Ask a Mechanic: Understanding Cleat Float and Pedal Tension

Rodney asks: “Can you explain clipless pedals and the difference between float and tension?”

Although seemingly complex to the uninitiated, both road and mountain clipless pedals are pretty simple. Let’s cover the most important thing first; why are they called clipless if you “clip” into them? Originally, cyclists attached foot to pedal with a cage that wrapped around the toes. The cage was commonly called a clip. When modern pedals with a cleat to pedal attachment instead of a toe clip came about, the new pedals were then “clipless.”

Pedals have a lot of engineering behind them, but what you really need to be aware of are the float and tension features.  Float refers to how much your foot can pivot unhindered when clipped in. This allows your feet and knees move a bit as you pedal. Tension is how much resistance you must overcome to release your foot from the pedal.

Cleats determine float in most pedals, so to change your float you must change your cleat. For instance, Shimano SPD-SL road cleats some in three different float options; zero, three, and six degrees. Speedplay Zero pedal cleats each have infinitely adjustable float from zero to 15 degrees. Float allows some forgiveness to your rickety knees or your legs’ alignment. Professional cyclists often prefer to have zero float to maximize power transfer to the drivetrain. Any sideways foot movement is wasted energy to a pro. Keep in mind, pro cyclists’ bikes are meticulously fit to their bodies, so there should be no need for wiggle room. By the way, cyclists of any ability will benefit from a professional bike fit.

Release angle is closely related to float. Disengaging from clipless pedals requires pivoting on the ball of your foot and twisting the heel out. The release angle is the angle at which your foot disengages from the pedal, measured from parallel to the bike. Some mountain pedals, including Crank Brothers and Time, have release angles which can be adjusted by switching the cleats between right and left shoes.

Release tension is adjustable on most pedals, with Speedplay being a notable exception. Increased tension requires more effort to twist out of your pedal, while decreased tension makes getting out of the pedals easier. Again, most pros will crank their release tension to the limit, requiring the maximum amount of effort to disengage. Beginners, cyclists new to clipless pedals, and cyclists with knee or ankle issues should start with minimum release tension and add more as they feel the need. Most pedals require a small hex key to adjust pedal tension. Tighten to increase tension and loosen to decrease tension.

Float, tension, and release angle are important metrics to consider when choosing a pedal. Now you know how to find a pedal that best meets your needs.