A Great Pedal Stroke
Cycling is often a daunting learning experience for new riders. Over the years the resources for new riders to access the information they are so eager to gain has improved, but at times, it can still feel like the dark arts. There was a time where information was handed down by the older experienced riders, and just joining their ride groups was as easy as joining a secret society. Now in the immediate online world we can access a plethora of information, so much so that it sometimes feels we are back where we were, relying on information being handed down.
It has been fantastic to see cycling head mainstream, no longer the freak show in lycra, I enjoy seeing so many new faces out on the roads. So as a cyclist that has been around for a while, what do I notice first about you when I see you on the roads? Your cadence, and your ride position.
In a split second I can tell if you have got the core elements of cycling right. A relaxed position on the bike, clothing that fits and appropriate for the weather, but most of all I notice your pedalling. There is no greater art in cycling than the pedal stroke.
Time to Build Your Pedal Stroke
Regardless of your discipline, nothing improves a cyclist more than a smooth 360-degree pedal stroke. So what are the basics that new riders need to work on? The overall aim is to have you using a higher cadence, at around 100 pedal strokes per minute, allowing you to ride longer, ultimately faster and more likely to stay injury free.
The pedal stroke is at the core of cycling, and a relaxed position is at the heart of any great pedal stroke. A great place to start is to “neutral position” the two touch points for the stroke, the seat and the pedals, then ensure that the position isn’t being compromised to accommodate a handle bar stem of incorrect reach.
First let’s start with the shoes. A firm but not restricted fit is key, movement inside the shoe is wasted energy. Set your pedal shoe plate centre and straight of the available adjustment underneath the shoe. As you look down at your feet whilst sitting on the bike, each shoe should look straight and similar in position to the other, not brushing the crank or having the ankle tracking out wide. For those with adjustable pedals, release the tension screw, which will allow for greater movement, this will enable you to find your most natural position.
Now how you are sitting on the bike comes into play. Bike fits are great, but they are also relatively new, cyclists have gone fast for years without them, and unless your position is a wreckage, or you have injuries or niggles, then they can wait. Start with a level saddle mid rails, neither forward or back, level not tilted, up or down. If need be you have small personal changes you can make here, but not drastic. Now set your seat height. Place the heal of your shoe on the pedal, set your seat height to one that has you just touching the pedal without the twisting hips. When you are clipped in you should have a moderate bend in the leg. This is just one approach to saddle height, but a good place to start as you are less likely to be too extreme, and should have a approx. 20 to 30-degree bend in the leg.
Now reach for your bars on the drops. The bars should be close to level, with a 10-degree deviation acceptable. They should feel very natural, not reaching out pulling you forward in the seat, not to close and pushing you back. A gentle bend in your elbows and light pressure in the palms. Bar height is personal and again must allow you to sit comfortable mid saddle. If you cannot achieve a relaxed position, then a new stem to the right length is a must. The legs are the engine room, so don’t force them to make adjustments for a poorly adjusted arm reach.
Now you have some basic set up it’s time to get pedalling. Get ready for something that's going to hurt… leave the Garmin and the Strava at home. Why? Unfortunately, the new breed of cyclist has trained themselves to a mediocracy of average speeds and bunch ride Strava’s. A mass of riders averaging 30km an hour, over geared thumpers, grappling the bike with knees bulging and backs engaged in a strange mating dance.
Cycling is about pedalling efficiency. Efficiency in pedalling is about a high cadence. Not too high that you lose control of the stroke and bounce, but a high level of spin that enables you to maintain speed without continually forcing the pedals with low revolutions and calling on deep down strength. The way to learn high cadence is to focus on the stroke, not the bike speed. Once cadence is your new life habit, speed will come, and twice as much of it. The first basic about pedal stroke is forget about pushing down, that’s an instinct. You learnt that on your first bike as a kid.
Each leg works in unison, but also needs to be contributing equally for an overall pedalling style. For each leg focus from the bottom of the stroke, back to the top. By focusing on the back and up element of the 360 – degree stroke you are working on developing the muscles required to even stroke power. The first element is the scoop, which is a smooth backward stroke, akin to wiping shoes on a mat. This takes you from bottom of the stroke position, up to the back horizontal position, approx 90 degrees. The key here is to transition from the downward power as the pedal comes from the top to through to the bottom of the stroke, targeting a seamless transition from downward power, into a backward 'scoop" power. The aim here is to focus on no jerks or tugs, smooth solid transition.
Now from horizontal back position to the top of the stroke, is the danger zone. The temptation here when over geared, chasing that average bunch ride speed, is to get your hump on. Much to the peril of your knees and back. The hump effect is to drop the heal, engage the back and push, as if sitting against a wall pushing an object away with your feet. This is the complete opposite of what’s required. Think of an ankle flick forward. As you smoothly transition from the scoop, through the horizontal, slightly lift and gracefully flick the ankle into the transition over the top towards the top vertical position. Once the pedal is delivered to the top position, natural instincts kick in, and your downward power through to the bottom of the stroke is sorted.
A great pedal stroke has equal power and effort distribution through the 360-degrees. So as you get to the part of the stroke most natural, the top position, resist the temptation to make up lost ground. Stay smooth and maintain a focus on 360-degree power distribution. Again… the Garmin won't be your friend. Work on higher cadence, not bunch ride speed.
Now the last piece of the puzzle, gearing. The fastest riders in the world have the same gears on their bike as you, they simply turn them twice as fast. Now to be a real spoil sport. If you have a 39 tooth inner or small chain-ring, any riding up to 40kph can be done here. If you riding at 30kph then you should be only mid in your rear block. Aim for 100 rpm / stroke cadence as a rule. Flogging around at 30kph in the big ring is akin to moving off from the lights in 4th gear in a 1.3L Japanese manual sedan. Try also to remain as still as possible in your upper body and work on the legs running in an upright channel, bringing knees in straight.
So to not completely wreck the fun, here are some basic ideas on how to improve your pedal stroke and cadence.
Any time you ride alone, riding to the Saturday group or just doing a solo, make it a high cadence ride.
Forget the speed, focus on stroke dynamics and high cadence. Use your gears to maintain cadence on hills and rises, maintain cadence, and forget about speed.
Make every indoor session a stroke and cadence session. Back the resistance off the trainer and maintain smooth graceful pedalling style at a high cadence. Trainers are a great place to focus without distraction.
Have fun on your bunch rides but be conscious of your new skills. Ask yourself constantly " can I ride one gear smaller".
Be patient. Great pedal strokes take commitment and discipline, the temptation to be Saturdays hero is a solid one, but will soon get replaced with the frustration of slow improvement. It will take time and some determination to create the new habit.
So what will I see when you have built your new pedal stroke? I will see a rider that is at peace with a bike, a rider not fighting the bike for momentum in all the wrong directions. I will see an effortless pedal stroke that only engages the legs, and has efficiency through maintaining cadence to overcome speed and terrain variations. I see a rider who can ride all day. I respect that, as I know for most of us that takes a great deal of work.
Enjoy your cycling.