I recently conducted a Cycling Skills Clinic at Vicious Cycle Fitness in South Pasadena. These are my speaking notes.
1. The bike goes faster when you apply more watts to the rear wheel, period. The rear wheel doesn't care in what manner that power is generated or applied to the pedals. What matters is what that power is when it reaches the wheel.
2. Your feet are attached to the pedals, which are attached to straight cranks, which are attached to circular chain rings and a round axle or bottom bracket. You have no choice other than to pedal in a circle. All you are really in control of is what muscles you fire when your legs spin through this circular trajectory. 3. Your legs have been engineered to apply the most power most efficiently by pushing against the ground (running, jumping, walking), not by pulling up (activating the hip flexor). Contrary to product claims, there has been no evidence to suggest that the "way" to pedal a bike is by applying power in pretty little circles. 4. If you are thinking about this or that area of the pedal stroke and firing/relaxing different muscles at different times, but the power at the rear wheel is the same or less, you haven't accomplished anything. If you are doing all of this AND applying more watts, then we can talk, but my next question is, ”How long can you sustain this?” Another point in here is that nothing is free. If you're applying more watts to the bike, that work has to come from somewhere. It is not gained by efficiency, energy savings, etc. You must do more work in order to output more work. Period. So how should I pedal a bike?What I'll now discuss is how you should apply your leg power to the pedals as they trace the circle of a pedal stroke. Divide the pedal revolution into hours of the clock, as seen from the right side of the bike, and into four sectors of three hours each:11-2pm: Imagine you are "rolling a barrel" under your foot. At 11pm you begin to push forward across the top of the pedal stroke/clock face until your foot is in the 2pm position. 2-5pm: This is the power phase of the pedal stroke. You're pushing relatively straight down on the pedals, in the manner your legs have been designed to apply force most efficiently. Most beginner cyclists pedal straight up and down, like pistons, applying power to the pedals from 2-5pm. I feel they are missing the opportunity to apply that leg strength across more hours of the clock face. 5-8pm: Imagine you are "scraping mud" from the bottom of your shoe. Transition from pedaling down to following through, activating the hamstring and pulling your foot rearward. 8-11pm: When your right leg is at 8pm your left leg is at the beginning of the power phase, 2pm. We want 100% of the power applied by the left leg to be transferred to the rear wheel and move the bike forward. However, if your right leg, at 8pm, is "dead" on the pedal, then a percentage of your left leg power is not applied to the rear wheel but instead is used to lift the right leg. Now, this lifting effect is probably less than you think, as your right leg, spinning at 90+ rpm, does have a significant amount of momentum to "throw" it over the top of the pedal stroke. Instead, from 8-11pm we want to "de-weight" the pedal, applying just enough lifting force to make our foot weigh zero on the pedal, so 100% of the work performed by the opposite leg is used to propel the bike forward. Notice that I'm not counseling you to activate the hip flexor and apply power on the upward phase of the pedal stroke. Why not?In my opinion, it goes back to how our legs are designed. They are engineered to apply a great downward force and comparatively little upward force. Why waste energy trying to put a relatively small muscle to work (hip flexor) doing something it isn't really designed to do anyway: apply a great deal of power upward? My experience has been that your leg realizes it is getting worked on the upstroke and compensates by resting, or producing less power, on the downstroke. The result can be a net decrease of power to the rear wheel. I call all of this the "Clock Face Awareness": by performing the drills below you become more aware of where you are applying power through the clock face and can therefore choose to emphasize one area/muscle group while de-emphasizing another. Isolated Leg Drills (ILD’s)Purpose: To divide the clock face into sectors, focus on them one at a time, and increase your awareness of what you’re doing in each sector. ILD’s increase your awareness of these sectors, enabling you to choose to do or not do “something” with each sector. Drill: After a good warm up and a couple of short, hard efforts to loosen up the legs, transition to ILD’s:
Where " = seconds
Right Leg, Over the Barrel: Shift to a lower gear, lowering your cadence, and unclip your left leg. Pedaling only with the right leg, think “rolling the barrel” as your foot traces 11-2pm. Begin at a lower cadence and increase your speed/cadence. At some cadence you’ll experience a ratcheting of the pedal. Work to eliminate this ratcheting so that it occurs at higher and higher cadences. Do this for 30-60 seconds or stop when fatigue begins to compromise your ability to perform the drill correctly. These are skills drills—we’re not worried about your fitness here. Clip in and recover, spinning easily.
Left Leg, Over the Barrel: same drill, pedaling with left leg. After 30-60”, clip in, recover.
Right Leg, Scrape Mud: same drill, but think about scraping mud from the sole of our shoe from 5-8pm on the clock face. Again, start at a lower cadence, increase until you experience the ratcheting effect, then try to eliminate it. Over time, try to increase the cadence at which ratcheting occurs. After 30-60”, clip in, recover.
Left Leg, Scrape Mud: same drill, left leg.
Focus BoxesPurpose: To transfer the awareness of the sectors above into the entire pedaling action.
Drill: Perform immediately after ILD’s. Divide the pedal stroke into four sides of a box. Then, while pedaling at a normal cadence, focus on one side of one box at a time for about 30”. A sample focus progression might be: Right Top, Left Top, Right Bottom, Left Bottom, Right Up, Left Up, etc. The sides of the boxes are:Top = 11-2pm Down = 2-5pm Bottom = 5-8pm Up = 8-11pm Spin-UpsPurpose: Increase the coordination of muscle groups through the pedaling circle. As you do ILD’s and Focus Boxes, it quickly becomes apparent that cadence plays a role. Specifically, what is easy to do at low cadence becomes more difficult at higher cadences. Pedaling requires muscles A and B to contract and relax in a coordinated fashion: A contracts exactly as B relaxes. Your muscles can achieve this coordination when the movement is relatively slow, at lower cadences. However, at higher cadences, your muscles can no longer fake the funk. A contracts before B relaxes. The result is often seen as a bouncing in the saddle at high cadence: your leg is trying to push down past 6pm, lifting you a bit from the saddle.
Spin-ups simply take you to this bouncing point and make you sit there for a bit, forcing your muscles to learn how to work together in a more coordinated fashion.
Drill: Do these at a low speed or resistance. It should feel as if your cranks are not even connected to the rear wheel through the chain. Again, this is a skills drill, not a fitness session.
Shift to an easy gear and increase cadence to where you begin to bounce in the saddle (usually 100-110rpm). Then back your cadence down a hair and spin there for 30-60”. You’ll notice that in addition to your legs feeling like they’re spinning out of control, they also feel rather tense, like something is still contracted when it should be relaxed. This is exactly the point we are trying to take your body to.
Recover by shifting to a lower-cadence gear.
Repeat several times, trying to take the cadence up a bit higher each time.
4-6 Spin-ups is usually ideal.
After the drill just ride the bike at whatever cadence feels comfortable for you. You’ll notice that this self-selected cadence has likely increased a good bit, just from this simple drill. You should also feel much smoother. In summary, the bike goes faster when you put more watts to the rear wheel. You do this by pedaling the bike in a circular trajectory at the cranks. By becoming more aware of your pedal stroke, you can choose to manipulate where and how you activate your leg muscles as your foot traces this circle.
Rich is a Joe Friel Ultrafit Associate, an Ironman World Championship Finisher, a USAT certified coach, and the founder of the Pasadena Triathlon Club in Pasadena, CA. Rich has personally trained over 250 Ironman finishers since 2001, and helped thousands more coach themselves more effectively through his training articles and active discussion forum. Since 2005 over 500 athletes have used a Crucible Fitness Half or Full Ironman Training Plan to prepare for successful seasons. Visit www.cruciblefitness.com for a complete list of services.