Mountain bike pedaling technique
We all know how to hop on a bike and pedal but if we look more specifically at pedaling technique we can really learn how to maximise our cycling efficiency over a long day in the hills.
As kids we all bombed around the place on our choppers or BMXs, pumping down hard on the pedals with each stroke. Look around at some cyclists now and not much has changed! Emphasising the downward push or “mashing” the pedals is very energy consuming and over works the quadriceps muscles. Pedaling in irregular jerky “squares” means that there are dead spots at the 6 o’clock and 12 o’clock positions where muscular effort is not being transmitted to the forward movement of the bike. What a waste!! On endurance events like the MTB Marathons, this sort of pedaling will soon lead to fatigue.
Compare this with the smooth pedaling action of Lance Armstrong on long gradual hill climbs in the Tour. Roadies have mastered the art of cycling efficiency. Pedaling in circles involves exerting an even force all the way round the pedal stroke. It utilises both the hamstrings as well as the quadriceps – so suddenly you’ve got a whole lot more muscle to help you cycle! This smooth continuous flow of energy from the leg muscles to the pedals will allow you to pedal for longer and puts much less strain on the knees. It also helps when hill climbing as you are driving the wheels into the floor all the time and maintaining traction on a loose surface.
So how do you pedal perfect circles?
Pedal through the 6 o’clock position as though pulling your foot back to scrape mud off the bottom of your shoe. Begin the pulling-scraping motion at 3 o’clock. To get through the 12 o’clock dead spot, pedal as though kicking a heavy door shut with your foot. Start the pressure at 10 o’clock and keep pushing to 3 o’clock. Using SPD type pedals rather than toe clips will help you with this technique a lot, although you should still be able to try it whatever pedal design you use.
We used to be told about “pulling up” and “pushing down”. Although this older pedaling technique does utilise both the hamstrings and the quadriceps, it also accentuates the dead spots at 6 o’clock and 12 o’clock as you change between pulling and pushing and should be avoided.
Pedaling in circles does take practice and you will always resort to your old style if you don’t make a conscious effort to change. A turbo trainer may be useful to try out your new technique and it also allows you to do one-legged cycling drills so that you can concentrate on eliminating the dead spots on each leg in turn. When first trying it out on your bike, head for a smooth track on the flat or with a minimal incline and concentrate on the action of one leg at a time (keep the other foot on the pedal though!) As you get the feel for things, try to maintain the action on slightly steeper hills and rougher terrain. Each time you hit the trails, spend a few minutes thinking about your technique so that eventually it becomes automatic.
Cadence is the other component to pedaling technique. It is the speed of your pedaling; a high cadence uses a high number of revolutions per minute. Similarly, a low cadence uses higher gears that are spun slowly.
Road bikers often “spin”, maintaining a cadence above 90rpm for long distances, but for mountain biking this is much lower due to the terrain - a slightly lower cadence offers more stability on rough, technical trails.. Your cadence will vary according to the trail conditions and there may be some hills where you don’t exceed 30rpm. As a general rule, you should try to pedal the highest cadence that doesn’t require you to sacrifice your smooth pedaling action. Don’t pump a big gear on hills and revert to “mashing” the pedals and don’t select such a small gear that your legs are running away with themselves and you’re wobbling all over the place.
So although the laws of physics determine the circular motion of the pedals, the way our muscles generate that movement and the speed that we pedal at can be altered to increase efficiency, improve stability on hill climbing, reduce fatigue and minimise joint pain.
Generally mountain bikers use a lower cadence than road bikers. Although a high cadence is more efficient, with practice, trail riders can learn to keep there stability at a higher cadence, increasing efficiency and endurance durastically. Bicycle manufacturers know all about cadence, that's why mountain bike's come with lower gears; for the steep uphills.
Experienced riders pedal with a cadence between 80 and 100rpm depending on the terrain. 95rpm is the target cadence, as it is the most efficient.
If you are on a high-speed descent on a bumpy trail you may notice that it is hard to keep up your high 95rpm cadence. It is much easier to get smooth, effective pedaling if you use a lower cadence, especially if you can't stay on the seat and have to pedal standing up. Just as a novice has a hard time being smooth at 100rpm, the disruption of a brain-joggling trail descent can make an experienced rider retreat to slower pedaling for the sake of getting a smooth, controllable ride.
Cadence is very important for making it up those big uphills. Using a proper cadence will mean you will make it to the top of that hill instead of burning out half way. See Mountain Bike Climbing for more about climbing.
It is important to remember to shift before you get to an obstacle or hill. Sometimes, high quality shifters will let you get away with poor shifting technique, but if you are on anything less than XT make sure you are ready ahead of time.