You can have real power, run like a cheetah and swim like a dolphin but for some reason just not be able get the bike moving. Perhaps it’s simply because you treat the crank/pedal combo like a piston instead of a circle. The old adage “push down on the pedals” doesn’t work. Instead push in the direction you are going — that is, forward.
The primary aspects of an effective pedal stroke are foot position and pedal speed-cadence. Proper foot position demands a proper bike fit. A decent fit coupled with an effective stroke lets you feel the work mid quad, not at the knee or the hip flexor.
Legs working together
Once you have a well fitted bike and properly fitted cleats then it’s time for practice on the mechanics of the stroke. Keep in mind that both legs work together, while one is driving forward the other is unweighted, positioning for its own drive. Thus one helps the other — as the forward foot drives it helps lift the opposite one, which in turn gives extra momentum to the driving leg. To increase power available for driving the bike forward, fully unweight the back foot.
A simple concept gives you understanding of the angle of the foot relative to the leg. Think of your foot’s position as you stand. That’s neutral and that’s what you should strive for throughout the pedal cycle. Doing so lets you utilize the anterior muscles of the leg. Dropping the heel prevents you from using these all important muscle groups, as does pedaling toe down (but to a lesser extent). Very few can keep the foot perfectly neutral but we should strive for it. If you can’t keep the foot neutral, err on the side of extending the ankle (pointing the toes) during the down stroke. Dropping the heel during the downstroke wastes energy.
Pedal in a circle
Remember you are pedaling a circle. While no one can actually pedal a perfect circle, the closer you get to it, the more power you can deliver to the pedal. If you concentrate on driving your knees toward the handlebar, keeping the foot in that good neutral position throughout, then pushing through at a roughly 45 degree angle at the top, you will find that missing power.
There is an interesting paradox in terms of the force you exert. While it may seem that you will go faster if your muscles are always engaged, you really feel them working. In fact, you are slowing yourself down. It is important that you relax the muscles, other than the ones that are currently driving the pedals, as much as possible. Think of them firing in a circle, as if there’s a beam of energy flowing around your quad to your hamstrings to your glutes to the hip flexor.
Find the proper cadence
Perhaps the best way you can accomplish that is by working on cadence. When on flat terrain strive for between 85 and 95 rpm (and up to 110 rpm if you plan to race bikes), which is roughly what typical running cadence is. This is particularly useful for triathletes transitioning to the run but can be critical to long term riding comfort for all. Working in that range utilizes your cardiovascular system, not just the glycogen in your muscles. The former lets you ride all day, the latter maybe two hours until you are exhausted
A great piece of advice which has served me and my bike fit clients well is, “pedal faster, not harder.” Get out there and pedal the style and speed of which you are capable, stay smooth and drive those knees!
Coach John Forbes has been competing as a cyclist and triathlete for several decades. His experience also includes over 15 years of professional bike fitting. www.wenzelcoaching.com