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By improving your pedalling technique you can ride further and faster with less effort. Here, in an extract from his book, 'Cycling for Fitness', JOHN SCHUBERT explains how it can be done
Smooth beats strong
Most people become strong cyclists first, and only then sometimes become graceful, flowing, smooth riders.
It is better to become a smooth cyclist first and a strong cyclist later. You'll enjoy the feeling of being one with the bike, and the self-confidence that comes with knowing you're smooth and safe. You'll enjoy riding with your friends more because you can ride together as a group fluently, without getting in each other's way. Your group will move as one when you go around a corner, ride up or down a hill, or travel on rough road. You'll ride faster with less effort, so you can stay up with faster riders - and slower riders can stay up with you. You'll be far safer, negotiating potholes and heavy traffic with ease.
Graceful riding starts with pedalling smoothly, so you aren't fighting your own oscillations for control of the bike. A good rider can - and always does - spin his or her legs without any upper body motion. When standing, he or she minimises upper body motion with a smooth style. (I used to practise this by riding a stationary exercise machine with a book balanced on my head. I could keep the book in position there for about 20 seconds while churning my legs at 95 rpm.)
Cyclists need to work at smooth technique, just as skiers and tennis players do. The bike's pedals define the path your feet follow, and the handlebars hold your hand in place, but oh! how the in-between parts can flop around! And when the torso and arms twist back and forth, so does the front wheel: left with each right pedal stroke, and then vice versa.
Smooth riding is not difficult. The one mechanical requirement is correct saddle height. Other than that, you just have to pay attention to isolating your upper body from your lower body's continuous movement. This is a learned skill that you should practise every time you ride. Stay seated, churn your legs, and make sure your torso is motionless. If you've never tried this before, you'll only be able to pedal smoothly at low cadences - say, 60 to 70 rpm. For a beginner, these speeds feel natural. You'll have to take it on faith that faster cadence will benefit you. But do try it, and force yourself to pedal briskly. Soon, you'll feel comfortable and smooth at higher cadences, and cruising at 90 or 95 rpm will feel natural.
A brisk cadence is your best friend. This is something people sit around and argue about, but most good riders fan the pedals at pretty high speeds, cruising at 90 or 95rpm. There are many compelling reasons to do so.
The biggest benefit is that your knees, which were designed before bicycles were invented, take less stress when you spin a low gear (turn the cranks quickly and easily) instead of pushing a high gear (turn the cranks slowly and with great effort). Many people have had to curtail or stop their riding because they severely damaged their knees by mashing big gears.
The second benefit is metabolic: you'll last longer and feel fresher if you can maintain a brisk cadence. The lower pedal effort which accompanies the combination of a lower gear rate and a faster cadence allows your muscles to work at well under their aerobic threshold, and use the low octane fuels which your body has in unlimited supply - triglycerides and fatty acids. Higher muscle efforts, such as mashing big gears, use up precious stores of glucose - and when all your glucose is gone, you're ready to drop.
A novice cyclist, who has never ridden more than a couple miles at a time, rarely notices the loss of glucose until he or she is tired out. An experienced cyclist, however, is very picky about maintaining a brisk cadence, because he or she can feel the slight difference in his or her muscles. Excess effort eats up glycogen and produces lactic acid. As you learn to listen to your body, you'll become sensitive to the nuances of feelings that go with different levels of effort.
Some studies claim that slower cadences, such as 50 or 60 rpm, are more efficient than quicker cadences. These studies generally share three flaws:
■ The test subjects are non-cyclists who have never learned to pedal proficiently, and who are apt to be better suited to a slower rhythm of movement. Even if the subjects are aerobically fit, they still don't know how to ride a bike - training effect is very specific to each sport.
■ The exercise machines used do not closely mimic the pedalling conditions of a real bicycle. Poor saddle position, lack of toe clips and unnatural pedal resistance are common differences.
■ Most importantly, slow cadences deliver the most energy to the pedals for the least oxygen consumed. But who said we had limited oxygen supplies? Cyclists are not scuba divers. Glycogen is our limited resource, and faster pedal cadences conserve that resource very well.
Remember, efficiency in the laboratory is not the same as efficiency on the road. Slow cadences are efficient for artificial, constant workloads, but not for the continually changing conditions of real cycling. Brisk cadences have always won races and kept tourists refreshed day after day.
Toe clips and straps or shoe-cleat (clip-in pedal) systems are essential if you're to pedal at quick cadences. Without a fastening method you'll have trouble keeping your feet on the pedals. Beginners may wish to take a few rides without toe clips to get used to the bike, but your development as a bike rider will really take off when you start using toe clips.
You may have heard that toe clips allow you to pull up on the final thrust of the pedal stroke. Not so. Sure, you can do it for a few pedal strokes, to get up a short, steep hill, or for a brief sprint. But it's far too tiring to be useful for everyday pedalling. Good riders do exert a little upward muscle effort on the back stroke. However, many studies have shown that pulling only partially overcomes the rather substantial weight of the legs.
The main function of toe clips is to keep your feet on the pedals. It sounds undramatic, but without toe clips, you have to expend energy and attention to keep your feet from sliding off the pedals. Toe clips help save energy and cycling shoes with cleats aid this; I personally feel naked without cleats.
Watching your revolutions
Do you know what 90 rpm feels like? It's an extremely useful skill to have. When you're consciously aware of your cadence, you're more apt to maintain a proper pace, and not lapse into a slow, slogging mode through inattention. Knowing what your proper cadence feels like makes it easier to anticipate your shifting needs, so you don't wait until you've lost valuable momentum before shifting.
The goal is to have a good feel for the correct general range - so you can keep your cadence somewhere in the 90s or know that you're sprinting at 115, but not so you can tell the difference between 95 and 97 rpm. The old-fashioned way to measure cadence is to count your pedal revolutions while keeping your eye on a stopwatch or sweep-second hand. Do this only on a quiet road. Count for 10 seconds and multiply by six.
If you do this often enough, you'll develop a feel for cadences in your cruising range. In the extreme high-speed range of 120 rpm or above, this method is too difficult to use. An alternative is to treat yourself to a speedometer with a cadence function.