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There is something quite special about watching a professional rider on top of his form. It doesn't matter what the discipline - sprinting, climbing, time trialling, cyclo cross or mountain bike – when champions are at the top of their game, there is a gracefulness about their riding. They look at one with their bike. They look efficient.
But what is efficiency exactly? In purely mechanical terms, it is the ratio of work output to work input. As cyclists, we are very inefficient. Only around 25% of the energy we produce goes into propelling the bike forward, whilst the rest is lost through heat and other factors.
In this article, I am going to veer away from talking about efficiency in a mechanical or scientific context and focus more on pedalling technique as a whole – what can we change? will it lead to improvements in performance?
The first, and possibly most obvious, point to discuss is cadence. During the Armstrong years, not only the public, but also a lot of the pro peleton, suddenly decided that using a higher cadence would lead to improved performance. The premise of Armstrong's coaches was that it led to improvements in the cardiovascular system and gave him less muscular fatigue during races or training blocks. What wasn't really portrayed was the relationship between cadence and power. For the most part, the higher the power, the higher the corresponding cadence should be. So, whilst track sprinters are big, muscular athletes, their cadence during sprint events is very high due to the enormous amount of power they are producing.
Relating this to the general public, whilst it might seem a good idea to copy Tour de France winners' cadence and technique, you must take into account that, whilst they are riding up mountains at 400-500 watts, a keen amateur will generally only be doing 250-300 watts, thus the corresponding cadence should also be lower if you are looking for best performance.
Recent studies have also shown that self selected cadence is often best, so during races there is no need to artificially increase or decrease your cadence just because you think it should be better. On the other hand, there can be benefits to including various cadence drills into your training and I often prescribe these sessions to riders whom I coach at selected points leading up to their goals.
Another aspect of cycling technique often talked about is pedal stroke. I often hear of riders striving to achieve a rounder pedal stroke, pedalling through the 'dead spot'. If you are talking about riding off road, this technique is a must as surges of power on the downstroke will often lead to the rear wheel slipping over routes and mud, but this isn't something that needs to be taken into account on the road. Whilst riders such as Wiggins, Millar or Cancellara may appear to have a perfect pedal stroke, in reality they are producing the majority of their power when the pedals are between 2 o'clock and 5 o'clock. In fact, studies have shown that the discrepancy between power produced on the downstroke compared with the dead spot is greater in pros than the general public. If you think about it, it makes sense – why spend time developing smaller muscles to keep power through the dead spot, when you can use much larger muscles for the rest of the pedal stroke?
Recently, more and more riders, including myself, have started to use elliptical chainrings, such as those made by Rotor or O-Symmetric, in order to try and reduce the time spent in the dead spot. The jury is still out amongst both riders and scientists, but I've always felt good with them and they certainly don't seem to have done Wiggins any harm, as he has been using them since before his 4th place at the 2009 Tour.