Technique - how to pedal like a pro

Unlike running, cycling has a fixed range of limb movement due to the cranks controlling the circular motion the feet and legs can take.

Unlike running, cycling has a fixed range of limb movement due to the cranks controlling the circular motion the feet and legs can take. Muscle movement patterns and style are much closer between cyclists than they are within a group of runners. The latter group have varying styles and levels of grace; the former may have varying bikes, but the legs do a very similar thing if the rider is set up within the accepted range of riding positions.

However, just watching the smoothness of Tour de France winner Alberto Contador compared to the bent-elbowed out-of-the-saddle style of runner-up Cadel Evans, it's clear that riders prefer varying amounts of in and out of the saddle riding going uphill. The big question therefore always beckons: should you ride in or out of the saddle? When riding flatter terrain riders seek a cadence that will give then the best pedalling efficiency - some push bigger gears, other spin fast. Again, the question of how to pedal is often on the lips of beginners and experienced riders alike.

Coach says...

Some of the latest research data [1] shows that riders were able to alter the mechanics of their pedalling by being verbally coached to alter their pedal style. Actively pulling upwards at the back of the pedal stroke can increase power to the crank but efficiency will be reduced. The riders were most efficient using the pedal action they felt most at home with [1].

So according to this research, active thought on your style (pull up, scrape, throw, push) does not actually make you any more efficient. This was only a short term study and more research needs to be done to see if riders can learn to get more from the miles.

However, if you need more short term effort and you're not worried about losing more energy as a result, pulling upwards at the back of the stroke will help.

Does that mean jump in and out of the saddle? Previous study data [2] from 2001 looked at riders' efficiency during seated velodrome riding and on 5% gradient climbing in and out of the saddle. Despite increases in heart rate of around 8bpm (beats per minute) and an increase in breathing of 10% between out of the saddle and seated climbing, riders did not differ in efficiency when they adopted their preferred riding cadence [2].

Climbing cadence for the 5% grade was around 60rpm, seated or standing. However, to achieve the same power output on the flat as climbing (280-290 watts) cadence was around 90rpm. These were not riders who liked the Lance Armstrong way to climb at 100rpm, but they were fit and rode regularly, so perhaps one of the choices that achieving a level of riding fitness gives you is the chance to choose whether you climb in or out of the saddle.

We do know that Armstrong improved his efficiency 2-3% from 1992 to 2000 as a result of his training [3], and perhaps high cadence work was one of the keys to this change. Aside from the obvious putting in lots of miles, we don't actually know what made him able to hike his efficiency above the 23% mark. Data from untrained subjects who weight-trained, and did not even touch a bike, show they improved cycling efficiency over eight weeks [4]. The report authors believed that the effect was due to neural adaptations [4].

Conversely, data from UK-based research has also shown that just one hour of riding at 60% effort reduces riding efficiency by almost 2%, reducing 5-minute time trial effort from 322 to 310 watts [5]. So, the nervous system can easily be taught to improve from an untrained status, but it may also lose efficiency in longer periods of riding - our efficiency can vary from minute to minute, month to month.

Pro pedalling project

Data from seven pro cyclists during the 1999 season covering the Tour, Giro and Vuelta shows that cadence drops on climbs to 60-80rpm [6]. In flat peloton-based stages and individual time trials cadence averages from 80-99rpm. Spin when riding against the clock or in a group but lower the revs when you climb for longer periods.

This goes against the 100rpm Lance climbing method, so one size does not fit all. Try varying cadences to see what works for you. At the very least it will stimulate your muscles and nervous system differently, most likely causing some positive changes in cycling efficiency.

Despite the numbers quoted above, the most efficient cadences are lower than those that most cyclists instinctively ride at. Why? Well, it's not just about oxygen cost but also the perception of muscle effort and the nervous system feedback the rider receives. Optimal pedal rate in oxygen terms is about 60-70rpm (or lower), but measures of muscle electrical discharge show better efficiency at 80-90rpm [7].

You can probably get away with very small periods of lower rpm riding, but in day to day riding, racing and training the higher cadence band of 70 to 100rpm is the preferred starting point. Whereabouts you are in that zone depends on a lot of factors, but aim for better efficiency today.

Ways to improve efficiency

Pick a consistent climb of five minutes and choose varying gears and cadences to see what yields the lowest heart rate and also what instinctively feels the best way to climb.

Ride with your rpm number obscured then check afterwards to find out your preferred riding cadence. Ideally get a Polar cycle computer that downloads to a computer so you can see how cadence varies in the ride.

Improve your efficiency by doing different forms of riding: use rollers not a turbo; train at various cadences on road rides; try fixed indoor spin sessions and go fixed on the track or road.

Get every minute on the bike you can - even small sessions - and don't give up for months on end and expect to pick up where you left off. Consistency is probably the biggest factor in pedal efficiency, then knowing what's the best way to climb and when to change gears.

If you do hit the wall or start to fatigue think about being the smoothest you can, get food/gels down you and aim to use other riders or a smart route choice to get you home efficiently.


[1] Korff et al (2007) Effect of pedalling technique on mechanical effectiveness and efficiency in cyclists. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 39(6) 991-995.

[2] Millet, G. et al (2001) Level ground and uphill cycling efficiency in seated and standing positions. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 34(10): 1645-1652.

[3] Coyle, F. (2005) Improved muscular efficiency displayed as Tour de France champion matures. J. Appl. Physiol. 98(6): 2191-2196.

[4] Loveless, D.J. et al (2005) Maximal leg-strength training improves cycling economy in previously untrained men. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 37(7): 1231-1236.

[5] Pasfield, L. & Doust, H.H. (2000) Changes in cycling efficiency and performance after endurance exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 32(11): 1935-1941.

[6] Lucia, A. et al (2001) Preferred pedalling cadence in professional cycling. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 33(8): 1361-1366.

[7] Takaishi, T. et al (1996) Optimal pedalling rate estimated from neuromuscular fatigue in cyclists. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 28(12): 1492-1497.

© BikeRadar 2007

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