In last week's RBR Newsletter, I wrote an article on learning how to pedal more efficiently this winter. After going through the comments, I felt that there needed to be some clarification. The two main categories of comments were (a) “Is the math right?” (referring to the text description of the graphics included) and (b) “I was told [by someone] to never pull up when pedaling” or "pulling up is ineffectual."
First, a quick comment about the math: It's just not important.
Getting caught up in the exact percentages misses the point, which is, to quote from last week's article: "the pros' 'power stroke' is nearly 3 times greater than what we recreational roadies do."
(I think our use of a graphic that included both crank arms was confusing to some. If we had used a graphic that include only the drive-side crankarm, I think it would have been clearer.) Again, though, the graphics were merely added to illustrate the much greater length of the pros' power stroke when compared to recreational roadies' stroke. Let's keep the focus on that.
A Conversation with Ex-Pros
As for the comments about pulling up, I had coffee the other day with several of my cycling friends from San Diego, all retired pros and now masters who still podium at nationals. They're well-versed on the topic.
I showed them the article then asked them to review the comments. They all said that while it's technically correct, there might be a better way to explain this. So I'll use their comments and insights to hopefully accomplish that:
“It is true that pros push down on the pedals earlier (and harder) than regular cyclists, but the most important take-away for your readers is the following: There are three areas of the pedal stroke that are important to note. Visualizing the drive-side crankarm [right leg in this example] these are
a) from about 5 o’clock to 7 o’clock,
b) from 8 o’clock to 10 o’clock and
c) from 11 o’clock to 1 o’clock.”
In (a) above: “You want to drag your foot through the bottom of the pedal stroke like you are scraping mud off the bottom of your shoe [we've all heard this before, right?]. This is the transition phase between pushing and pulling. At this point, you have unloaded your pushing muscles and are now loading your pulling muscles. In other words, your right glute has shut off, as well as your right quads. Your right calf is now engaged to start ankling the right foot, and your right hamstrings are kicking in to get the pedal through the bottom of the pedal stroke and started on the upstroke.”
In (b) above: “It’s mainly the hamstrings and hip flexors [psoas, iliacus, TFL and others] pulling and assisting with the upstroke. Any leg weight you can offload by pulling up is weight the other leg doesn’t have to waste energy to raise. You don’t have to pull up hard at this point, but, what happens next is magic.”
Regarding (c) above: “Between 10 o’clock and 11 o’clock the right hamstring shuts off and is replaced by the tibialis anterior [front of lower leg], which starts the ankling process again, and the hip flexors, which help get the right leg up and over the top of the pedal stroke. This is where you want to pull up hard. If done correctly, your right leg will be in the perfect position so that at around 12 o’clock, your right quad and right glute start firing so that by 1 o’clock, they will be fully engaged to hopefully around 5 o’clock, where the process starts all over again.”
One of the guys, a multi-time national champion said “it’s like pedaling with your hips.” He says that is the key to pedaling like a pro.
In Sum, Upstroke Helpful in 2 Important Ways
So, in summary, the upstroke helps you in a couple of very important ways: As noted in (b), by pulling up with one leg, you lessen the amount of work the other leg requires to "push up" that off-leg. Imagine if you don't pull up at all; then all of the required energy to get that off-leg back up and over the top again would be supplied by the power stoke (pushing down) of the other leg.
And even more important is what you can gain from (c): Pulling up hard starting at around 11 o'clock can help you get your power stroke started earlier. That's key. If you can move the start of your power stroke from the typical 3 o'clock position for most rec roadies closer to the 1 o'clock position of the pros, you'll benefit greatly in terms of additional power.
I hope this helps to clarify the questions that the original article raised.
Coach Rick Schultz is an avid cyclist who trains, races and coaches in Southern California. Rick is an engineer by trade, and in addition to being a coach, he's a bike fitter and prolific product reviewer. He's the author of Stretching & Core Strengthening for the Cyclist and Bike Fit 101: Your Toolset for a Great Bike Fit in the RBR eBookstore. Check his product reviews website, www.biketestreviews.com, and his coaching site, www.bikefitnesscoaching.com. Click to read Rick's full bio.