Back in the good ol’ days, I didn’t give much thought to fitting a bike after it was purchased. After all, I’d already spent the time making sure I got the right size. This consisted of straddling the toptube with 1-2” of clearance (or in my case, barely clearing the toptube of my shiny new Peugeot UO-9 so I’d have “room to grow…” which I never did). I set the saddle height so I had a little bend at the knee at the bottom of the pedal stroke, and then lowered the stem to look like a “racer”. I was good to go. This method served me well for many miles over many years.
When I wanted to start road racing I was told I’d need “real” cycling shoes with cleats. I bought a pair of narrow leather shoes a half size small (“they’ll stretch”), and some new toe straps (“they won’t stretch”). The manager at the bike shop where I worked observed me pedaling on a trainer (he was a very forward-thinking guy) and then bolted the cleats under the balls of my feet. Good to go.
The following season, I bought a friend’s used Colnago and she took pity on me and threw in a pair of Look pedals. I bought some new shoes– still small but not quite as toe-crunching narrow—and moved the cleats slightly forward under my toes, as I had recently read that this was the correct placement for cyclists with small feet (increase leverage by increasing the lever length or something like that). Still good to go for many more years. I adopted this cleat position for my mountain bike shoes, too.
After “retiring” from bike racing, I took a prolonged break from my road bike. I was having fun exploring on my cross bike and not worrying about my heart rate or lactate threshold. When I finally ventured out on my road bike the following summer I was mildly shocked to realize how awful my feet felt and how unstable I felt climbing out of the saddle. I felt like my ankles and knees were working overtime to compensate. It was hard to believe my position had felt fine for all those years. It also got me thinking about my pedal and shoe setup on my cross bike and how that could use some improvement as well.
First up: Two pairs of new shoes in the right size with a nice, wide toebox (thanks, Specialized); shoes that I can honestly wear all day. Happy feet.
Next: It was time to reconsider my archaic cleat position to which I’d (amazingly) adapted quite well. I installed the new cleats slightly behind the ball of each foot. I knew it was right as soon as I clipped in (cue clouds parting and angels singing). I felt stable, comfortable and efficient right up the chain from feet to ankles to knees.
Most current bike fitting protocols agree that positioning the cleat under the ball of the foot is outdated; the recommended “New” neutral position is under the 3rd metatarsal head (roughly halfway between the 1st met head (“ball” of the foot) and 5th met head (base of the pinky toe). Since I first moved my cleats back many years ago, I’ve subsequently moved them back 1-2mm further every time I replaced my cleats just to see how it feels… and it always feels better. Both sets of cleats are currently as far back as my shoes allow. Of course every adjustment affects another, so I’ve lowered my saddle since the good ‘ol days, too.
There are several other facets of cleat positioning in addition to fore-aft that I’ll focus on in future posts, but I thought I’d start with this one because it’s simple and is really the foundation of a good bike fit.
Thanks for reading.
(Photo Credit: Ryan King)