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The Perfect Pedal Stroke in Road Cycling

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How to Achieve the Perfect Pedal Stroke

As a kid, you could have cared less about perfecting your pedal stroke because all you wanted to do was escape with your friends to ride and take a few chances your mom wouldn’t approve of.

Then, you grew up and found a passion for cycling compared to the feelings you had for your first love. 

In case you have been too busy worrying about your next biking event to consult an expert on the topic of pedal strokes, we can help with a little assistance from sports physiologists paid to figure out the best way to pedal so riders like you conserve energy, safeguard your extremities and add style and efficiency to your stroke.

Pay attention. We don’t offer this kind of help to just anybody, dude!

Are your body parts aligned?

This question has nothing to do with biological asymmetry, but it has a lot to do with how you function every time you press down on your bike pedal.

Hip-knee-ankle alignment is a much-discussed topic among cyclists because proper alignment can impact everything about your ride.

Todd Carver, a Colorado sports medicine bio-mechanist, says that the right alignment should emulate the way car pistons function: straight up and down. Master this to avoid knee wobbles, pain, and an assortment of injuries. 

Photo by Jeremias Radny on Unsplash

There’s another reason to worry about maintaining this alignment. Your leg position could turn out to be a sign that you need orthotics to improve your ride. Whatever you do, avoid injury-causing ankling techniques once thought to be beneficial.

According to RoadBikingReview contributor John Pembo, “Ankling” is one of those hard-to-kill cycling myths passed on from writer to writer. Elite cyclists don’t do it,” he insists. 

You’re entering the Peddling Zones

If you have ever watched vintage TV series like the Twilight Zone, you know that it’s possible to stay where you are while letting your mind go where it needs to go to get your ride on.

To accomplish the perfect pedal stroke, you must pass through 4 zones and become so clever at the process; you don’t even notice the movement from one zone to the next.

Zone 1: The Power Phase

This introductory part of a complete pedal stroke is accomplished by moving the foot from approximately 12 o’clock to about 5 o’clock on a clock face to deliver the most significant muscle activity to your pedal.

During this downstroke, your hamstrings will get a workout to extend your hip, so don’t believe people who insist that hamstrings only benefit from upstrokes. 

The secret to this initial move is dropping your heel as you move through the stroke. Envision that clock face. At 12 o’clock, point your toes down around 20-degrees, and as you complete the circle, methodically drop your heel, so it’s parallel to the ground.

If you don’t drop your heel enough, you’ll miss out on this zone’s benefit, and the large muscles at the back of the leg won’t be thoroughly engaged. 

Zone 2: The Transition Phase

If you’re the sort who can’t master a move without an analogy and the clock metaphor helped you understand zone 1, we invite you to take a second to contract your calf muscle while pointing your toe at that 20-degree angle. Pretend to scrape mud from the bottom of your shoes.

That’s zone 2. This analogy is well-known within the biking community because it’s easy to remember and originated with Greg LeMond, a guy who knows a thing or two about pedal strokes. 

You’ll use the same muscles to accomplish zone 2 as you did during the power phase, but you’ll exert less pressure because you’re transitioning to the backstroke that gives your bigger muscles a boost.

The 20-degree angle at which your toe is positioned may seem like a small effort, but it’s key to transitioning.

Zone 3: The Conservation Phase

We’ve given this zone the name because the momentum you gain as your leg is elevated means your muscular load isn’t high. Therefore, you conserve most of the stored power amassed during zones 1 and 2.

Cyclists familiar with the anatomy of a perfect pedal stroke say that they feel as though they’re pulling their feet through the back of the stroke, but in their heads, they know they’re not.

At this point in the stroke, you’re all about power conservation and allowing the pedal to do the heavy lifting by pushing your leg up. 

According to the aforementioned Carver, one of the best ways to come to terms with zone 3 is to go mountain biking because it is a “fun way to improve the efficiency of your upstroke.”

Don’t make the mistake of becoming preoccupied with downstrokes, or you could wind up on your butt. That’s one place you don’t want to land when you’re perfecting your pedal stroke on rugged mountain bike terrain.

Zone 4: The Stroke Completion Phase

So, you’ve been mindful of the positioning of your feet, applied the proper moves, and engaged the right muscles, but if you don’t finish with panache, what’s the point of perfection while undertaking the other three zones?

Your grand finale is initiating a downstroke, but don’t make a beginner’s mistake: If you wait until 3 o’clock on that pedal stroke clock, you may defeat the purpose of your effort. 

Instead, take the advice of pros and start zone 4 before 12 o’clock. As you move through the stroke, your efficiency will improve if you push your knee toward the bar while making sure your pelvis doesn’t budge. Allow your pelvis to sink down or move forward, and you could lose the momentum you’ve been trying so hard to achieve.

What does saddle position have to do with pedal power? 

Having tackled the four zones recommended to accomplish the perfect pedal stroke, you may wonder what your saddle has to do with anything, but in fact, the position you assume can mean the difference between a smooth pedal stroke and one that leaves something to be desired.

That leather-covered perch may be located far from your pedals, but when you ride, it is (excuse the pun) the seat of power. 

Pay no attention to ergonomic recommendations related to the correct seat position, and not only will you expend less power than you need to perfect your pedal stroke, but you put yourself in a position to sustain injuries, too.

Position yourself at too lofty a height, and your heels can’t contribute to your energy transfers, and if you sit too low, your knees may suffer. 

Even one degree makes a difference, says expert Tyler Cloward. He recommends getting professional help to achieve the proper adjustment of the saddle, rotation (“No two butts are alike,” he notes!), sit position, height and handlebar tilt that leads to the perfect pedal stroke.

Good advice from someone whose expertise can help you achieve perfection every time you put the pedal to the metal.

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About Alek Asaduryan

Alek Asaduryan is the founder of YesCycling and has been riding bikes and in the cycling industry since 1991. Since then, his mission is to make cycling more accessible to everyone. And each year, he continues to help more people to achieve that. When he's not out riding his beloved fitness bike, Alek reports on news, gear, guides, and all things cycling related.