Pedaling a bike looks like a fairly simple, straightforward process: go round and round and round. But riders looking for an advantage have broken that simple stroke into distinct pieces, looking for a pedaling technique that will help them go faster with less effort. Breaking down your own pedaling technique into well-defined parts will help you become more aware of how you pedal and how to improve.
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Four Phases of a Pedal Stroke
Most cycling experts break the 360-degree pedaling stroke down into four zones. Although the precise beginning and end of each zone varies depending on who you talk to, they all have similar characteristics: the downstroke, the forward part of the pedal stroke where most of the rider’s power is applied; the pull-back at the bottom of the stroke; the upstroke or lift-up, where your leg is recovering and preparing for another forward push; and, finally, the set-up, where you drive your foot forward and move back into the downstroke.
The Power Phase
If you think of the pedal stroke as the face of a clock, the downstroke, or power phase, begins anywhere from 12 to 1, and is over by 5. The downstroke employs the largest muscles in your body -- the thighs and the glutes -- and some cyclists will drop their heel at the beginning of this phase in order to also utilize their hamstring muscles.
The pull-back, from 5 to 7 on the clock, is more than a simple transition; it is an opportunity to continue to transfer energy to the pedals. So as not to waste an opportunity in this phase, pretend like you are trying scrape something off the bottom on your shoe.
In the upstroke, it’s important not to let your leg relax while you concentrate on the power phase of your other leg. By relaxing, you’re just making your other leg work harder. Instead, actively pull through that section, from 7 to 11, so your leg is lifting itself and not being a burden on the opposite side.
Getting Ready to Go Again
In the fourth zone, also known as the set-up, you are driving your foot forward to actively begin the power phase. Some riders extend the set-up phase too far and don’t begin their downstroke until 3 o’clock, when they could be starting it as early as 12. It’s also important throughout the stroke to keep your hip, knee and ankle in a straight line.
Putting It Together
After you’ve broken down your pedaling technique into its distinct parts, the key is to put it back together into one smooth motion. You can achieve this by doing spin-ups, which involves riding in an easy gear while steadily increasing your cadence until you start to bounce in the seat. When that happens, back off until you’re smooth, then spin up again. By repeatedly performing this drill, you’ll develop a smoother pedaling stroke.