So far in this series I’ve written about saddle height, the fore/aft location and the saddle itself. Now we get tricky: The cleats on the bottom of your shoes.
If you’ve ever purchased mountain biking pedals and shoes, when the mechanic at your bike shop put the cleats on he/she most likely told you that they attached the cleats in the “neutral position”. In layman’s terms, “straight, front to back”, and over the middle of the ball of your foot. This works for most people, but not all and when we’re talking about road shoes and cleats, installing them in the neutral position simply isn’t good enough. For road shoes, especially for Look style pedals, the cleats should be installed by someone who knows what they are doing – there are blocks and pointers that attach to the cleat that will guide the mechanic to the proper location and angle for your specific pedaling style – this setup will be done at the shop, on your bike, on a trainer and after a short warmup. It takes 30-45 minutes.
Now, before we get into this, I’m assuming that you’ve had your bike fitted and that your saddle is at the proper height and in the proper location.
When it comes to the cleat position on your cycling shoes, a millimeter matters – one millimeter on the cleat works out to almost a full centimeter at your heel… What this means in practical terms is that if your cleat is off by just a millimeter, your heel will either flare out (away from the bike) or in (toward the bike) by as much as a centimeter. Now, if it’s the latter, you’ll notice easily enough – your heel will hit the crank arm on the way around. If it’s toed out though, unless you pay attention to your feet as they go around (from about 3:00 to 9:00 on a clock), you may never even know there’s a problem.
The cleat angle being off, especially if we’re only talking about one shoe, going around over and over again for weeks and months at a time can lead to a whole host of leg, foot and hip pain and/or problems. When mine was off, by just a millimeter, I had some serious Achilles and hamstring pain. Also, my left foot (the one that was off) would numb up after 60 or 70 miles. Once I got the cleat straight and my heel back in line, the pain just went away – I didn’t even slow down my cycling to “rest it”. Now if you’re a noob, pay attention because this is important: when I was in the shop getting my cleats installed I have no doubt that my feet looked like they were lined up and all was well. When I was on the road though and pedaling was a little tougher, my left heel was definitely twisted out slightly. I chose to carefully move the cleat myself though I could have taken everything back to the shop to have it done there. After the shift, the pain in my left leg subsided and eventually went away.
Now, just so I can be clear here, with the exception of mountain biking (and sometimes even then), I highly recommend having your cleats installed and checked by a professional. Having my cleats installed and tuned in cost all of $30 (though this probably would have been thrown in had I bought my shoes at the shop as well as the cleats – I won my shoes as a prize). I can say with confidence that the possibility that I’d have installed my cleats on my shoes correctly is impossibly slim.
Two more things to consider are the amount and intensity of your workouts. If you’re going to be putting in an easy hundred miles a month, perfection probably won’t be quite as important as if you’ll be riding a hard hundred miles a week (in my case 150-200) – though let’s face it, if you’re only going out for a nice ride on your beach cruiser you’re probably not going to go to the trouble of installing clip-less pedals on your bike. In other words, for slower, less frequent cycling or mountain biking, the “neutral position” will probably be just fine.
As far as pain associated with misaligned cleats goes, there is a fairly large range. I had some outer ankle and heel pain and, eventually, hamstring pain associated with my heel flaring out (away from the bike). Depending on the nature of the alignment problem I can imagine the pain radiating throughout much of the offending leg though.
The main lesson here is this: Never take for granted that your setup on the bike is correct if you’re experiencing pain. Also, as you grow more confident and competent on your bike, your setup requirements can change. The more you ride, or the more you hurt when you ride, the more you have to look at your setup for flaws or problems.