By Jim Langley
Winter is a great time to check your clipless pedals system, one of the essential connection points between body and bike. And also among the most overused and under-maintained components by many roadies.
If your clipless pedals or shoes and cleats break down, it can cause minor issues such as annoying noises. But, it can quickly become much worse, such as breaking something that won’t let you click your foot in properly and might even lead to a knee injury if you try to ride very far on it.
So, let’s practice a little clipless pedals system triage and look at what can go wrong and how to address it. But, in our emergency room, we’ll look at the basic stuff first and the more serious issue last, since the former is much more common.
Keep clipless pedals lubricated
If you’re not already doing it, one of the easiest ways to ensure you can always enter/exit your clipless pedals smoothly (and prevent maddening squeaks and creaks, too), is to apply a light lube to the jaws and pedal surfaces (where the cleats rest). In fact, some companies, such as Speedplay make special lubes for this.
For most riders, applying a little lube every 2 weeks’ worth of rides should do the trick. If you get a build-up of grime, use less or lube less frequently. This simple step makes your clipless pedals and cleats last longer and work optimally longer, too.
Get, carry and use cleat covers
Rubber cleat covers are available for most types of road cleats (they’re not needed for recessed cleats). By getting a pair for your shoes, carrying them on rides, and always slipping them over your cleats before walking in your cycling shoes, your cleats will stay like-new almost indefinitely. And, like-new cleats are much less likely to wear the jaws on your clipless pedals.
Tip: One of the most common causes of slop/play between pedals and cleats is worn-out cleats. If it feels like your feet are moving up and down, side to side or front to back while pedaling, replacing the cleats will probably solve the problem.
If possible, inspect, clean and tighten the pedal parts
Most clipless pedals have multiple moving parts and springs. A lot of models have nylon parts. With all clipless pedals, when you click your shoes in and out to enter and exit the pedals, these parts open and close. And, whenever you’re riding, they’re always working, holding your feet securely in place. There’s even more stress on systems that allow your feet to pivot to protect your knees.
Lubing helps keep things working properly and prevents most of the wear and tear. It’s also important to inspect the jaws and platforms for dirt that can come from the road, and to clean it off so it can’t damage the pedal or cleats. And look for any screws securing the pedal parts, such as the jaws, and turn them with the correct tool to make sure that they’re not coming loose.
Tip: On many clipless pedals, there are small screws for making it easier or harder to enter and exit your pedals. Don’t turn these screws unless you want to change the effort to get into and out of your pedals. As a general rule, beginners usually prefer easier entry and exit, and advanced riders prefer harder.
Inspect, clean and tighten your cleats
Just like your clipless pedals, you want to make sure the other half of your clipless system, your shoes and cleats, are A-OK. I once saved a rider who was 50 miles from home and hitching a ride because 2 of his 3 cleat bolts had fallen out and he wasn’t able to find them (I let him have one of mine; luckily he rode Look Keos just like me).
Checking your cleats for tightness is as easy as trying to tighten the bolts with the correct tool. They shouldn’t budge. It’s also wise to look closely at the cleat edges that connect to your clipless pedals. They should be symmetrical with squared edges. If they’re sloped or ramped or chipped, it’s probably time to replace them.
If you’re not sure, you can hold the shoes in your hand and click them into the pedal so that you can look at how the pedals grab and hold the cleats. The shoes should click in and feel tight, not sloppy. Another way to gauge cleat wear is to compare the ones on your shoes to a new pair.
Tip: It’s smart to always have a pair of new cleats on hand so that you can replace your cleats should you realize, on the morning of an important ride, that they’re bad. As long as you’ve marked your cleat position on the bottom of your shoes (use a contrasting color ink or paint to draw a line around your cleat), it’s easy to replace the cleats.
Inspect and maintain your shoes
Many of today’s road shoes require maintenance, too, such as those with replaceable components and multiple closure systems. For example, on shoes with ratcheting buckles, the buckles are often attached to the shoes with small screws that can loosen and fall out. Likewise, it’s possible for filament laces to come detached from the lace loops, making it difficult to sufficiently tighten your shoes while riding if you don’t notice and fix it beforehand.
Even expensive shoes can fall apart with enough miles, too. I’ve had several pairs of high-zoot carbon shoes where the soles have separated from the shoes after a few years’ use. In one case, I didn’t realize it was happening until an increasingly sore left knee told me something funny was going on. So, be sure to give your shoes and cleats a good going over well before any important ride.
Tip: Because of how cycling shoes can fail out of the blue, I recommend always having a backup pair with cleats installed. That way you’ll never miss a ride because of shoe or cleat issues. And you won’t ever have to risk a knee injury from having to rush to install a cleat before a big ride.
Dealing with excess bearing play in clipless pedals
With enough miles, clipless pedals can develop play in the bearings. Sensitive riders can feel this as lateral slop in the pedals while riding. You can also find it by pushing/pulling sideways on the pedals with your hands. When you do this, there shouldn’t be any lateral bearing play in the pedals.
If you find that the pedals move in and out, don’t panic. On most clipless pedals, there’s a relatively easy fix. Because all that’s happened to cause the play in the pedals is that you’re ridden so much you’ve used up the grease inside the bearings. All that’s needed is re-greasing them.
It sounds difficult, but most clipless pedals are designed for easy and fast re-greasing. The job is as simple as removing the pedals from the crankarm and then removing the pedal axles and bearings (they are attached as a single unit) from the pedals.
To re-grease the pedals, you simply squeeze or pack enough grease into the pedals to fill the very end (just the end, not the whole cavity inside the pedal), and then screw the axle and bearings back into the pedal. Thanks to the sealed design of the pedals, doing this forces the grease into the pedal bearings and removes the play in the pedals, making them run like new again.
Warning: Do NOT force the pedal axle back into the pedal. If it suddenly becomes hard to tighten, unscrew it. What’s happening is that air has gotten trapped inside. By backing out the axle and trying again – sometimes a couple of times – you’ll be able to tighten it fully without forcing it.
I guess that I have been lucky. As much as I maintain all other parts on my bike, I have never lubed nor repacked the pedals for the past 20 years (I do clean and replace my cleats as needed). Of course, this may be due in part to the fact that I ride 7 different bikes and each has a set of pedals…so, not as much use on any one set.
Use Shimano spd-sl pedals so, this may say something about their quality.
Campagnolo pedals are a bit different. They are held in place mostly by a recessed metal insert. The plastic cleat provides the release mechanism. As they wear, it becomes gradually more difficult to get out of the pedals! Riders who have somehow obtained a set of these pedals (used or old stock) need to be aware of this!
K Herrington says
To maintain my Speedplay pedals ,I have used a piece of wood. I have drilled two holes in it. 1/2 inch holes. Then thread one for left hand and the other right hand. When it is time to grease,I remove one pedal at a time and thread into the block of wood. Then place in a vise and grease the bearings. This allows me a clearer vision of the pedal and I can get more grease in the grease port this way. Thanks
I’ve used Loctite 202 on all by cleat bolts for many years, and have never had a bolt loosen.
This does not preclude checking the bolts tightness occasionally.
Paul Ahart says
I’ve been a pro mechanic for 33 years. What I’ve found works great for cleat bolts, especially on steel clelats like Shimano SPDs, is to put a dab of grease or a couple drops of oil on the threads of the bolts when installing. Allows them to be fully tightened and when needing replacing, they will loosen and come out!
Dave Minden says
I carry a couple of cleat bolts in my toolbag on the bike (spd), along with a few other common sized bike bolts and washers. Has saved my and others’ butts quite a few times. I’ve had at least 2 pals not realize their cleat bolts were loose and had to slow to a stop either to fall over in the grass or be ‘caught’ by a couple of us to hold them upright on their bike!
Jim Langley says
That’s a great idea, Dave. Thank you for sharing!
I have always used Speedplay pedals and lightly spray both surfaces with Lemon Pledge wax prior to a ride. Makes entry/exit smooth and does not attract dust and dirt like an oil. I lube their bearings annually by removing the small screw covering the grease port and using small syringe-type applicator to pump in the grease. The brand I use, Shooters Choice All-Weather Grease,, comes in that type of applicator..
Two thoughts on safety, cleanliness, and hygiene:
1. If one puts lube on the contact face of the pedal, it will go onto the pedal. Would not that make one’s cleats even more slippery that usual when walking around, e.g., on the wooden or tile floor of your favorite coffee shop. Also, with lube on the cleat, you’ll be marking up the floor with lube, which may cause some other shop patron to slip and fall or you’ll just make a mess of your own home when you get home.
2. The problems of #1, above, might be solved with the plastic cleat covers that Jim has highly recommended. That may be true, but those cleat covers give rise to a different problem that is rather disgusting to me. It is that when walking around in those cleat covers, they are necessarily stepping on whatever is on the floor. That could include the, shall we say, “spillage” often found on the floor around men’s rooms urinals. Upon completing one’s men’s room functions and just prior to getting back on the bike, you’ll be putting your bare fingers on that cleat cover and putting it into your pocket. Any germs on your hands from those covers? Quite possibly.
I’d rather walk around in my bare cleats on the assumption that whatever I have stepped in will have dried off and the germs dissipated from the open air as I complete my ride. If it costs me a little more to replace cleats more frequently, it is better than getting sick.
I have been waxing pedals and wearing cleat covers for decades and obviously lived to tell about it. You do it your way and I’ll do it mine and we will all live happily ever after.
Happy trails.. ‘
Tell me more! Waxing my chain was a life changing event. I’d love to wax my pedals, but I don’t want it seeping into the axel and have that grease spoil my crockpot.
Mr. Versatile says
Never thought of that, but it makes sense.
Jim Langley says
I wanted to mention that for road Speedplay pedals there is a cleat cover I use and recommend. They’re called the Keep on Kovers because you put them onto your cleat and leave them on. The pedals and clicking in/out works exactly the same with the Kovers in place.
So, you get the protection for the cleat and you never have to carry covers in your pocket. And you don’t have to put the covers onto the cleats and take them off every time you stop/go. Here’s a link: https://amzn.to/37qzDNp They are about $15