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Keep on Peddling!

Keep on peddling: practicing that perfect peddle stroke while out on the trail.

It seems so simple: bikes have pedals and the pedals turn the wheels. That is true for a tricycle, but what about a bike? Try this…challenge yourself to draw a bike and include how the pedals attach to the wheel to make it turn. Take your time, I’ll wait… So how’d you do? Multiple experimental studies have shown that for some reason, only a small fraction of people of any age or gender can complete the challenge without cheating and looking at a real bike. The theory is that since a bike is a common object, our brains do not store the details of its construction while they store the recognition of the whole object. The easy way to draw a bike is to draw 3 connected triangles: right side up, upside down and right side up. Now erase the bottom side of the right-hand triangle and draw wheels at the two ends of your diagram. Draw the chainring and pedals at the bottom point of the middle triangle and join that point to the farthest left point as a long oval of a chain. Attach handle bars and a seat coming off the right sides of the front and back triangles and you are done. Such an elegant combination of triangles and levers perfected over the centuries. The triangle is the strongest construction shape and the circle the most perfect. Add in gears and you have something strong, elegant and mathematically efficient.

How is energy transferred from the rider to the forward motion of the bike? This energy transfer happens across a series of levers and gears; physics in action. The lever series begins from the hip to the knee to the ankle to the foot and pedal, then transferred via the chain to the gear(s) attached to the rear wheel, which overcomes the inertia of the tire on the ground and begins the forward motion of the bike. Every section of this transfer chain has the potential to lose or gain momentum depending on the efficiency of the set up and skill of the peddler.

Peddle, peddle, peddle… Learning pedal stroke is probably one of the most important skills to develop as you progress in biking. Most beginners feel that they are peddling up and down as if marching in place. If you consider the mechanical path a rotating pedal takes and the series of levers operating from your hip socket to knee, to ankle to pedal, cranks and bottom bracket, you realize that there is no simple up and down to peddling a bike. Thinking about the mechanics of peddling allows us to train our bodies to get the most efficiency from each stroke. I like to think of the pedal stroke as being like the pistons and tie-rods of a locomotive. As the train moves forward, the tie-rods are relatively horizontal to the ground and changing the end angle with the rotation of the wheel. The rods are moving in a forward and backwards direction rather than an up and down pattern. A bike pedal stroke is much the same where the power at the top of the stroke is pushing forwards and down while power at the bottom is pulling backwards and up. As I pedal, I often visualize the stroke as forwards and backwards and try to focus on feeling the slight forwards and backwards movement of my foot inside my shoe as the stroke rotates around. Your pedal should be tilted slightly up in the front on the top/front part of the stroke and slightly down in the front on the backstroke. Flat pedals with metal pegs are a great upgrade from the stock plastic pedals and will allow you to have a much more powerful connection between shoe and pedal. Alternately, many people prefer to use “clipless” pedals where their shoe mechanically attaches to the pedal, giving an even stronger connection between shoe and pedal. However you attach to your pedal, focusing on the mechanics of peddling will give you more power and control than you ever thought possible.

Practice, practice, practice… While there is no substitute for time peddling in getting those muscles ready to the trail, there are a few exercises I do while riding to work on technique.

One at a time ; A great exercise I do quite often while riding is focusing on one leg at a time and concentrating on the feel of engaging the calf muscles of that leg all the way around the stroke and feeling the back and forth movement inside the shoe. Let the other leg relax and just float along its pedal stroke. Do 10 one-legged strokes per leg and then focus on using both at once- the difference you can feel is immediate and powerful.

Lifting weights: Think about walking. What if you had to carry the weight of both feet with one leg every step you took? This is effectively what you are doing of you allow the non-peddling leg to rest its full weight on its peddle as it comes up on the backstroke. As an exercise, practice focusing on unweighting the backstroke foot as you put power into the forward stroke.

Scraping the mud off: Besides getting the weight off of the backstroke peddle, you can use that foot to help add maximum power to the total stroke by lifting that peddle a portion of the way up the back stroke. You are not ‘pulling up” on the peddle, you are driving your foot backwards and up as the forward foot is driving forwards and down. The feeling on the back foot is one of scraping mud off your shoe, while the front stroke is almost one of stepping on the accelerator of your car. Practice driving your rear foot backwards instead of just being a weighted passenger.

Backpeddle/ratcheting: The rear hub of your bike has a ratchet system where you can peddle backwards with no effect, but a forward pedal stroke engages a pawl inside of the hub and drives the wheel forward. The clicking noise you hear when coasting is the pawls disengaging from the ratchet ring, allowing the wheel to move forward without engaging the pawl. The faster the clicking sound, the more pawls there are in the hub and the faster your engagement is (and usually the more expensive the bike is!). You can practice peddling with one foot pushing forwards and then ratcheting back and pushing forwards again. This skill is useful if you need to go past an obstacle on one side of the trail where you cannot do a full pedal stroke. Being able to ratchet lets you continue forward utilizing only the top portion of the pedal stroke to drive the bike forward. As you ride, pick a point on the trail and imagine a 10” wall lining one side of the trail for 3 or 4’. Now get past that wall by only peddling using the top stroke of your wall-side peddle while ratcheting. Repeat for both sides. Often one side is easier mentally than the other, so practice until you feel confident on both sides because you never know what obstacles you might encounter out there.

Take it slow: a great way to get to know your bike is practicing getting as slow as you can without stopping your bike and falling over. A track stand is when you can stay upright on your bike while stationary and is also a good skill to practice, but learning to keep your balance at as close to a stop as possible is a great way to increase your confidence when faced with trail obstacles that you might need to crawl over or contemplate first before attempting. Learning to ride slowly is also helpful when you are stuck behind a slower rider but don’t want to lose momentum by stopping.

Keeping the cadence: The most mechanically efficient cadence for peddling a bike is between 80-100 rpm. Slower cadences transfer more torque to the chain and can cause more rapid chain wear. Slower cadences require more force from the muscular system and recruit fast-twich muscles. This tends to tire a rider faster while faster cadences involve less force per stroke and utilize slow-twitch muscles and move the load to the cardiovascular system. While riding, use a cadence sensor and your gears to keep your cadence at whatever predetermined point you want to work on. Having to shift gears to maintain that cadence is great practice and mentally focusing on the number of strokes per minute lets you learn the demands of your muscular system and physical capabilities of your body. Pay attention to your heartrate as you peddle and learn where your body functions most efficiently.

Not peddling at all: Learn to coast! When not peddling, I am off of my saddle completely, coasting with both pedals parallel to the ground and even with each other, “flat pedals”, with both pedal blades tilted slightly down in the back diminishing the chance of being pushed forward when hitting bumps in the trail. Coasting with flat pedals lets your legs support your body fully off the saddle, gives you control and focus as the trail surface moves under your wheels and lifts your pedals away from potential obstacles on the sides of the trail. I like to practice coasting this way with alternate feet forward. Most of us have a natural dominant forward foot where we feel more in control, but training yourself to have either foot forward helps rest and stretch tendons on both sides as your ride.

Now that you have a better understanding of the mechanics of peddling, go out and ride your bike. It’s easy to “just ride” and forget to peddle most efficiently, shift for maintaining cadence or make sure to keep your weight off your bars, but periodically take the time to focus on these things. I often ride as the sweep of our group rides and many times go much more slowly than usual following the rear riders. This is fine with me! Going more slowly allows me to practice one-legged peddle stroke, practice feeling the push and pull of the peddles, become aware of the lazy weight I’m applying to my seat, hands and feet (and do something about it), practice staying shifted to the appropriate gear to keep my cadence up and gives me a chance to appreciate the trail rather than just focusing on staying upright! So…take it easy, focus on the muscles moving under your skin and the air passing over it. Focus on the elegance of the design of this beautiful timeless machine and appreciate that you are outdoors making the most of the day. Keep on peddling!


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