In 1990 Shimano brought their Shimano Pedaling Dynamics (SPD) to the world. From the full name, you would expect it to be more than a clipless pedal and a two-bolt cleat, which is why its tragically overblown name has mercifully been reduced to an acronym that most folks never both to learn the full name for. Like your friend Bubba, whose given name is William. Almost no one even thinks to ask.
The company line on SPD is more of a word salad than one of my reviews:
The legacy of “in-the-dirt” dependability, reliability and sheer endurance continues as shoe-pedal designs evolve to meet the needs of your personal style of ride. System-engineered. Rider-tuned. You choose.Shimano Marketing Bot Q-36
So SPD. I have a hard time not hearing SBD (Silent But Deadly), which tells you more about the arrested development of my sense of humor than about the development of clipless pedal technology. I wish Shimano had just named it “PEDAL,” because, as with most things Shimano makes it quickly became the standard for those wishing to stick their feet to their bike. Just calling it PEDAL would have saved us a syllable every time we said it and wouldn’t have reminded me of farts as much.
I realize that part of Shimano’s schtick is a superficial sense of humility. Usurping a common name for one of their products isn’t really their jam. They prefer to give everything a code, like MT31, which is obviously a clipless mountain pedal right? The problem is that the codes increase the feeling that our robot over-lords are already among us, telling us what to do, how to do it, and to—chop-chop—get on with it.
Predictably, SPD quickly replaced the cages-and-straps paradigm, which was a good thing, since no one ever in the history of time could find the exact tightness for their straps, and if they did find it for one pedal, that more or less precluded entirely the possibility that the same tension could be found for the other side. Several fixie-hipsters, reading these words right now, are saying, “I totally have my straps dialed!” And that’s why no one likes you.
I like to think of SPD as a technology that gives you a new way to fall over embarrassingly at an intersection or in front of a group ride. Despite having ridden cliplessly for a couple of decades and more, I can tell you that I last fell over in this fashion in a parking lot before a mountain bike ride about three months ago. My friends stood around laughing at me. I lay there in the gravel, beneath my bike, also laughing, because life is absurd, and it helped me cover my tears.
It is worth pointing out also that SPD was meant to solve two problems, the first is sticking your feet to your pedals, the second is being able to walk into a shop of one kind or another without skittering around like a first-time ice skater at Sunday morning family skate. With SPD, Shimano magically turned your shoes back into shoes.
I’d even offer a third solution inherent in the design. By installing SPD cleats into a pair of sandals, VOILA!!! You also have a non-invasive form of birth control.
At some point though, SPD stopped meaning anything other than a pedal in a blue and gray package. The OG two-bolt system begat a three-bolt “road” system, SPD-SL. “It’s just like the Look system,” said Shimano, “but different, and cheaper, and better.” I wonder how many cycling humans, who thought three-bolt set-ups must be the same, spent time trying to cram their SPD-SL cleats into Look pedals and vice-versa. That’s why we haven’t cured cancer yet.
And as with all things in this crazy bike game, technology is relentlessly cyclical (pun intended). We used to ride around on flats wearing regular shoes, and then someone decided we needed to be attached to our pedals, so we did that for a while, and then someone was like, “You know what’s better? Flats.” So today, any mountain biker worth their salt (not a club I belong to) is riding flats again, the better to huck and flip and twist and generally turn mountain biking into something like rhythmic gymnastics.
Sometimes the grand arc of progress looks more like a crazy straw.
The smart people I know bought their first SPDs in 1990 or shortly thereafter. Then they rode those pedals and their replacements for the next 30 years, never once straying from the two-bolt path, ignoring the souped-up performance of three-bolts and/or Speedplays, foregoing the option to collect a dozen different shoes that do half-a-dozen different things. They called the problem solved and moved on with their riding lives. I’m not one of those people, sadly.