This is part 2 of the The 5 Most Common Bike Fitting Problems. If you would like to view Part 1 first, you can click here.
As a quick recap, the 5 most common bike fitting issues were:
1. Leg alignment issues
2. Saddle too high or too low
3. Poor cleat position
4. Saddle tilted up or down
5. Reach to the handlebars (either too bunched or too stretched out)
I covered the first two problems in the last article, and I’ll address issue #3 this time around – poor cleat position.
Poor Cleat Position – The foot/pedal interface
There is really no way for me to tell whether or not someone has their cleats positioned properly by simply catching a quick glimpse of them out on the road. This is especially true when it comes to the fore/aft position of the cleat. Even when I put a client up on a trainer and can evaluate them up close, I still can’t identify the proper cleat position until I complete a detailed foot and gait analysis. So, why is it that I’ve even included this issue in this Top 5 list?
Even though I can’t determine exact cleat placement by a quick visual scan, it’s pretty easy for me to tell when someone is pedaling with extreme cleat rotation, that is to say the amount of heel in or heel out shoe position while pedaling (the less flattering terminology being “pigeon toed” or “duck toed” pedaling).
Most people should have their cleats setup to somewhat mimic the angle their feet point when walking, so cleat position should be set accordingly. The vast majority of cyclists who don’t have a neutral cleat position (shoes/feet pointing straight ahead when clipped in) usually need to position their heels inward (duck toed) while pedaling, while those in the minority, the pigeon toed style of pedaling, will need to position their heel outward. Here’s the problem: many will overcompensate for the amount of rotation needed and ride with very exaggerated heel in/out positions. Now, sometimes this is a result of pedal systems that have lot of free float built into the pedal/cleat, and that’s just the way a cyclist’s feet/shoes end up pointing. Other times it is an intentional decision to angle the shoe in such a fashion, usually in an effort to obtain comfort on the pedals, oftentimes in a vain attempt get rid of shoe hot spots or cramping in the arch or toes.
The Underlying Problem
Whether intentional or not, the root problem of extreme cleat rotation can usually be attributed to improper stance width on the pedals, or more commonly, angulation/tilt in the forefoot area. I should also mention that these are the very same issues that lead to most of the alignment problems discussed in the previous installment of this article. The cures for these biomechanical inefficiencies are usually accomplished by aligning the foot and pedal with both the knee and hip; power to the pedals is then transmitted in a straight line directly down through the ball and socket joint at the hip, in a direct path through the knees and then to the pedals. Once this alignment is accomplished, very often the amount of rotation needed on the cleat is minimized resulting in much greater foot comfort. Those with a history of clipping their ankle on the crank arm due to extreme heel in/duck toed pedaling will finally find freedom from this problem.
The Remedy - Leg Alignment
Very often I’ll need to use wedges to cant the forefoot to correct for amount of tilt across the ball of the foot mentioned earlier; these can be installed either in the shoe or between the cleat and shoe. If your stance width needs to be widened beyond the limits of the cleat or pedal, then one or two 1 mm washers can be placed between the pedal spindle and crank arm. Pedal spacers are also available, and these can widen the stance width by an additional 20, 25, or 30mm. If stance width needs to be narrowed, it may even necessitate a switch to a pedal system with a shorter spindle length. Shims (added material that effectively increases shoe sole thickness) may also be in order if I’m trying to correct for a difference in leg lengths.
As for proper fore/aft positioning of the cleat, I recommend positioning the middle of the cleat so that it is right around the ball of the foot, just slightly behind the first metatarsal head (the boney bump on the side of your foot, just below the big toe). Make sure both cleats are in the same spot on both feet, otherwise you are creating a functional leg length difference, which can cause all kinds of aches and pains (usually around the knees and lower back).
As you can see, the correct foot/pedal interface is not just as simple as moving your cleats around on the bottom of your shoe. Using wedges, pedal washers/spacers, and shims, along with proper cleat placement, are very often the missing, most overlooked, and important ingredients to perfecting your fit and biomechanics on the bike. I don’t advise trying to correct alignment issues on your own with any of the commercially available products (i.e. Specialized, LeWedge, The Wedge, etc.) – do this wrong, and you are ripe for an injury. At the very least, your forefoot should be measured to first determine the degree of angulation and number of wedges that might be needed. This is definitely one situation where it’s best to seek out professional guidance.
Eric Bowen, the owner of VeloFitter, is the author of all articles.