In my experience, more than any other component found on a bicycle, pedals elicit a near-religious loyalty among users. It may be that because cleat design will remain static to a degree that even the number of cogs on a cassette will not, people have more years of use on a system and are more likely to develop less a preference than an accustom. We tend to like those things we’ve used for long periods of time. After all, if we didn’t like them, we would have switched, so the longer we use them, the more we tend to think what we’re using is the best thing going.
Generally speaking, there’s nothing wrong with that. After all, if you like what you use, and it poses no problems for you, why not continue to use it?
It is into this particular world of settled opinion and calcified satisfaction that I thrust the Ritchey Echelon WCS pedals. The challenge is that pedals accepting the Look cleat have been around since shoulder pads were the hot look in women’s fashions. Good thing they have a greater functional benefit.
In addition to Look, we’ve had Shimano, Wellgo, Campagnolo, Sampson and a score of other manufacturers make pedals designed to accept the Look cleat. Had it not been for Time, and Shimano’s ill-advised decision to take the SPD platform to the road, Look might have become the industry standard. But not only is that three-bolt fixing standard still in play, the cleat itself remains mostly unchanged.
It begs the question: What has changed in all that time? Okay, so the cleat went from black to red, meaning from fixed to floating. The Keo cleat also reduced the stack height between the center of the pedal spindle and the foot. Most manufacturers have increased both the number and the quality of the bearings used. Spring release tension is adjustable (has been for, oh … at least 20 years). The pedal body shape has been refined to increase lean-angle clearance. And let’s not forget weight. Some early examples (Mavic, anyone?) might as well have been constructed from depleted plutonium so heavy were they.
For six months I’ve been riding a range of pedals: the Ritchey Echelons as well as a couple of others, including the new Shimano Dura-Ace 9000s. While the Shimano cleat is slightly different than the Look Keo, I consider them of a piece; they’re not fundamentally different, the way Time and Speedplay are.
By any critical measure, these pedals are reasonably light, weighing in at 250 grams. Unfortunately, Ritchey claims they weigh only 233g, which makes this the first Ritchey product I’ve encountered that strayed from the advertised weight by more than five percent. Still, 250g for the pedals, combined with 77g for the cleats one of the lightest pedal systems on the market for less than $200. This is where the Echelons show best—value. At just $159 for the set with cleats and hardware, they are more than $100 less than the corresponding Shimanos (not to mention a few other competitors.
The Echelons use a two bearings: an outer, sealed-cartridge bearing, and a needle bearing in the middle. Inboard duties are handled by a lightweight bushing. Spring tension is adjustable, and while I didn’t check torque values, I can say anecdotally, it goes from light enough for a panicked escape to grab-a-stop-sign-cuz-I’m-falling-over tight.
Having ridden in so many different pedals of late, I came to only one firm conclusion on the subject of pedals using Look-style cleats. Because of where I live, which is to say a place where there are stop lights and stop signs for 30 miles in every direction except west, I stop like a sitcom has ads. It’s annoying, but it’s a fact of my life. What surprised me about the Echelon pedals was that I eventually noticed I was able to catch the tongue of the cleat more reliably with them than with any similar pedal. There are lights that are just too long to track stand through at the end of a long ride, so I want a pedal that allows me to roll away from a light with something approaching haste. If I have to stop pedaling and look down for a moment, that’s a fail.
One factor that contributes to the success or failure of a pedal in this regard isn’t so much the weight of the pedal but the weight delta from the front of the pedal to the rear of the pedal. The greater that delta, the more likely a pedal is to hang, rather than spin due to bearing drag. A tiny amount of bearing drag will cause the pedal to sit motionless until the pedal reaches the top of the pedal stroke, the point at which most riders will attempt to clip the second foot in. That pause will cause the rear end of the pedal to overcome the bearing drag and spin forward. Practically speaking, it means often putting your foot down on the bottom of the pedal, rather than engaging it. Not good for quick getaways. I’ll hasten to add that I had to ride each pedal for more than 500 miles to make sure that I wasn’t just encountering drag from the bearing seal.
It’s this one, tiny little detail that caused me to love this pedal. If I lived 50 miles outside of Cedar Rapids, with corn fields surrounding my home, different story. Add in the fact that it costs less than a night in a nice hotel, and you’ve got one of my favorite pedals of the last few years.
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.
It’s late. I got a late start and scrambled to see everything and nothing at once. I’ll fill in more in the coming days. The above seat cluster is by Mark DiNucci. It was some of the best lug work I saw today, performed by an absolute master.
It’s getting to that time of year. The wind blows cold. The sun sets early. Rain falls. The garage door rises, and I wheel out my bike. My breath bursts in a cloud in front of my face.
These are make or break moments.
After a summer of constant pedaling and an early autumn of blissfully lowered temperatures, we’re getting to the hard part now, when throwing your leg over the bike requires that little extra bit of motivation.
I’ve just christened a new bicycle, a sweet, blue, steel Torelli (full disclosure: Torelli is an RKP advertiser) with a brand new SRAM Rival kit. White saddle. White bar tape. White pedals. Hammered tin head badge. Very handsome.
What is more motivating than a brand new ride? Nothing. Nothing is more motivating.
I have spent the last weeks acclimating myself to DoubleTap® technology, learning the ways of Sampson pedals, retuning myself to a new gear array, fine tuning saddle position. These are excellent distractions to have when the weather turns.
Of course, it’s less than ideal to take a shiny new thing and subject it immediately to rain and grime and sand and grit. I hesitated at first, but the hesitation was fleeting. I just couldn’t see the sense in lying to my new bike. It’s dirty work being my bicycle. Robots don’t feel cold and wet. They require bikes that are similarly oblivious.
And so, we’ve been running the river in all of fall’s best and worst conditions. We’ve climbed our hill in the cold darkness, and we’ve climbed it with torrents of rain flowing down the asphalt. We’ve pounded through the flats and spun through traffic.
When I ordered my new bicycle from the kind folks at Torelli, they offered me the option to customize paint and decals. I chose a less logo-y look, one they themselves recommended, thus the hammered tin head badge, and a small decal down low on the seat tube just above the bottom bracket that reads “Made in Italy.”
When I am head down into the wind and wondering if I will be able to make the cut this year, if I will be able to face up to another winter in the saddle, I look down at that small sticker and know that I will.
My first experience with Sampson products came back in 1987 when a coworker at the bike shop I worked at bought a Centurion Ironman spec’d with Sampson pedals. For those of you who don’t recall these pedals, they featured an unusual L-shaped cleat that wrapped around the back of the pedal. They featured a unique clutch that held the pedal in place after you clipped out so that upon clipping in again it was in (hopefully) exactly the right position to clip in without fumbling around with your shoes.
The cleats were very difficult to walk in and broke. A lot. I wasn’t exactly impressed.
A few years went by and I received a test bike from Sampson. It was made from Reynolds 853 steel. For construction, Eric Sampson sought out Reynolds’ famous frame shop in Nottingham, England. This was the frame shop where all the Ti-Raleigh frames were built, a shop with as much history as there is to be found in the bike industry. The bike included a few different Sampson components, including cranks.
The bike was one of my favorites of the quartet that I reviewed. My opinion of Sampson changed dramatically.
Since then, I’ve reviewed two more Sampson bikes. Each time, he has done something essentially unknown among his competitors: He calls me and asks me what could be better. Invariably, I get another call a few months later in which he tells me about what changes he was able to make to respond to my suggestions.
I confess, during these calls I rock back in forth in my chair, grinning at my obscene power. Weekly calls of this sort could give me an ego transportable only by 18-wheeler.
So a couple of weeks ago I received a pair of the new s5 pedals. They feature steel spindles, a lightweight alloy body, a 62mm-wide cleat platform, three cartridge bearings and a cam-graduated hinge to make entry easier. The s6 pedals feature a titanium spindle.
Sampson claims a weight of 121g per pedal. My test pedals weighed exactly 121g each (the titanium model has a claimed weight of only 99g per pedal). I was so dumbfounded, I weighed them a second time. I can’t recall the last time a weight was accurate to the gram. Eric says he weighed at least eight pairs himself just to make sure the weight was dead-on.
Eric says that unlike most competitors’ pedals the contact plate on the s5 is replaceable to allow you to keep the look of the pedals new. The spring tension is also very adjustable thanks to a 20-position indexed Allen bolt. The cleats mount via a standard three-hole mounting pattern.
I’ve been a Speedplay X user for more than 10 years. While I have some other pedals at my disposal, Speedplays have been my pedals of choice. Non-Speedplay users tend to be critical of the system, pointing out how shoes will rock side-to-side when the cleats are worn. I tend to replace my cleats pretty frequently and never have any complaints about rocking or the amount of float when using them. It feels perfectly natural.
Okay, so that said, the Sampson’s are striking for their secure feeling. My cleats featured no float, which added to the ultra-positive power transfer. Entry and release is easy enough. I’ve set the release tension pretty low; thrashers afraid of unwanted release can increase tension dramatically.
Suggested retail for the s5 is $139, while the s6 goes for $239. Initially, they will be available in red and white. My test pedals are pre-production; they should be available in black in June.
I’m not sure there’s much more to say about a pair of pedals other than they are light, easy to get into and release and, best of all, provide a secure platform. By comparison both the Dura-Ace 7800 and 7810 pedals—while good pedals—they are heavier than the Sampsons, don’t feel quite as secure and are more expensive. Same for the Look Keo Sprint.
For years I wrote that Sampson products were a terrific value because they typically offered 85 percent of the performance of the top-drawer stuff for 50 percent of the cost. Those days are gone. He said he wants to compete head-to-head with companies like Shimano. After riding these pedals, there’s no denying that they are a great alternative to Shimano and Look.