In cycling, physical ability is not everything. Performance on a bike depends not only on the rider’s physical fitness but also on the complex interaction between the rider and the machine. Amongst these, pedalling technique is one of the most important. This is particularly so during the Haute Route, where performing well day after day depends on having the best possible muscle coordination, leading to greater muscular efficiency and thus a better overall result.
You will need to be as much at ease pedalling at low cadence on the steep slopes as pedalling at high cadence when you are moving fast.
Although at first sight extremely easy, pedalling is not a natural movement. It is not enough simply to push down on alternate pedals, like the occasional Sunday cyclist. Whether sitting down or standing up, pedalling as efficiently as possible requires very precise coordination.
The muscles of both legs need to learn to work together. While one leg is pushing down, the other must at least lift up its own weight, and ideally pull up on the pedal. Failure to do this will reduce the overall power as the working leg is forced to push harder, to lift the non-working leg as well as turn the cranks.
All the different muscles in the lower limbs need to work harmoniously together throughout the pedal stroke, and especially through the top and bottom dead zones when the two pedals are vertical. The movement is complex. There is no need to go into the technical details to see that it requires a lot of specific work to improve it.
The following exercises have proved their value to improving pedalling technique:
- One-legged pedalling is one of the most effective exercises. It consists of pedalling first with one leg alone, then the other. Example: On a home trainer, after first warming up, do 5 series of 5 minutes as follows: 2min with the right leg only, using a large gear at 50 rpm, without any real effort, then 2min with the left leg then 1min with both legs and a small gear at 100 rpm (after a few sessions like this you can progress to 110 rpm). The goal is to focus on the pedal stroke to make it as smooth and circular as possible. Concentrate on your coordination and on the circular movement of your foot.
- Training with a fixed-gear will also help you improve your pedalling technique. Don’t hesitate to ride on a track or to use a “fixie” on the road (so long as it is equipped with brakes). It is important to choose the right gear and the right route and to get used to riding without a free wheel in a safe environment before venturing into traffic. Beware the kick your fixie will give you if you suddenly stop pedalling!
- Speed exercises at high cadence (above 110 rpm) are also useful to improve your pedalling technique: if you are not well coordinated, you will bounce about uncomfortably all over the saddle.
Example: Do all the descents on the small chain-ring, turning your legs as fast as possible without bouncing. With practice, this exercise can also be done on the flat during sessions at race pace, at intensity level 3 (Tempo).
- Alternating between force and speed can give excellent results in improving pedalling technique. These sessions can usefully complement other sessions aimed specifically at developing force and conducted at low cadence.
Example: on a gentle rise or a flat section with a headwind, switch between blocks of 5 min at 50 rpm followed immediately by 5 min at 110 rpm. The intensity should be between I2 and I3, around 80% of your HRM (maximum heart rate) or FTP (Functional Threshold Power)
- Alternate sitting and standing, high cadence and low cadence. These sessions are designed to combine force and speed exercises with both sitting and standing.
Example: every 5 min during a long, moderate climb (ideally a steady 5% gradient), alternate between the four variants:
- Seated low cadence
- Standing high cadence
- Seated high cadence
- Standing low cadence
For shorter climbs, the solution is to repeat the climb multiple times (or do several in rapid succession) changing the posture each time. Once again, the intensity should not be too high. Keep it between I2 and I3, around 80% of your HRM or FTP.