Technique: Three ways to pedal faster

How technology and technique can improve your power

When it comes to pedalling, one question that's often asked is, “Does technique make a significant difference to your performance, or is it just ‘the harder you pedal, the faster you ride’?”

Many experienced riders stress the importance of suplesse, or the art of pedalling. Riding in the small chainring on training rides can help you learn good form and become smooth and extra efficient with each pedal stroke.

But that's not the only way; cadence and technology may also have a part to play. Here we discuss three ways that could help you to pedal more efficiently.

Try ovalised chainrings

Oval-shaped chainrings may not be a new invention, but these days they’re proving more effective than they ever did in the past. Advocates include the 2008 Tour de France winner Carlos Sastre, and the UK’s Bradley Wiggins who finished fourth in 2009. They’re designed to eliminate something known as the dead spot when you pedal.

Imagine your chainrings are a clock face, with your pedals in the 12 o’clock and six o’clock positions. This position is known as the dead spot, where it’s nigh-on impossible to create much pedal power. The radical design of ovalised chainrings supposedly enables you to apply more power throughout the dead spot, and hence produce more power on each pedal revolution.

The two main players in the market are Rotor Q-Rings, as used by Sastre, and O.Symetric Harmonic chainrings – the choice of Wiggins. The body of evidence for both these products isn’t deep, but what exists makes compelling reading.

For example, when the O.Symetric Harmonic rings were tested independently in 1993, a 16km road test suggested they increased power by 33 watts and 1.5kph; a saving of 45 seconds in total.

Rotor Q-Rings, a newer product, were tested more recently by Spain’s Universidad de Valladolid. Their study from 2006, conducted on elite U23 cyclists, compared sprint power, sustained power output and subsequent blood lactate response versus standard chainrings. The Q-Rings proved superior in every test, delivering a 12 watt gain in sustained power, 30 watts in sprint power and a nine percent reduction in blood lactate concentration.

So why aren’t we all using them? Well, one reason is that they don’t come as standard when you buy a bike, so they’re an extra non-essential expense. Another is that they can reduce gear-shifting quality, as highlighted by Wiggins at the last World Championships when he was forced to drop out of the time trial due to mechanical problems.

Just because they improved the performance of the test-subjects, does that guarantee they’ll do the same for you? No, it doesn’t, but if you’re looking to squeeze out those last few remaining grams of performance, they could be well worth a try.

Pick the right cadence

Picking the right cadence could help you ride even faster. Cadence is measured in pedal revolutions per minute, and the best way to monitor it is with a cycling computer that has a cadence function.

People think that a high cadence (90-100rpm) must be the best way to ride, because it’s what pro cyclists like Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador do. And if the pros do it, we should all do it, right? Well, not necessarily.

A study from the European Journal of Applied Physiology in 2004 suggests that your optimal cycling cadence should vary depending on how hard you are riding. In practical terms, this means that your cadence in races will be higher than it is during an easy training ride. So there is no single ideal cadence that we should all adopt – it’s different for all of us.

For more on cadence, read our article Cadence Matters.

Change your technique

Many coaches and top athletes recommend that we can boost our performance by attempting to pedal smoothly. They even recommend techniques such as ‘imagine you’re scraping mud off your feet’ at the bottom of each pedal stroke, or ‘think about pedalling in circles’. But do they really work? Should we concentrate on pedalling technique or just focus all our efforts on riding harder?

One study in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise in 2007 was unclear on whether technique drills are worth the effort. The researchers tested eight cyclists, using techniques including pedalling in circles, pulling up on the upstroke and focussing on pushing down hard. The outcome was that pulling on the upstroke was the only method that showed any improvement in mechanical effectiveness. However, the tests were all conducted at a relatively low intensity, which didn’t replicate race conditions.

For more on pedalling technique, read our article Be A Better Pedaller.

Conclusion

You can potentially improve your bike performance by changing the way you pedal, but we’re only talking about marginal gains. So if you’re a beginner, you’re better off concentrating on training consistently, improving your equipment and maybe getting some coaching at a local club. Pedalling technique should be a long way down your list of worries.

But if you’re an experienced rider looking to make small improvements, you could certainly shave off a few seconds by thinking about the way you pedal. For now, it seems that the two best ways to do this is are optimising your cadence and trying out ovalised chainrings. You may not win the Tour de France (or even come fourth) but it could be the 10 seconds’ improvement you need for a PB.

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