Improve Your Cycling, Part I

Lately I’ve been riding with different groups of riders and it’s been somewhat of an eye opener to see all the different riding styles. Eye opening because I’m seeing so many cyclists bike gearsthat are riding inefficiently and incorrectly, who have clearly not spent much time in and amongst better cyclists to have learned better habits. Specifically I have seen the following:

  1. Pedaling that’s not very smooth
  2. Poor gear changes, not in time to match the changes in course and terrain
  3. Too much movement of the upper body while pedaling
  4. Pedaling in the wrong gear

The last three poor habits in this list not only slow down the rider but they can also have a ripple effect on the following riders, when the bike in front of them suddenly slows down or shifts around unexpectedly and they have to move to avoid them. Roadies don’t like riding with triathletes as they say we don’t have good bike handling skills and I have to agree. Next time I’ll focus on the how’s and why’s to improve these three skills, but for now I want to focus on the first item and offer tips on how to smooth out your pedaling style by learning to spin circles.

Everyone understands that to ride a bike you just have to push down on the pedals; something we learned how to do the first time we sat on our first tricycles or two-wheelers. Without toe clips or clipless pedals, we placed our feet on the pedals and started pumping our legs up and down and we went forward, life was good. Fast forward to when you got your first serious road bike, and depending on your age it came with toe-clips and straps or clipless pedals, requiring cycling specific shoes to engage these devices, locking in our feet. It now became possible to do more than just pump our legs up and down; we could now start to pull up.

Each of our feet complete a 360 degree circle with every pedal stroke, but a lot of people are only applying power half the time with each leg. If you took this to the extreme and just tried to only pedal up and down, it would seem that your hips are rocking back and forth on the saddle, and that is in fact what is happening. This unwanted movement makes for inefficient cycling, wasted energy, and causes your butt to bounce up and around on your saddle at a higher cadence. Let me briefly talk about cadence here, for those that don’t have it on their computers.

Before HRMs and power meters we trained with PE and cadence, so many cyclists today don’t actually know their cadence and this might be a totally foreign concept to think about. A certain triathlete turned pro-bike racer/cheater made pedaling at a high cadence popular during his time trialing, and we as triathletes are essentially just time trialists when we ride. If you don’t have cadence on your bike computer you can count your pedal revolutions (of just one leg) for one minute and that’s your cadence. I would suggest aiming for 85-95 RPM as your goal range. I’m personally a spinner, so I tend to pedal faster, while others pedal slower, to each his own.

Whether you’re a grinder (cadence < 80) or a spinner (cadence > 100), you should still be spinning smooth circles with your feet. People who just push down on their pedals are only applying force to the pedals for maybe 180-200 degrees, and then each leg is doing very little the rest of the time, while the other leg takes over. To fill in the other 160-180 degrees, think about completing the pedaling stroke by dropping your heel at the bottom and then pulling your heel up. By doing so you would be applying force with each leg more like 270-300 degrees, while smoothing out your pedaling, i.e., spinning circles.

But now maybe you’re thinking, how does that work? Which muscles are pulling the pedal up? And the answer would be your hamstring, which you don’t normally consider as a cycling muscle, more of a running muscle, versus our quads and glutes. Well as triathletes we need to get off the bike and start running, using our hamstrings, so by actively engaging them on the bike, when we start to run they’re looser and ready to respond to the change, versus being tight and static from not being recruited as much when we don’t use them while riding. Anyone ever have a hamstring cramp during the start of the run? It probably wasn’t because you used it too much on the ride, were dehydrated, or lacking electrolytes, it was tight from not being used during the ride.

By learning to spin, engaging your hamstring to fill in the blank spot in your pedaling stroke, you will be able to:

  • pedal at a higher cadence
  • ride either a little faster or with less effort
  • start your run with your hamstrings engaged versus being tight
  • run faster sooner

And isn’t that the goal, to get off the bike and run as fast as you can, as soon as you can? There are two basic drills you can do to learn how to spin more efficiently, the single leg drill and one I call spin ups.

The hardest one (and therefore the best one!), is the dreaded one leg drills. This can be done easier on a trainer, with one leg pulled out of one of the pedals, or along a stretch of road or bikepath without much traffic. After a good warm up, start with a 30 second interval with one leg detached from one pedal, while trying to spin a complete circle with the other leg. You’ll probably find this feels really strange and you’ll have to work to learn to pull up at the bottom on the pedal stroke. After 30 seconds clip in the other leg and do 30-60 seconds with both legs, then switch to the opposite leg. Repeat this at least 5 times with each leg, working up to 10 times with each leg. Once you get there increase the duration to 60 seconds per leg, 5 times, and then work back up to 10 times.

The spin up drill will be familiar to anyone that has done indoor spin classes, but with a focus on increased cadence with each repeat. You’ll need to know your baseline cadence to start, and after a good warm and you’re comfortably pedaling at your baseline cadence, spin 5 RPM faster for 60 seconds, then cool down a minute at 5 RPM slower than your baseline. Then spin 10 RPM faster than your baseline for 60 seconds, then back to baseline-5 RPM, and so on, until you are able to spin 40-50 RPM over your baseline, where your legs are really flying. Any lack of smoothness in your pedaling stroke shows up the faster you spin, so by learning to spin a lot faster then you’ll ever do you while out riding, when you’re pedaling at a normal RPM you’ll benefit from being that much smoother.

Practice these two drills this winter at least one day a week and focus on spinning more every time you ride. By spring you’ll be riding smoother, more efficiently, and hopefully a little faster.

4 thoughts on “Improve Your Cycling, Part I

  1. Nice post. Some good thoughts here about pedalling technique…good smooth circles can make such a significant difference, it just takes a good bit of practice and concentration to develop good style to the point where it becomes natural.

    I started group riding with decent riders a few years back and after a few comments directed in my direction about ‘pedalling squares’ and my ‘heavy pedalling style’ (all taken in good spirit of course) the penny dropped for me. Still have to concentrate and work on technique though.

  2. Thanks so much Fred! You’ve already had great influence on me to become less of a grinder, now I’ll focus on the full pedal cycle and make sure I’m working the pull as well as the push!

  3. Right on, Fred. I went out for a ride recently to spin a lot more and use the full power cycle of my legs and noticed a profound difference in efficiency. This surprised the heck out of me because I thought that trying out this new technique would wear me down faster. Its tough to change old habits. You have to pay attention a lot more. Thanks.

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