MTB SPD Pedals ON A ROAD BIKE? GO or NO-GO… My experience!
MTB SPD cleats and Road SPD-SL cleats: friends, but that's all

MTB SPD Pedals ON A ROAD BIKE? GO or NO-GO… My experience!

Hello to you, and welcome, Dear Reader! It’s lovely to have you here! So MTB SPD pedals and shoes on a Road Bike, can it be done? And are there any drawbacks to doing things this way?

Answer: Yes, mountain bike pedals and shoes are perfectly fine on your road bike. I think the drawbacks for most people regarding lesser stiffness (in comparison with road-specific shoes) and perhaps smaller pedal/shoe contact area are indiscernible for normal everyday riding. For me, however, there were a few persistent niggles and a few foot-health specifics moreover that tipped the scales away from my MTB SPDs on my road bike. Some might be food for thought for you too. But let’s start at the beginning…

So what’s the essential difference between pedals and shoes designated for road bike use, and pedals and shoes designated for mountain bike use – and I say designated because pedals all have a standard 9/16 thread and fit your cranks no matter what kind they are – so what’s the difference then?

While there are differing systems by manufacturer, Look, Speedplay, Shimano, Crank Bros and others, I’m using the two Shimano systems as exemplar here only because that’s the kind of shoes and pedals I currently have to take pics of. For Shimano, their mountain bike or offroad standard was the Shimano Pedaling Dynamics (SPD) standard that’s still used. It’s a two-bolt, metal cleat system with matching drillings in the soles of the shoe. Pedals usually allow cleat entry on both sides, though some variants can have a cage or flat side for non-clip shoes. Off-road SPD shoes more often than not have a recess or cutaway that the cleat sits within. This facilitates walking.

cycling-questions-spds-on-a-road-bike
Two bolt mountain bike SPD shoes and pedals (Shimano M089 shoes and M540 pedals)

Shimano’s road bike standard that we use now is a three-bolt pattern SPD-SL consisting of larger cleats and slightly larger contact area on the pedals too. Pedals are single-sided. The shoes have un-treaded, smooth soles and the cleat sits proud of the sole. Cleats usually have rubber or plastic bumpers to allow at least some kind of “walking”. And if you wear them, you’ll understand already 😀

cycling-questions-spd-sl-pedals-for-road-bikes
Three bolt road bike SPD-SL shoes and pedals (Shimano RP3 shoes and R540 pedals)

Just a point of note too, many road-type shoes allow you to choose either a two bolt or three bolt cleat as below…

cycling-questions-giro-savix-two-or-three-bolt-cleats
Giro Savix like other road shoe soles can accept either a two bolt SPD or three bolt SPD-SL style cleat as the arrow indicates

Remember though a two-bolt cleat will stick out from the sole as there won’t be any sole treads to recess the cleat into. And the metal, two-bolt SPD cleats aren’t the most steadying to walk on in road shoes like this.

What’s it like riding the road bike with MTB SPDs then?

In all honesty, I didn’t make a conscious choice to get a road bike then to slap on MTB pedals. Rather, I already had the MTB pedals and shoes and, yeah, that’s what I had so that’s what went on the road bike when I got it. So I’ve been riding for about 18 months now specifically on the road bike with the two-bolt SPDs and the M089 shoes.

Benefits of riding MTB SPDs on the road bike:

  1. I like the two sidedness. Practically speaking I think if you’re used to the single-sided road pedals I don’t think this is any great advantage. For me, I just like that the pedal is always easily accessed by the cleat without much hunting. I don’t need to flip the pedal any way. the clip always seems to present itself. I have the odd miss now and again, but when that happens, the treads on the soles of the M089 shoes (as with most off-road shoes) holds the pedal under the arch of your foot while the crank rotates for another try. I found this speed of clip access very welcome when on the MTB itself, specially pushing off on a steep incline when there’s no time for hunting to get clipped in before you stall. But the same thing applies on the road – I’ve found that double-sided makes the clip in fast.
  2. I like the clip-in action on the M540 pedals. I found it super easy to clip in. I have a fairly high tension on my right which stays clipped and a slightly lower tension on my left which is my dab foot. I don’t have to force anything to get in and getting out is no issue. Even the couple of times I’ve had to bail when a tight manoeuvre went, um… wrong! still I was able to pull out quickly (backwards with the natural automatic bail-out-and-save-yourself motion without having to consciously twist!)
  3. I found it way easier to walk in the MTB shoes. Of course if you’re not going to be walking any, it hardly matters. But for me at least, even wheeling the bike from the garage out onto the road, the fact that I can walk normally in MTB SPD shoes is a given. Subjectively speaking, I feel more secure putting a foot down in the wet or frosty conditions than with SPD-SL cleats.
    • Dabbing the foot when stopped at junctions or lights is no problem either.
      cycling-questions-flr-f22-shoes-sole-bumpers
      Toe bumpers for dabbing as indicated on the sole of these nice FLR F22 road shoes

      Though, in fairness, there isn’t a huge difference over road shoes with SPD-SL cleats provided there’s a decent front bumper on the front sole of the shoes themselves. Not all road shoes do have that. I find it’s good if they do for that reason.

  4. I like the hard-wearing little cleats. The MTB cleats are metal. They’re hard wearing. I think I’ve only had maybe three sets in six years. I mean they’ve been scuffed up badly because they still do contact the ground when walking anywhere at all, but they still function just fine, even if the bolts got a taste of surface corrosion on them!
  5. Low maintenance sealed bearings. This applies to both kinds of pedal. But if your budget allows a version of a pedal with sealed bearings I think it’s worth it. I know I ought to have had better maintenance habits, but it was six years(!) before I stripped my MTB PD-540s (you can see the state of them in the pic above) and that was only because the cone worked very slightly loose. I’d class these as practically maintenance-free over their serviceable life. Again, the same applies for road SPD-SL pedals too.

Issues, minor niggles and problems

I’ve noticed a few issues while on the road bike in particular. I didn’t notice these before. Or at least, I didn’t notice to the same degree perhaps, that I notice now.

  1. Creaking. I find that I have to endlessly grease the cleats to stop them from creaking on the pedal. I’ve cleaned both many times. I thought the last time I replaced the cleats it might’ve been simply that the face-down surface had work from walking and was the cause of the creak. New cleats did seem to help for a bit. Not long enough that I proved old worn cleats to be the issue. In fact I don’t know what the issue is. I’ve tried tightening the pedal mechanism probably more than I’m happy with, but that didn’t alter the issue. This is another good reason for the double-sidedness. I find often unclipping halfway around a ride, flipping the pedal and clipping on the other side temporarily makes the problem lessen. Temporarily being the operative word. But that’s a minor niggle. You know we all hate creaking and spurious noises from the bike though. Can I get an Amen? No? Okay fair enough it’s just me then lol 😀
  2. Cleaning. For me, the exposed spring isn’t just difficult to clean grit out of (I wonder if that’s the cause of the creaking) but over the years it’s given rise to surface rust. Not a mechanical issue, just a cosmetic one. Maybe the fault lies entirely with me and my lacking WD-40 application where rust is concerned. It just seems like in comparison with the SPD SL pedals, there is much more exposed gubbins. But then I guess rear derailleurs are the same #hardtocleansprings 😛 That’d really be nit-picking though. Certainly not a reason to avoid.
  3. Flex over the shoe? I think this is really the first point at which I began to consider the MTB shoes and pedals just not right for the road. As mentioned earlier, the platform of the pedal itself is slightly smaller on MTB pedals than road pedals. Not a huge amount. But I think it’s significant. Riding off-road I don’t think you really notice any issue. You’re all over the bike usually from way back behind the saddle on steep descents to throwing the bike out to the side when railing berms or whatever. It’s the static position of the road bike and the continuous, repeated high levels of power through the pedals where you start to notice flex. Even at that, it wasn’t me that noticed any flex. It was my foot. I developed a callous on the base of my fifth metatarsal, see pic.
    cycling-questions-forefoot-varus-callous-overpronation
    Yeah I know, I ain’t interested in looking at my foot either! But this is thick callousing, partly from the MTB SPDs on the road

    This, over the period of road riding with the MTB pedals just worsened. I moved the cleat just about everywhere on the shoe. But I suspect one issue – and I’ll mention the others presently – was tiny almost indiscernible flex over the outside of the shoe where the sole isn’t stiff enough to stop micro flexing since the foot has nothing beneath it when pressing down. For me this was much more noticeable with the higher cadences on road than off it with the MTB. Also I feel I’m using greater foot pressure on road than when I was riding off-road. I appreciate there’s more to this than just the pedal though. Specially because I have tendency toward overpronation creating a forefoot varus situation – exactly the reason that callous is on the outside of the foot only. But that led to my other issues with the two-bolt SPD setup for road riding…

  4. Shims and Cleat Wedges. When moving my cleat around didn’t help alleviate the pain resulting from the above foot callousing, I tried cleat wedges. The problem with this though is that on the two-bolt SPDs, the cleat has teeth. I can only guess this has been because of the smaller cleat size so it isn’t torqued out of position when releasing the foot from the pedal. But the teeth must bite into the sole of the shoe to hold them in place. When inserting an angled wedge under the cleat, the little chap no longer grips and is prone to twist out of position. Yeah, you know that position that it’s taken you so many rides to get right so your knee, shins, calves etc don’t hurt? Yeah that position 😀 This same problem applies to cleat shims when used to rectify leg length discrepancies. I guess I never knew I had a leg length discrepancy (round about 5mm difference) until the road bike handed that knowledge to me! This may be something you’ll never need to think about. I understand that. But considering many of us have LLDs and overpronation, I’m mentioning for thoroughness.

I would hate to sound disparaging of the MTB SPDs because I’m not. This is a physiological issue that I have. Maybe you do, or might at some point, Dear Reader. It’s hardly the cause of the pedals. I don’t believe the pedals have helped, that’s all.

But the less stiff sole (my offroad shoes with the sole rated 5 vs my road shoes rated 8) combined with the inability to adequately clamp down cleats with shim or wedge are the last straws for me that caused the swapout my MTB SPDs on my road bike for road pedals and shoes.

I’d say ride whatever is right for you!

Ultimately, like most things in cycling, there’s an orthodox or prescribed way to do things. But there’s nothing to stop you doing things your own way. I’d say ride whatever is right for you! For me I used MTB SPDs on my road bike because it was a convenient swap and walking short distances was possible – say from the bike park to work. And, until I increased my miles at least, there were no issues that couldn’t be surmounted. Actually I think that’s it. I know even the issues I have can be surmounted. Maybe I’m just getting old, but I felt it was just easier to go with the road shoes and pedals at the moment I was at the point of choosing what to replace my rusty-but-trusty Shimano M540s with.

As ever, I ‘d be grateful to hear your views, what works for you and any issues you’ve had and how you surmounted them.

Meantime, ride safe however you’re clipped in, and have fun, David.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. I completely agree with you!
    I use SPDs on my road bike just because I’ve been too lazy to change them.
    I ride high mileage and I didn’t think about the flex of my MTB shoe. I’m thinking that if a road shoe is stiffer, I could be even faster…?!
    By the way, I really like your website! The colourfulness mixed with the fonts is fantastic!
    Happy Cycling 🙂

    1. Hey there, many thanks for taking time to comment! You know I really like SPDs. Honestly I find them easier to get into and out of than the 3-bolt SPD-SL, specially for commuting etc. I guess it’s always a balance between the comfort of a more flexible shoe and the efficiency of a stiffer-soled shoe. Shoe comfort is so important on longer rides. But I’d imagine if you’re doing high mileage that the stiffer shoe ought to bring you some energy efficiencies. Love to know how you get on if you decide to give the road shoes a try! Thank you too for the kind feedback on the site 🙂 I’m totally not sure what way to go with it! Haha. Any thoughts appreciated. Ride safe, have fun, David.

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