Technique: Perfecting your pedalling

By Nik Cook | Monday, November 3, 2008 4.00pm

A smooth, efficient pedal stroke is so important to cycling performance that the French even have a word for it: a ‘souplesse’ pedalling motion gives the appearance of effortless ease while delivering maximal forwards propulsion. 

Many guides will instruct you to think about pedalling in circles but, in reality, a pedal rotation is too fast to think about, so concentrate on these four components to produce a silky smooth stroke.

1. Downstroke: This is the natural action of riding a bike by using the powerful quadriceps muscles to push the pedals down. Many novice riders tend to use a jerky stabbing style but this fault tends to arise from not incorporating the other three parts.

2. Bottom: The best way to think of the bottom of the stroke is the action of wiping something off your shoe. By doing this you actually extend the portion of the pedal stroke during which you can actually apply power. It also facilitates a smooth transition to the upstroke so is vitally important to overall pedalling efficiency.

3. Upstroke: Under normal riding conditions, you never need to think about pulling up. Studies of top cyclists have shown almost no evidence of pulling during the upstroke. 

The only exceptions to this are during aggressive sprinting or out of the saddle climbing. All you are trying to achieve on the upstroke is to ‘unweight’ the leg to make the load less for the downstroke of the opposite leg. 

To do this, simply concentrate on driving your knee towards the handlebar as soon as your foot passes through the bottom of each stroke.

4. Top: If you’ve cracked driving your knee towards the handlebars then the transition from upstroke to downstroke should take care of itself. Also, the opposite foot pulling through at the bottom of the stroke will help to provide additional momentum to start the downward push.

How you can push your pedalling

There are a number of ways to work on your pedalling skills:

Go hi-tech: The total indoor cycling experience that is CompuTrainer offers hi-tech pedalling analysis in the form of SpinScan. For each pedal stroke a torque graph is produced allowing you to see any flat-spots. Also, you can compare in real-time the power outputs of each leg and, by balancing them out, instantly improve your technique.

The downside? The complete CompuTrainer package will set you back £1300! www.computrainer.co.uk

Get fixed: Cycling on a fixed gear will smooth out your pedalling and increase your cadence. Training on a fixie over the winter is the traditional path to perfect pedalling and really allows you to develop a sense of your legs working together to produce even circles. It teaches you to stop fighting the bike and to go with the motion and momentum. 

If you don’t fancy taking to the roads on a fixed bike, sessions on the track will achieve the same objective. Also, spinning classes in gyms are on fixed bikes – for supplementary training.

Ride the rough stuff: In a study comparing the pedal strokes of different types of cyclists, mountain bikers came out with the most efficient pedalling style. This is because on loose surfaces and mud, even power through the stroke is essential to maintaining traction. Off-road hill repeats on a long, loose surfaced climb are an excellent way to work on your pedalling technique – and will benefit your bike handling as well.

Go single-legged: Best done on an indoor trainer for obvious safety reasons, single-legged drills are one of the most effective ways of improving your pedalling. After a warm-up, select a medium gear/resistance that is easy to turn smoothly at 90-100rpm without causing muscle fatigue. 

Unclip one foot, rest it on a stool, and keep spinning with the other leg. Work for a minute, concentrating on one of the four stages of the pedal stroke. After a minute, spin easy with both legs for a minute before changing to the other leg. 

Aim to perform 5-10 minutes on each leg, working on all aspects of the pedal stroke. You’ll be amazed how awkward and choppy your stroke will feel to start with but, after a few sessions, you should notice a significant improvement.

Chris - our coaching expert: chris - our coaching expert

Meet Our Coaching Expert

Chris founded his company, CycleActive, in 1996 and set out to create a professional training and travel operation. He was the first to employ only qualified, professional instructors and now his team leads the way in delivering skills coaching.

Recently Chris has been working closely with the CTC on its MTB Instruction programme, using fundamental elements of this as part of his feature. Combined with his own research on vision in mountain biking, his level 4 coach status as an SMBLA tutor, expedition and night riding instructor, this really sets him apart as a coach – making him the perfect author for our technique series.

To find out about coaching or group courses with Chris and his team, visit wwww.cycleactive.co.uk.

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