Pedaling Technique--Part Seven of Fixed Gear 101
by Greg Goode
On a fixed gear, pedaling is everything. You can never STOP pedaling, so you might as well do it right! Pedaling supplies power, acceleration, deceleration, stopping, and balance. These functions are the basics of your fixed-gear riding, and to perform them well you need spin, power and smoothness.
The techniques we will use are Arc Drills, One-Legged Drills, Cadence Drills, and Hill Repeats. These are proven ways to increase your speed, power and smoothness.
What is Spin?
Turning the pedals quickly. Some riders pedal over 200rpm (that's over 3 pedal revolutions per second), especially in the burst of a sprint or down a safe hill. Normal cadence, which is fine for
everyday riding, is between 90 and 120rpm. If you encounter a safe downhill that you know doesn't have an obstacle or stop light at the bottom, then you can ride it out, which might require more than
120rpm. But even if your pedals never have to rotate at a great rate, the ability of your legs to push greater speeds will give you greater control at any rpm.
What is Power?
Applying greater force to the pedals. This is a factor in all forms
What is Smoothness?
Applying force to the pedals at all points of their motion. This is a key factor both to spin and to the overall force that gets transferred to the pedals. Smooth pedaling is circular pedaling. During uneven, unsmooth pedaling, you mostly push down. That is, you apply force only in the downstroke. This means that the you push forward and down with the legs, and let the pedals carry the legs back and up to the top of the stroke. At higher cadences, this kind of unsmooth pedaling can be seen and felt. The body may rock from side to side, the torso bob back and forth, or the butt bounce up and down on the saddle.
During smooth pedaling, you transmit force to the pedal throughout its motion. With the aid of toeclips or clipless pedals, you can push backwards across the bottom of the pedal stroke and pull upwards at the back of the stroke. Extraneous motion is reduced, allowing more power to the pedals. This makes for greater overall efficiency and speed.
Use your bike in a safe area like an empty parking lot on a Sunday morning, or use rollers, or a stationary bike with a computer timer and cadence counter. Please remember to warm up and stretch! After these drills, even the first time, your pedaling will feel smoother and stronger, and your legs will feel much more control and "at one" with the pedals. You will definitely feel the difference!
On several of these exercises, it helps to find a cassette tape or CD of music that revs you up. Listen to it as you practice. I found several tapes of Cuban "charanga" music which inspired me, as its rhythm cadence is congruent with the cadence I'm shooting for.
Arc drills are easier with your toeclips tight, or with clipless pedals. Their purpose is to develop greater smoothness and power. One of the key technical ingredients to good riding is a smooth, circular spin. This means applying a more even force to all angles around the 360-degree arc. Of course the degree of force applied to the pedals will not be perfectly equal at all angles, but we can improve the evenness of the stroke. Arc drills help. Proceed as follows:
1. Mentally divide the circle of your pedal stroke into quarters. For each foot, concentrate on the arc described by:
Arc 1: Forward and down--the main arc pedaled by most riders
Arc 2: Scraping across the bottom--as if you are scraping mud from your shoes by pushing down and back
Arc 3: Up in back--pulling up against the clips
Arc 4: Gliding across the top--transition between pulling up and pushing down
Arc drills are part concentration exercise. Really try to visualize each arc, and to feel it in your legs.
2. Practice pedaling, applying force only in Arc 2, letting your legs slightly relax in the other arcs. Of course the legs will still apply some pressure all around, but your effort should focus on bringing awareness and greater power to Arc 2.
3. Try to keep this up for the period of an entire song on your tape, or a 3-minute period. Rest for a few minutes.
4. Now ride applying force to Arc 3 for three minutes. Rest for a few minutes.
5. Repeat with Arc 4. Arc 1 doesn't need its own practice, because it's the arc normally used in pedaling.
6. You can extend from 3 minutes to 5 minutes. Also, if you find one of the arcs particularly spastic, uncoordinated and hard to apply force to, then give this arc more attention as you practice.
One legged drills
One legged drills are easier after Arc Drills, and with tight toeclips or clipless pedals. Their purpose is to achieve greater smoothness and power and evenness in movement from leg to leg.
Remove one foot from the clips, and pedal with the other foot. The lack of countering force will encourage the pedaling leg to describe a more perfect circle. Try to keep this up for the entire 3-minute period or throughout the song on your tape player. Then rest and try the other leg. Repeat 5 times for each leg.
Cadence drills improve speed and smoothness. A cadence counter is recommended - I've always found a stationary bike with computerized controls best for these, even if it's not a fixed!
1. Warm up for 10 minutes.
2. After warming up, pedal faster and faster. Try to hold a 90rpm cadence for one minute.
3. Move up to 120 for one minute.
4. Rest at a comfortable cadence for 30 seconds.
5. Accelerate slowly and smoothly to the greatest rpm that you can achieve. This acceleration between a comfortable pace and your top rpm should not be a burst, but should take 20-30 seconds to achieve.
NOTE: If you feel your butt start to bounce up and down in the saddle, try concentrating on arc 3 or 4 or visualize pedaling in a perfect circle. If this doesn't work, lower your rpm until your motion is smoother, and then increase your rpm more gradually. If you can be smooth only at relatively low rpm, you need more arc drills!
6. Try to hold the top rpm for 10 seconds. If you have a cadence counter, make a mental note of the cadence.
7. Then try to control the deceleration smoothly back to a comfortable cadence. If you are on a freewheel machine, try to resist the impulse to relax into a coast after your exhausting high-rpm sprint.
8. Repeat this 5 times for this session, allowing several minutes between your accelerations to top-rpm. How long to wait? Until your breathing and hear-rate return to a normal rate for riding comfortably. As you work with this exercise, shoot for higher and higher top rpms for your 10 second plateau. If you'd like, try to hold that cadence for 15 or 20 seconds.
Hill repeats build power. Look for a route that takes you up a challenging hill, around, and back to your starting point. If you can't find such a route, then use any hill that lets you double back to descend. Depending on your overall fitness, repeat 5 or 10 times. Allow enough time between ascents so that your breathing and heart-rate return to normal (for normal riding patterns) before ascending again.