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How To Install Cleats On Your MTB Shoes

May 13, 2020

Getting your cleats in the right spot can be a bit of a guessing game and a poor setup can lead to premature fatigue and make you feel unstable and uncomfortable on the bike. Michael has some pro tips for installing and positioning your new cleats to suit your anatomy and riding style.

What we'll cover:

  • Removing an old set of cleats.
  • What is Float?
  • Checking the alignment of your feet.
  • Determining fore/aft cleat position.
  • Marking and aligning the cleat position.
  • Installing the cleat.

What you'll need:

Removing an old set of cleats

If you're replacing an old set of cleats, you'll probably find that the face of the bolt is packed with dried out mud, which can make it hard to get the Allen key in there. My favourite way to remove this is to drill it out with a small drill bit, but you can also use a pick or even a 1.5mm Allen key to scrape it out if you don't have anything else on hand. Once all the dirt is removed you'll be able to remove the bolt with less chance of slipping and rounding out the bolt head.

What is float?

Most clipless pedals and cleats will have a set amount of rotational free play before the foot starts to disengage from the pedal. Float gives our feet the freedom to rotate slightly while we're pedalling or moving around on the bike. The exact amount of float will vary between brands but six degrees or so is fairly common. Really aggressive riders might prefer more float so they can push hard into corners without coming unclipped while less experienced riders might prefer less float so it's easier to unclip their foot in an emergency.

Checking the alignment of your feet

Our goal with setting the angle of our cleats is to compliment the natural alignment of our foot so that you can comfortably pedal without any pressure being placed upon your ankle or knee. What we don't want is for you to feel like you're right up against the release tension on one side, and with too much float on the other. You'll run the risk of clipping out unexpectedly when you're hitting features or cornering and it can cause knee pain over time if your foot is forced into an unnatural position as you pedal.

A simple way to check the way your feet point naturally is to sit on the edge of a bench or high stool and let your legs hang freely. If your feet point in or out slightly you can experiment with offsetting the angle on your cleats to compensate so that you end up with an even amount of float on both sides throughout the pedal stroke.

  • To move your heel in, rotate the tip of the cleat towards the centre line of the bike.
  • To move your heel out, rotate the tip of the cleat away from the centreline of the bike.

Determining fore/aft cleat position

Where our foot sits in relation to the pedal axle can have a huge effect on the efficiency of our pedal stroke and how stable we feel on the bike. There are a couple of schools of thought when it comes to fore/aft cleat positioning.

Forward Cleat Position

  • Pros: Better peak torque generation and standing sprinting performance. Good for climbing and snappy acceleration.
  • Cons: Increased load on the calf muscle, more effort required to stabilise the foot, harder to maintain sustained efforts.

Rearward Cleat Position

  • Pros: Better recruitment of the glutes and hamstrings, reduced load on calves, less effort required to keep the foot stable, better for sustained efforts and descending.
  • Cons: Slower acceleration, lower peak torque.

XC racers and road riders tend to prefer a more forward cleat position as this generates a snappier pedal stroke with greater emphasis on acceleration and peak torque generation for short durations. This does come at the expense of stability as the calf muscle is forced to work harder and can fatigue faster than the larger muscle groups in the upper leg.

Gravity riders tend to prefer the cleat positioned further back towards the midfoot as it's more stable and the calf muscle doesn't have to work as hard to keep the foot and ankle stable. The more rearward position brings the larger upper leg muscles such as the quads, glutes, and hamstrings into play which is better for maintaining a solid position during long descents. It's possible to sustain efforts for longer but this comes at the expense of peak torque generation and acceleration is a bit less snappy.

Which way is the right way? There is really no correct answer to this as it really comes down to personal preference. There are plenty of mixed opinions out there but the only way to know for sure is to try things out for yourself and see how it feels.

Marking and aligning the cleat position

There are some pretty scientific ways that a professional bike fitter will use to identify the exact location of your 1st and 5th metatarsal joints but this method works well enough for most people to locate the ball of their foot.

Put your riding shoe on, grab a marker and feel around until you find the big bony joint at the base of your big toe. Put a small mark on the spot and remove your shoe.

With a straight edge use the mark as a guide to line it up with the cleat box and make another mark on either side so you have a visual indication for where the ball of your foot is.

It's all up to personal preference from here but the rule of thumb is that a more forward cleat position is better for climbing, and a more rearward position is better for descending. Your preferred position might be close to the ball of the foot, slammed back as far as it will go, or somewhere in between.

Installing the cleat

To ensure that your cleat bolts not only stay put, but come out again when you want them to, I like to put a tiny bit of grease under the head of the bolt so it doesn't seize in place over time. I also like to put some blue Loctite on the threads so they won't back out and fall out on the trail somewhere.

Line up your cleat and install the bolts, add a little tension to each bolt and keep alternating between them until they're snug, but don't go crazy or you might round out the head or strip the thread on the cleat plate.

Now the first cleat is installed we can do the same with the second one. Leave the bolts a little loose and line up the two shoes and make sure that both cleats are in the same position before you snug them down on the second shoe.

It's worth noting here that your new cleats will feel a bit firmer for the first few rides so it might be a good idea to back your tension off a couple of clicks until you adjust to them. I like to prop my bike up against a wall and clip in and out a few times on each foot to make sure that I'm satisfied with the positioning and tension before I hit the trails.

Need a fresh set of cleats? Or maybe the shoes are ready for a refresh? Check out our range of cleats and clipless shoes here:

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Meet Michael!

Michael has always loved bikes, and began turning his passion into a career while still in high school, selling MTB parts from underneath his parent's house. Things have transformed since then and he's now co-owner of MTB Direct. His regular role is project management, especially around some rad new features for the site. When he's not out riding one of his many mountain bikes, he's looking after his two little girls and teaching them to ride!