Put simply, SPD shoes are cycling shoes made specifically to be compatible with the SPD ‘clipless’ system originally developed by Shimano but now widely used by all manufacturers. We’re going to try to clear up some of the confusion you may well have about the different types of clipless pedal and shoe and the compatibility between them. But first, the basics.
What is SPD for and why would you use it?
You can find more information about the SPD system and its benefits elsewhere on this site, but in short, this system allows your SPD shoes and therefore your feet to be anchored firmly to the pedals of your bike while you are riding. This is achieved using a plate (‘cleat’) fixed to the bottom of your cycling shoe which clicks into a spring-loaded catch on the pedal and can only be unclipped with a particular motion of the foot.
Why do you need SPD shoes specifically, then? Well, the cleat is typically bought together with the pedal or separately, not with the shoe, and cannot just be attached to any shoe. The shoe has to have a particular configuration of holes/slots in the sole into which the cleat is screwed – there is also a little plate on the other side of the sole, usually covered by the insole, into which the cleat actually screws, giving a metal-on-metal connection.
If you find all this obvious then move along to some of the other articles on this site, this is not for you. But this can be confusing for anyone wanting to ‘go clipless’ and who is buying SPD shoes for the first time. I certainly found all this hard to get my head round when I first went clipless. So if this is you, read on!
There are actually TWO SPD systems, not directly compatible with one another. Wait! I know, you are sighing in exasperation, but it’s not really a big deal. Here’s the simple explanation:
- One is the ‘regular’ SPD system and is used primarily by mountain-bikers.
- The other is the SPD-SL system and is pretty much only used on road-bikes
Having said this, there is no actual reason why you shouldn’t put regular SPD pedals on a road bike. You will see this most commonly with mountain-bikers who want to wear the same SPD shoes when they go out on road rides and just unclip from their mountain bike and clip into their road bike. The reverse situation is much less common – SPD-SL cleats are rather large and impractical, especially for walking (pushing uphill!) in and you will rarely see mountain-bikers using the SPD-SL system.
Here’s the catch – SPD and SPD-SL require a different configuration of holes in the sole of the shoe, the former two slots, the latter three holes. Here is a look at these two types of SPD shoe:
SPD shoes – look for two slots
This picture shows a pair of Shimano MT41 SPD shoes (random example) and you can very clearly see the two slots inset in the sole, into which the standard SPD cleats bolt. Look for this on your shoes, or a combination of slots that include this configuration (some shoes have holes/slots compatible with several different systems – see below). If you find these two characteristic slots then you can be sure you are looking at regular SPD-compatible shoes, and you can also be sure they are no good for the SPD-SL system. Also, if they have JUST the two slots then you are probably looking at shoes primarily intended for mountain biking. However, some shoes (usually road shoes) may have BOTH the two slots for SPD AND the three holes for SPD-SL – more about that in a minute.
So in summary, and at the risk of oversimplifying: mountain-biking = two slots = SPD!
SPD-SL shoes – look for 3 holes
If you have decided on the SPD-SL system, which will almost certainly mean you are primarily a road biker, then you will need to look out for shoes with three holes in a triangular arrangement – here is a picture of that, these are Shimano SH R098a road shoes, and you will see them specifically advertised as SPD-SL shoes.
See the three-hole arrangement? It is actually compatible with several other clipless systems too, not just SPD-SL, such as the Look system, but we won’t go into that here. So, again, to put it very simply: road-biking = 3 holes = SPD-SL.
Now, here’s a point to note. A great many SPD shoes primarily intended for road cycling will in fact have BOTH sets of holes and can take both SPD-SL AND SPD cleats. This is what that looks like:
Hope you can see that – both the 3 holes and the two slots are incorporated into the sole of this and many other SPD shoes, so you can buy this type of SPD shoe whether you want to ride SPD or SPD-SL – or even both! In practice, though, most riders won’t swap cleats that often. It’s actually easier to swap pedals, or just swap bikes if you have that luxury!
So, if you are planning to start cycling with clipless pedals then you will normally FIRST decide which clipping mechanism you want to go for, and that will determine the type of pedals you will buy. Effectively, then, the shoes are the last thing you will choose, probably, based on whether you went with SPD or SPD-SL (or of course some other clipless system – we won’t cover those for the time being).
Assuming you have decided on the SPD or SPD-SL system, and you are now looking for the right shoes, you need to look out for models that are described as SPD or SPD-SL compatible. Unfortunately, for some reason, many SPD shoes are not clearly labelled as such. Maybe it is because the shoes are also compatible with other systems but still, I wish they would state this more clearly in many cases. So when hunting around the listings you have to look a little more closely to check for the compatibility, and in particular check the number of holes/slots and you cannot go far wrong.
My aim with this article has been to clear up the confusion often experienced by cyclists going clipless and choosing shoes for the first time – I hope I have succeeded! Let me know in the comments below if there is anything I should add or clarify!
Learn more about different models of SPD shoes:
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