What is the perfect pedal stroke?

Cycling Tips

What is the perfect pedal stroke and how can you train it?

Actually the first is not that difficult but the second one is a bit more difficult to answer. So let’s first start with the easy one.

The different phases of the pedal stroke

If we use the analogy of a clock and say at 12 o’clock the pedal is in it’s must 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 down stroke. 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 down stroke 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 sounds more difficult than it actually is. It basically means that it 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. So no energy gets lost in applying force in the wrong direction.

Better at stretching than bending

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 down stroke 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 makes any sense because there is already a large window of time in which one can apply force compared to the short contact phase in other endurance sports like running and speed skating.

What is the ideal Force direction

Nowadays a lot of powermeters but also the Tacx Neo II can give you the feedback how much force and in which direction force is applied. This gives us the opportunity to see who the most experienced cyclists and pro’s apply their force. Based on this we indeed see that pro’s 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 down stroke and vice versa. Also the pro’s 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

Don’t pull on your pedals!

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. 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 high the transition from the down stroke 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 relatively to your bottom bracket, and in relation to the length of the body segments of your abdomen and crank length. If for example your saddle position is too much backward and/or the cranklength 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 cranklength is too small the muscles will not be stretched to their optimal force-length ratio too be most effective. So to have a proper pedal stroke one should start with a proper bikefit.

Pros vs Recreation

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.

Train your pedal stroke

This however doesn’t mean that feedback of what you’re doing isn’t useful. This can definitely speed up the learning curve. If for example you clearly see there is a deadspot 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 to weak it is really difficult to have a stable and effective pedal stroke. You simply can’t fire a cannon out of a canoe
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