I’ve always used road shoes and pedals on my road bike. I’ve put up with duck-footed skids into the coffee shop in exchange for the lightness and wide pedal platform offered by pedals such as the Look Keo.
But for lots of road riding it makes more sense to use recessed-cleat mountain bike shoes. They’re much easier to walk in than cleated road shoes, but they’re also noticeably heavier. Pedals, however, have been the real sticking point. MTB-specific pedals like Shimano SPDs are hefty due to the two-sided click-in feature, but more important they don’t have a large surface to distribute pressure during long rides. One wag likened them to pedaling on a walnut.
Even so, I envied the ease of off-bike mobility. My frustrations with walking in road shoes came to a head last summer while doing long training rides in preparation for a fast tour from California to Georgia. Training rides of 5-10 hours required several slip-slides into convenience stores for supplies.
The tour itself featured 5 or 6 rest stops during the daily average of 165 miles (266 km). I found my Look Keo cleats a real liability because I had to put on cleat covers for walking on unpaved road shoulders and parking areas. That meant toting them (dusty or muddy) in my jersey pocket and then putting them on and taking them off at each stop while holding the bike with one hand for balance. Besides the hassle, this took time — and time is precious when you’re trying to get to a motel 10 hours down the road.
Now Shimano has a solution for roadies like me. It’s called the PD-A520 pedal, a hybrid design that’s half road and half MTB.
Shimano took its popular SPD mechanism and surrounded it with a large platform for added support. The result is a pedal that allows you to use a walkable, recessed-cleat shoe like those made for mountain biking and enjoy the easy entry and exit of the SPD system. But it exchanges the small SPD platform for road-pedal-like foot support.
The PD-A520 is easy to get into. Simply flip it over with your toe just like a Keo, Shimano or other traditional clipless road pedal. Click-in is crisp even with muddy cleats. Exit is smooth and predictable too. Tension can be adjusted with an allen key, and an indicator tells you how much you’ve chosen. I never had an inadvertent release even during hard sprints.
The platform is plenty large to support your foot. At 8.5 cm x 5.5 cm it’s slightly larger than a Keo. I’ve ridden long distances in MTB shoes with Shimano SPD pedals and experienced painful pressure at the ball of my foot. I haven’t had any “hot foot” issues with the PD-A520.
Another advantage of the PD-A520’s profile is that it looks like a conventional road pedal. If aesthetics are important, you don’t have to sully your road bike’s sleek lines with clunky MTB pedals.
Installation is easy. Because the pedal has old-fashioned wrench flats, it requires a standard pedal wrench. I used to prefer this system and disliked newer pedals that mounted with an 8-mm allen wrench. However, I’ve come to prefer the new system in case a pedal loosens mid-ride. You can’t haul a 15-mm pedal wrench in your seatbag but most multi-tools have an 8.
The PD-A520 has a slightly wider stance (Q factor) than my reference pedal, the Look Keo. I didn’t find this aggravating, but if you like a narrow stance you may need to move your cleats toward the outside of the shoe sole to attain it.
When the pedals came out of the box their bearings were slightly stiff. They didn’t hang vertically when disengaged so it was sometimes difficult to kickthem over to enter. After a few hundred miles they loosened up.
Weight for pair of PD-A520s is about 330 grams. Not excessively heavy, but more than many pure road pedals. A pair of Keo Sprints is about 260 grams.
Shimano should consider making a higher-quality version of the PD-A520. It could be lighter, have better bearings and allow installation with an 8-mm allen wrench. I’m not often in favor of spending more for a cycling component, but considering the advantages of this pedal’s design, upgrading to a “pro” model would be money well spent.
Note: We haven’t tried it, but Shimano makes a SH-RT50 Road Touring shoe with a walkable recessed cleat that looks likely to work well with the PD-A520 pedal. Like the pedal, the shoe is medium quality, having no ratchet buckle in the top strap and selling for about $100. It seems designed for casual road riding and indoor cycling.
Coach Fred Matheny is an RBR co-founder who has four decades of road cycling and coaching experience. He has written 14 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach Fred Matheny, including the classic Complete Book of Road Bike Training, which includes 4 eBooks comprising 250 pages of timeless, detailed advice and training plans. The Complete Book is one of the many perks of an RBR Premium Membership. Click to read Fred’s full bio.