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.