I’ll never forget the rider approaching me near Boulder, Colorado, some years ago. Roadies are common in that cycling-mad town but this guy stood out, even at a distance, for the smoothness and fluidity of his pedaling motion. He sat rock steady on the saddle and his legs flowed underneath him. I wasn’t surprised when he came closer and I recognized Ron Kiefel, long-time pro and 7-time Tour de France rider.
Because we often associate smooth pedaling with accomplished cyclists, many roadies develop a fetish for perfect circles. They work for hours on their pedal stroke, trying to pull the foot up on the backstroke so it doesn’t weigh on the descending foot’s powerful push downward.
In 1985 I attended a cycling camp put on by Greg LeMond. There for the first time I heard his advice about a key to pedaling smoothly: Imagine you’re scraping mud off your shoe as you pull through at the bottom of the stroke. I shared that advice in a Bicycling magazine article and have heard it repeated ever since, sometimes attributed to LeMond and sometimes not.
But now there’s compelling evidence that a smooth pedal stroke may not be as important as we thought. Moreover, research by Jeff Broker, Ph.D., Jim Martin, Ph.D. and others casts doubt on how much time we need tospend on that elusive search for silky strokes.
Biomechanists like Broker use force-measuring pedals to quantify the direction and force exerted by the foot through every portion of the 360-degree pedal circle. Other equipment measures which muscles fire as we pedal. The result is a complete picture of what happens when we power the bike.
Here’s what’s been learned from all that research:
As power level increases, cyclists don’t pedal in circles.
Martin cited 1991 research by Ed Coyle, et al, involving regional level competitors and elite racers — pros and U.S. national team members. Coyle found that elite cyclists pushed down harder and pulled up less than the less-accomplished riders.
Surprisingly, the elite riders were more efficient even though they were pedaling less smoothly. They had a higher percentage of endurance-loving slow-twitch muscle fibers than the regional riders and Coyle theorized that may have skewed the data regarding efficiency.
To find out if Coyle was right, another study examined 8 different riders with similar muscle fiber makeup pedaling with 4 different techniques: (1) their normal, preferred technique; (2) concentrating on pedaling circles; (3) pulling up on the backstroke; (4) pushing down hard. Pedal forces and metabolic costs were measured.
Pulling up was significantly less efficient than the riders’ preferred technique. The study indicated that the muscles that flex the leg and allow pulling up the pedal on the backstroke are intrinsically less efficient than those that push down.
How can your pedal stroke be efficient if the weight of the foot and pedal on the backstroke interferes with the power-producing downstroke? As the study put it, force and power at the pedal reflect the combined effects of muscular effort, gravity in the form of the weight of the leg, and accelerating and decelerating the leg during the pedal stroke. In other words, the negative power observed at the pedal on the backstroke is mostly due to gravity, and that negative power is essentially balanced by the weight of the other leg.
So is it worthwhile to concentrate on perfecting your pedal stroke?
Martin maintains that when we pedal we use the spinal cord’s neuromuscular programs that allow us to run. Thinking about the fact that these reflexes exist and are useful for pedaling is usually sufficient to ensure a solid pedal stroke.
Broker agrees, saying that he isn’t a believer in working excessively on the pedal stroke in training. When he was helping coach the U.S. national team in the ’90s he simply gave riders a few cues at the top and bottom of the stroke to help them visualize a smoother “circle.” For instance, as the foot nears the top of the stroke, you could think about pushing your knee toward the handlebar. And as the foot nears the middle of the downstroke, use LeMond’s timeless advice to pretend you’re scraping mud off the sole of your shoe.
Notice that these cues are activated well in advance of when the foot is actually at the top or bottom of the pedaling action. That’s because you can’t react fast enough to put the movement into action when the foot is farther along. You have to anticipate the proper moment and visualize the cue well in advance due to the speed of pedaling. Think about passing a football. You need to lead a running receiver, and in the same way you must mentally “lead” the foot in order to get the desired action at the right time in the pedaling circle.
Another way to get feedback is to ride a mountain bike up a steep hill with a loose, gravely surface. If you pedal jerkily, pushing down hard, you’ll lose rear-wheel traction. The tire will spin abruptly on the loose gravel, causing you to lose momentum and put a foot down. But if you concentrate on pedaling evenly through the whole 360-degree circle, the rear wheel won’t lose traction.
Interestingly, said Broker, among all the riders tested over the years at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, mountain bikers had the smoothest pedal stroke, even smoother than pursuit specialists on the track. Off-road legend John Tomac was the smoothest of all.
Fine. Some practice, rather than years spent working on a silky pedal stroke, will make you as smooth as necessary for generating maximum power. But how much practice do you need?
A powerful pedaling technique doesn’t take long to learn
Martin tested 13 racing cyclists (category 1, 2 and 3) and 35 active men who didn’t own bicycles. Each subject did short, all-out sprints on an ergometer 4 times a day for 8 days.
The trained cyclists didn’t improve over the course of the trials. The non-cyclists got better each day for the first 3 days and on the fourth day were producing more power than the competitive cyclists. Then their improvement leveled off through Day 8. They were also pedaling faster than the trained cyclists during the tests.
How could soccer players, track-and-field athletes and rugby players produce more power than trained cyclists? Martin speculated that there were 2 reasons. First, the non-cyclists were somewhat larger than the cyclists and so had more muscle mass to generate watts. Second, they had a slightly higher percent of fast-twitch fibers compared to the racing cyclists.
This study shows that a fast and powerful pedal stroke doesn’t take years — or even weeks — to develop in a reasonably athletic person. In these athletic subjects it took only 3 days and 12 total sprints — less than 40 seconds of actual work!
Martin cited 2 other important points.
First, a “masher” can win the world championship road race. Second, a ragged pedaler can learn to pedal smoothly.
If research shows that smooth pedaling is overrated, why do most pro cyclists have a silky stroke? Remember that the studies usually deal with short-duration power output where pushing down as hard as possible, with the resulting ragged pedaling action, is more effective.
However, this masher style is fatiguing over several hours. As a result, good riders automatically smooth their pedaling to increase comfort and efficiency over the long haul. Elite riders can do both — produce maximum power for short periods as well as pedal elegantly for hours.
So how can you use this information to get down the road faster?
Martin argues that you must maximize the power you can produce and minimize the power you must produce.
Maximize your power in 4 ways:
- Train intensely to improve VO2 max and lactate threshold.
- Increase muscle mass and anaerobic capacity for sprint power.
- Emphasize proper nutrition and hydration.
- Make sure your program builds in rest and recovery.
Decrease your need for that hard-won power by:
- Reducing aerodynamic drag with good body position and equipment.
- Drafting properly and being especially careful to not let gaps open after corners. Find whatever draft is available in crosswinds. Remember that drafting is important even on climbs when there is a headwind.
- Minimizing weight for climbing by maintaining your ideal cycling weight and using lightweight but safe equipment.
- Maintaining your equipment so it doesn’t siphon off your wattage.