Here is some advice we dispensed at Wheelsmith in Palo Alto, back in the day. Much of its content is courtesy of Brett Hansen whose coaching insights and good humor were a big part of that era:
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Pedaling smoothly requires finesse, not strength. Strength is the power by which you go fast, but going really fast takes strength coupled with pedal action finesse. Pedal action finesse must be learned. The idea is to apply an even pressure while pedaling smooth circles. To do this you need to go beyond the basic instinct of simply pushing down by doing specific exercises to improve efficiency. To begin training yourself towards smoother pedal action, you need to keep in mind:
(1) Saddle position
Get advice, but usually about 0.885 of total barefoot inseam is the correct distance from saddle surface to the center of the crank spindle. Saddle set back governs the perpendicular distance from behind the knee cap and directly through the pedal spindle with your crank aimed forward and your heel slightly raised. The ball of your foot should be over the pedal spindle unless you’re riding a recumbent bike.
(2) Shoe fit
Your shoes need to be snug, yet comfortable. Custom foot beds or orthotics will enhance the comfort and efficiency of this connection by supporting the natural arch of your foot in a neutral position.
(3) Pedal stroke
The ideal pedal stroke constantly changes the direction of force applied to the pedals, keeping it perpendicular to the crank arms as they rotate through the pedaling circle. This provides maximum power distribution and a higher wattage production, thus more speed. Pedal rotation finds a dead spot at the 12 o’clock position (viewed from the right side). Pedal action must carry the foot through. A little forward pressure at eleven o’clock helps to bring the pedal through the dead power area and inserts more mean wattage into the total output. Two, three and four o’clock are the power phase, easy to exert force and apply the weight of the legs or body. Start pulling back at four o’clock, continuing through until seven o’clock, with the same motion as scraping mud off the bottom of your shoe. At eight, nine and ten o’clock you are pulling up on the pedal while concentrating on pushing your knee forward. A forceful pull is ideal but can be uneven. Taking weight off the pedal as it rises is a big improvement. Then start pushing through the upper dead spot again.
You can develop the necessary muscle coordination to spin smoothly by practicing pedaling at 90-120 revolutions per minute. Consistently training this area of your cycling creates neuromuscular memory which is necessary for a productively powerful pedal action. Fast cadence allows you to save muscle strength while your legs and feet have the momentum to carry the pedals through the top of the pedal rotation.
Some riders are light and can spin the gears uphill or stand up on the pedals for long periods of time. But most riders stay seated on longer climbs which produces the most efficient power output. Positioned back on the saddle with hips stationary you should concentrate on applying even, constant pressure to the pedals. A light grip of the bars will help the upper body stay relaxed and save energy that can be applied to fully powered pedal action. A wide grip on the bars with your chest up and open aids breathing. You can stand up on the pedals for brief periods when the road is steeper or you want to accelerate. This is also good for relaxing the tension in your hips and below, which is caused by the constant intense exertion of long climbs.
Keep your legs spinning to stay warm and to hasten removal of muscle waste products.
(7) Big gears
They are the opposite of spinning but similar to climbing. Slower motion requires constant pressure on the pedals with no movement from the hips up. This also makes it is easier to change the direction of the force. Push the pedals through the power phase, drop your heel as you go through the bottom of the rotation, pulling back on the pedals while rolling through the dead spot. Lift your heel as you pull up while pushing your knee forward as you push through the top dead spot.
(8) Improving your action
- Spinning small gears downhill develops finesse and supple muscles. Beyond a certain cadence you have to concentrate on just pulling up on the pedals.
- Pedaling with one leg in and one leg out of the pedals (especially on a stationary trainer) helps teach you to apply pressure all the way around the circle, down, back and up. It also helps with ankle position.
- Climb uphill while riding no-hands. This exercise requires a smooth, constant grade. With your hands behind your back and your upper body tilted forwards at 35-40° ride in a reasonably large gear. This teaches you to use only your legs for forward propulsion and also requires constant pressure throughout the rotation of the pedal action.
- Fixed gears give no rest from pedaling so you are forced to pedal in constant circles. It’s best to use flat to slightly undulating roads. This requires you to push a little uphill and spin a little more downhill. It also increases your power band so you become more efficient in a wider range of rpm’s.
- Riding rollers will help you to pedal more smoothly because it takes concentration to stay upright during more intense efforts. After you become comfortable, increase the resistance of the rollers and up your intensity slowly until you reach time trial effort. Use the rollers without load for recovery, relaxing the muscles, helping them to transport lactic acid out of the legs.
Smooth spinning action requires practice. Pushing down is the easy part. You must work on smooth, continuous effort. Choose appropriate gearing and cadence for the terrain and try to maintain an intense, fluid motion at the threshold of becoming erratic. You’ll soon be the envy of fellow riders.