Cleats are the parts that connect your cycling shoes to your clipless pedals. The name is a little confusing because the shoes actually clip into the pedals using cleats, but the original “clip” pedals had a strap system. So the cleated system is called “clipless” because it doesn’t use the straps across your shoe keeping your shoe on the pedal-it uses small clips that screw into the bottom of your shoe and clip into the pedal. Cleats can improve pedaling efficiency by at least 10%, and you can pull up with one foot as you push the other pedal down with the other making hills much easier. They also keep your skeletal structure more in line with your feet, so your knees and hips can catch a break.
The most common type of cleat system is the SPD, made by Shimano. Standing for Shimano Pedaling Dynamics, come in two main types: mountain cleats and road cleats. Both types of cleats are specific to the type of shoe and pedal, meaning that if you purchase road shoes, most types will only be compatible with road cleats and pedals. When you purchase new pedals they often come with the cleats inside, and then you must have shoes specific to that type.
Road cleats are typically made of a hard plastic and are a larger triangle shape. They come in varying degrees of “float”, which is the ability for the cleat to shift slightly in the pedal. The original cleats didn’t have any float which means that the rider’s knees and feet are forced into a very rigid position which may be unnatural for their anatomy. Riders who race prefer cleats with no float because no power is lost while pedaling, but commuters or those who are touring usually like a little bit of float. Road cleats sit on the outside of the sole of the shoe and can be very difficult to walk in.
Mountain cleats are much smaller than road cleats and are made of metal. They are recessed into the sole of the shoe and are very durable and easier to walk in than road cleats because they don’t stick out too far from the base of the shoe. Mountain cleats by Shimano come in two types: multi-release and single release. Most riders prefer multi-release, which means that no matter which way you turn your shoe it will release the cleats. This is good for when you come off the bike because you won’t be stuck to the bike as it beats you senseless the whole way down the mountain. Single release cleats are preferred by competitive riders who do not want much movement with the cleat so they do not lost much power in pedalling.