THE MORE OPTIONS YOU HAVE TO FIT YOUR BIKE TO YOUR BODY, THE BETTER YOUR BIKE WILL FIT, THE FASTER YOU’LL RIDE AND THE HAPPIER YOU’LL BE. OPTIONS ARE GOOD.
THE OPTIONS: With the availability of products like Big Meat Power Wedges from Bicycle Fitting Systems, the introduction of Look’s CX7 road pedal and Specialized’s Body Geometry shoes, manufacturers are opening a new dimension in bike-fitting possibilities–foot tilt. When you clip into traditional clipless pedals using traditional shoes and cleats, your foot is held in a flat position, parallel to the pedal axle, which makes a 90-degree angle relative to the crankarm. The three aforementioned products allow you to ride with something other than that 90-degree angle. Specialized’s shoe adds 1.5 degrees, making for a 91.5-degree interface (the inside of your foot is held higher than the outside).
The Big Meat cleat shims (which work with existing Look or SFD shoes and cleats) allow you to adjust your foot position in one-degree increments-positive or negative. The Look pedal uses special inserts, which allow your foot to be positioned anywhere between 87 and 93 degrees in 1.5-degree increments.
THE CONCEPT: The idea is that you can make an adjustment so your knee and ankle are held in a desirable, neutral position at the same time, resulting in a smoother pedal stroke and less lateral knee movement during the pedal stroke, This translates to a reduced risk of repetitive-stress knee injuries, and improved efficiency on the bike.
WHAT’S RIGHT FOR YOU? Look, Specialized and the guys at Bicycle Fitting Systems agree that comfort should be your ultimate guide in setting cleat position.
Paul Swift, the man behind the Big Meat shims, and Andy Pruitt, designer of the Specialized shoe, reference a study by The Journal of Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy, which indicates that only 4% of humans have a naturally level foot position. According to the study, 87% of humans have forefoot varus, which means that when their ankle is in a neutral position, the inside of the ball of their foot is held slightly higher than the outside, a condition best accommodated by a greater-than-90-degree angle at the pedal. The same study indicates that 9% of us have forefoot valgus, meaning that the inside of the ball of the foot naturally rests lower than the outside, and is best accommodated by a less-than-90-degree angle.
BEFORE YOU BUY: We’re talking about your knees and your money–both of which should be relatively important to you. This is a classic example of a time when it’s critical to try before you buy. It may not seem like much, but 1.5 degrees on the bike is an enormous change. You can feel it at the shoe, and see a change in the distance between your knees.
With the Specialized shoe, if you buy it and don’t like it, kiss your cash goodbye. To some extent, the same is tine of the Look system. (Yes, the CX7 pedals allow some level of adjustment, but why pay for adjustment and invite the extra complexity that comes with it if it turns out you’re best served by a flat pedal?) The Big Meat shims really represent the most-economical, lowest-risk way to go; for $25 you get eight shims that can be used to create positive or negative angle changes of up to four degrees. The downside is that they position your foot higher off the pedal, which decreases stability and can require a change in saddle position.
GEEK ADVICE: Regardless of which system you’re interested in, buy a set of Big Meats first, and try them to see what feels best. If you like the Big Meats, great. Keep them, use them, be happy. If you find you want something between one and two degrees of positive tilt, you can be assured that the Specialized or Look products will work well for you. If you find you need a negative angle, you can go with either the Big Meat shims or Look road pedals, but not the Specialized shoe. If, after trying the Big Meats, you realize you’re most comfortable with a flat pedal, you can happily go back to your old setup, and you’re only out $25.
A FINAL NOTE: It’s probable that this technology will continue to be refined. It shouldn’t be long until we see pedals with an infinite range of adjustment from +3 to -3 degrees, or shoes with a modular sole system to allow more than one setting. If you aren’t having knee problems and have a relatively smooth pedal stroke, you’d be well served to wait for the next generation of this type of product. For more info, check out specialized.com, lookcyclesusa.com or bicyclefit.com.