cycle performance: how to pedal for better efficency

Great cyclists make even the hardest rides look easy. Fausto Coppi has been considered one of the greatest cyclist ever, and much of his success was attributed to his smooth pedaling style. The question is how can we achieve better efficiency.

How you pedal affects your style on the bike. The smoother you can power the drive train, the more relaxed and stable your upper body becomes like a professional cyclist. The more motion there is in your upper body, the sloppier your pedaling will be. The term commonly used is to obtain "a quite body".

Actually, pedaling is an art, maybe even a lost art, but it is the most basic element to bicycling as a sport. You used to see packs of wool-clad cyclists emulating the Europeans by doing early-season, low-gear miles. The idea was to develop the form first, speed second. In the winter they rode rollers, which also put a premium on pedaling style and helped develop balance. (With rollers, a lapse in concentration or uneven, erratic pedaling can put a cyclist in a heap on the floor. Contrast this to the stationary trainer, on which a rider can have terrible form or even pick up bad habits.)

In an earlier era 'soupless' was a term often heard in describing a smooth, stylish rider. High-revolution-per-minute miles were a rite of passage, and all racing was done on tracks with fixed-gear bikes. Pedaling style was a priority As cycling evolved in the United States, the tenet of "spin into form" fell away. The modern day road ride is a big ­ring hammer fest, where style and form disappear as riders start getting blown off the back when the action heats up.


Even the best cyclists can benefit from enhancing pedal dynamics. The good athlete always looks for improvement, and there are several good drills you can do to improve your performance: one-legged pedaling and fixed-gear riding, which is the old-school method of improving the spin. Here's how both methods work.

One-legged pedaling

This is best done indoors where you can ride on a trainer and put your non pedaling leg up on a box or stool. It forces you to pedal all the way through the stroke and develop your muscles accordingly. Make it a regular feature of your off-season stationary work­outs. Start with just 20 revolutions and increase this to several minutes at a stretch, two to five times per workout for each leg. I do this in a 53 X 16-tooth (53 X 16T) gear, but you should determine what is comfortable on the resistance on your trainer.

Fixed-gear riding

A fixed-gear bike is like the tricycle you rode as a child if the bike is moving, the pedals are going around. No coasting. And that's the magic. Because you are stuck in one gear, you must smooth your stroke or get bounced around like a basketball, especially on the downhills. Armstrong used a fairly small gear (42 X 17) in order to hone his spin. Installing a fixed gear requires special (but in­expensive) equipment. Ask your local shop to help you set it up.

The old-school rider would use a fixed gear for the first 1,000 miles of each season, forcing the muscles to remember that nice, round pedal stroke and prohibiting the use of big gears until a good base was developed. (One caution: Fixed-gear riding isn't suitable for hilly terrain. Because you can't gear down when climbing, it puts undue stress on the knees. On descents it might result in excessive braking to control the fast cadence.)

Other methods.

You can also improve your spin by riding in a small gear and pedaling all the down hills. Do this once or twice a week. It requires strong discipline to keep up with the gear so that you're pedaling at a very high revolution-per-minute rate-up to 110. At first you may feel as if you'll bounce right out of your cleats. Relax. Spin. With time your pedal stroke will become smooth.

Although studies have shown that you can't actually apply a positive force on the upstroke, it's important to at least have the perception of constant pressure all the way around. You can also have a coach watch you pedal, or install a mirror next to your indoor trainer and critique yourself.


It's good practice to keep your upper body as motionless as possible. One good exercise involves riding up a long, gradual hill (5 percent grade) in a big gear (example 53 X 18). At first, ride for only a minute or so, then build up to several 5-minute repetitions per work­out. Strive for as little motion and arm action as possible and stay in the saddle. This, like one-legged pedaling, gives you a feel for a complete, round stroke. It's like weight lifting on the bike.

Be forewarned:

It's not suitable for anyone with bad knees, and it can lead to poor habits if done to the point of sloppiness (when you start twisting and lurching). Don't try it unless you have a good fitness base.

Improving your pedal stroke should be an important part of the technical work in your training program. Use the drills I've described and pretty soon your riding partners will be wondering how you make it look so easy.

With a good smooth cadence you will find the miles drifting away and be ready to tackle some of Italy's legendary bike climbs.

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