Two prominent names dominate the mountain biking clipless pedal landscape; Shimano and Crankbrothers. Each of these pedal systems offers unique features and benefits, catering to mountain bikers' varying needs and preferences. This article will delve into the critical distinctions between Shimano SPD and Crankbrothers pedals, shedding light on the factors that may influence your decision. Whether you're a long-time clipless rider looking to mix it up, or a beginner, shopping for your first set of clipless pedals, understanding the differences between these two systems is the first step to determining which is best for you.
But first, a quick lesson in terminology. Why are pedals that you clip in to called "clipless" pedals? Before clipless pedals existed, road cyclists would use pedal cages to keep their feet attached to the pedals. The emergence of a mechanical system to attach purpose-built shoes to the pedal removed the need for that pedal clip, hence "clip-less" pedals. We often use the term "clip-in" pedal for clarity, but for this article we will use the official term: clipless.
The Crankbrothers cleat interface is renowned for its performance in all weather conditions. Utilizing their “Eggbeater” retention system, small brass cleats securely lock into place while allowing various degrees of lateral float, meaning your feet can pivot slightly from side to side. This float gives riders a small range of movement and adaptability, which some riders feel provides more of a natural sensation. The open design of the Eggbeater system minimizes the buildup of mud and debris, ensuring consistent and reliable engagement, even in the wettest conditions. Crankbrothers clipless pedals offer a blend of comfort, control, and mud-shedding capabilities, making them a preferred choice for riders who prioritize versatility no matter the conditions.
The Shimano SPD (Shimano Pedaling Dynamics) system is almost as old as the sport of mountain biking itself. It has gained a massive following for its adjustable tension and long-term reliability. If there's something such as creating too good of a product the first time around, Shimano did so; the SPD interface has remained unchanged since its introduction in 1990. The SPD system is so widely trusted that other pedal manufacturers utilize the design for their clipless pedals, such as the Chromag Pilot pedals.
Crankbrothers cleats are available in various degrees of float and release angle. The standard Premium MTB Cleat provides 6-degrees float and has a 15-degree release angle. For riders wanting a more forgiving cleat that is easier to unclip with, the Easy Release Premium Cleat features a 10-degree release angle while maintaining 6 degrees of float. Crankbrothers also makes both their Standard and Easy in a 0-degree model for riders who don't want to experience any float once clipped in. All models require a small plastic “shield” to be used between the cleat and sole of the shoes.
Crankbrothers cleats wear out very quickly due to their brass construction; I went through two sets of cleats over six months. In comparison, I’ve been able to make a set of Shimano’s steel cleats last nearly a full year.
The standard Shimano SM-SH51 cleat provides 4-degrees of float with a 13-degree release angle. Unlike the Crankbrothers pedals with a fixed retention system, riders can adjust Shimano SPD pedals to their preferred release tension utilizing a 3mm hex. The adjustment range can be tailored to provide a vastly differing of pedal tensions. At its lightest tension, even the slightest outward click of the heel will release the cleat, while the firmest setting takes a significant amount of conscious effort to break through the “wall” at 6 degrees.
Crankbrothers pedals feel slightly more “vague” in almost every scenario than the Shimano SPD system. From clicking in to, to riding, to their release point, I’ve found Crankbrothers pedals lack some of the definitive feel that SPDs provide, although this isn’t an entirely negative trait. The feeling of clipping into a set of Crankbrothers pedals is far less evident than an SPD, and sometimes I do find myself double-checking that I'm locked into place. Once clipped in, Crankbrothers cleat, with only 2 degrees more float than Shimanos, provides noticeable side-to-side freedom. While the motion of unclipping from Crankbrothers pedals is identical to SPDs, it has a much higher level of forgiveness. This forgiveness means a rider doesn’t have to have quite the same precision as an SPD requires to free their foot. For beginners just getting used to clipless, this forgiveness could result in getting out in time versus the embarrassing tip over they might have endured using SPDs. Although they may have a more vague actuation, Crankbrothers pedals are extremely secure when descending even the roughest trails, as proven by their regular appearances on World Cup podiums.
The feeling of clipping into an SPD cleat is clean and crisp, with a distinct “wall” to break through, followed by a satisfying loud clicking sound that leaves no question as to whether the cleat is fully seated. Once clipped in, Shimano’s standard 4-degrees of float provides just enough side-to-side action for dynamic movements on the bike but isn’t so much that it makes that cleat feel loose in the pedal. SPD pedals are immensely secure on the trail, and I have never been jostled out of a cleat unintentionally. Getting out of SPD pedals can be slightly less forgiving than Crankbrothers pedals due to their more defined release point. Users will need to develop the muscle memory of the outward heel motion required to unclip, but once learned, SPD pedals provide a predictable release point every time.
Unfortunately, after just three months of using my set of Crankbrothers pedals, I did encounter some minor issues with one pedal not spinning correctly. Crankbrothers offers a Pedal Refresh Kit that includes new bearings, bushings, a bearing removal tool, and fresh seals for issues like this. I was back up and running with some minor maintenance and have yet to experience any other issues since.
Shimano pedals are known for years of hassle-free function and in my experience require very little maintenance. I still use my very first set of Shimano SPD pedals I got over twelve years ago. They now live on my gravel bike, but are still functioning flawlessly. At most, I’ve had to refresh a set of well-used Shimano Saint pedals after almost three years of regular use, a little cleaning and greasing, and they were as good as new.
- Not easily clogged by mud or debris
- Easy to unclip in emergencies
- Color options
- Potentially more beginner-friendly
- Less distinct clip-in/out feeling
- Brass cleats wear out quickly
- Durability issues
- Adjustable cleat tension
- Well-defined clip-in/out feeling
- Durable steel cleats
- Can become clogged by mud/debris
- No color options
Deciding between these two clipless systems will come down to which of their characteristics a rider values most. The Crankbrothers Eggbeater design performs well in all weather, ensuring reliable engagement even in wet, muddy conditions. On the other hand, the Shimano SPD, a clipless system proven for over thirty years, has become renowned for its long-term reliability and crisp feeling. Shimano has a definitive upper hand regarding tension adjustability and cleat durability, although Crankbrothers provides a more customizable degree of float based on cleat selection as well as a selection of colors to choose from. While both systems are unique regards to their feeling, their ride qualities are both predictably, and it will be primarily up to you to decide what traits are the most important!
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