The importance of pedalling efficiency

Ever wondered how the pros can manage several hours in the saddle at a time while maintaining race pace? A lot of it is down to training and condition but pedalling efficiency also plays a big part.

Pedalling efficiency is important to a cyclist because it allows us to cycle further and faster. By making each movement as smooth and as efficient as possible, we lower the energy burden of each stroke, make it easy to maintain each stroke and help prevent fatigue and injury.

Pedalling efficiency is so important, the French had a word for it, “souplesse.” The effortless way in which a cyclist can power themselves forward in what is an unnatural body movement.

While Lance Armstrong may have gotten away with being a pedal masher in his early career, as soon as he hit the World Tours he had to learn to pedal correctly. That’s how important it is.

There are three elements to pedalling efficiency, bike fit, cadence and the stroke itself.

Bike fit

The advantages of a properly fitted bike simply cannot be overstated. You may have what you think is a good setup that has served you well for years. You may have been riding forever and haven’t had an injury since Victoria was on the throne, but there is always something to learn.

A bike fit costs money and we would all agree that it can seem expensive. However, if you spend any time at all on your bike, it can be a very worthwhile investment. Having a setup that fits like a glove, allows fluid movement of your body and provides comfort and optimum power delivery is nothing to be sniffed at.

A proper fitting bike can also help with pedalling efficiency by positioning the saddle at the optimum point for your body.

We’re all different shapes, leg lengths, weights and will have different levels of power and flexibility. A good bike fit will maximise the effects of all of these for your benefit. Once fitted properly you can produce more power, do more miles and spend longer in the saddle without any extra effort on your part.

Cadence

Cadence is an essential part of pedalling efficiency. It’s also the easiest skill to learn. Watch any pro or any World Tour and you will see they pedal fast. This isn’t just to maintain race pace, it’s also because it’s efficient.

Pedalling fast in an appropriate gear with low resistance is more energy efficient than riding at a lower cadence in a higher gear that requires more force. Fact.

Therefore, learning to ride at between 90-100 rpm on every ride should be first on your self-improvement list if you don’t do it already. Get yourself a cadence sensor if you don’t already have one and begin training right away. Even if you’re not too fussed about efficiency, it allows you to go faster. Fast is good.

Riding at a higher cadence helps you maintain a higher average speed, helps you tackle hills better, ride more effectively with the wind and cope with longer rides. The sooner you can train yourself to ride at a high cadence, the sooner your technique will improve.

Riding at 90+ rpm will likely feel a little unnatural at first but you soon get used to it. Having a cadence sensor is useful, but if you don’t have one, find a quiet stretch of road or a turbo trainer and pedal fast enough that your mind tells you to change gear and maintain that speed. Rinse and repeat. That’s it.

You will quickly reap the rewards of higher cadence when out on the road. You can ride into the wind more efficiently, climb and time trial more efficiently too.

The stroke

The pedal stroke itself has a lot of influence on how efficiently you pedal. You will hear the term “pedal in circles” a lot in training videos and in books. It’s a great theory but you will find in practice things happen too quickly to worry about circles. Therefore, it’s better to just concentrate on what’s going on with your body.

If it helps, forget about cadence while you’re working on your stroke. It’s fine to slow things down to a manageable speed. Then, once you have your technique, you can combine it with a higher tempo.

A pedal stroke is generally broken down into four key stages, downstroke, bottom, upstroke and top. Depending on the texts you read, these will also be known as zone 1, 2, 3 and 4 in the same order.

The holy grail of pedalling efficiency is a smooth stroke that uses all the muscles it needs to complete. It also uses the least energy. Smoothness is the ultimate goal to begin with and something many novice riders will have trouble with. However, follow these steps and practice. It will come eventually and will benefit every aspect of your riding.

Downstroke

From the 12 o’clock position, your heel will probably be elevated slightly as your pedal crests the top. As you move the pedal down to the 5 o’clock position, bring that heel flat and engage your quadriceps, hamstring and calf muscles.

Depending on your physiology, you may be more comfortable dropping your heel a little more on the downstroke. This is fine and can actually aid efficiency. Practice and work out which is more effective for you.

Bottom

Once your pedal hits the 6 o’clock position, many cyclists will completely relax that leg and use the other to drive the opposite pedal down and this pedal up. That’s not very efficient. What we want to do is use a smooth movement to take the pressure off the pedal so the driving leg can use its power to move you forward.

There is a well-used analogy of “wiping your shoe” at the 6 o’clock position. It’s well-used because it’s a very apt description of what you want your feet to be doing once the downstroke completes.

As you practice your pedalling technique, try to bear this in mind as it extends the pedal stroke while making the overall movement more fluid and more efficient.

Upstroke

The upstroke is the easy part as there is nothing to do here for normal riding. The power being laid down by the other pedal is sufficient to drive your leg back up to the 12 o’clock position and needs no more thought than taking the weight off during the upstroke.

Just learn to use enough energy to remove resistance until you reach the top. That’s all there is to it.

The only exception to this is if you’re sprinting or ascending. Then you need to actively bring the leg up to allow maximum power from the other downstroke to drive you forward. Here you think about pulling your knee into your handlebar. But don’t think too much as we haven’t finished yet!

Top

As your foot reaches the 12 o’clock position once more, your heel should once more have elevated slightly and you’re ready for the downstroke. Transition as smoothly as you can and you’re on the way to much greater pedalling efficiency.

As you can see, when you write it all down, there is a lot to digest. Once you get in the saddle though it’s much easier. Like all aspects of cycling, the more practice you put in, the more performance and fun, you get out.

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