17 Jun, 2015

Pedalling around the clock

Pro Continental rider Daryl Impey from Orica Greenedge receives advice from Richard Baxter about how to get the most from every pedal stroke.

Pedal stroke and technique are often forgotten in today’s cycling discussions but we should probably take time out as this is, quite obviously, what makes us go forward. Elite cyclist Richard Baxter describes the basics in a language that we all understand.

There are many theories behind correct pedaling technique, and how one can utilize the optimal muscle groups to achieve perfect cycling ergonomics. Ultimately, the best way to achieve that smooth circular motion is to train the correct muscle groups. But which are the correct muscle groups to be used?

A good indicator that you are not pedaling in the correct manner or not utilizing the correct muscle groups is a view from the front. The hip, knee and ankle should form a straight line throughout the pedal stroke. If you cannot maintain this ‘piston- like’ motion throughout the stroke and your knees keep tracking laterally, then that it is a good sign that your bike setup or technique needs to be addressed.

When talking about correct pedal technique, the clock face analogy can be used to best explain. Let us talk about the biomechanics of the pedal stroke. At first glance it may seem like a very simple movement, however, there are a few different muscle groups which need to be activated and fire in a sequence that allows them to work as one fluid motion. The main power phase of the pedal stroke is from one o’clock to five o’clock. This is where a rider will produce the most force during the pedal stroke. It can be seen that the major muscle groups used here are the glutes and quadriceps muscles.

The next phase can be seen as a transition phase between the power phase of the stroke and the recovery phase. This usually occurs between five o’clock and seven o’clock of the stroke, and is most commonly known or explained as that sensation of “scraping mud off the bottom of your shoe”. This is where the dorsiflex muscles of both the calf and ankle are used; they can be referred to as a stabilizer of the entire lower leg. This motion will set your foot up as a lever for the next phase.

In the recovery phase of the pedal revolution the leg will move from seven o’clock to 10 o’clock using the hamstring to pull up through the back of the stroke, all the time ensuring the foot is kept level to gain most leverage out of the foot.

The next phase of the stroke from 10 o’clock to one o’clock is usually where most riders experience that infamous ‘dead spot’ and loss of power through the stroke. This is also where riders limit themselves before going into the major power phase of the movement from one o’clock to five o’clock.

If one lifts the foot over top dead center of the revolution at 12 o’clock with the toes in a downwards direction, then the foot will not be optimally positioned for generating power through the ball of the foot in the power phase. To maintain the foot in a level position throughout this phase of the stroke it is important to utilize the hip flexor muscles, while exaggerating a motion as if you are pushing the knee forward along the length of the bike’s crossbar.

It can now be determined that tight hip flexor and glute muscles are one of the major causes for incorrect pedal technique and can certainly be a limiting factor when it comes to training these specific muscle groups. Some basic stretches of these muscle groups can be used to improve the flexibility and efficiency of these muscles.

If you are serious about improving your technique, an in-depth Computrainer Spin Scan analysis would be the first step in determining which muscle groups are being under-utilized throughout the pedal stroke. The spin scan software offers an assessment of the efficiency of your pedaling based on torque, the balance of power between left and right, and the balance of power between pushing and pulling on the pedal stroke.

It uses an analysis of every 15 degrees throughout the pedal stroke to identify exactly where there is a significant loss in power. The software will also give three sets of numbers to make sense of what our bodies are doing in relation to the pedals. These numbers include:
1) your overall spin scan number for both legs and your overall spin scan for each leg,
2) your average torque angle for each leg, and
3) the power split between your left and right leg.

This information proves useful to confirm that a bike is properly fitted (or not), to identify imbalances in strength between legs, or to determine areas of weakness within the pedal stroke. If we can maximize efficiency and force, we can not only improve our own personal best, but have a much easier time doing it!

All being said, it is also important not to completely forget about the front of the bike. When concentrating on pedal stoke and technique, it is very easy to apply too much force and weight onto the front of the bike. Keep your head up, and relax your elbows, shoulders, and hands slightly: Keeping your head up too high, with all the tension in your hands, neck, arms, and shoulders, will give you unnecessary aches and pains and put you at risk for erratic handling of the bicycle in adverse conditions. Being loose in your upper body allows your bike to respond just the right amount to stones, gravel, or wind.

One fun way to improve the efficiency of your upstroke is mountain biking. The terrain will keep you honest. If you're focusing only on the down stroke, you'll lose traction and fall off your bike on steep uphill sections. Bad technique can be seen predominantly in riders that do a lot of spinning training; this is because the fly wheel or weight on a spinning bike will help the legs through and over the back of the pedal stroke, and encourage a ‘stomping’ or pushing technique. Therefore, it can always be said the best training for cycling is cycling. Unfortunately there is no shortcut that can speed up the technique training process. Have your technique evaluated so you can implement this secret weapon into your training!

When he is not achieving top 10 or podium positions in many of South Africa’s top cycling events, Richard Baxter helps other cyclists reach their full potential by looking at technique and correct bicycle set up at CycleFit (