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Biking Basics

Below are some basics points about how to cycle that can seem pretty minor, but can gain you a lot of speed and save energy.

Body Weight on the Pedals

Think about the distribution of your weight when you're biking. Poor cyclists will have all of their weight resting either on the seat, or on their handlebars. Your weight should be distributed on your pedals. Next time you’re riding indoors, stand up while you're biking. And after you stand up on the pedals, let go of the handlebars. You'll feel what it is like to have 100% of your body weight on the pedals. THAT is close to the feeling you want to mimic when you're biking. Obviously, you're not going to ride standing up, without hanging on to your handlebars. But you want to get the feeling of your body weight being distributed as much as possible on top of the pedals. When you get this feeling, your cycling is going to go to an entirely different level. The key is that you aren’t only pushing down. Or becoming a “masher,” if your cadence is in the 70-80 rpms per leg then your most likely in this category. Your probably point your toes down as well using mostly calf muscles. This is great for making power, but if you want to save energy and have legs to run off the bike it is not ideal.

You want to think about your pedal stroke like a clock, the majority of your power (or your weight) is being pushed down into the pedals from the 1 o'clock to the 5 o'clock position, but it doesn’t stop there. You want to have pressure on the pedals all the way around. We can think of this in terms of zones as well.

Zone 1 Known as the power phase, the portion of the pedal stroke from 12 o'clock to about 5 o'clock is the period of greatest muscle activity. "A lot of people think hamstrings are used only on the upstroke," "but a good cyclist uses a lot of hamstring in the downstroke, because it extends the hip." The key to accessing the large muscles in the back of your leg is dropping your heel as you come over the top of the stroke, "At 12 o'clock, your toes should be pointed down about 20 degrees, but as you come over the top, start dropping that heel so that it's parallel to the ground or even 10 degrees past parallel by the time you get to 3 o'clock." The biggest mistake in most riders: not dropping the heel enough in Zone 1.

Zone 2 Using the same muscles as in the power phase, but to a lesser degree, this phase acts as a transition to the backstroke. "As you enter Zone 2, think about firing the calf muscles to point your toe," As you come through the bottom of the stroke, the toe should be pointed down 20 degrees. "This ankling technique transfers some of the energy developed in Zone 1 by the bigger muscles to the crank." The advice popularized by Greg LeMond: "Act like you're scraping mud off the bottom of your shoe,” is a great way to visualize this.

Zone 3 Even though you feel like you're pulling your foot through the back of the stroke, you're not. "When you look at even the best cyclists, they're losing power on the upstroke." "The pedal is actually pushing your leg up, so the goal is to lose as little power as possible and get that foot out of the way." One fun way to improve the efficiency of your upstroke: mountain biking. "The terrain keeps you honest." "If you're focusing only on the downstroke, you'll lose traction and fall off your bike in steep sections." (If you’re not into mountain biking, this idea is at least what we are looking for.

Saddle Position and bike fit Proper bike fit, especially saddle height and fore-aft adjustment, is a prerequisite for a smooth pedal stroke. Without it you won't be even remotely as efficient as you could be. "If your saddle is too high, you're not going to be able to drive your heel effectively." "If it's too low, you'll have knee pain." In the right position (knee over the ball of your foot with the pedal at 3 o'clock; knee slightly bent with the pedal at 6 o'clock), you'll maximize your energy output and also be able to adapt your ankling technique to different terrain, cadence and effort levels.

Zone 4

As you enter the second half of the upstroke phase, think about initiating your downstroke. "Many riders don't initiate early enough," most riders wait until 3 o'clock--but they should be starting before 12 o'clock. A tip: As you begin to come across the top of the stroke, think about pushing your knee forward, toward the bar, but only your knee. "Your pelvis should remain a stable platform, not sinking down and not moving forward."(Reference-Todd Carver, biomechanist at Colorado's Boulder Center for Sports Medicine, )

Take the Free Speed Riding uphill and downhill: I see a lot of newbies and recreational cyclists doing this wrong. Most focus on how fast they could go uphill, but don’t realized the importance of being able to go downhill fast as well. Downhill is the time to take the free speed. When you go over a hill, don’t let up and or stop pedaling and coast on the way down the hill. Instead, start moving through the gears right away, getting your cadence and momentum going again,(to take the speed) right when your cresting a hill and going into a downhill, you can gain a lot of speed for very little energy expenditure. I see many people make the mistake of climbing a hill hard and crawling over the top of the hill, and because they're tired they just coast and don’t pedal on the backside part of the hill (usually, the downhill part). That's absolutely wrong. They’re not maximizing their speed. They expend very little energy on the downhill and too much energy on the uphill. If you look at their heart rate graph when they’re done (good indicator of energy expenditure) it will look like a jagged saw blade. It should look relatively flat or gradual incline. Instead, focus on maintaining a high cadence. Don’t worry about how fast you're going up the hill. From an energy standpoint, the energy it is going to take for you to go from 10 MPH to 12 MPH uphill is going to be much larger than it would take you to go from 25 MPH to 27 MPH on the downhill. Going from 25 MPH to 27 MPH would, literally, be you taking one pedal stroke and gathering a bit of momentum. In terms of energy management in a triathlon, pay attention to taking the free speed on the downhills and not expending too much energy on the uphills. It's going to help you in the long run.

Stay Aero

Most people don't realize this, but your head is one of the biggest things that cause drag when you’re cycling. Think about it like you're a turtle and you're trying to tuck your head down and in, because if you have your head sticking way out, it will catch a lot of wind. The standard rule of thumb is every second your up out of aero, is 3 seconds lost. Talk about free speed.

Stay relaxed

Another big key on the bike is to stay relaxed. Your core should be engaged and keeping your body stable, but everything that isn’t directly being used to move your legs should be relaxed, and not using any extra energy. You’d be surprised how much energy is wasted gripping the handlebars to tight, or holding your shoulders or face in a tense position. Relaxed is fast!

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