‘As easy as riding a bike’ is a commonly used phrase, and it’s true that getting in the saddle and pedalling needn’t be a test, but improving your stroke can make a big difference.
If you want to ride stronger and faster, working on your pedaling technique could well be an easy win. Pedalling at 90 revolutions a minute, you turn over 5,400 strokes an hour, that’s more than 16,000 strokes on a 3-hour trip out.
Of course, strengthening your legs and boosting your power to weight ratio is important, but a little work making sure there are no ‘dead spots’ where you’re not benefitting from your effort could be just as crucial (and involve less sweating, and less cake-skipping).
Most drills are best carried out at the start of a session or ride, the idea being that they infiltrate your muscle memory, encouraging you to hold good form throughout.
The Perfect Pedal Stroke
The first drill is simply to practice the perfect pedal stroke, slowly, and ideally on a turbo trainer so you can really concentrate, even stopping after each phase on your first few attempts.
If you imagine the entire movement as a clock face, the first phase is from 12 o’clock to 5 o’clock. In this downstroke, you should be aiming to push down, but also using your hamstrings to extend your foot forwards, so that you create an even circle, not a line from top to bottom. Allowing your heel to drop as you pass over the 12 o’clock point will help you to use these large muscles at the back of your thigh.
The next stage, from 5 o’clock to 7 o’clock, sees you prepare for the backstroke. Here, you want to engage your calf muscles, slightly pointing your toe downwards. Greg LeMond famously described this as “like scraping mud off the bottom of your shoe".
When you begin to move from 7 o’clock to 9 o’clock, your other leg is producing more power as it is on the downstroke. If you let the 7-9 o’clock leg hang limp, you’re forcing the driving leg to work harder – so at this point try to focus on pulling up.
From 9 o’clock, through to 12 o’clock, you’re working towards starting a new downstroke. Remember that you want to be pedalling in even circles, so imagine you are pulling your knee towards the handlebars, and raise your heel slightly.
Pedalling slowly might seem counterproductive to improvement, but doing just a few minutes at the beginning of a training session or ride will help reinforce muscle memory, encouraging you to pedal efficiently during your ride.
Single leg drills
It can be easy to forget the upstroke when concentrating on the downstroke of the other leg, but pedalling just one at a time can help reinforce in your mind how each leg needs to be working.
On a turbo trainer, unclip your right foot, and rest it on the frame of the turbo, then pedal a low resistance, using just your left leg. Aim for 30 seconds, then return the right leg, pedal one minute both legs together, then with the right leg only.
If you don’t have a turbo trainer, you can think about ‘switching one leg off’ – letting it go limp on the pedal, and using just one leg. You’ll need to do this on a fairly flat stretch, and aim to do 5 repetitions on each leg.
Most people have one leg that is slightly stronger than the other – this is natural, but working on addressing the balance can help you to improve and reduce injuries caused by stress placed on the stronger leg.
During your single leg drills, take note if one leg seems to pedal more slowly, or to get tired quickly – it might be worth adding some single legged squats to your routine to strengthen the weaker leg.
You don’t have to pedal at 90 rpm – but it helps. The ‘perfect cadence’ will vary between riders, but between 80-90 rpm is usually considered the right ballpark.
Short bursts of quick pedalling will help you to reach this average. ‘Spin up’ drills are short bursts, where you start pedalling a low gear (on a flat road) fast, and then keep increasing the cadence until you’re going as fast as you possibly can without bobbing up and down out of the saddle. These can be repeated 3-5 times at the start of a ride, with 60 second rests between.
A more structured and endurance based approach is to increase cadence over minute intervals.
For example, after a warm up, start your sessions with 60 seconds at 90 rpm, immediately followed by 60 seconds at 95 rpm, 60 seconds at 100 rpm, 60 seconds at 105 rpm, 60 seconds at 110 rpm. The effort gets harder until 5 minutes is up, when you can return to normal cadence. If this is too hard, start at 80, if it’s to easy, start at 95.
This exercise is unlike all the others – since it encourages super slow pedalling. It really is not a good idea to do this if you have any sort of knee problems, so stay clear if that’s the case.
Power climbs are designed to strengthen the muscles in your legs, and force you to think about every part of the stroke – since in a very high gear, every motion is important as you’ll struggle to turn the pedals if there are weak spots.
You need a fairly shallow hill, ideally around 8-10 minutes long, but 6 minutes+ will do if there isn’t one nearby, and you can do it on the turbo if need be.
Click the gears right up to the highest gear you can stay in, whilst still climbing seated.
Aim to hit around 50-60 rpm, working in ‘zone 4’ , that’s ‘Threshold’ which is about 7/10 in terms of effort. This is the kind of interval you could just about hold for 1 hour if really pushed - you should be able to speak, but it should feel like hard work.
At this level of resistance, sitting at 50-60 rpm, you should be able to feel every part of the stroke, and if you concentrate on making even circles with your feet, you’ll find it’s easier. You can do anywhere between 1 and 4 of these in a session.
If you enjoyed these drills, check out our Top Tips for Training on Your Road Bike for more advice on getting stronger and faster.