Strokes of Brilliance

Refine your pedal strokes so you can ride more efficiently and powerfully.

Walk into any cycling class and you’ll see a variety of pedal strokes in motion. Some people’s legs look like pistons driving a crank up and down. Other people’s pedal strokes are choppy or herky-jerky, often with dead spots on the way around. Then, there are the advanced cyclists whose pedal strokes are as smooth as satin, as they skillfully guide the pedals around in finely tuned circles. Rather than mashing on the pedals, these riders have cultivated a refined rhythm to their pedal strokes, which makes their riding styles that much more efficient.

It takes time and practice to get there but the reality is: Everyone can improve their pedal strokes. And it’s worth the effort because smoother pedal strokes translate into a more proficient cycling technique that uses less energy. (Btw: Proper bike set-up, including the height of the saddle and its fore-aft positioning, is essential for achieving smooth pedal strokes.)

Anatomy of a Good Pedal Stroke

Believe it or not, an efficient stroke doesn’t involve pushing down then pulling up on the pedal: It has an oval-shaped or elliptical motion, even though a full pedal stroke is really a 360-degree circle, just like a clock face. There are four quadrants or sectors in that circle: From 12 o’clock to 3 o’clock, from 3 o’clock to 6 o’clock, from 6 o’clock to 9 o’clock, and from 9 o’clock to 12 o’clock. The goal is to cultivate a streamlined movement with consistent pressure all the way around that circle.

Different techniques rely on slightly different foot positioning (toes pointed up, down or straight, for instance) as well as flexibility in the ankle and lower leg. Generally, however, the toes point slightly upward and the heel slightly downward between 12 o’clock and 6 o’clock (in other words, dead center on the top of the stroke to dead center on the bottom); then, the foot shifts slightly so the toes point a little bit downward as the foot rises on the backstroke from 6 o’clock to 12 o’clock.

As your foot comes across the top of the pedal circle, push the pedal forward and across the top of the circle, rather than down. When you hit the 3 o’clock position, you can push the pedal down directly, and when you reach the 6 o’clock position, move the pedal backward, then pull through the bottom of the pedal stroke, keeping a constant force through the circle (some instructors tell riders to imagine scraping mud off the bottom of the shoe as you pull through the bottom of the pedal stroke). Finally, lift from the knees, unloading your weight from the pedal as it rises, as you move from the 9 o’clock to 12 o’clock positions.

The Power of Practice

To perfect your pedal strokes, focus on one aspect at a time then gradually join them together, smoothing out the transitions, until you have one fluid movement all the way around. Various drills can help you hone the different portions of the pedal stroke. As you work to refine them, focus particularly on the top and bottom halves of the pedal stroke, emphasizing a gliding motion.

Be sure to maintain good posture in your upper body and try to keep your hips relaxed, so that your leg muscles can work efficiently.

As your pedal strokes improve, you can adapt your technique slightly depending on your cadence, the simulated terrain, and your power output. By learning to turn big, smooth ovals instead of “mashing” or “hammering” on an indoor bicycle, you will decrease your chances of being taken for a ride by the bike's weighted flywheel and injuring yourself. You’ll also develop greater strength, speed, and power for your rides, which is one of the ultimate goals.

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