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I recently bought a road bike and also SPD-SL shoes/pedals, but have not been able to find a cleat position that feels natural to me. After long rides the hamstring tendon that attached at the outside of the knee starts to hurt and I feel like it's due to my feet being too far outward away from the center of the bike. I think my hips are on the narrower side and thus my stance also is.

My cleats are already positioned maximally to the outside of the shoe. What I don't understand is that the cleats can only be adjusted sideways about 5 mm. How can such a small range be sufficient for people with legs/hips of all sizes?

My question is: what is the easiest way to get my shoes closer to the center of the bike.

Photo of my bike and shoes: I would like to move the shoe such that is almost touches the crank. This feels most natural to me.

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    You'll have to move the cleats towards the OUTSIDE edge of the shoe. Normally SPD-cleats can be positioned that far outside that the inside of the shoes will touch the cranks which is not recommended. – Carel Jun 22 '20 at 18:23
  • I agree with Carel. I’ve always been able to put my shoes closer to the crankarm to the point where they start rubbing on it. – Michael Jun 23 '20 at 6:42
  • If the feet are positioned close to the cranks the likelihood of the heels hitting the low stays or the right ankle being chopped by the chain-ring increases. – Carel Jun 23 '20 at 7:30
  • Sure I can rotate them such that my heels start hitting the crank, but not the ball of my foot. The cleat itself is already placed maximally to the outside of the shoe in the picture above. – Rubenknex Jun 24 '20 at 8:35
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First, I should mention that when pedaling, we generally want the cleats' lateral position to be such that our knees are in line with the center of the pedal. This is a common principle in bike fit, as illustrated by the picture below courtesy of Rick Schultz, posted on the Bikefit blog.

enter image description here

You correctly deduce that having the wrong stance width may cause knee or other problems (but remember that knee pain is complex, and new cyclists may sometimes not have the correct intuitions about why their position is wrong - actually, the same is true for experienced cyclists as well). The blog post outlines a number of solutions, but most of them are aimed at widening your stance, not narrowing it. Anyway, changing the lateral position of your cleats is probably the first step, and you already chose the correct path of moving them outward on the shoe (which moves your stance narrower, not wider; note that I corrected some wrong language from my earlier response where I got confused). At this point, it is likely you would benefit from seeing a bike fitter.

That said, I am a 5' 5" tall male cyclist. The range of lateral adjustment available on both Speedplay and Shimano SPD-SL pedals has been sufficient for me. I don't think that many people will need narrower cleat positions than are available commercially (because most people below my height are women, whose average hip width is wider than men). If do you actually need your cleat position to be narrower, you may be an edge case not well-handled by the available equipment, and you would definitely benefit from a professional fit. If you can get your knees in line with the spindle on your current setup, then I'd urge you not to go narrower than that. If you can't, then a fitter is likely to know about available options.

Just to put one option out there, Speedplay pedals can accommodate narrower stance widths than most others. The link goes to an article on Slowtwitch (a tri website) written by Dan Empfield, and he articulates a number of other advantages of Speedplays.

Pertinent to the cleat stance issue: Standard model Speeplays ship with 53mm spindles, which I believe is about the same as the default spindles on Shimano pedals. However, Speedplay cleats appear to have a total range of 8.9mm of lateral adjustability (I measured this with calipers, measuring from the center of the mounting screws in both the extreme positions; note that Empfield characterizes the range as about two spindle sizes, which is 6mm; more discussion below). I believe SPD-SL cleats have a total of 5mm of lateral adjustability, plus the yellow ones allow 1.5mm of lateral float.

Last, Speedplay pedals may be available with custom 50mm steel spindles, i.e. 3mm shorter than stock. I say this because Wahoo recently bought the company, and I'm not sure if the company will continue to make these spindles available. While the titanium spindled versions are very expensive, they come in a stock 50mm length. Either the custom steel or stock ti spindles may be an option if you truly must have those last 3mm of adjustment. Also, I know that some China- or Taiwan-based eBay sellers may offer aftermarket titanium spindles in the lengths you would require. At the time of writing, I have heard good feedback about J&L, which is based in mainland China. I believe they've been selling spindles for some years. NB: their continued existence is not guaranteed, and there are likely to be at least a couple other aftermarket players.

Note that Speedplays require significantly more maintenance to both the cleats and pedals than Shimano pedals. I've written about this here. You will really want to take that seriously, otherwise you will chew up their cleats, and those are expensive.

Revisiting your question if the standard cleat position is really suitable for most human cyclists: it may well be, and moreover, many cyclists are not that sensitive to their cleat position. Consider that many cyclists switch between road and mountain bikes without major issue, and MTBs have much wider pedal stances. Many pedal manufacturers do make longer spindles available, and Speedplay have +3, +6, and +9mm ones. Apart from Speedplay, I only know of one pedal with a shorter than stock spindle (Shimano's XTR pedals have a -3mm spindle). As I said earlier, there are very few men my height and shorter, so I don't think there is a large market for narrower spindles. Additionally, if you have your feet that close to the spindle, your shoes may rub your cranks.

Last, I reiterate the need for a bike fit if you are having muscle or joint pain. While they are expensive, it is well worth it for serious cyclists. You may think the issue is your cleat position, but you and I are not trained in bike fit and physiology, and we could easily be wrong.

Side note: cleat rotation

For many of us, our feet probably don't point straight ahead naturally. Most likely, the OP's bike store set their cleats up pointing straight ahead. Shimano's yellow cleats have 6 degrees of angular float, which is likely to allow most riders to find their natural foot position. (NB: this is 3 degrees left and 3 degrees right of the pedal centerline, not 6 degrees left and right.)

If the OP's cleats need further rotation, or if they got the blue or red cleats which have 1 and 0 degrees of float, rotating the cleats consumes some of the available room for lateral adjustment. Stock Speedplay Zero cleats allow up to 15 degrees of float, which should mean that essentially nobody would need to rotate a Speedplay cleat. (NB: you can't actually rotate Speedplay cleats.)

The OP is almost sure to have yellow SPD-SL cleats. Blue SPD-SL cleats only come stock with Dura Ace pedals, their top of the line pedal. Red cleats must be purchased separately. Many commentators think the red cleats are a bad idea, especially for amateurs. Even many professional cyclists appear not to run the red cleats, or Look's equivalent zero float cleat. Zero float may help very competitive cyclists who are putting out a lot of power and want to waste zero motion, but it's not clear if this is just a placebo effect.

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    Thank you for the elaborate response! I learned a lot. The linked article by Steve Hogg was also a good read. Perhaps indeed the cleat position is not the (main) cause for my discomfort, but something else in the kinetic chain of the leg. My left hip (the side of the discomfort) has a bit more limited range of movement, so it might be more useful to look in the direction of increasing mobility. And indeed I agree I am not trained in this and merely guessing, a proper bike fit would be best! – Rubenknex Jun 22 '20 at 19:16
  • @Rubenknex then, as an addendum: Bicycling magazine often posts examples of good stretches, core strength, and mobility exercises. These are good to do even if you have no muscular limitations. Additionally, if you can't find a bike fitter who is knowledgeable about biomechanics, it may be worth finding a physical therapist as well. Some bike fitters can recommend targeted strength and mobility exercises, but this skill may be more rare in that community. Physical therapists mostly won't have sports-specific knowledge, but they can supplement a bike fit. – Weiwen Ng Jun 22 '20 at 23:19
  • @Rubenknex also, consider a foam roller. Or possibly just pick up an abandoned tennis ball as you ride past a tennis court. – Weiwen Ng Jun 23 '20 at 20:44
  • I have indeed just started a foamrolling routine! Will do that before and after rides now and see if it makes a difference. – Rubenknex Jun 24 '20 at 8:36
  • Readers, note that I removed the Steve Hogg article. The graphic I borrowed from him showed a cleat wedge. Wedging is a separate issue from lateral position. It aims to deal with the fact that most people may have feet that are naturally tilted when you put them on a flat surface (i.e. varus or valgus foot). Currently, I believe that most people should not require cleat wedges. In any case, foot tilt mustn't be confused with knee alignment / cleat lateral position. – Weiwen Ng Sep 14 '20 at 21:02
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See https://forums.roadbikereview.com/general-cycling-discussion/outer-knee-pain-257131.html Since you are experiencing pain on the outside of the knee, your situation may be the reverse of that shown in the diagram as the tendon will be pulling to prevent your leg from bending further outwards. Advice from a podiatrist may be useful. Stretching to increase mobility may well help with your problem. Have you had an injury to your hip or leg on the side that is painful?

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  • It may be either, as also the discussion in your link shows. One says too wide, the other too narrow. Both can be right, but for a different person. The angle is also very important. – Vladimir F Jun 23 '20 at 5:53
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    But this is essentially a link-only answer. Links get dead, you should summarize the salient points here. – Vladimir F Jun 23 '20 at 5:54
  • Also consider that podiatrists may not have athletic training experience, let alone bicycle fit experience. A podiatrist may not be the best choice for a consult. In fact, the link doesn't seem to mention a podiatrist at all. Recall that podiatrists are foot doctors. I argue that a bike fitter or physical therapist is a better choice in this situation. – Weiwen Ng Sep 15 '20 at 0:12
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Here is an easy way to do this: switch to flats. Put your feet wherever you want and you can shift to endless variations during your ride to avoid overuse injury. You also reduce the chance of injury from a fall while constantly reinforcing proper pedalling technique. Why do people clip to their pedals anyway?

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    You also reduce the chance of injury from a fall Wrong. Why do people clip to their pedals anyway? So your feet don't fly off the pedals and cause you to crash when you're pedaling hard. – Andrew Henle Jun 23 '20 at 14:38
  • Oh, I got really bad and and long-lasting ITBS when I was riding with flat pedals on a road bike in the UK (I did have a toe clip front cage, but no straps on the sides). They do not solve everything. Theoretically you could put your foot anywhere but it is not that simple in practice. The clipping in certainly does have a purpose. – Vladimir F Jun 23 '20 at 15:40
  • I broke my wrist (surgery required) when my foot slipped from another flat pedal. – Vladimir F Jun 23 '20 at 15:42
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    Clipless pedals massively improve power transfer. If you crash, you will come unclipped; I can attest through experience, as can most clipless users. Flats may certainly be a valid preference for more casual cyclists or for some off road disciplines. However, everything you said after the fact that you can put your feet anywhere on the pedal Is incorrect. – Weiwen Ng Jun 23 '20 at 17:05
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    I have about 20000+ km experience with bicycle touring on a loaded bike with flat pedals, and never had any problems there. But the cycling was also on a leisure pace, and I was not concerned with power transer. On my new road bike however I am. I do very much like the 'locked-in' feeling the clipless pedals provide when going hard. – Rubenknex Jun 24 '20 at 9:54

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