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How to Install Cycling Cleats

Whether you’re new to clipless pedals or you’ve been clipping in for years, installing new cycling cleats can be intimidating. And rightfully so – when you’re riding a bike, the position of your foot on the pedal is one of only three contact points between you and your bike (the other two being your saddle and handlebars). It’s important that your cleat is in the right place when pedaling because that’s where your power transfers to the bike. If your cleat placement isn’t quite right, it could reduce the amount of power you’re transferring to the pedal by not allowing you to recruit the optimal muscle groups. Not only could that affect your speed and efficiency, it could also cause discomfort or even injury!

Let’s not let that happen. Here’s how to install cycling cleats in clip-in cycling shoes.

types of cycling cleats and shoes

What kind of cycling shoes do you have?

If you are new to riding clipless pedals, you will first want to make sure you have the right pedal and cleats for your cycling shoes. There are two different types: 

  • 3-bolt: These are road cycling-specific with larger cleats. Look, Time, or Shimano SPD-SL pedals are examples of pedals that use 3-bolt cleats and shoes. Liv’s Macha Pro are 3-bolt cycling shoes.
  • 2-bolt: These could be used for mountain biking, cyclocross, gravel, or road cycling. The cleat is smaller and recessed into the shoe. HT, Crank Brothers, Time, or Shimano SPD are examples of pedals that use 2-bolt cleats and shoes. Liv’s Tesca and Fera are 2-bolt cycling shoes. 
  • 2- or 3-bolt: Some cycling shoes offer the option to accommodate any style of clipless pedals. This is great for riders who are using the same footwear for spin class and road cycling. Liv’s Macha Comp can accommodate both 2- and 3-bolt cleats.

If you’ve bought new clipless pedals, the good news is your cleats come with your pedals! If you’re replacing worn out cleats (more on this later!), you’ll need to purchase your cleats from your local bike shop, the pedal manufacturer’s website, or a distributor’s website.

how to install cleats

How to install 3-bolt or 2-bolt cycling cleats for clipless pedals

That’s right, the process is pretty much the same – even though the cleat and shoe look different. 

  1. Loosely attach the cleats to your shoe using a 4mm allen wrench and the bolts that came with your cleats. The cleat should be able to move. You’ll want to make adjustments before tightening the cleat completely. 
  2. Position the cleat so the center of the pedal is in line with the ball of your foot. To do this, put on the shoe and find the bony knob on the inside of your foot (where the first metatarsal starts). Mark its location with a piece of tape, then remove the shoe. Shift your cleat forward/backward (or up/down, depending on how you’re looking at it) so the middle of the cleat is behind (or below) the tape. On 3-bolt cleats, the tape should be between the top bolt and the two rear bolts. On 2-bolt cleats, the bolts in the middle of the cleat should be behind/below the tape. Tighten the bolts, so your cleats are locked in place.
  3. Rotate your cleat so your foot is pointing forward when clipped in. Put on the shoes and clip into the pedal. Is your heel in line with your toe? If your heel is rotated inward or outward, loosen the cleat and rotate it so your foot is pointing forward. 
  4. Tighten the bolts to the specified torque. This is generally around 5-6NM, if you can’t find it on your cleat manufacturer’s website. 
  5. Now, take them on a test ride. Start with short rides on the indoor trainer or in your neighborhood to determine if any adjustments need to be made to your cleat placement. 
cleat adjustment

Cycling cleat adjustments

Cycling cleats are pretty complex. So, you likely won’t get your set up perfect right off the bat. Here are some ways you can adjust your cleats to achieve proper position.

Fore/aft

Generally speaking, your cleats should be positioned so that the center of the pedal is in line with the ball of your foot. But, that can sometimes be hard to determine. There’s also a bit of personal preference involved here. Three signs your cleat may be placed too far forward are:

  • Numbness or tingling in your toes and/or foot.
  • Feeling unstable on the pedal, especially when standing.
  • Feeling like you aren’t transferring your full power into the pedal. 

The farther back your cleat is, the less your calf is recruited to stabilize your foot. Moving the cleats back a bit can be helpful for riders prone to calf cramps. For mountain bikers who spend more time riding out of the saddle, moving your cleat farther back can add stability when descending and performing maneuvers. 

PRO TIP: Keep in mind sliding your cleat forward or backwards may require slight changes in saddle height to maintain the same fit.

Stance width

Side-to-side adjustments are referred to as stance. When we ride, we want to keep our hips, knees and ankles stacked on top of one another. Keeping these three joints in line helps keep you cycling injury-free. Stance is based on a number of factors, including pelvis width, lower limb alignment and hip stiffness. If you have wider hips, you’ll need a wider stance to keep everything in line. To widen your stance, loosen your cleats and move them inward (toward the big toe). To narrow your stance, loosen your cleats and move them outward (toward the little toe). When making stance adjustments, make sure to keep your fore/aft position the same. Mark the top and bottom of your cleat before making any adjustments.

PRO TIP: If your knees are pushing out when pedaling, this indicates your stance is too narrow. If your knees are falling in while pedaling, your stance may be too wide. You can check this yourself if you have a mirror in front of your trainer or you can record yourself pedaling on a trainer. If you don’t have access to a trainer, your best bet is to go to your local bike shop for a professional bike fit.

Float 

Float allows you to rotate your foot in or out while riding. This allows the knee to track naturally and to find the most comfortable position. Some cycling pedals/cleats inherently have more float than others. Some road and mountain bike pedals come with cleats that offer more/less float. The degree of float you choose is mostly personal preference. But, if you experience knee pain while riding, trying a cleat with more float could be a solution. 

PRO TIP: It is important to remember float is different from pedal tension which determines how hard or easy it is to unclip. To adjust pedal tension, find the bolt on your pedal with a (+) and (-). Turning the bolt toward the (-) will make it easier to clip in and out. Turning the bolt toward the (+) will make it harder to clip in and out.

worn out road cycling cleats compared to new road cycling cleats

When should you replace your cycling cleats?

You did it! You installed your cleats and achieved a comfortable and efficient pedaling position. Before you do anything else, go grab a permanent marker and trace the cleat position on your shoe. This way when it is time to replace your cleats you know exactly how to position your new set. 

So how do you know when it’s time to install new cleats? Here’s a couple indicators: 

3-bolt

  • Many brands have a recommended mileage for replacement, typically somewhere in the range of 3,000-5,000 miles/4,000-8,000km
  • If the toe of the cleat becomes thinner and/or shorter
  • If any cracks appear in your cleats

2-bolt

  • Visual signs of wear are harder to spot on metal cleats. 
  • If it becomes difficult to unclip from the pedal 
  • If it becomes too easy to unclip from the pedal
  • Typically, with regular riding, replacing cleats once a year is a good bet.

PRO TIP: Kick off each new year of riding with a professional bike fit and new cleats! Sometimes things change and your cleat placement could need adjustment from one year to the next. Even if you know what feels right, it’s nice to have a second pair of eyes to help out!

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