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by Jim Langley

Please note: This article is about positioning bicycle cleats on cycling shoes. If you are looking for information on how to install and remove pedals, please go here.

The balls of the feetA good neutral starting cleat position that works for most riders is to place the cleats so that when the shoes are clipped into the pedals, the balls of the feet are directly over the center of the pedal axles (also called the pedal "spindles").

It can be tricky to locate the exact ball of your foot and place the cleats so that the balls are directly over the pedal axles. Note that the ball of the foot is defined by Biology-Online.org as “the padded portion of the sole, at the anterior extremity of the heads of the metatarsals, upon which the weight rests when the heel is raised.

So, if you stand with your bare feet fully on the ground they touch at the heels, the balls of the feet and the toes (assuming you're not completely flat-footed). And, if you stand on tip toes, you are standing mostly on the balls of your feet.

Again, you should position your cleats to center the balls of your feet over the center of your pedals axles (see diagram).

Here's an easy way to get it right

1. With your shoe nearby, and with bare feet, place a dot of paint or a drop of whiteout (correction fluid) on the center of the ball of one foot. If you can't see the bottom of your foot well enough to do this accurately, have someone help you.
2. Immediately, so that the paint or whiteout doesn't dry first, slip on your shoe, close the straps and stand to put pressure on your foot.
3. Remove the shoe and you should find the paint dot transferred to the inside of the shoe clearly marking the ball of your foot. Repeat steps 1, 2 and 3 with your other foot.
4. You can't see the dots on the insides of your shoes from the outside when you're positioning the cleats so use this workaround: simply stick a straight pin through the side of each shoe (the side next to the crankarm). Make sure the pin exactly bisects the mark inside the shoe and sticks straight out of the shoe, not at an angle. Now, when you flip the shoes over to position the cleats you will have a pin in each as an indicator telling you exactly where the cleats needs to be positioned to put the balls of your feet directly over the pedal axles (note that you could also look at the pins and paint a line on the shoe soles if you prefer). Usually centering the cleats over the pins will be the right spots to center the balls of your feet right where they should be directly over the pedal axles.

Exceptions
Try the ball-over-the-pedal-axle position first and give it a chance to see if it feels right because it works for most riders. If it doesn't feel right, the most common adjustment to make it feel better is to move the cleats back slightly, perhaps 1/2 inch. This puts a little more of your foot over the pedal. This is often preferred by larger riders with longer legs, people who push bigger gears, climbers and time trialists, riders using long crankarms and slower pedalers.

Conversely, if you tend to ride at a high cadence, spin smaller gears, like sprinting, ride shorter crankarms and are a toes-down pedaler, you might move the cleats forward slightly, but don't overdo it. Maybe about 1/4 to 1/2 inch (about 6 - 10 mm). If you get too far out on your toes you increase the risk of "hot foot" and even Achilles injuries so experiment but only a little at a time.

Lastly, if you're an ultra-distance rider you may want to push the cleats all the way back. This type of riding often causes numbness and hot foot. A great solution discovered by long-distance champ Lon Haldeman is moving the cleats fully to the backs of the slots, which relieves pressure on the feet and has no negative side effects for this type of riding, apart from a slight increase in the possibility of toe overlap with the front wheel if you're riding a bicycle with aggressive front-end geometry.

Angle adjustment
Most clipless systems include some "float," the ability of the cleats to move slightly so that you will automatically find a natural angle to hold your feet when pedaling. However, it's important to get the cleats close to the right position when mounting them. If they're angled incorrectly there might not be enough float in the system to allow you to correctly position your feet, which could result in pain when riding or even a knee or foot injury. It can also make it harder to get in and out of clipless pedals.

A good neutral starting position that works for most riders places the cleats so that when the pedals are mounted in the shoes there is space between the heels of the shoes and the crankarms that's about 3/4 of an inch (2 cm), or about the width of an average man's index finger.

If you experience any discomfort when cycling that's associated with your cleat position, I recommend visiting a shop with an experienced cleat fitter and paying a professional to dial-in your position.

Two tricks
that help some riders: If you adjust your cleats carefully and still find that your ankle(s) is too close to the crankarm and sometimes brushes it (or worse), a simple fix is to place an automobile spark plug washer(s) between the pedal(s) and crankarm(s). The washer will slip right over it, not effect the threaded connection to the crankarm and provide several mm of clearance.

If you need more clearance, a great solution is SCOR Productions’ KneeSavers. These are custom pedal extensions that allow you to add 20, 25 or 30mm between your pedals and crankarms. You can read all about them and place an order here. A reader also told me about this generic version of these extenders available on Amazon.com (photo, right).

Mark the position
Once the cleats are perfectly positioned on your shoes be sure to mark them so that when they need replacement it's easy to find the perfect position. Some shoe soles have marks on them for this and some cleats come with marking stickers, etc. Or, you can just trace a line around the shoes in indelible ink. Or try a gold paint pen for carbon-sole shoes.

More tips
Be sure to lubricate your cleat bolts before installation, which will ensure you can get them tight enough to remain tight. And, be sure to check the bolts/screws after a few rides to make certain they are remaining tight.

If you keep a spare set of cleats on hand you will always have them if the cleats on your shoes become too worn or they break. Spare cleats also come in handy for comparing with your used cleats to determine if they're worn enough to replace them yet.

Speaking of cleat wear, you might look into rubber covers for your cleats, which are offered by a few companies. You carry them on rides and slip them over the cleats when you stop for protection and for additional traction when walking. Here are the ones I use:

Be sure to keep your clipless pedals and cleats lubricated where they meet each other to prevent clicks and creaks. A good cure is the car-care spray Armor All, which you can find in any hardware store. This works on plastic, carbon and metal cleats/pedals.


(Many thanks to www.spraypaintstencils.com for use of the basic footprint graphic I adapted for the diagram.)

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