A lot of cyclists are debating about these two questions, so let’s dive more into this: what is the best way to apply your force on the pedals, how do the pros deal with this and how important is your bike position for the best pedal stroke?
Actually, the first question is not that difficult but the second one is a bit harder to answer. So, let’s first start with the easy one. If we use the analogy of a clock and say at 12 o’clock the pedal is in its most upright position and at 3 o’clock we are in the down phase, we can distinguish 4 phases. From around 1 till 5 o’clock we are in the downstroke. From 5 till 7 o’clock a transition takes place towards the upstroke. 7 till 11 o’clock is the upstroke and finally from 11 till 1 is the transition to the downstroke again.
Because the pedal stroke describes a perfect circle (for the sake of the length of this article let’s keep oval shaped chainrings out of the picture), the force that is applied on the pedal should be pointed in the direction of the tangential force during the complete cycle. This might sound more difficult than it actually is. It basically means that if the pedal is at 3 o’clock the force on the pedal should be directed straight down, but one millisecond later just a little bit backwards. That way the force that is applied on the pedal always contributes 100% to the motion. Therefore, no energy gets lost in applying force in the wrong direction.
Components of force
But as we all know force has two components of which direction is one, but what about the amount of force that is applied? Should the force be equally applied in the same amount around the whole cycle? No, it simply does not. Because if it does one should apply as much power in the downstroke as in the upstroke and the human body is simply much better equipped to apply a lot of force in stretching the knee than in bending it. Also, if you apply force around the whole pedal cycle there’s never a moment of rest. This also doesn’t make any sense because there is already a large window of time in which one can apply force compared with the short contact phase in other endurance sports like running and speed skating.
Feedback from the pros
Nowadays, a lot of power meters and also the Tacx NEO 2 Smart can give you feedback on how much force and in which direction force is applied. This gives us the opportunity to see how the most experienced cyclists and pros apply their force. Based on this, we indeed see that pros apply their force better in the tangential direction than less experienced riders. By doing so there are less dead spots in the transitions from the upstroke to the downstroke and vice versa. Also, the pros never, unless they find themselves on a very steep climb with an extremely low RPM, pull their pedal. Instead, they actively unload the pedal so the other leg doesn’t have to push against the weight of passive leg.
Actively pulling the pedal is still one of the biggest myths that a lot of amateurs think they have to do. Instead, research shows than an amateur could better focus on the transitions both around 12 and 6 o’clock and make sure to push the pedal in the right direction.
Your bike position is key
So, if we know when and which direction to apply force how can we train for this? Well, first and foremost the biggest factor that might be in the way of a perfect pedal stroke is your bike position. If your saddle is too high the transition from the downstroke to the upstroke gets seriously hindered and vice versa for a saddle that is too low. Also, the setback of your saddle, so your saddle position is relative to your bottom bracket, in relation to the length of the body segments of your abdomen and crank length.
If, for example, your saddle position is too backward and/or the crank length is too long, it takes too much energy to apply force in the tangential direction and will probably produce a dead spot when pulling the pedal backwards. If the crank length is too small, the muscles will not be stretched to their optimal force-length ratio to be most effective. So, to have a proper pedal stroke one should start with a proper bike fit.
Put some time in it
Secondly, it is also a case of the big numbers. The more hours you put in to riding your bike, the better your body learns how to apply force in the most effective and efficient way without you knowing about it. Varying your cadences and not always ride with the same 85-90 RPM also helps learning the body an effective coordination pattern. This is just another example of that your body knows much more about what’s going on before your brain does.
However, this doesn’t mean that feedback of what you’re doing isn’t useful. This can definitely speed up the learning curve. For example, if you clearly see there is a dead spot in the upward transition phase and you know the bike is properly set, you can try actively to push the pedal backwards. By doing so, the body learns there is a better and more effective way of pedalling. Also, a great exercise in this case are one leg drills. Just click one foot out of the pedal and use just one leg for about five minutes at the same RPM. Without the other leg helping, not having a fluent transition phase comes much more apparent.
One last very important factor is to work on your core. If your core muscles are too weak it is really difficult to have a stable and effective pedal stroke. You simply can’t fire a cannon out of a canoe. With these tips in mind you will hopefully see your pedal stroke improving in the new Tacx software (Windows only) on your NEO 2 Smart.