They shed dirt and mud efficiently while being easy to walk in almost everywhere.
RBA’S GO-TO PEDAL GUIDE
Mimicking their drivetrain offerings, Shimano offers 105, Ultegra and Dura-Ace road pedals. And, just as holds true with their drivetrains, between price and function, we remain fans of all things Ultegra. Unlike the inter-compatibility of different pedals with Look-style cleats, Shimano cleats are dedicated to
Shimano also has three pedals that would be good options for gravel riding. The high-end XTR PD-M9100 pedal has a minimal platform and is intended for cross-country/cyclocross racing. There are also XTR- and XT-level “trail” pedals that offer an enhanced platform, which are ideal for touring and all-around gravel riding.
Best known as a mountain bike brand, their original Eggbeater became the de-facto pedal of choice for cyclocross racing due to its simple design that made for easy exit and entry in the muddiest conditions. While fans of the Crank Bros system, we’ve never been fans of the original Eggbeater due to its lack of any platform. Luckily, the “brothers” have deftly extended their offerings with an assortment of models that offer a wide range of sizes, colors and prices ($60–$450).
It was owing to their history of making ski bindings that Look created the world’s first clipless pedal back in 1984. There are currently three different models (Keo Classic, Keo 2 and Keo Blade), all which use the same Delta-shaped, three-bolt cleat that has become an industry standard.
For gravel needs, Look stayed close to Shimano’s SPD standard for the design of their X-Track pedals.
The Madison, Wisconsin-based company broke through in the power meter market nearly 20 years ago with a rear hub-based power meter. Weighing in at 400 grams, the new P2 pedals are 38 grams lighter than the P1s. For the sake of comparison, they are 80 grams heavier than the Garmin Vectors and 170 grams heavier than a pair of Shimano Dura-Ace pedals. Swapping the pedals between bikes is easy, and we found the battery life to be consistent with PowerTap’s 20-hour claim. The P2’s dual-sided ability offers a lot of data for $900.
Time is the other French pedal maker who, like Look, also enjoys a storied place in the sport’s racing history. Owing to the brand’s enduring financial difficulties, Time pedals’ popularity and market penetration have been limited, but they maintain a loyal following for their patented Iclic and ATAC retention systems.
XPEDO THRUST NXS
The Xpedo brand has been synonymous with lightweight pedals for a fraction of what most will charge for a comparable pedal. A chromoly axle provides a strong platform for even the heaviest of riders. Three cartridge bearings between the axle and body reduce the friction of pedal rotation. The NXS costs $100 with a weight of 224 grams.
GARMIN VECTOR 3
Garmin first brought the modern “power pedal” out in 2013. It was finicky and slow to catch on. While the first version looks similar to the current design, it always had one big downside, which was the bulky pod that housed the battery and transmitter. The new Vector 3 pedal has lost the pod that made previous models difficult and tricky to set up. Now, all the vitals are neatly housed inside the pedal spindle, and they work and set up just like a normal pedal. Overall, the Vector 3 is now a more viable option for the less tech-savvy cyclist looking for the benefit of power. Garmin lists the Vectors at $1000. They hit the scales at 320 grams.
Exustar manufactures pedals that offer great bang-for-the-buck features and performance. The EPS model has one of the best price-to-weight ratios on the market. The pedals come with two sets of Exustar (Look Keo-compatible) cleats with 6 and 0 degrees of float. These are a great value and an option any beginner or price-minded cyclist should consider. It’s priced at $89 and weighs
Purchased by Wahoo last year, Speedplay has a unique design that allows dual-sided entry so that the rider can clip in no matter which side of the pedal is facing up. Another key feature is the proprietary four-bolt cleat with the lowest stack height on the market. Float is adjustable, with up to 15 degrees to choose from, plus Speedplay currently offers a variety of pedal colors to customize your ride but we are still waiting for the revised Speedplay line that Wahoo promised at acquisition. It costs $199 and weighs 210 grams. ν