The feet are the second-most important connection point on a bicycle, the first being the butt. It’s difficult for me to favor one over another (feet or butt), but the hands are easy and the feet, well they’re a little more resilient than the heinie. If I’m not riding on a saddle that works for me, I feel like I’m riding on barbed wire after 30 or 40 miles and I’ve never experienced anything that comes close to that feeling with my feet.
The photos above were taken at a bit of an awkward angle but they show the natural angle of my feet, even if I was trying to clear my knees to get the shot. Now, before we get into this, don’t think this is how your feet should look clipped into a pedal. I always recommend getting the first set of cleats lined up at a shop. After that, one can use the numbered hashes on the bottom of the shoe to line up cleats on new shoes.
With that out of the way, lets get to the question in the Title, What does it feel like when a cleat is out of alignment?
If you get one cleat that’s a little out of alignment with your natural foot/ankle/leg/knee movement, usually the “off” feeling will present in the foot if it’s a minor adjustment needed, and in the ankle or knee if it’s major. I’ve never had a cleat so far off that my ankle or knee hurt, but I’ve read enough about it. Put simply, I have a local shop that I can trust to get me fitted right so if I’ve got a major part of the leg hurting bad enough for me to notice, I’m not going to bother with self-diagnosis or repair, I’m going straight to the shop to get it sorted.
That said, the minor adjustments present themselves in the foot or ankle and I can tell you exactly and with great specificity how that feels – and more important, what to do about it. First though, let’s get one thing out of the way – where the cleat should be on the shoe front to back. Just behind your big toe knuckle, on the outside of the foot, you’ve got a bone that sticks out just a bit from the side of the foot. The outermost point of that bone is important. Next, there’s a line on the side of your cleat, slightly off-center. That line goes slightly behind (towards the heel) the point of that outer foot bone. From there, it’s just a matter of lining the cleat up, and there are several videos available on YouTube that show simple steps for how to do this yourself, if you wish, or you can always get this done at your local shop.*** The placement of the line on your cleat in relation to the foot bone described above has changed over the years. It used to be the popular thinking that the line would go in front of that bone, toward the toes. The thinking was that gave you more leverage but it put a lot of pressure on the toes and ankle.
Now, if you’re a little off, sometimes it’ll take a bit of time to figure it out. I rode the whole entire winter on the trainer (the best place, IMHO, to diagnose minor imbalances) before figuring out in the last couple of weeks that my right cleat was just a little off (less than a millimeter at the cleat – a little movement at the cleat goes a long way by the time you get all the way out to the heel). Last night I rectified that by loosening the cleat bolts partially and sliding the heel of the right shoe to the right slightly. The minor uncomfortable feeling went away immediately.
So, what does it feel like?
For a minor, < 2mm adjustments at the cleat, it’ll feel like your foot is twisted against the shoe and that your float is used up in one direction. Assuming you’ve got float in the pedals (grey or red cleats for Look Keo’s). This will likely present minutely at the ankle as well. It will feel as if you’re working against the float, meaning your cleat is off enough that the float gets used up because your foot is trying to naturally straighten itself. In my case, my heel was maybe 1/4″ too close to the crank arm and I would occasionally get the feeling my float was all used up – the idea is to have the cleat dead-on so you’re in the middle of the float when you pedal normally. A quarter of an inch at the heel isn’t much at the cleat, let me tell you.
For major adjustments >2mm at the cleat, you won’t have any float one way and your ankle, likely your knee as well, will have pressure torqued against it. If your cleat is off that much, I would suggest you discontinue riding immediately until you get the problem fixed because you’re not supposed to feel torque on your joints when you’re riding. It is possible you’ll do serious damage to your joints if you continue riding like that – even irreparable harm.
Now, to put a bow on this post – don’t be afraid to experiment a little bit with your cleats if you know your way around a bike – especially if your feet don’t feel quite right when you’re clipped in. Just remember, small pain equals tiny moves, and a little goes a long way with cleats.
***”You can always get this done at your local bike shop”… Unless you bought your shoes online. If you did, expect to pay through the nose, as is right and good, to have your cleats aligned. Mine were done for $35 total but I bought everything at the shop. Expect to pay double that if you bring your internet stuff in to be fixed at a brick and mortar shop. Their rent is expensive, and they sell stuff at a profit to afford to be there. If you cut that profit out by purchasing your stuff online, expect to make up for it elsewhere.