Speedplay Pedals – Are They For You?

One of the welcome side effects of my recent bout with gout had nothing to do with pharmaceuticals. Rather, a cornucopia of information about selecting the right pedals flowed my way, as friends, acquaintances, and downright strangers offered their ideas about how to combat or prevent knee trouble.

It’s all in the pedals, they said. Specifically, Speedplay pedals.

We’ve looked at Speedplays before. In any discussion of pedals, Speedplays have their loyal adherents.

The main attraction is the amount of float they offer. It’s called “free float,” or non re-centering float, and allows the foot to follow its normal path through the pedal stroke. One of my fellow club members says that feature can really benefit bad knees: “Most pedal systems these days allow for some natural ankle rotation, but Speedplay is one of the few systems that allows for ‘free’ float, meaning that there is no resistance due to the pedal trying to move your foot back to a centered position if you tend to rotate too far. This can be good for knees that have been aggravated by a poorly positioned cleat – cycling is actually one of the best rehab activities for knee injuries.”

Another club member, who uses Speedplays, says that free float feels different than any other pedal: “With Speedplays, you initially feel like you are skating on ice until your feet find the angle they want to be at (yes, I dangle participles). Two rides max and you will be dialed in.”

Not all of them have unrestricted float. Yet another club member (as you can see, my fellow clubbies love to talk about pedals, as well as other accessories) weighs in with this opinion: “The fact is that most of us don’t need as much rotation as Speedplay allows, which is why they introduced the Zero model, which allows you to reduce the range of motion to match your pedaling style. They’re remarkably easy to set up, and have solved pretty much all of my knee issues, including those caused by having too much available float.”

Speedplays come in four basic models, the Light Action, Zero, X, and Frog. Each is available in titanium, stainless, or chro-moly. The Zero is considered a pro-level pedal; the Light Action a recreational pedal; the X an ultralight version, and the Frog, a mountain bike pedal that has been adopted by roadies as well.

The Frog looks different than the other Speedplays, because its cleat can be recessed in the sole of the shoe, like a Shimano SPD cleat. That makes walking around in them easy.

So, what’s NOT to like about Speedplays?

Penny-pincher that I am, I passed on them because of price. MSRP generally ranges from $115 for the cro-mo versions to $325 for the titanium ones. But a lot of bikers who spend their money more wisely than I pass up other fripperies and put their money where it will do their cycling the most good.

Some riders don’t like the “rocking” sensation they get from the pedals. But Speedplay apparently has dealt with that. One of the guys from the club says it’s a thin steel shim, and it stops the lateral rocking motion:  “I highly recommend them to ALL Speedplay users – $10, and they’re called the ‘Carbon Sole Protectors.’ They also stiffen the cleats and provide a harder surface contact patch between the pedal and shoe.”

It’s clear that those who use Speedplays generally love them. Another acquaintance has had a long-term love affair with them: “I had an ACL rebuild and have been riding Speedplays for the past twelve years. That, plus ibuprofen, has kept the inflammation to zero. Still riding the original pedals and on my third set of cleats … Just keep ‘em out of the mud!”

Okay, I’m interested, because of their potential to solve knee problems. But I’m not about to make the switch yet, because my Shimano SPD-SLs offer me a wide platform, and they’re comfortable. I wish they had more than six degrees of float, though. Maybe if I save my pennies, in another year Speedplays will be worth considering.

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24 thoughts on “Speedplay Pedals – Are They For You?

  1. I agree with one of your club mates. Riding on Speedplays and a little “Vitamin I” after a ride have kept my knees trouble-free for 4 years now.

    I look back at the $115 I spent for the Cro-Mo Light Action pedals as money well spent. As for the weight, it’s insignificant compared to the rider (by far the biggest penalty).

    I was fortunate to get them toward the end of the trainer season (March in these parts) and got a feel for them before I hit the road. Yes they can feel a little squirmy when you first try them, but after a ride or two, it’s completely natural. I can’t see myself choosing anything else.

    If you do decide to get them, I recommend adding ten bucks for the cleat covers.

  2. I ride SPD on the road bike so I can wear more comfortable shoes (for walking around when I get off the bike).

    I haven’t tried Speedplays, and I have bad knees…but I make sure I have my cleats adjusted, and they have enough float that I feel comfortable.

  3. I was considering speedplays a while back and one of our early club members told me she started getting knee trouble when she tried them. I guess it just goes to show that different folks have different needs. I ended up with shimano SPD-Rs and haven’t had any issues, but I might be just as happy on speedplays if I had them. I do like the positive feel of engaging/disengaging that I get from the SPDs. You know when you are locked in and I also like the large platform as well as not having to worry about a little mud clogging the cleat, which I think is an issue with the speedplays.

  4. I know you’ve mentioned this before, but one of hte big advantages of Speedplays is their low stack height which helps riders who corner aggressively. The pedal is farther away from the ground compared to Look style pedals. One of the biggest drawbacks to Speedplays was touched on by your clubmate – the issues with dirt. Contamination of the cleat with dirt and mud can lead to problems with engaging and disengaging the cleat and pedal. Routine maintenance is required to keep Speedplay pedals happy. Not a big deal if you’re riding in a crit, but it can be an issue if you ride charity rides and walk through gravel at a rest stop. Cleat covers will helps solve this problem though. With Look style pedals, other than changing the cleats out once or twice a season, it’s pretty much set it and forget it. Both systems have their advantages and disadvantages, it’s really a matter of pure personal preference in the end.

  5. I’ve only ridden with a Look-style pedal made from Wellgro. They’re very old and need to be replaced but they’re what I know. I like the stability and ‘platform’ they provide. Looking at the Speedplays, I would seriously be afraid of breaking them if I was to get out of the saddle on a hill and really put some pressure on them. They just don’t look strong or stable to me.

    @Life and Bikes: I’m not sure I follow the stack height logic. If you’re cornering with the inside pedal in the 12 o’clock position I wouldn’t think stack height would matter.

    • You’re right, 12 o’clock inside leg is the text book method of cornering. But that doesn’t always hold true when you’re pedaling like hell through a corner to try and hold someone’s wheel. Or if you’re trying to accelerate out of a corner. In those cases, stack height is important

      • Honestly, the thickness of your pedal doesn’t make that much difference… the height of your bottom bracket and the length of your crankarms influence how tightly you can corner much more (though not as much as your general bike-handling ability, which makes an even greater difference!).

      • @matt: All things being the same, i.e. different pedals on the same bike, the thickness of the pedal does matter. I clipped a pedal in my last crit (I use speedplays) and I probably would have crashed if I was on a thicker platform.

    • I use speedplays zeros on three of my bikes (track, road, classic) and have never felt like they were going to break.

  6. A friend once told me you touch the bike in 3 places, handlebars, saddle and pedals. Keep those 3 places happy and you’ll enjoy your ride a lot more.

    The stack height argument is mainly for people who are pedaling through corners…generally crit racers. I don’t buy it for non-competitive cyclists. I have Time ATACs (mountain bike pedals) on my road bike and mountain bike. Never had a problem with pedal strikes…but then again I’m generally not pedaling through corners either.

  7. Good post. I’ve still not purchased good pedals/shoes for my new road bike because I’m unsure what to buy. (I’m a newbie who still uses toe cages, but they’ve worked well so far.) I’ve considered the Look-style pedals, but have also heard good things about these Speedplay pedals. I have arthritis, so I want to make sure whatever I buy allows for some float so I don’t cause knee problems. I think I would rather have the kind of shoes with the recessed cleats, so I guess that dictates what kind of pedals I purchase? So many confusing options.

    • Alice –
      You may also want to look into going with cheaper Shimano SPD (mountain-style) pedals. Cleats can be recessed (depends on the shoe), they engage on both sides, they’re reliable, and they’re cheaper than most road options. Some roadies may poke fun at you… but that’s about the only downside I can think of.

      • Agreed. I’m primarily a roadie but I use SPD. I like stopping off places to eat or whatever, and prefer ability to walk around in the bike shoes to slipping and sliding on smooth surfaces.

        When I first started riding I had TIME shoes and pedals…and had to walk up some nasty hills…not too fun in shoes with cleats that provide no traction whatsoever.

  8. I’ve weighed in before on Speedplay pedals but have no interest in converting others to switch…if you like the pedals you have I’d say stick with them. That being said, Speedplays work for me and I have what I like to call the perfect storm of bad knee conditions: ITB friction syndrome (proper stretching is the key to helping with this one), damage from previously misaligned cleats, a touch of arthritis, and mild chondromalacia (severe if I don’t get my base miles in on the small chainring). I was at my wits end about 10 years ago when the chronic pain became impossible to manage and the only solution outside of possible surgery was to stop riding. Enter Speedplays and result – my knee problems are mostly history. Sure I still deal with aches and pains, but the key is they are now very manageable. So yes, Speedplays work for me and I like to tell others all about them. :-)

    With that in mind, there still seems to be a lot of misconceptions concerning Speedplays and I see them right here in the comments. A few need to be addressed:

    1. Platform size and stability: the Speedplay platform is about the same size or larger than most other pedals…seriously! The key here is the unique design of the pedal system where the “platform” is designed into the cleat portion of the system. So if you’re looking at the lollipop-shaped pedals and asking how that can be stable, your logic is correct but you’re only considering one part of the pedal system…in this case, the wrong one. I find them to be quite stable and have never experienced the rocking sensation mentioned in Noob’s post (mine are old X/3s…now X/5s…so maybe that’s why). I’m in the market for a new pair…if those have the rocking sensation at least I know there is a solution.

    2. Stack height: folks seem to be equating stack height with cornering clearance. It has nothing to do with cornering clearance. Stack height is the distance between the center of the spindle and the top of the cleat, and dictates the amount of distance between the bottom of your foot and the pedal’s spindle. Stack height affects pedaling efficiency, not cornering. Apparently, one can pedal more efficiently the closer their foot is to the spindle…meaning less stack height is better. Speedplays have relatively little stack height. The superior cornering clearance comes from the narrow profile of the pedal compared with others.

    3. Additional maintenance: I’ve done nothing, and I mean nothing, to my Speedplays except one exchange of cleats over a 10 year period and they continue to work fine. I admit, I don’t walk around in them a lot. If I planned to, I would buy the cleat covers. Some of my riding buddies have also mentioned additional maintenance as a reason to shy away from Speedplays, but I just don’t find that to be a compelling reason given my experience with them.

    4. Dual-sided entry: no misconceptions on this feature, just surprised that no one mentioned it as a benefit. No fumbling around with the pedal to get it on the right side to engage the cleat…just place your foot on the pedal, push and you’re locked in. Very simple in and out.

  9. I’ve never tried Speedplays, but I’ve been happy with my Crank Brothers Smarties. I use them on both my road and mountain bikes. They use the egg beater type clip, but they also have a little bit of a platform, which I like. I have always felt enough float for me with the Smarties.

  10. I love my Speedplays. I used to use Look style pedals and received two pair of Speedplays for Christmas, one for each bike. After getting used to the entry with the cleats I like them very much. Surprisingly the zero float has been good for my knees after having a 9-degree float in my other pedals. I especially like the entry on both sides of the pedal – I spend less time at stop signs or lights trying to clip back in. Now I just step and go.

  11. In the past I have use SPD,Look until I saw the Speedplay in a showcase at a local bike show that’s schdule to closed for good. The owner said I can have them for $65 and at that time I was wondering tiny pedals in my mine how safe? Well, guess what, I paid the $65 got them on it the following week and that was the best set of pedals that I have purchased. Knee pain,numb feets,burning sensation are all gone!

    • I have been using Speedplay Frogs for the last three years. I bought them for two reasons. First, I wanted the float which they deliver. Second, I wanted to be able to wear mountain bike shoes, Sidi Dominators, with my road bike. Like others have said, my 59 3/4 year old knees applauded the choice. I love the simplicity of maintaining the pedals. It is literally “grease in/grease out.” You use a small grease gun to inject fresh grease into the pedal housing until it shows up escaping from around the spindle. A quick spray of dry lube on either the pedals or my cleats after every 3 or 4 rides keeps everything working great. I even put a pair of the Frog cleats on my Keen biking (spd) sandals. Talk about cool rides in the summer!

  12. Like Alice, I’m a total newbie when it comes to clip-ons. I’ve been riding for several years but have always used the caged pedals because I’ve been too afraid to try the others. My husband got me some SPDs a few weeks ago, and I had a hard time clipping on/off, so I decided to use them for spinning. I’ve used them 3 or 4 times, and they do make a big difference as far as motion, strength and stability; however, I still have a hard time clipping them on & off. There’s no way I can ride with those without falling most of the time. Reading the comments above, it sounds like the Sppedplay may be a good option for me; can someone comment on whether or not these are a good way to get introduced into clip-ons?

    • Nora,
      I still haven’t switched to Speedplays yet, so I’m not speaking from first-hand experience. But because you can clip into them on either side, they’re easier to get into than some of the Look-style pedals. As always, the best thing to do when trying clipless for the first time is to prop yourself up against something — a tree or a pole, or maybe a wall — and keep clicking in and out until you’re comfortable with the action. Then go out and ride quiet streets. After you’ve built your confidence, take them out in traffic.

  13. Pingback: Four Years of Noobishness | Bike Noob

  14. I just hopped into a pair of X1’s and I love em. It really feels natural compared to when I use to ride SPD’s some years ago.

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