Pedaling Efficiency

Making Music

29“There is a real difference in the sound of the tire on the wind trainer with the more efficient riders. They had less of that cyclical up and down humming noise, and more of a continuous humming throughout the whole cycle.” Regis Chapman, Coach, on biomechanical “music” of a pedaling test

Pedaling is not as easy as riding a bike...


Think of the rhythmic tick-tock of a 30metronome, used by pianists to select tempos while playing, as the background staccato for symphonic spin. There are a number of ways to improve pedaling technique, such as single-leg drills and fixed gear training. Innovative devices marketed to increase power by decreasing the dead spot effect, such as 31unconventional chainrings, or by improving muscular efficiency, such as 32alternating cranks. Each method has enthusiastic groupies for their respective tunes. However, there is little evidence of the effectiveness of these devices in making one both more efficient and in that efficiency translating to performance.

Because of the dead spot at the top and bottom of the stroke, no one really pedals circles. In fact, those forces at 0 and 180 degrees help drive the crank forward. Studies show more powerful riders emphasizing the downstroke while making the upstroke less negative – that’s really not pedaling circles at all. So pedaling efficiency is about maximizing energy output into the drive train while minimizing energy lost by muscles* unrelated to pedal stroke. One can record efficiency in a test and still have leg strength discrepancies, distinctive optimal crank position, varying degrees of 33roundness, and unique cadence. Efficiency is really more about the ratio of Type I to Type II muscle fiber.

There are a bunch of neat set-ups to test pedal stroke by devices ridden at home, while some require the expert analysis of a biomechanist. This analysis is incomplete without a determination of muscle fiber composition. Like walking into an orchestra during tune-up for a concert, there seems to be little standardization at present for cycling efficiency testing, terms, or training.

The music of pedaling find its own key, keeping pace when the rhythm changes because of a competitor or a course and one’s preference. Researchers call this Freely Chosen Cadence. Pros have higher pedaling efficiencies at higher power outputs using faster FCCs than amateurs. Think of your legs as the means toward resonant notes, consistency your own personal rhapsody, a carol for the bike during the coming holidays. As cyclists, we are definitely different drummers beating a unique percussion.

Prayer for Pedaling Efficiency 

“…My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast; I will sing and make music.” 34Psalm 57:7

We are thankful that we can save energy through harmonious cadence in the choir of the peloton. We confess we are sometimes out of tune and clamorous. We ask to use our bodies for praise.


Ponder Can I hear the music in my pedal stroke; is it like clanging symbols – or melodious? Affirm I can become a pedaling maestro. Watch as you tune-in to your most effective power play.

29“Pedal Stroke Theories,” by Regis Chapman under “Tech Letters for March 20, 2002” edited by John Stevenson.  This tool meant for pianists is a great accompanying “drum” for stationary or indoor trainer work. I grew up marking its quiet steady beat to the sweetly playing piano of my musical mother.

31“More Innovations from ROTOR – elliptical chainrings,” dated August 20, 2005 on  and

32Power Cranks are an alternating pedaling system which works the hip flexors in relative isolation without recovery. One ride or attempted ride tells you how tight and weak hip flexors are compared to a cyclist’s powerful quads.

33“Mythbusters,” a webinar by USA Cycling, March 18, 2008, presented by Steven J. McGregor, PhD, USAC Level 2 Coach, USAC Science & Education Faculty, Applied Physiology Laboratory, Eastern Michigan University.

A study of 2 groups with the same VO2 Max average of 69, showed the more powerful national-caliber group pedaled squares, or had higher peak torque on the downstroke for an hour effort with higher average watts. The more powerful group had a higher percentage of Type 1 muscle fiber. Therefore, pedaling circles may not increase pedal efficiency and may be detrimental to TT type events. However, for mass start road racing, smoother stroke may be more optimal, due to speed changes and minimizing muscular fatigue.

*I just completed a research project on Uphill Cycling and the biomechanical considerations, such as cadence. Really cadence is only just part of the question. Contact me if you’re interested in this research.

34The Bible, New International Version, Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society

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