Clipless Cleat Experiments: The Fore and Aft of It

Gravity riders tend to favor a rearward mountain bike pedal cleat position, so I decided to see how it feels on the trail.
The starting point with the Fixik Gravita Tensor shoes.

While nearly every one of my fast friends is switching to flat pedals I’ve spent the summer tinkering with cleat placement and pedal tension. I’ve mounted my cleats in the same spot on all of my shoes since receiving a bike fit on my cross country race bike many years ago. I no longer race, nor ride those sorts of trails and bikes, so It seemed appropriate to look at different fit options. The common move for gravity riders seems to be a rearward cleat position, so I decided to give that a shot.

In tandem with the rearward cleat placement, I have been working to drop my heels further while riding. Skills coaches and athletes have found that dipping your weight low behind the pedal spindle allows your mass to push into the pedals on turbid tracks, instead of rotating over the spindle where your heft is pitched toward the handlebar. With the cleat placed as far rearward as it can go my heels rest a little higher, preventing some rock strikes. I do still hit the soles of my shoes on things, though less often thanks to this new cleat location.

After all of the fiddling, my cleats moved roughly 1cm rearward. They are now bottomed out against the back of the shoe’s cleat track. That seemingly small shift has allowed me to descend differently, and in some ways better. With a more mid-foot cleat placement, I can shift my weight between the front to rear tire with less effort than when the cleat was under the ball of my foot. I feel more stable and less like I’m balancing on my toes while riding, which translates to a more comfortable and fun position. I was surprised that I’m also better able to weight my front tire for improved grip without adding pressure to my hands. I can simply press forward through my feet and increase front tire traction. This might be the most significant benefit of a mid-foot cleat position, as it allows for higher speed and better grip without added hand or arm fatigue.

I have single-speed knees, which means they hurt if I try to run for more than a block, and they can get cranky on the bike if I don’t set things up properly. As reach measurements have lengthened and seat tube slopes increased I have been feeling a tightness in my knees that can’t quite be stretched out. Thankfully, sliding my cleat back, and subsequently moving my foot forward, has helped the situation. Now my knee is further behind the ball of my foot, and that seems to feel better. If your madly-modern MTB is making your knees angry, I would recommend trying some different cleat positions and potentially paying for a fit if you can swing it.

The XC shoes were left a little further forward for a more efficient feel.

The flip of all this positive pedaling is that I did have to lower my saddle to accommodate a mid-foot cleat location. While that 5mm of dropper post drop is likely fine for most folks it was a tight squeeze for the frame I’m currently riding. I’m in between sizes, and my 170mm travel dropper and 165mm cranks barely allow for the right saddle height given the longer seat tube. It all worked out on my build, but this might be a tricky fit element for some shorter-legged riders who choose to ride larger frames.

Sliding the cleat back does seem to reduce the amount of leverage you have over the pedal spindle, and the mid-foot mount felt a touch less efficient while climbing. I quickly grew accustomed to the new sensation and then forgot about it, but the acclimation period was a little awkward. Related to that leverage, and points between, this was the first season I didn’t experience any leg cramps before or during sultry saddle days. My diet and training are roughly the same as always, and I can only speculate that the lack of muscle pain might have something to do with this shift in foot placement.

Those friends who have switched to flat pedals because the color options are better all run their cleats in the rear slot when they race or find other reasons to dust off the clipless shoes. They have shared that the mid-foot location feels similar to where you have to keep your foot on a flat pedal in order to properly drop your talons and maintain a connection on rough trails. For folks who switch back and forth between pedal styles, a rearward cleat might be worth checking out.

The slow slide to a midfoot position.

One friend of mine who rides clipless recently told me that he runs his pedal tension super tight so that he can’t dab if he wants to. It’s almost always faster to keep your feet up, and speed is his main goal. Also, if he wants to put a foot out he has to consciously work at it, and he feels like he is becoming a better rider because he can’t tripod whenever things become too saucy. This move is definitely not for everyone, but I’ve been giving it a shot and it does feel like there’s some weight behind his theory. Removing the bail-out option does seem to make for a different ride, and may drive some riders to hone their skill set.

Mid-foot cleat position seems to work well with the way most folks are riding today, the bikes we’re on, and the skills we’re developing to allow for more fun and added speed through the forest. It won’t fit with everyone’s body and bike geometry, but it might be worth a try for a descent or three.