Shoe cleats last a long time and don’t require much maintenance but they need to be kept them screwed on tight. If they become loose on a ride you run the risk of loosing them and nothing can be a bigger bummer than limping home one-footed. Plus the strain of ripping the screws from your shoe can strip the fixing threads. So every few months it’s a good idea to take an Allen wrench and give the fixing screws a squeeze. But you don’t want to over tighten them either. Most cleats only need a 5Nm torque or as we like to call it at the bike shop, a two finger tight. That is about the same force it takes to screw in a light bulb. That goes for mountain bike shoes as well as road shoes.
But every year or two you might need to replace the cleats altogether. Mountain bike cleats seem to last forever because they are still usually made of steel. Road cleats are the ones that need to be replaced more often. To keep them lightweight, most pedal manufacturers make cleats out of plastic and these can wear down from walking around and normal clip-in use.
Shimano cleats even have wear marks on the edges of their systems that help to let you know when it’s time to buy a new pair. Use these as a much better indicator of cleat life than how they might feel in the pedals. A new seat of cleats will not necessarily feel tighter in your pedals – that might be the float in your pedal. But if you feel your cleats getting slicker on pavement when you walk around off the bike there might be increasing wear that needs to be addressed too.
There might be other factors as well: your shoe might pop out once in awhile when you’re pulling up on the pedal. If this happens and you haven’t replaced your cleats for a while it might be a good idea to start thinking about it. You wouldn’t want total failure on a group ride that might leave you with an embarrassing memory or someone getting hurt. It can happen and prevention is the best tool to keep you in line and riding right.
When buying a new set of cleats make sure you know the part number you are replacing. Shimano makes a new update almost every year but some pedals will take slightly different cleats. Shop for the pedal, not just your existing cleat. You might have the option to choose a floating cleat or a fixed cleat as well.
While some old pro’s like Steve Tilford are fixed cleat diehards, I would recommend sticking with floating cleats because they are easier on your knees.