The pickings have always been pretty slim in the off-road pedal category, and like any other point of contact between rider and bike, the pros and cons of each system are hotly debated. Over the years there have been several attempts to expand on the product choices, but most have failed to take hold or fallen flat entirely.

It’s no accident that most pedal systems work in a similar way. The object of the game is to get the shoe/cleat to attach to the pedal but release on demand. A spring-loaded step-in and twist release is standard practice, but the subtleties in the action are what differentiate systems. Riders must also consider issues of wear, maintenance, interface style, and release tension before choosing the right pedal.

Cyclocross routinely exposes equipment to conditions that would usually be considered extreme. This past ‘cross season and into the summer, I torture-tested everything I could get my hands on to bone up on how all these pedal systems work. The bottom line is that most pedals are really good at something, but also have some kind of Achilles heel. Here’s a breakdown of some of the best pedals for cyclocross and an analysis of what type of riders each system might work well for.

Shimano

Tested: XT M780
Weight: 170g (Cleat w/screws and plate: 26g) per pedal
Price: $119
The original and arguably the best pedals on the market, Shimano pedals are tough, reliable, and seemingly indestructible. I still have a set of first generation SPD pedals, pushing 30 years old, and although they weigh about a pound each, they work perfectly. Shimano’s top of the line XTR M9000 pedals weigh 310 grams per pair and go for $200. The equally capable but slightly heavier (343g) XT version is half the price and a great value.

Action: Shimano pedals, in general, have a very positive action that almost always makes a nice snap when they lock in. Nothing wears out: the pedals are steel and the cleat is steel as well. They perform very well in most conditions — mud clearing is multi-directional, and mud and debris are pushed through the pedal past the axle, as well as squeezed out of the sides of the pedals. A minor and rare drawback is that in temperatures right around freezing when the steel cleats ice up, engagement becomes difficult. That said, Shimano’s best endorsement is that they are almost ubiquitous on the European pro CX circuit.

Durability: Shimano pedals need zero maintenance and are difficult to break. Cleats wear at a glacial pace, and they don’t grind holes in carbon soles. Set them up once and forget about them.

Float: While the XT pedals are good, their float isn’t as light and free as some other pedals. It’s important that cleats are placed properly, aligned for the rider’s preference, and release tension is dialed in. It’s a good idea to put a dash of lube on the pedals periodically.

Tension adjustment: Entry/release tension can be fine-tuned to the rider’s preference. If the pedals are too loose, there is a possibility of unwanted torsional release, but it’s a quick adjustment to get the setting just right.

Time

Tested: Time Atac XC 8
Weight: 144g (Cleats w/ bolts: 22g) per pedal
Price:$170
Approaching the venerability of Shimano, Time pedals are tried and true and work exceptionally well.

Action: Clipping in and out of Time ATAC pedals is a smooth affair, yet entry and release are still very positive. After starts, remounts, and dabs, the pedal is quite easy to locate and clip into. The rear bale is fixed and the front one features a spring retainer, so if you are a toe-down pedaler you may experience the sensation of pushing the front bale forward, resulting in a small amount of play. Mud shedding is a bit of a wonder of physics: there is nowhere for mud and debris to go through the pedal, so it all has to go out the front and sides. Yet somehow Time pedals shed mud exceptionally well.

Durability: After just a couple weeks, the Time pedals develop a tiny bit of play in the spindle, but this is normal and once they’re broken in the bearings are pretty much maintenance-free. Over time and a lot of use, the pedal body will wear under the cleat and shoe contact area, but it takes years. Cleats are brass so wear is an issue; worn cleats create a sloppy and vague connection, so they should be replaced early and often. Your average ravenous ‘cross devotee can expect to replace cleats once or twice per race season. Time cleats are right around $25 and are generally readily available.

Float: As with most off-road pedals, float is a bit of a nominal concept. It’s restricted by spring tension and the cleat needs to be placed properly. Over a few weeks the brass cleats will wear into the desired position, provided they are pretty close to begin with.

Tension adjustment: There are three simple tension settings adjusted with a flat screwdriver, but this is only offered on the mid to top-level pedals. When put on the tightest tension setting, the sensation of your foot sliding forward is pretty much eliminated.

Crank Brothers

Tested: Candy 3
Weight: 158g (Cleat w/ short bolts: 17g) per pedal
Price: $130
I bought the first generation Crank Brothers Egg Beater pedals. In fact, I still have them. When they were first released, they were a true game-changer. This unbelievably simple and uncomplicated design was a total departure from what, at the time, was pretty much a toss-up between Shimano and Time. The great thing with this design is that if you lift up your foot, even on a severely worn cleat, the pedal will self-cinch onto the cleat. Sixteen years later Egg Beater and Candy pedals have changed very little save for some reliability improvements and cosmetic upgrades.

Action: Crank Brothers have arguably the best action of all the off-road pedals. With fresh cleats the engagement is just the right blend of positive and forgiving. Mud, ice, and debris shedding is fantastic, and it’s hard to jam them. I would like to see the pedal bales fixed inside the pedal body on the Candies, though. As it is now, the pedal can spin inside the body and end up in the wrong orientation, which can mean missing a pedal right when you need it.

Durability: In the past this was an issue. Bearings would wear and detonate, but they are far better now. The pedals will wear grooves in shoe soles, which means you’ll need sole protectors.

Float: Like Time pedals, the float is based on the smoothness of a brass cleat. If you can get the cleat pretty close, it will wear into the right spot pretty quickly.

Speedplay

Tested: Syzr
Weight: 156g (32 gram cleat w/bolts) per pedal
Price: $230
One of the reasons this test was so long in the making is that I was waiting to see what Speedplay had come up with after five years of developing the long-awaited Syzr pedal. To say that Speedplay went back to the drawing board would be an understatement. It has addressed a lot of problems without really creating any new ones with the Syzrs.

Action: With a (mostly) steel cleat and steel pedal bales, the Syzrs have a very similar action to Shimano SPD, but there are some subtle differences. Syzr’s front bale is spring-loaded and the cleat contacts the pedal directly, not through the treads on the shoes. I found the release spring tension to be way too high out of the box and continually backed them off until they were almost out of adjustment. Unlike Shimano, the pedals will not torsionally release, so they can be run far looser. The pedals can be a bit sticky in mud and sand, kind of like Shimanos, but backing off the release tension made a big difference. We have heard of other riders experiencing difficulty unclipping due to sand and dirt in the pedals and cleats.

Durability: I hammered the Syzrs as hard as I could for several weeks with no issues, but it’s too early to make a determination about long-term durability. They don’t seem to be wearing in any meaningful way, but the float needs a regular dab of lube to stay smooth and quiet.

Float: Okay, here’s where this pedal gets good. The float is absolutely resistance-free. You know the Speedplay road pedals? Yeah, the float is that good. Speedplay has built the float into a rotating platform in the cleat. The pedal connects directly to the cleat and the outer body of the cleat rotates on an inner plate that’s attached to the shoe. The float is minutely adjustable via set screws built into the cleat. The idea of an off-road pedal with silky smooth and zero-resistance float is intoxicating to say the least; there’s nothing wrong with my knees and even they loved it. I just hope five years was long enough to create a pedal that can handle the rigors of mountain biking and cyclocross.

The bottom line

Pedal choice ultimately comes down to personal preference, and it’s worth doing a little homework. As a rider who pedals slightly toe-down, I have found Shimano suits the way I hit my pedal. I have more trouble with missing Crank Brothers and Time pedals, and I think they suit flatter pedalers. Shimanos can get sticky and require some strength in nasty conditions where Crank Brothers and Time do well.

But — and there’s always a but — The brass cleats of Crank Brothers and Times wear quickly, and the bales on the pedals require sole protectors or they will destroy carbon soles. Crank Brothers probably suit less experienced riders, at least initially, and if you have dodgy knees and love the idea of perfectly free float, then Speedplay’s Syzr might be just right for you.