Should I practise my pedalling?
Where do you start in the search for souplesse?
Technique is important in cycling. There are times when smooth pedalling is essential, such as in the wet, riding uphill or heading off-road. When you ‘stomp’ down in these situations the force can lead to the rear wheel slipping and losing traction, which is particularly unnerving when you’re going uphill because your speed is already low. You’re wasting energy because you’re not putting all your effort into forward motion – plus you might fall off.
Having a smooth pedal stroke at a moderate to high cadence for road riding on the flat – around 85-100rpm – will also save energy, because research suggests that lower cadences demand more carbohydrate, which is in limited supply in the form of glycogen.
Having said all that, here’s what sounds like a contradiction: the pedalling technique most associated with the best riders tends to be where they stomp more on the downstroke and pull up less. A study published as far back as 1991 called Physiological and biomechanical factors associated with elite endurance cycling performance showed that national-level riders stomped more than regional riders, who pulled up more and pushed down less as measured by highly sensitive force-measuring pedals. No research since has contradicted this.
The key here is that the stompers actually look really smooth and seem to be pedalling perfectly through the pedal circle, applying force all the way around. Research into pedals that force you to pull up shows that cyclists fatigue at a faster rate doing this – we’re designed to pedal downwards and recover on the up stroke as the opposite leg pushes down.
That pros look so smooth is down to a combination of factors, including the fact that, relatively speaking, most of a pro race is ridden at a lower intensity (for them) than an amateur race, and the fact that pros tend to ride at a higher cadence. As well as sparing glycogen, it allows for faster changes in pace versus pedalling at a lower cadence.
A big part of pedalling technique is finding a good cadence for you and working on that as you get fitter. There is no real evidence that you can ‘train’ your technique, in terms of stomping versus circular application of power, so it may be that changes occur as you increase your absolute fitness. Or it could just be that better cyclists are born this way and can apply greater downward force.
So, essentially, stomping produces more power and your ability to do this will improve with fitness, while practising a more circular application of power is useful for those scenarios where safety or efficiency comes first: in the wet, uphill, over loose gravel or on muddy trails.
When I first discovered that stomping was the preferred method for better cyclists I remember trying to modify my cleats (with a hacksaw) and pedals (undoing the tension on the retaining plate) so that if I attempted to pull up on the pedals my feet would come off. I’m not sure it did anything, and I think the key here is that you practise and improve your pedalling technique by training to get fitter and stronger, which means spending more time cycling. No one can complain at that.
Oh, and having said all this, when you’re training and you’re doing some sort of hard session you should simply aim to maximise your power output and use whatever pedalling technique allows you to do that. Keep doing it and you should become more efficient without even noticing – you’ll be too busy clocking your speed.