The clipless diaries, part 12: How incorrect cleat position on good shoes can be a painful lesson

I’ve already waxed lyrical about the Fizik Terra X4 Powerstrap gravel shoes on this blog, and they’ve been an easy favorite in my current shoe rotation due to their more relaxed and versatile design.

Unfortunately, the praise I had for these shoes was countered by the shooting pain I found on the ball of my left foot two days after my last ride at the time.

Friends suggested it might have been gout, but I quickly ruled it out based on the description of the symptoms and onset of pain usually associated with that dreaded disease. As the nights passed one by one, I noticed it was a very specific, peculiar sort of pain, the kind that manifested itself only when I tried to move my left big toe upwards. With more information at hand, I was able to narrow down the list of foot conditions until I found one that matched perfectly: sesamoiditis.

Photo credit: Wikipedia.org/Mikael Häggström

PAINFUL SESAME SEEDS? WHAT IS SESAMOIDITIS?

Describing this condition to another friend, his reply was that it was literally the first time he had “heard about our sesame seed bones.” Jokingly or not, this is an apt description of what sesamoid bones are, as they take their name from the Arabic word for sesame seed, and a reference to their general small size. These bones are usually embedded within tendons or muscles, and tend to act as pulleys, increasing the ability of tendons to transfer muscular forces. The largest sesamoid bone and the one most familiar to us is the kneecap, or patella, but most sesamoid bones are located in our hands and feet.

In the case of sesamoiditis, it is the sesamoid bone and its tendons under the ball of the foot (the metatarsophalangeal or MTP sesamoids) that become inflamed, or worse, fractured. In this sense, it’s mainly a form of tendinitis. Outside of cycling, it’s an injury common to ballet dancers, runners, and baseball catchers.

Within our sport, sesamoiditis can be exacerbated due to the repetitive motion of pedaling, coupled with the biomechanical “locking-in” of the feet which is characteristic of clipless pedals and shoes. The real flareup triggers, however, are a change in cycling footwear and cleat positioning. As it turns out, my case was a classic one that followed this exact trend.

CYCLING SHOES, CLEAT POSITIONING, AND THE ONSET OF SESAMOIDITIS

The first consideration is in the shape of the shoe – particularly the shape of the last that it uses. In shoemaking jargon, the last is the foot form that determines the basic shape and structure of the entire shoe. In terms of cyclist fitment, you want to see if the shoe uses a straight last or a curved last.

The Specialized S-Works 6 XC shoes I use are constructed based on a straight last shape. How do I know this? You can trace a straight line from the heel of the shoe to its cleat pocket. I can confirm that this shoe works well biomechanically with my feet, and despite my complaints about the shoes, they are a pair I have not suffered sesamoiditis in.

By contrast, the Fizik Terra X4 Powerstrap shoes are built around a curved last. Trace one line from the heel, then another from the cleat pocket; notice how they meet in an angled junction in the middle of the shoe? This means these shoes are predisposed to cant your forefoot and toes slightly inward.

As a fundamental part of shoe construction, there’s not much you can do with the last shape of your shoes if you’ve already bought them. Going forward, last shaping will be important to check and compare before you buy your next pair. However, for shoes you have on hand, last shaping will play a role in how you determine your cleat positioning, which is the next thing to check – and arguably more important.

All cycling shoes are built to give the cleat a limited range of adjustment – fore and aft, and side to side. When setting up cleats on shoes by ourselves, we will tend to copy the cleat placement of any existing shoes onto our new shoes, which is usually a conservative and safe way of doing things. Unfortunately, if this is done without taking the shoes’ last shaping into account, this is where you can potentially consign your feet to the pain of sesamoiditis.

Your cleats may look correctly set up when viewed close-up…
…but a more holistic view says otherwise.

In my case, I failed to take into account just how far inward the cleat pocket was shifted because of the Terra X4’s curving lasts. Simply copying the S-Works 6 XC’s cleat position onto these shoes, I had actually set my cleats too far inboard – or too medial, in physiological terms. The Terra X4’s outsole tread design and cleat pocket positioning did not help things, either, as it was offset quite a ways inward as well, with wider tread blocks on the outboard (lateral) side.

FIX ON FURLOUGH

I was sidelined from cycling and indoor training by sesamoiditis pain for a total of ten days. During that time, I noticed that as the days passed, I could walk and move about with a little less pain than the day prior. I was lucky my case was relatively mild; some people suffer with sesamoiditis pain for months or even years. In the meantime I was careful to shift my weight such that it was borne more by the outside of my left foot, instead of on the ball and big toe.

By day nine, the pain was pretty much gone. I was a little apprehensive getting back on the saddle though, as I could feel a little unsteadiness where my left foot’s sesamoid bones were. While the training furlough was appreciated at first, I had spent too much time idle at this point, so I took hex key to shoe and readjusted my cleat position.

This is about as close to the “known good” S-Works 6 XC cleat positioning as I can make it. Note how much straighter the cleat is now, relative to the entirety of the shoe.

This time, I looked at cleat position in a more holistic manner. Instead of just looking at the cleat pocket and matching things between shoes, I looked at how my feet would sit on the pedals instead, and used that as basis for adjusting the cleat position. To account for the peculiarities of the Fizik’s outsole, I pushed the cleat to the right pretty much as far as it would go, in order to center it on the actual shoe as a whole. As a final fix, I removed the Terra X4’s stock insoles with their fancy foam pads, and replaced them with the much stiffer Ergon Solestar IP3 units.

One thing I forgot to mention in the Terra X4 Powerstrap review: its stock insoles have this foam pad on the forefoot. In hindsight, they may have hidden the negative effects of my incorrect cleat position.

Then I rode the next day.

THIS STORY HAS A HAPPY ENDING

My maiden ride on the new setup was a 35 km stint on RGT‘s pancake-flat Tempelhof Airport (aka 8bar Criterium) course. I stopped once or twice to dial in small adjustments to the cleat position, but afterwards I finished this ride without any pain at all. I had even put in a few sprints and out-of-saddle efforts. Monitoring for pain the next day yielded zero pain, either.

As of this writing, I’ve had four days of riding on the improved cleat setup. I’ve ridden through both hillier routes and harder efforts on Tempelhof Airport, putting down more power and going longer, and the pain underfoot is nowhere to be found. Long may it continue.

SO, WHAT’S THE MORAL OF THIS STORY?

  • If you can afford it, get yourself a bike fitting session. With some luck, you can avoid the painful shenanigans I had to go through, because I was feeling around in the dark dialing in my cleat setup and getting used to new footwear without a second pair of eyes to watch me.
  • When shopping for new cycling shoes, study them as much as you can. Look at the last shaping of your candidates, and make comparisons to a known good pair of your older shoes. On shoes built for two-bolt cleats, study the cleat pockets and how they’re shaped.
  • Set your cleat position in a more holistic manner, taking into account how your entire foot will sit on the pedals while clipped in. In my experience, it’s best to have cleats set up as central to the width of the foot as possible.

Frame builder pet peeves: Giant

Among the major bicycle brands, Giant Bicycles of Taichung City in Taiwan is perhaps my favorite. Having been around since the early 1970s as a contract manufacturer for US brand Schwinn, they slowly developed their own brand to face global competition head-on – and, along with it, the Taiwanese bicycle manufacturing industry. On a less macro scale, Giant just gets many things right: manufacturing quality, good value for money, and reliable, repeatable construction.

That said, as much as I do not hesitate to recommend Giant and its products, they are not perfect. Today, I talk about some of my pet peeves.

OVERDRIVE2 FORK STEERER TUBES

While my base-model 2014 TCX SLR 2 has a normal tapered-steerer fork, all the other models get the OverDrive2 fork. The forks and headset bearings can be carried over between TCX models, as all of them have 44 mm head tubes, which can fit both types.

Most bicycles nowadays are built around forks with steerer tubes that are 1-1/8″ in diameter. Within that set, a sizable number of them have these same steerer tubes flare outward to 1-1/4″ in diameter. My best guess is around 80% of bikes have headset bearings and stems built to these dimensions. In particular, stems made to clamp a 1-1/8″ steerer tube are super plentiful.

In the quest to deliver greater stiffness up front, Giant introduced OverDrive2. This is their name for a tapered fork steerer tube measuring 1-1/4″ diameter up top, growing to 1-1/2″ diameter as it meets the fork crown. Look at Giant’s lineup of road bikes and chances are their top-spec models all use OverDrive2 forks, as they have done so for many years now.

You’d think that stems made to clamp around a 1-1/4″ fork steerer tube would be plentiful if you knew exactly how long OverDrive2 has been around. You’d be wrong. The aftermarket has been amazingly slow to adopt this steerer tube diameter. Not many days go by without someone online asking where one could get a stem compatible with OverDrive2 forks.

The Redshift Sports ShockStop stem isn’t compatible with Giant’s forks with the OverDrive2 steerer...
…at least, not until August 8, 2021. Photo credit: James Huang.

On the mountain bike side, the lack of aftermarket support for OverDrive2 meant that Giant got rid of it. I wish they’d do the same on the road. I don’t see roads getting any better (hello, gravel bikes), and an OverDrive2 fork steerer tube is a poor fit for particularly bad surfaces. Sure, you might gain more stiffness, but do you really need it on such crap roads?

NON-STANDARD PARTS…AND SPARES SUPPORT

Giant’s D-Fuse composite tube shaping technology first debuted on my bike, the 2014 TCX.

Hyro’s 2014 TCX chassis just happens to be Giant’s first implementation of their innovative “D-Fuse” concept. The idea goes that reprofiling the carbon composite seat post from a round cylinder into a D shape will allow it to flex more along the flat side (up to 12 mm as per Giant’s claims), which now points toward the rear of the bike. More flex in the seat post means it offers more of a suspension effect.

It’s not immediately apparent, but the D-Fuse concept does work, especially when more of the seat post is outside the confines of the frame’s seat tube. It’s simple, yet very clever engineering; Giant has even adopted the basic D-Fuse carbon tube shaping concept and put it into their gravel bikes’ drop handlebars.

Unfortunately, D-Fuse is effectively a proprietary system. On a bike like Hyro that will not accept a standard round seat post, if something happens to your D-Fuse seat post and you need a replacement…well, you’re not exactly out of luck. But it’s also not as straightforward as it should be, given that Giant’s retail strategy is to have a network of bike shops that exclusively carry their bikes and related wares. Replacement becomes much less straightforward as your bike frame ages.

While I’m glad I was able to get a spare D-Fuse SL seatpost for Hyro, it really should have been an easier process doing so.

That said, at least there are places online where you can get spares of Giant’s parts, proprietary or otherwise. Bicycle Warehouse in the US (Delaware, to be precise) carries a modest selection; I was recently able to secure from them a second D-Fuse SL carbon seat post, an exact replacement for the unit Hyro already has. For more comprehensive parts needs though, the best place I’ve seen is GiantBikeSpares.com, a website run by UK outfit Revel Outdoors. The major drawback with ordering from them is the higher shipping costs, however, and some of the parts they have on offer are on backorder as of this writing due to the ongoing COVID19 pandemic.

While it’s great that these two places give your aging Giant bike a fighting chance of getting relevant spare parts, Giant’s local bike shop network should really be doing this for its customers. And, while I now have a spare seat post, what I’d really want to see are compatible saddle clamp parts for mounting saddles with oval carbon rails with. Just so somebody like me has the option, mind you.

Also, before you say I forgot – I don’t think the D-Fuse handlebars are “trapped” by the same proprietary nature. I’m also pleased to report that the 2021 TCX models can now accept a 30.9 mm round seat post, should you need to, or should you want to fit a dropper seat post.

AREAS FOR ADDING MORE VALUE

While Giant has a generous 10-year limited warranty for many of its bikes, when compared to brands like Merida or Trek, the company’s road bike frames are a little lacking in terms of protective features being baked in.

This 2014 Merida Scultura has a sacrificial metal plate as a barrier against chain suck damage. Merida has carried this over to their newer frames, such as the 2021 Scultura Endurance. Photo credit: Steve Tan of Hands On Bike.

No matter how careful you are with riding or how clean you keep your bike, there will be instances where you get inside chain drop, or – even worse – chain suck. For the uninitiated, chain suck is an egregious phenomenon where the chain refuses to release from the rear lower part of the chainring as it spins…and holds on long enough to meet the upper run of the chain, and jam the entire drivetrain to a halt.

Merida is quite the example in this department, with some of their bikes featuring metal plates bonded onto the drive-side chainstay near the bottom bracket shell area. These will act as a sacrificial layer of protection in case of chain suck, saving the paint of the frame underneath against uncontrolled motion of the chain being in a place where it shouldn’t be. Many other brands offer a simple built-in chain catcher to defend against chain drop on the inside, where the chain will usually scratch up the paint around the bottom bracket shell pretty badly.

Trek’s Madone aero superbike is just one of the company’s many models with an included chain catcher. Photo credit: James Huang of CyclingTips.

In fairness to Giant, though, one way they’ve created value for the past few years is to set up many of their bikes tubeless right out of the gate. They have been notable for taking care of the tubeless tape, tires, valves, and sealant – all you need to do is ride the bike.

CONCLUSION

Compared to my criticisms of Cannondale, these pet peeves with Giant are nitpicks and nowhere near egregious enough to be deal-breakers. The main takeaway I took from engineering pundits like Hambini, Raoul Luescher, and Peak Torque on YouTube was that Giant builds good bikes, and it does so reliably and repeatably. That, I feel, can make up for the generally more mature, arguably slightly less exciting approach the company has to designing its bikes.

Extending the safety envelope: Lumos Ultra MIPS helmet review

At their most basic, cycling helmets help dissipate the energy of an impact that would have otherwise gone to our heads and brains in full. Us humans being who we are, we can’t leave well enough alone, and the past decade has seen us try to improve upon and extend the basic design in a number of ways, such as with the introduction of MIPS and improving ventilation and/or aerodynamics.

We’ve tried to get helmets to do things other than their main functions, too. I’ll be talking about one such helmet today: the Lumos Ultra.

While Lumos may not have the same brand cachet as, say, Giro, Bell, or Kask, the company has been around for quite a while. Their first helmet, which has evolved into its present guise as the Kickstart model, integrated LED lights front and rear into the expanded polystyrene (EPS) shell, and made the rounds among reviewers as far back as February 2017. That name is no accident; the Kickstart was successfully crowd-funded through popular site Kickstarter. At present, the company now offers five models, most of which have a decidedly “commuter” slant to them, but now their Ultra model is perhaps the closest they’ve gotten to addressing the road cycling crowd.

FEATURES

  • Size tested: M/L (54-60 cm with MIPS, 54-61 cm without)
  • Integrated front and rear COB LED lights
  • Turn signal capability via handlebar-mounted remote
  • Bluetooth 4.0 radio for connectivity to smartphones; compatible with Strava
  • Battery: 3.7V lithium polymer, 1100 mAh; 4-10 hours claimed run time depending on settings
  • Charging via USB Type C cable
  • Claimed weight 370 g; actual weight 414 g
  • Price: $115 without MIPS, $150 with MIPS

PACKAGE CONTENTS

A nice throwback to Lumos’ early days – and a sobering reminder that very few crowdfunding campaigns see the finish line.

The Lumos Ultra helmet comes in packaging that will please the environmentally conscious among us. Underneath the front flap is a thick little envelope that contains the documentation, which is a neat way of doing it. One of the cards inside the envelope even has a QR code, which when scanned should lead you to an online version of the user guide. There is clearly more going on here than with a regular helmet, which should be expected considering it’s packing more tech.

USB Type C charging cable, handlebar remote, elastic mounting bands, and CR2032 battery

Apart from the helmet, the box contains an interesting mix of parts. Lumos throws in an optional bug net that attaches to the inside of the helmet via additional Velcro patches; except for Rudy Project, this is something nobody else does. Bundled is a very red USB Type C cable for charging, a huge step up from the proprietary charger of days past. Lastly, the sole white plastic baggie contains the handlebar remote, which you will need to use to trigger the turn-signal functionality. Lumos provides you with a CR2032 battery to power this thing, as well as an assortment of elastic bands for mounting.

PHYSICAL IMPRESSIONS

That custom livery sure looks nice. To the right is the optional bug net.

This particular helmet was loaned to me by my buddy Brian Sy, and he had his done in this custom “Laban Pilipinas!” colorway reminiscent of the Philippine flag. This was a perk offered for early backers of the Ultra during its crowd-funding phase. It’s really well done, and the Ultra’s design lends itself well to this sort of customization.

The Ultra helmet itself reminds me quite a bit of the MET Manta, which foregoes some ventilation compared to its Rivale sibling in the name of better aerodynamics. Here, the closed-off central portion of the shell is ostensibly a concession to make room for the front-firing white LED emitter and some of its embedded circuitry.

More stuff happens out back. The rear center pod, similar to the Giro Aspect helmet of yore, houses much of the Ultra’s special sauce: the lithium polymer battery, the USB Type C charging port under a rubber flap, the on/off/mode switch, even a Bluetooth radio for communicating with your smartphone via an app. Like most other helmets, cinching up the fit is done via a ratcheted dial on the retention mechanism, and this worked pretty well. On either side of the dial are small rectangular reflective stickers in white.

Animated GIF courtesy of Brian Sy.

Lumos has to be commended: the Ultra as a package is remarkably sleek, discreet, and seamless. Had you not looked closely, you likely would have thought this to be a normal, albeit attractive road cycling helmet. From this aspect alone, I’d say Lumos has already succeeded with the design brief for the Ultra.

FITMENT AND RIDING IMPRESSIONS

At a measured 414 g on my scale, weight weenies will scoff, but it’s a decent weight considering the electronics and MIPS liner. More importantly, its weight is spread out well across the head, with very little of the pendulum effect that would have otherwise prematurely fatigued road cyclist neck muscles.

The retention mechanism does a good job of hiding the MIPS slip-plane liner, and it doesn’t seem to compromise the ventilation of the shell too much. One thing it does lack is vertical adjustment. At 56 cm head circumference, I usually wear “medium” helmets, and this fit me well with no hot spots or pinching.

That charging port cover does well against water splash ingress.

Charging the helmet until its rear status LED glowed green, I dove right into riding with the Lumos Ultra without reading its owner’s manual. I just peeked at how to fire up the lighting system, which is done by a quick press of the rear button from an “off” state. From there, tapping the rear button cycles through the three modes – a quick three-pulse flash, a steady one-second flash, and a steady glow mode. A long press turns the lighting system off.

As far as one-button controls go, this is pretty intuitive.

The foot of the handlebar-mounted remote doubles as the lid of the battery compartment.

Interesting things happen when you play around with the handlebar-mounted remote and attempt a turn signal.

Activating the turn signal with either button overrides the helmet’s current light mode and forces it to go into the steady glow mode. Pressing the “L” button triggers an audible, regular single beep, and makes the left rear bank of LEDs flash amber yellow while the right bank remains a steady red. This doesn’t stop until you manually press the “L” button again, or automatically after ten or so beeps. Pressing the “R” button does the same thing, but in reverse, and with double beeps. An orange indicator LED also lights up on the remote as visual confirmation that there is an active turn signal.

I found this system pleasant to use, with great audio and tactile feedback, even though the handlebar-mounted remote is a more natural fit for flat handlebars. Those beeps are clearly audible on the saddle in most situations, but they’re drowned out by loud motorcycle exhausts.

However, I think the Lumos Ultra’s LED array isn’t going to cut it as your only set of lights. It, and the other Lumos helmets, are best used in combination with your other lights to beef up your “to be seen with” lighting. This is especially true if you ride with daytime lights. While Lumos doesn’t claim a specific light output figure in lumens, the front LED array simply isn’t bright enough as a light “to see with,” nor does it have enough in the optics department to provide a focused, long-throw beam, and none of the modes actually raises the emitted light output.

I still maintain that your front light should output a minimum of 600 lumens to be truly usable. However, the Ultra does put additional light at head/eye level, improving your visual “verticality” and increasing the odds of you being identified as a human being. And any improvement in that area counts.

One other point of contention is comfort and ventilation, which I’ve already mentioned in passing. The Ultra simply isn’t going to be the airiest helmet around, although given its tech loadout, it’s commendable that its cooling performance is roughly equivalent to the Lazer Blade MIPS, if not marginally better. A one-hour late afternoon ride at 32 degrees Celsius heat will yield sweat, which the brow pad is a little lacking to fully address without getting saturated. That said, it’s airy enough at speed and it was easy to forget about wearing the Ultra on my head, which is a good thing.

Finally, there are additional functionalities which make themselves available if you get the confusingly named Lumos Remote. With that, the Ultra should gain the ability to act as a brake light array. While it’s a nice extension of present functionality, I’ll reserve comment on that as I wasn’t able to test it properly.

VERDICT

Adding lights to a cycling helmet, to me, is a sensible innovation and one that extends the basic safety remit. It’s great to see Lumos sticking to their guns with their core philosophy, and resisting the temptation to introduce frills such as onboard audio and calls via Bluetooth. Functionality like that sounds pretty darn stupid to me, and can detract from the hyper-awareness needed to ride a bicycle safely in environs that aren’t cyclist-friendly. (And yes, I’m talking about Metro Manila still; despite the much-ballyhooed 340 km “network” of bicycle lanes, I think most of them are still pretty pathetic excuses of their purpose. But I digress.)

One thing I see that Lumos can improve on is the handlebar remote for the turn signals, which is really a flat-handlebar item in current form. On a drop-handlebar road bike, the current unit is only really operable with your hands on the tops, close to the stem, where most folks don’t really have access to shifting or braking. I feel that a supplementary remote for drop handlebars that can go on both left and right control lever hoods would make the turn signal activation much better.

The Ultra feels like a natural refinement of Lumos’ basic concept, but aimed squarely towards road cyclists. Sure, it can be refined further in future, but for the $150 price Lumos is asking for a MIPS-equipped unit now, it’s quite hard to fault and it’s a reasonably good deal. A similar amount of money can get you, say, a Giro Syntax – and while it’s lighter, it doesn’t have the LED lighting tech that this does, and there are helmets out there that are vastly more expensive than this, but don’t deliver the same value proposition.

For me, the Lumos Ultra helmet itself is very good, and deserves to find a home with cyclists who understand and fit with its designed use case.