Think about this for a second: in the mountain bike industry, where new standards appear so often that the word has lost all meaning, we’ve only ever had one way to bolt a mountain bike clipless pedal cleat to a mountain bike shoe—an actual standard that has persisted for more than 30 years. Every single brand of every single clip-in mountain bike pedal that has ever existed has used the same two parallel slots, about 7mm wide, 30mm long and 14mm apart. It’s unlikely that any fundamentally different concepts will follow it, and it’s fascinating that none preceded it. It was perfect from the moment it hit store shelves. And that, with few exceptions, is how Shimano does things.
That reputation was hard-won. In the late ’80s, when mountain biking was first gathering momentum, Suntour was dominating our sport in the same way that Campagnolo was dominating road. Shimano, determined to gain ground, began rapidly innovating in the mountain bike space. It’s impossible to overstate the impact of things like indexed above-bar thumb shifters or the HG tooth profile, and both were re- leased just months apart in 1987. The following year, Shimano took its first steps toward designing SPD. But inventing a clipless pedal system from the ground up was an entirely different task than iterating on years of drivetrain development. Shimano’s road clipless pedals of the era used a design licensed from Look, but the bulky, protruding 3-bolt plastic cleats were not trail-ready, nor were the one-sided pedals. An early experiment actually involved sandwiching two of Shimano’s road pedals together to make them dual-sided. That was done by the legendary Frank The Welder, one of the first framebuilders at Yeti, co-developer of Easton aluminum tubing, and Bike Builder to the Stars. But those pedals were bulky, oddly weighted, and the cleats still made walking nearly impossible. Although this really was just a thought experiment, it was further proof that Shimano would have to start from scratch.
Mountain bike pioneer Brian Skinner was consulting with Shimano at the time. Among other achievements, Skinner designed the first production rear-suspended mountain bike, called the Descender. His engineering experience and athlete connections as a race organizer got him on Shimano’s radar, so they would come to him with prototypes that had been developed in Japan, including the very first attempt at what would become the SPD system.
“Kozo Shimano, the son of Yoshi Shimano, the president of Shimano North American at the time, worked for ASICS,” recalls Skinner. ASICS actually had a flat-pedal-specific mountain bike shoe. Fascinating to imagine, by the way, that flat-pedal shoes were a thing almost 35 years ago. Anyway, it was the logical place to start, regardless of the family connections. It already was meant for riding, right down to its stiff, reinforced midsole. “That was the base of what we worked off of. Shimano put an inch-thick sole on the bottom of it, and the center was cut out,” Skinner remembers. “The cleat was recessed down almost a half inch. It was pretty massive.”
The cleat itself was about the same silver-dollar size as the one we know today, but you stepped straight down onto the pedal instead of hooking into it. It would grab both the front and rear of the cleat like a ski binding, and the pedal had to be pretty tall for that system to work, hence the deep cleat recess and thick sole. “When you wore the shoes, you kinda looked like Herman Munster.” Skinner’s trust in my knowledge of television history is well placed.
This system turned out to be only useful as a proof of concept. On top of the bulky shoe design, the cleat was far from refined. Steve Boehmke, then an in-house product-development guru at Shimano, was testing the concept alongside Skinner, and remembers it being a rough start.
“We spent a lot of time on our backs in the mud in Japan not being able to get out. Engineers would come over and unclip us, or we would take our shoes off to get out!”
Skinner was one of those people on his back in the Japanese mud. Along with none other than John Tomac. “It was some gnarly singletrack. Having to take your foot out all the time was bad. John and I wound up crashing all the time, and I remember him cursing, ‘I hate these fucking things.’”
At least the people at Shimano were listening. Greg Herbold was another athlete who Shimano brought over to Japan to give feedback, and he recalls how quickly the Shimano team would react. “We would meet with the engineers late afternoon and ask for new functions and designs, and they would be ready to test by the next morning.”
The next iteration introduced some beveling on the locking surfaces, but the recess was as deep as ever. And the shoe-cleat interface was similarly unrefined. “The cleat always had fore and aft and lateral adjustment,” Skinner remembers. “That was always there. The early models were just kinda loose, though, so you could position it where you wanted and tighten it down.” The concept of a narrower front-to-back adjustment limited to the shoe and side-to-side adjustment limited to the cleat didn’t show up until later. Shimano had taken the feedback on cleat and shoe design and essentially started over. What they came up with was much more like what we have today.
"Having to take your foot out all the time was bad. John and I wound up crashing all the time, and I remember him cursing, ‘I hate these fucking things.’"
One of the Shimano employees who first got these refined prototypes is Wayne Stetina, the former longtime VP and Road Product Specialist at Shimano North American. He marvels at the longevity the design has had. “If you rode some of the original ones today, you’d be impressed.” This, for a product that was released at the UCI World Championships in 1990. Julie Furtado and Herbold both stood on the podium in Shimano SPD shoes, though it took a year for Boehmke to convince Ned Overend to adopt them.
But possibly the most fascinating part of this story is that, at no point in its history, did Shimano patent their method for bolting a mountain bike cleat to a mountain bike shoe. Stetina has a simple explanation why. “It was obvious immediately that Shimano was not a leading shoe manufacturer,’’ he says. “Different feet are happy with different shoes.” For Shimano’s mountain-bike pedal business to thrive, the two-bolt recessed cleat concept that they developed had to be available for free, not only to every shoe manufacturer, but also every pedal manufacturer. Five Ten, Specialized, Bontrager as well as Crankbrothers, Time, Look, and countless others are all using an interface designed by Shimano.
But somehow, this seems totally normal. Especially 30 years later, it’s hard to imagine the SPD shoe having taken any other form. It’s just so simple, so boring. And that’s exactly what makes it so extraordinary.
Photos: Anthony Smith
From Fall 2021