By Sheila Ascroft
I know it sounds stupid to say “pedal in circles.” I mean, what else can you do on a bike when your feet go round and round?
Well, I used to think that too . . . but after 15 years of serious riding, I’ve learned the cycling experts are right. There’s more to pedalling than merely pushing down. To be a truly efficient cyclist which means expending less effort for more speed, you also need to pull up on each stroke. Think of the pedalling stroke as a clock with 12 being the top and 6 being the bottom of the circle. Every cyclist pushes down from 12 o’clock toward 6 o’clock, using the large quadriceps muscles on the front of the leg. The efficient cyclist also pulls up from 6 toward 12 or at least 9. It requires using your calf and hamstring muscles on the back of the leg. Spreading the effort out among more muscles like this saves them all from tiring and prevents overuse injuries. It also creates more power.
How do you pull up? As Greg LeMond, three-time Tour de France champion, described it, the action at the bottom of the stroke is like scraping mud off the bottom of your shoe. Try it! If you doubt the need for this technique, take your bike out and try pedalling with just one leg in an easy gear. You will quickly notice the dead spot at the bottom of the stroke. Pedalling through the whole stroke, making a circle, works.
To practice this “circle” so that it becomes a good habit, go for a spin and warm up for 10 minutes cycling your normal way. Then do 10 circles pulling up with just the left leg, then 10 with the right, and finally 10 with both. You should immediately feel the difference in your speed (more) and effort (less). It takes a while for your legs and lungs to adapt to this spinning motion. Keep practising and eventually pedalling in circles will become second nature. You will be able to cycle greater distances and enjoy it more.
All this assumes that you have a correct foot-pedal position. I know, I know, if your foot is on the pedal what else is there? You may have learned to ride a bike as a child, but that doesn’t mean you are doing it correctly. The ball of your foot, i.e., the widest part, should rest in the centre of the pedal. I see riders pedalling with their arches or even their heels.
To prevent knee strain, and to let your muscles work efficiently, the ball of the foot is the optimum position. If it feels awkward, then your position on the bike probably needs adjusting. Just like in the old song, “the hip bone is connected to the thigh bone, the thigh bone is connected to the knee bone,” well, your pedal position is connected to the height of your saddle.
The rule of thumb for testing this is that with your heel on the pedal in the 6 o’clock position, there should be a slight bend in the knee. If the only way your foot reaches the pedal is with a straight leg and your toes pointed, your saddle is probably too high. Have someone check to see if your hips are rocking in this position. If so, lower that seat post. If you can put your whole foot flat on the ground when you are still seated on your bike, then you have too much bend in your knee. Raise the seat post until your toes just barely touch the ground.
I’m an Ottawa writer/editor who has been road cycling for 20 years. I’m not fast or thin, but I ride 3000 km every year and have completed two 100-mile solo rides. For me, every bike ride is a joy ride. [www.sheilaascroft.com]
©Sheila Ascroft (originally published in The Ottawa Citizen, August 11, 2000)