We’ve often heard that necessity is the mother of invention. That may be true. However, the engineering required to bring any new bike product to the market can be monumentally difficult. One could be forgiven for imagining that a pedal would be a relatively easy device to re-invent. Nearly 10 years ago I had a ringside seat for some months to the design process for a pedal that sort of made it to market around 2004. Its inventor, Steve Lubanski, had all the creativity of a mad scientist on ecstasy, with nearly as much discipline. It was a great idea that simply needed more shepherding.
It is through that lens that I gave a careful examination to a pair of pedals that arrived recently, the Ultralites from a Carbondale, Colo., company called Ultralite Sports. On paper (and in the box) these pedals are fascinating … and promising.
They look less like pedals than just spindles. The retention system is based on a spring-loaded sleeve that slides toward the crank arm when the cleat is engaged. To release, the rider applies slight inward pressure while twisting the inboard edge of the cleat up. If you have trouble visualizing that, I can’t blame you; it’s the clearest description I can muster and demonstrates just how different the release motion is from any other pedal system on the planet.
But hey, these things weigh a negligible 72g for the pair of pedals, another 40g for the cleats. Nothing is lighter. Period. Also, the stack height is especially low, just less than 13mm from shoe sole to the center of the spindle. A low stack height reduces rotational weight, which cuts down on fatigue over the course of a ride.
Okay, so they are a fresh approach to clipless pedals, but are they really ready for the big time? My sample pedals are pre-production I’m told; Ultralite plans a few more changes before these hit the market this fall (a November 1 release is planned). Allowing press for a product that doesn’t make the full measure of the manufacturer’s intent seems a risky proposition to me.
I went out for a short ride on the pedals yesterday. The purpose was to see how quickly I could adjust to the entry and exit and whether I thought I could get it to be second-nature enough that I’d be willing to use it on the group ride the next day.
Let’s cut to the chase: I took the pedals back off following the ride. I don’t think these are bad pedals, but there are some issues that give me pause. If I had more time, I’d prepare a PowerPoint presentation with schematics and sound effects, but my multimedia guy is ice fishing in Patagonia, so I’m just going to have to give them to you in simple, bullet-point form.
- Placing the cleat’s opening perfectly on top of the pedal is a bit like trying to place pipe insulation on a flagpole while blindfolded. Whatever easy is, this ain’t it. Once it is there though, the engagement motion is surprisingly simple.
- The cleat has the highest profile of any cleat I’ve encountered since the Sampson pedal of the late ’80s. It’s not easy to walk in and because it is narrow, I have some concern about the chance of a twisted ankle should you roll your foot as the result of an awkward step
- The cleat allows fore-aft positioning but it allows about two degrees of rotational adjustment. We’re not talking float here; we’re talking yaw. The last time I encountered a cleat that couldn’t be adjusted for pronation and supination I had big hair. This is absolutely the biggest single problem I have with these pedals. If you can’t achieve proper fit, what’s the point?
- The release motion is profoundly unnatural feeling. I’m sure it’ll get better through practice, but on more than one occasion I banged my foot against the bottle cage mounted on the seat tube of my bike. I’d be bummed if I broke a bottle cage because I whacked it with my shoe, but if for some reason I actually damaged the seat tube, I’d be in the next county beyond bummed. The other thing I noticed about the release was that after releasing one foot, I couldn’t seem to ride a straight line and get my other foot out; I had to come to a complete stop and then release the cleat.
- Small rubber caps protect the end screw on the end of the pedal that locks the spring and sliding barrel in place. While two replacements are included, the simple fact that I managed to eject one of them in less than 10 miles of riding suggests I’d be through the replacements before the month is out.
- Did I mention no float? A float cleat is said to be coming, but the cleat I used had zero float, which combined with the lack of adjustability caused me to cut the ride short. I was simply unwilling to risk my knees.
I really don’t want to be too rough on these guys. The incredible amount of work they’ve put into these pedals is evident. Unfortunately, the shortfalls have the effectiveness of a 1k flyer that gets swallowed up 50m from the line. It’s just not quite enough. It may be that all of my concerns will be addressed with the final production version, but the way I see it, the cleat needs a bunch of changes to make it more adjustable, more ergonomically friendly and more walking friendly, not to mention easier to catch the pedal for speedy stoplight getaways and crit starts.