SPD cleats

OK, so you want to ride your mountain or road bike clipless, and we are assuming you will go with the SPD system, so let’s recap what you will need:

As I have described in detail elsewhere there are actually two SPD systems produced by Shimano – plain SPD and SPD-SL. At risk of oversimplifying, the former is used primarily by mountain-bikers, while the latter by road cyclists. The two systems are effectively incompatible, EXCEPT that many SPD shoes will have holes/slots to take both types of cleat, and there are also adapters available to allow you to use SPD-SL shoes on an SPD pedal (though I am not sure about the other way around, maybe someone can help me on that one). However, you MUST have the right cleat for the right type of pedal – SPD for SPD, SPD-SL for SPD-SL.

What is a cleat?

The cleats used in the SPD and other clipless systems are basically a rigid metal or nylon resin (in the case of SPD and SPD-SL respectively) plate with no moving  parts that screws into the bottom of your SPD shoes and is engineered in such a way that when pressed down firmly on the pedal it prises apart the spring mechanism on the pedal which then snaps shut around the cleat and fixes your foot, and cannot easily be removed. The shape of the cleat is such, though, that rotating the shoe – usually outwards, a motion you would not naturally perform when riding – levers apart the pedal’s ‘jaws’ once again and the cleat springs out and you are free! Simple but ingenious and it has revolutionised clipless riding.

Here is a picture of a regular pair of SPD cleats

Shimano SH51 SPD cleats

…and a set of SPD-SL road cleats.

Shimano SH11 SPD-SL cleats

You will immediately be struck by the huge difference between them!

By the way, the cleats are shown ‘exploded’ here – what you see in the first picture (Shimano SH51) is the backplate which goes inside the shoe, on the other side of the slots, into which the actual cleat screws. Below it in the same picture is the actual cleat and then below that are the mounting screws. The SPD-SL cleat (SH11) is also pictured disassembled.

Because of the scale of the photos you maybe can’t appreciate that the MTB cleat (top) is MUCH smaller than the road cycling clear below – not much more than a third of the size maybe. The mountain bike SPD cleat is much smaller for a number of reasons: mainly because its small profile allows it to be recessed in the shoe, between the treads, which allows the rider to dismount and walk, push or carry his bike on rough terrain. The large road cleats would obviously be a massive hindrance. Indeed, walking in road shoes with SPD-SL cleats is very ungainly and is avoided by riders as much as possible – the cleats get worn that way, apart from anything, (though rubber covers can be bought for SPD-SL cleats) and it is very awkward too. But the advantage for the road rider is that a much greater surface of his or her foot is connected to the SPD shoe, and therefore the pedal, a fact contributed to by the three anchor points on the shoe too, theoretically giving greater stability and efficiency.

Choosing SPD cleats

Obviously when choosing SPD cleats your primary concern will be that they are of the correct type for your shoe – SPD or SPD-SL (two-slot or three-hole respectively). If you are going SPD for the first time, perhaps it would just be safer to stick with Shimano parts. Shimano have two basic models of SPD cleat (the SH51 and the SH56) and two models of SPD-SL (the SH10 and the SH11), which makes things pretty simple – ignore the others you see around for now. The differences are as follows:

Difference between SPD-SL SH10 and Sh11

The difference is in the amount of ‘float’ available.

  • SH10 (red detail) – zero float
  • SH11 (yellow detail) – 6 degrees of left/right float

What is float? Basically it refers to the amount of play your foot has whilst clipped in – some prefer to have absolute rigidity, while others, especially those with a tendency to knee problems, prefer to have a little float left and right. This is fixed at 6 degrees for the SH11 and can’t be adjusted per se, though adjusting the tension on the pedal will give you a little room for manoeuvre.

Extra float CAN make it a little more difficult to unclip, because you have to overcome the extra play before you can release, so a cleat with minimum float (i.e. the SH10) might be a better bet for SPD beginners.

By the way, a nice detail with these Shimano SPD-SL cleats is that the coloured details on them gradually wear down with use, and when the paint is worn right off you know that it’s time to change the cleat. I will get round to cleat wear in another article, but suffice to say that cleats do get worn down eventually and start to move around and even unclip themselves at inopportune moments.

Difference between SH51 and SH56

The difference between the two main Shimano regular SPD cleats has nothing to do with ‘float’ – the basic difference is as follows:

  • SH51 (black) – single-release
  • SH56 (silver) – multi-release

Multi-release (SH56) means that you can unclip from the pedal by turning your heel in any direction and popping out. The thinking goes that this is a better option for those new to SPD, since they can get unclipped more easily in a pinch. Single-release cleats (SH56) only unclip when you turn your heel outward, which means it is theoretically harder to unclip accidentally. A few thoughts about that: firstly you CAN unclip with SH51s by rotating your heel inwards too, it’s just not as easy. So they are not truly single-release. Multi-release cleats are often supplied with new pedals for some reason, not sure why, and it is tempting for newbies to go with what seems like a ‘safer’ option, but my own approach was to ditch the multis I got with my first SPD pedals and put single-release on straight away. Why learn bad habits with this ‘halfway’ option? I just felt it was better to jump in the deep end and learn with single-release, as I would have graduated onto them anyway as multi-release do not seem like a good idea for racing purposes – there is more chance of them popping out at inopportune moments.  You may think differently, but I thought it was worth mentioning.

About the colours (black and silver respectively), these seem to play no significant role here other than in distinguishing them when they are new. The black finish on the SH51s gets worn off after just a couple of rides and it ends up looking the same as the SH56. Incidentally, I have studied these two cleat types closely, and I am darned if I can tell what the physical difference is, i.e. how the ‘multi-release’ effect is achieved! I suspect it’s down to a very small difference in some of the angles on the cleat, and like I say, single-release cleats are ‘multi’ to an extent in any case.

I hope that has served to clear up any mystery surrounding SPD cleats for you and you will now easily be able to make your choice depending on your needs. Leave a comment here if you have any questions, or if I have missed anything out!

More about SPD cleats:

[catlist name=”SPD cleats” numberposts=”10″ orderby=”rand”]


15 Responses to “SPD cleats”

  1. Multi release pedals can also be released by pulling “up” as well as twisting out. Usually more force is required than your usual pedalling stroke though.

    Great site as i’m looking for my first “spuds” after riding seriously for about 10 years! But less riding off-road means that the V12’s are having to make way for the future…

    Posted by Mac Macaulay | May 26, 2011, 8:31 pm
    • Mac, thanks for clarifying that, I wasn’t 100% sure as I have never actually used multi-release cleats (cleats, not pedals, you meant?) So a kind of upward motion DOES unclip you? I can’t quite imagine how much force you WOULD need, then, as a rider can generate a fair amount of upward force on the upstroke. I would be worried about either pulling out accidentally, or not being able to unclip that way if I wanted to and doing a “clipless topple”. Is that not an issue?

      And why less riding offroad? I can’t imagine ever riding less offroad :). I know, life happens, but I am still hanging on in there for now!

      Posted by admin | May 26, 2011, 8:44 pm
      • Single-release cleats (SH51) means that they unclip when you twist your heel in or out, Single meaning: that you can release with a single type of movement only, a horizontal movement of the heel. (Right or Left).

        Multi-release (SH56) means that along with the right or left movement of the heel you can also pull strait up from the pedal in a panic situation and the cleat will open the pedal. Multi means: you can release from more than one direction, horizontal movement and vertical movement.

        The main reason that we all feel it is not as easy to twist your heel in is that your legs are in a poor biomechanical position to twist in when on the bike.

        -A footnote to twisting your heel in to get out of your pedals, this should only be done when you are at zero miles per hour. The first time you twist your heel into the spokes at 5m.p.h. you won’t soon do that again. One perfect situation I have found for the need to twist in, is when faced with no place but air to put you release foot down on a steep lower trail side, while you already leaning to that side. The best release is a hard heel in with a long step down the hill. Instead of high siding yourself down the hill, “Flop-Flop-Flop” while all of the time your friends are trying not to laugh to hard.

        As for the multi cleats coming with some pedals that is true, but they only come with multi-purpose Pedals like the PD-M324.

        -A footnote to this type of pedal as oppose to a duel sided SPD, the multi-purpose pedals “PD-M324” are great for the low mileage road rider that does not clip in that often, for whatever reason. Conversely they are very frustrating to most people that are riding technically challenging single-track, as they flop around preventing you from getting in to them quickly or easily on bumpy trails.


        Posted by TJ Graham | July 28, 2011, 11:22 am
        • TJ, AWESOME explanation/clarification, thanks for that! If I may I will edit the original article a little to incorporate some salient points from your comments. Much appreciated (amongst all the spam I have to delete from here daily).

          Posted by admin | July 28, 2011, 11:31 am
  2. 3 years ago I broke my ankle and can no longer roll/rotate my foot laterally. The only way to get out of the single release on lowest tension was to have my leg fully extended and rotate at the hip, not always practical while trailriding. Toe clips were not an answer because in a fall they don’t allow the foot to rotate out of position and wrench the ankle instead. Last week a LBS explained the two types of SH cleats and suggested the SH56s. They solved the problem! A rider with limited ankle motion will be well served by starting with the multi-release system. Thanks for the excellent review.

    Posted by James DeBoard | September 5, 2011, 11:23 pm
    • James, thanks for your comments. I never thought about the multi-release being of benefit to someone with a leg injury. Funnily enough I am currently laid up with a broken hip. Once it is fixed (if I am even allowed to ride) I had also envisaged having trouble twisting my leg to get out of SPDs so this might be a solution for me too! However, I partly put my injury down to SPDs and not being able to unclip in time, so I am a bit spooked about the whole clipless thing right now… I imagine I will be wearing them VERY loose if I wear them at all..!

      Posted by Mark | September 7, 2011, 7:15 am
  3. I am getting back into riding after being away for 15 years. The gear has changed some. Thanks for clearing up the differences in these new style clipless shoes and pedels. This information is awesome.

    Posted by Mike Flores | December 28, 2011, 7:01 am
  4. Do you know where you can source replacement rectangular washers and bolts for the SPD-SL cleats? I’ve lost two while riding and I can find sellers on eBay who sell the bolts, though not the washers -- can you help?

    Posted by Craig Riley | January 7, 2012, 8:28 pm
  5. I am using SPDs for the first time at the age of 65, used toe clips up to now. I am not worried about forgetting to un clip when coming to a stop as I have just bought my self a 65th birthday present a recumbent trike, magic.

    Posted by Dave Abingdon Oxonian | August 7, 2012, 3:27 am
    • That’s the ideal solution :). I tried riding a recumbent though (regular, not trike) and it was pretty scary clipping in, as obviously I had no clue how to keep my balance, yet it’s hard to pedal without cleats as your feet are up in the air! All in all, I didn’t get very far..!

      Posted by Mark | October 5, 2012, 11:05 am
  6. Just a note about the physical difference between multi-release and single-release cleats -- the single-release have a 90 degree edge on the mating surface, while the multi-releases have a 45 degree edge. The image in this comparison article makes it very clear: http://faqload.com/faqs/bicycle-components/drivetrain/shimano-single-and-multi-release-spd-cleats-compared



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  1. […] one of our featured articles (see here) we talked in general about SPD cleats, so some of this will kind of be repetition. But just to […]

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