The Grind: The best options for gravel pedals

Road pedals, mountain-bike pedals, or 'gravel-specific' pedals? Here's my take after using all three.

The Grind is a weekly column on all things gravel.

A few years into this gravel venture, and we still don’t have an ideal all-conditions pedal. Most of us use mountain-bike pedals; a few of us use road pedals; and — like seemingly every other type of bike product now — there are ‘gravel-specific’ options out there. I’ve used all three over the years, and here is how they have fared. Let’s start with the weird ones.

Time Cyclo 10 Gravel pedals

Time’s gravel pedals are one-sided with a generous platform.

Most of us use MTB pedals for gravel because they are dual-sided, durable, easy to get into and out of, and perhaps most important, mountain-bike shoes with tread are far superior to road shoes for walking around on any surface, especially gravel. Problem is, the engagement can get a little wobbly. Road pedals have a broad platform and wide cleats to maximize the contact area and thus the stabilization between shoe and pedal.

Enter Time’s single-sided gravel pedals. These were roundly pooh-pooh’ed when they came out, not so much for jumping on the gravel bandwagon (who isn’t?), but for the single-sided design. At face value, I think the wide platform is a good idea. Sure, walking around on dirt is better in mountain (and now, gravel) shoes than road shoes, but the main point of riding a gravel bike is actually riding it, right? So why not optimize the pedaling part of the equation?

Back in the day, Time’s ATAC MTB pedals were a killer option, especially for mud clearance. Think Crank Brothers Egg Beaters, but much, much more durable. That mud-shedding design carried over well to the Cyclo 10 Gravel. With feet covered in muck, I found I could just mash down on the pedals and, more times than not, the things would engage.

Problem is, the stupid things are impossible to clip into without looking down and playing footsie with them, as they don’t rotate freely and hang at a predictable angle when you’re not clipped in. Virtually any single-sided road pedal drops down at the back when you’re not clipped in, allowing you to find the pedal with your foot, push it forward, and engage. The Cyclo 10 Gravel does not rotate freely on the spindle, so if you unclip at the bottom of the stroke and pedal half a stroke, the thing is now upside down. I’ve put a few hundred miles on them, and tinkered with loosening the available bolts, in and effort to get them to turn freely. No dice.

So, because they are a hassle to clip into, I’ve stopped using them.

Unlike most single-sided pedals, the Cyclo 10 Gravel pedals don’t hang at a predictable angle when you’re not clipped in, which makes get into them a hassle.

Shimano SPD-SL and Garmin Vector 3 road pedals

A mountain biker would never, ever consider using road pedals and shoes for riding gravel. But a roadie would. Some of it is the mechanical efficiency argument outlined above. Some of it is just comfort and habit. And some of it, frankly, is that some roadies just didn’t have MTB gear when they bought a gravel bike, so why not just throw on the road pedals and call it good? We’ve been riding dirt roads with road gear well before gravel was a thing, and the earth continued to turn, right?

I am a Shimano loyalist for pedals, with a number of Ultegra and Dura-Ace SPD-SL pedals of various vintages on test bikes in the garage. And I have two pairs of Shimano XT pedals, dating back to who knows when. Shimano pedals are indestructible.

How will I know whether or not I’m having fun without power data? The Garmin Vector 3 pedals are a great solution for quick power-meter installation, but the cleats are not exactly ideal for off-road pursuits.

Anyhow, while I can make the mechanical efficiency argument, road shoes suck for walking on dirt. Besides, I don’t like scuffing up my pretty road shoes.

That said, I recently popped a set Garmin Vector 3 power-meter road pedals onto a test Specialized Diverge for a little project. With the Dirty Kanza 200 postponed until fall, my friend and longtime coach Frank Overton has cooked up a ‘Kanza homage‘ solo event in a couple weeks. It’s basically a 100-mile time trial. And I want to, er, meter out the effort, you know? For a personal gravel bike, I would install a power meter like a Stages or a Quarq, but as a quick fix, the Vectors are a great option, and for a gravel time trial, I don’t plan to have my feet down much.

Shimano XT mountain-bike pedals

All that said, if I had to pick one type of pedal for gravel, it’s the Shimano XT, hands down. It’s a little heavier than the top-of-the-line XTR from the Japanese giant, but less expensive. You can usually find a new pair for less than $100.

But cost isn’t the main attraction with the Shimano XT; it’s the fact that these pedals will last seemingly forever, with hardly any maintenance required, and will work day in and day out pretty darn well. The cleat-to-pedal engagement is as reliable as death and taxes.

Until someone comes up with a better gravel-pedal solution, just buy a set of XTs and be done with it.

Total stability depends in part on the tread of your shoes. Usually new shoes are stable, as the rubber tread snugs up against the pedal body. Sometimes, as the tread wears down, you lose this contact point, and you can get a bit of lateral wobble. With road shoes, you just buy new cleats. With mountain bike shoes, unless you have some fancy Sidi model with replaceable tread, you’re just kinda out of luck.

While you can buy trail versions with a wide cage, I wouldn’t recommend those as they’re heavier, and designed for something totally different than riding gravel.

Bottom line, if I had to pick a single pair of pedals for gravel to buy, it would be Shimano XT, hands down.

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