So much of bike fitting focuses on fixed positions—cleat position, saddle height, handlebar reach and drop etc.—that it can be easy to assume that simply fixing (no pun intended) the rider’s position is the key to improving their riding. In reality, it’s all about motion. The whole point of all the meticulous positioning is to accommodate efficient and sustainable pedaling. Think of it like the engine block in a car: in order to deliver smooth power to the wheels and keep handling consistent and predictable, the engine needs to be firmly secured to and balanced within the frame.
What we often see with clients is a preoccupation with the fixed points in their position and a lack of clarity regarding technique. This comes as no surprise. On one hand pedaling a bike is incredibly simple--you press on the pedals and you go; you press harder and you go faster, right? On the other hand, discourse on proper technique can be confusing. Should you be focusing on pedaling circles? Wouldn’t that mean you’d need to be purposefully pulling up on your pedals? Or is it more beneficial to focus on using your most powerful muscle groups, the glutes and quads? Wouldn’t that mean you’ll always be pushing down?
Our take is, it’s not that simple.
You’ve probably heard of “pedaling squares”. This usually refers to applying pedaling force only during the “vertical” plane of the pedal stroke, or roughly between the 2 o’clock and 5 o’clock positions. Some riders will take this a step further and attempt to pull up with their trailing leg as well. Usually this motion has an even more limited range, say between about the 8 o’clock to 10 o’clock positions. This leads to instability in the saddle which can manifest itself in several different ways. One is a loss in efficiency, which we can often hear when a client starts pedaling during their fitting—there will be a staccato, harsh whoosh sound as opposed to the smooth rhythmic whirring we hope for. This indicates that they are pushing their bike into the ground, not propelling it forward, and leaving a lot of free speed on the table. Further issues arise when the ground pushes back. You can test this premise for yourself right now—alternate pressing your feet against the floor from your seat and notice what happens to your hips. As they rock back and forth you end up with excessive pressure on either side of your saddle while the opposite hip lifts. This excessive motion can also travel further up the chain, presenting in discomfort as far up as the shoulders and neck.
It’s important to remember that a cyclist’s movement is constrained by their equipment. The feet rotate concentrically around the bottom bracket, each at a fixed radius, always positioned 180 degrees from one another. Put simply, especially when using clipless pedals, a rider can literally only pedal in circles. Resisting this plane of movement, over emphasizing one particular phase of the pedal stroke--or even worse, neglecting to focus on their technique at all--is where a lot of folks tend to go wrong.
What we find most beneficial is to have riders focus on maintaining fluidity and continuity within this circle. Your feet cannot deviate from this path, so the key to good technique lies in training them to follow it. This is one instance where single-leg drills can come in handy. The idea is to develop and train the neural pathways to move your feet through the entire pedal stroke with intent and control. You won’t be pulling up on the pedals per se, or at least not in a way that you’d be hoping to deliver any meaningful power on the upstroke. Your leading leg will already be doing that work for you; all the trailing leg needs to do is complete the circle smoothly. Ultimately you’ll be shooting for power through about 70% of the stroke.
The benefits of improved pedaling dynamics do not stop at making you a faster, more efficient rider. The greatest upside here is improved interaction with the bike. More consistent heel height and ankle movement leads to better interaction with (and more comfort in) the saddle. This stabilizes your hips and lower back, which will allow you to engage your core. With your sit bones and core muscles properly supporting you you’ll experience less strain on your arms, hands, neck and shoulders. ultimately proper technique is vital to more comfort and sustainability on the bike.