For years as cyclists we’ve been constantly badgered about how smooth our pedal stroke should be, about how we should ‘pedal in circles’ and pull up through the pedal stroke as well as push down. But should we really? Where’s the proof?
At the CycleFit Symposium in London early in 2012 Dr. Jeff Broker presented his research on pedal kinesiology. Whilst I’m yet to read this thoroughly, my understanding is that this points to pedalling in circles and applying power throughout the entire pedal stroke being effort wasted, based on the fact that you can’t control the ‘up’ stroke enough to make it worthwhile – his theory being something along the lines of that it’s not actually possible to get your foot out of the way of the upward motion of the pedal quickly enough because of the effects of gravity and the weight of your leg to make the effort useful. Or something like that.
Taking this further, I also wonder if there’s an argument that says in trying to apply power to the upward stroke, are you actually opposing the downward stroke of the other pedal, thus preventing effective application of power on that side?
Countering all of this are those who swear by the pedalling in circles approach. It’s no secret (much as he stays tight-lipped about it) that Cadel Evans uses PowerCranks. Pez seem to rate them too, and I have close friends who swear by them and seem to have used them to very good effect. I have to say I’ve even been tempted to give them a try myself. But there’s lots of doubt over their genuine benefit, and I’ve heard of riders ruining their ability to ride at previously high levels after spending time training with them. Again there’s a lack of proof so it’s difficult to know for certain of their benefit, and it could be that they work for some and not for others.
I guess Rotor Q-Rings fall into a similar camp – there’s claims of the benefits they produce, but I found them difficult to get along with after around 700km on them (I felt like they were making me lazy, and disrupting my already smooth spin). On the flip-side, another close friend had them off of me and absolutely loves them.
I used to be a ‘masher’ in that I would stomp on the pedals rather than pedal in circles (I blame my mountain bike background). Regular roller use turned my pedalling into a very smooth, fluid motion – even if I do say so myself. As an experiment, I recently tried a return to mashing on my LeMond trainer and found that I felt more powerful (whether or not I actually was is potentially a different matter) and the speed of the trainer rotation was faster (based on the ‘note’ the trainer was emitting). In applying power that way I also found that I was more comfortable in the saddle as the direct downward force actually means that less of your weight is focused on delicate tissues.
Lots of people will argue that pedalling in circles is more efficient as you’re engaging more muscles meaning the larger muscles doing the crux of the work are helped and supported by the muscles around them. I’d like to consider the counter argument (with absolutely no basis to it other than pure thought process) that letting the big muscles do the mashing enables them to be as big and strong as they can be, providing more direct and focused delivery of the force required to transmit power. As well as this, each leg surely gets its ‘rest’ when the opposing leg is doing the mashing?
Don’t get me wrong, I am just thinking aloud here – I don’t for one minute think I’ve discovered something new or revolutionary (excuse the pun). This is just a brain fart… But I can’t help thinking of Jens Voigt’s style as I write this. He definitely looks like a masher and it seems to work for him.
Will I try to become a masher again? Unlikely. I like having a smooth pedal stroke. But if I could train myself to stay smooth whilst mashing (if such a combination is possible) then it’d be an interesting experiment – it’s a shame I no longer use power meters as it would be intriguing to see what the real world difference is. It’s also made me wonder about trying Rotor Q-Rings again, but to adapt my riding style to suit them rather than sticking to turning smooth circles as I did when I used them before.
So should we be turning circles or mashing, or is it all as simple as it all just being ‘horses for courses’?…