The single most recurring question I get from readers is what bike stuff I actually use on my own bike. When it comes down to my money, what do I choose? On some points, I’m nearly agnostic. I’ll happily ride Shimano, Campagnolo or SRAM components. I have quibbles with every one of them and know their strengths like the smiles of my boys. On saddles I get a bit pickier but my preferences there are as meaningless to you as my preferences in music; unless your ass is shaped like mine, what works for me isn’t likely to work for you. Bar preference runs along similar lines because it is influenced—if not outright determined—by your fit.
Pedals are different, though. A friend once said to me that pedals are like religion. Once you find something that works, you don’t want to switch, not for all the super models in New York. Granted, I know people who still feel that way about Campagnolo, but component groups don’t inspire the same fervent reaction across all three brands.
So what do I use? No big question there as this particular cat departed the bag the moment you saw the thumbnail image leading this post. I’m a Speedplay Zero user. I began using Speedplay X pedals back in 1997 out of a sense of journalistic duty. In the previous year I’d tried every other pedal system on the planet and figured I owed myself the perspective. The transition wasn’t easy, I’ll admit. The unimpeded float felt like ice skating on a bicycle for about three days. Somewhere between hour six and hour ten on these pedals, that sensation evaporated. I stayed on the X pedals until four or five years ago when Speedplay wizard-in-chief Richard Bryne urged me to switch to the Zeros. When I asked why I should switch, he said in his characteristically confident but understated way, that it was simply a better pedal. Because the cleat engages the pedal in a completely different way, both the pedal and the cleat will last longer.
My single favorite feature of the pedal is the double-sided engagement. Why no one else has made a serious run at double-sided road pedals is one of the bigger mysteries of component design to me. I mean, if it’s a good enough idea for every last mountain bike pedal in the known universe, it’s hard to make an argument that it wouldn’t always be handy feature for a road pedal. The issue isn’t that I struggle to enter Look-cleat or other pedals. I know how to engage a pedal. What I’ve noticed is that I’m always quicker off the line than people riding other pedals. Speedplay doesn’t require any thought or special moves to engage. If you can place your foot on a flat pedal, you can engage Speedplay. This feature might mean less if I lived in a small town in Europe (as I often dream) where stop lights and signs are as frequent as native English-speakers, but because I live in Southern California where the only thing that outnumbers the stop lights are the numbers of cars on the road, I stop a lot and on a long ride, there comes a point at which I’m just too flippin’ tired to do yet another track stand. It makes for a lot of clipping in and out.
Switching back and froth between shoes set up with Speedplay and other pairs set up with Look has taught me that my foot position changes from seated to standing riding. I pronate more when I’m seated and the unrestricted float on Speedplay is friendlier to that. When riding a Look or Shimano cleat I have to give a concerted little twist to my foot every time I sit down. Do not like.
I’m not a total weight snob, but the fact that a pair of Zeros with stainless steel spindles weighs only 209g is a genuine selling point to me. I don’t see a reason for a pedal to be more complicated than necessary, nor weigh more.
It used to be that one of the big selling points of any pedal was cornering clearance. Speedplay has led the pack among all the major manufacturers by allowing a 37 degree lean angle. To put this in perspective, since 1997 I’ve scraped a Speedplay pedal exactly once, at it was on an unusual, dipping corner on a motorcycle track I was racing on, a circumstance quite unlike the real world.
The fact that the Zeros feature adjustable float, that is, the rider can adjust how much heel swing both in and out from the centerline of the pedal wasn’t really a selling point for me. That said, I’ve limited a the amount of pronation the cleat will allow to prevent the heels of my shoes from rubbing some crank arms. I’ve talked to riders who moved to Speedplay from other pedals systems who adjusted their cleats so that they needed up with only a couple of degrees of float. The upshot is they ended up with a pedal system that answers the number one criticism I hear regarding Speedplay: too much float.
The other criticism I’ve seen leveled at Speedplay is that because the pedal itself is fairly small, it can cause hotspots for riders. In my experience, this is nonsense. Hotspots caused by flex between the shoe and the pedal were a notorious problem for SPD road pedals. That cleat was, to use a technical term, itty-bitty. However, when you look at how big the cleat is that attaches to the shoe, it’s larger than Look, Shimano or Time cleats, and because carbon fiber soles are so much stiffer today than they were 10 years ago, hotspots are more likely to be caused by problems with the shoe fit than in the shoe/cleat/pedal interface.
Back when I worked as a mechanic, I prided myself on being able to overhaul any cup-and-cone bearing I encountered. While I could get the job done, my results with pedals were frequently less-than satisfactory. Getting the adjustment right on pedals proved to be difficult because while you never want to over-tighten a bearing, what usually felt tight enough without the pedal body on was never quite tight enough with the pedal body on. That Speedplays use cartridge bearings that can be serviced with a grease port and an injection of a few squirts of grease makes them the mostly easily serviceable pedals I’ve encountered.
The Zeros with stainless steel spindles go for $199. If you’re part Mallard and pronate even more than I do, you can go for the longer chrome-moly spindle model which goes for a very reasonable $129.
My belief in the pedals notwithstanding, they do have a few other qualities to recommend them. First is the fact that every rider I know who has run into knee issues related to aging has been able to solve them by moving to Speedplay, a few of them reluctantly so. Second is how Speedplay began its Division I pro team sponsorship with CSC more than 10 years ago and expanded to nearly a half-dozen different teams at one point simply because as riders left Bjarne Riis’ formation they didn’t want to give up the pedals. Only recently has that number begun to drop, in part due to Shimano demanding that if they are going to sponsor a team they must take their pedals as well.
While I can ride other pedals when I need to riding anything other than Speedplay is a bit like travel; I’m always happy to return home.