Coach Charlie Livermore on Pedaling.
This is a short version of a much longer talk on pedaling that Charlie will present at the ESR. The aim of this blog is to give you a simple technique you can practice to improve your pedaling efficiency.
For many of you training for the Empire State Ride, the outdoor riding season has finally arrived. The transition from indoor to outdoor riding adds the challenge of varying terrain, wind and group dynamics that require skills to manage well. Let’s look at what arguably are the most important skills that will make you a better cyclist: pedaling and shifting.
Why is pedaling technique so important?
Good pedaling efficiency results in getting the absolute most power from each revolution of your pedal stroke. Do it well, and you’ll produce more power for the same or less energy output.
Most amateur cyclists pump their legs down, in a style which results in ‘spikes’ in torque, rather than a smooth, consistent application of power. Pedaling this way is all start-stop-start-stop. Rounding out your pedal stroke decreases torque spikes with each pedal revolution.
How do you pedal efficiently?
If you’ve had a good bike fit and are sitting optimally centered around the bottom bracket (seat height and for/aft position), you’ll be able to create full torque from 12 o’clock (top of the pedal stroke) to 7 o’clock (just past the bottom) with each leg. While your foot is traveling from 6 – 7 o’clock, the opposite leg takes over to create torque. It’s not full circles with each leg! Think a good smooth 1/2 circle with a well-timed handoff to the leg coming up around the back. The result is constant torque all the way around, all the time.
How can I spot inefficiency in my own pedaling?
Change up your cadence to highlight weaknesses. Say you ride naturally at 80 rotations per minute (RPM) — increase the cadence for a minute to around 100 rpm. If you are bouncing on the saddle, your pedal stroke is probably inefficient.
Similarly, try riding at a slow cadence, 50–60 RPM, and notice if the pedal stroke feels like a push-and-stop effort. If you’re constantly finding yourself re-engaging on the pedals, it means you disengaged from them. Disengaging results in a loss of speed and requires a re-engagement, which is the same as reaccelerating. Acceleration requires much more energy than keeping speed steady.
What's shifting all about?
The primary function of gears are to enable us to maintain a comfortable pedaling speed (cadence) regardless of the gradient or terrain.
A high gear, sometimes referred to as a ‘big gear,’ is optimal when descending or riding at high speeds. The highest or biggest gear on a bicycle is achieved by combining the largest front chainring size with the smallest rear cog or sprocket. Vice versa, combining the smallest front chainring size with the largest rear sprocket size results in the lowest available gear, which will help you keep your desired cadence when the road points up.
Again, shifting is about pedaling efficiency. Having a much broader choice of gears for a given situation will allow you to apply torque smoothly around the pedal stroke. I recommend having the greatest gear ratio possible for ESR. I’ll be riding a compact crankset 50/32 with an 11–30 tooth cassette on my bike.
Since we are all proficient drivers, I like to use the car analogy to bring home a point. Just like a car, bicycles benefit from a low gear to accelerate from a standstill, or to climb a steep hill, and at the other end of the scale, a high gear helps you to achieve high speeds without over-revving.
Continuing with the car example, using too low a gear at high speed would result in high fuel consumption. The same is true of your body pedaling a bike. More gears means more scope to your pedaling technique by fine-tuning your cadence to suit the gradient or terrain, often resulting in a lower energy cost.
A quick word on cadence. I don’t believe there’s a specific optimum cadence for everyone, but current theories suggest that you should aim to train yourself toward a higher cadence as it’s a more efficient use of energy – moving the stress more to your cardiovascular system. The best cadence is the one that produces the smoothest torque around the pedal stroke.
Those long easy weekend endurance rides can feel boring and tedious, but they are crucial for aerobic development. These are the best rides to practice your pedaling and shifting skills and the focus will help pass the time.
This blog post by Chris Carmichael, “6 Shifting Tips To Be A Faster Cyclist Today,” is a good read to continue your education on shifting.
I’ll leave you with a final thought on shifting: Never be satisfied with the gear you’re in. Shift constantly to try to find a better one. In a 75-mile ride, it’s common to shift 500–750 times. Keep an active hand on your shifter the whole ride.
I’ll be presenting an in-depth talk on pedal stroke at the ESR this year. I hope to see you there!
In the meantime: Train Right!