Pedalling on a bike becomes a second nature much akin to walking if done often enough. Everyone from avid cyclists to children know how to pedal. However, there is a huge misconception that is especially is important for cyclists that start competing. Pedalling is thought as such an easy thing that it is neglected, so people will start by buying an expensive, lighter or more aero bike, trying to shave off weight, without any real improvements in their performance. For what it is worth (it does not cost anything!) focusing on your pedalling could drastically improve performance and lower your fatigue levels, and make your ride more enjoyable.
Before going in depth about the pedalling movement and how it may improve your performance, I will quickly introduce myself. My name is William Lewis and cycling and bikes have always been part of my life. I started racing at age 12. I went up the ranks, participated in national Champs and now I am an Amateur Cat1 Elite road rider in France as well as a rider for Revo Racing Team for fixed gear races. I have graduated from the University of Franche-Comté in France with a degree in Sports Science specialised in Cycling Training and Performance Analytics. I have got work experiences at the World Cycling Centre in Aigle, Switzerland,which indeed, is the place where Froome was trained when coming from Kenya. Just over a year ago I created my company, William Lewis Coaching.
Text: William Lewis
For my first contribution to the series: “Get Brian’s ass back into shape”, I have decided to focus on the pedal stroke and its technique. I can already hear people say: “Yeah cool, but that’s not going to make Brian any stronger, or fitter.” and they are right!
But it will make Brian more efficient, and efficiency is what all high-level athletes want, especially cyclists. We spend so much time on the bike, that saving 1 watt per pedal stroke ends up being a huge gain over the course of a ride, let alone over the winter training and an entire season. For example, over a 3h ride at 80rpm, you need 14400 pedal strokes.
What is quite strange is that it is very difficult to find any independent scientific studies on the effects of pedalling in cycling performance, meaning studies that were not financed by a brand. What I will be saying here are of course merely suggestions, and please feel free to follow them or not, disagree with me, or even send me an email for further discussion and any questions you might have.
Pedalling is an automated movement, just like walking or running, as it would be literally impossible to think about each individual pedal stroke. If this would be the case it would mean that our brain would be solely occupied with this information and be totally ignorant of the surrounding environment. You come close to this in an Individual Time Trial. Although our pedal strokes become an automatism, this doesn’t mean that it cannot be changed. The aim is to make this automated movement as effective as possible, and this is achieved by training, and focusing specifically on the pedalling for short periods of time over a training ride (i.e. 4 periods of 15’ over a 3h ride).
On a classic road bike, meaning one with a free rear wheel hub, you have two neutral points in the pedal stroke, which are the two extremities of the vertical axis that crosses the bottom bracket, these two points also exist on a fixed gear bike, but are minimised due to the fact that the feet are “pushed” through them.
The aim is then to minimise those neutral points as much as possible, or even eradicate them which would be a best-case scenario. This means that instead of pedalling in a strictly PUSH/PULL pattern as most of amateur cyclist do, you would have to adopt a pedalling stroke that relates more to Nordic Skiing in a FORWARDS/BACKWARDS pattern. This pattern is very difficult to adopt and get used to at first as it demands a lot of ankle movement and utilises muscles that weren’t solicited on the Push/Pull pattern.
The PUSH/PULL technique doesn’t mobilise all the muscles very efficiently. Glutes and Quads will be used on the down part, but for the pull part, the hamstrings will be underused and it is the hip flexors that will be favoured over them. This can actually create an imbalance in the leg leading to your knees shifting towards the inside, and a hypertrophia of hip flexors will lead to lower back pain.
The FORWARD/BACKWARDS motion is far more effective, as we can see on the right here, the forces applied to the pedal are almost constantly perpendicular to the crank arm axis. You can also see that the red arrows, representing the forces not helping towards producing motion, are much more scarce but also better orientated as they follow the motion of the pedal stroke. In the case, you will be using your hamstrings much more as you’ll be doing a flexion or the lower leg toward the upper leg. The hip flexors will still be used greatly but it won’t cause as much trouble concerning back pain as your hamstrings and glute muscles will equilibrate the forces.
For the people that have never done any nordic skiing and to simplify, the movement basically is like doing a forward moonwalk. All of this will obviously feel uncomfortable and very weird at first, you might even feel like you’re losing power or getting tired more quickly. This could be because you’re using muscles which were neglected for a long period. However, always remember, sometimes you need to take a step back before making a leap forward.
When on the bike, you will have to lock your upper body and use all your core strength towards the pedal stroke, this means that your torso or head should not be moving around at all. Although keeping your body still might sound like it is easy, it actually requires a lot of strength, therefore, core stability training is so important for cyclists.
When you are close to the bottom of the stroke, prepare your foot and ankle as if you were going to do a jump; this extension of the ankle will contract your calve and “whip” the pedal through that bottom dead spot. Then make sure to close your leg (reduce knee angle) using your hamstrings, this will allow an optimal application of the force from the bottom point to about 1/3 of the way up. The second third of the way is just plainly pulling up as strong as you can so that you are not getting in the way of the push on the other side. The last third of the way up, you have got to open up that knee angle and prepare for a “kick” through a ball; this will use your hip extensors and quads and allow you to avoid the dead spot. The way down is pretty straightforward, push down, hard. If the way up and over the top dead spot is well done, the movement and flow will follow.
All of this feels very very unnatural at first, but after a couple of specific sessions, it will all become automated.
If you struggle to understand the mechanics of what I have just described, go on your bike without your cleats, and try to pedal with only one leg. Only there will you understand the importance of the “whip” and “kick”.
I have not mentioned it earlier but it is quite an important point, your heel should absolutely never go under the horizontal axis of your pedal.
A good way to start getting used to this new pedal stroke technique is to during a base mile endurance ride take 2 ten to fifteen minutes sessions each hour to solely focus on the pedal stroke technique. Focus on going round, applying the force continuously perpendicular to the crank arm axle. All of your muscles will hurt if you have never done it, but trust me it is for the best!
If you have any questions, objections, enquiries, please feel free to comment on this post or directly contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org