What makes a pedal stroke smooth?

All pedal strokes are not created equal and some are much more effective than others. Pedalling smoothness is a key indicator of how effective a pedal stroke is. Let's learn a little more about this often overlooked art: the art of pedal smoothness. 

As a team of coaches we constantly question what makes Bradley Wiggins, Tony Martin, Sebastien Kienle et al. all look so graceful and effortless on a Time Trial bike; what is it that makes them look so smooth?

A pedal stroke that looks smooth will almost always be more effective.

One element of it is their ability to hold a stable and comfortable position, another element is their bike fit and some of it is down to specific training and conditioning. Today though I am going to focus on the impact that their pedalling has o.

In the same way that many athletes now understand that strokes per length in swimming is only a small part of a much bigger picture, Tri Training Harder are of the belief that teaching a cyclist to pedal in circles is a form of misinformation and when focussed on alone can be misleading.

Pedalling in circles and pedalling smoothness are not the same thing.

Many people will have seen pictures like the one below showing which muscles are being worked at different points of the pedal cycle. As our partners at Athlete Service discuss here the take home point from this is that during a pedalling action 0-180 degrees is where the work is done and 180-360 degrees is the recovery period. This means that the second half of the pedal stroke is viewed as only taking the pedal back to the drive phase again.

Photo from Athlete Service

The blog mentioned above gives a good explanation of an action that is already very well understood. However, having discussed this with other coaches and pro cyclists down the years, I have always been left thinking that there is something missing: it doesn't quite give the whole picture. 

Recently the penny dropped for me though and these things seemed much clearer. It was when I coupled the picture above with the word 'smooth'. You see the problem with looking at the picture above is that it is 2D. In other words we are only looking at one leg. Many of you may have noticed you use two legs to pedal a bicycle. What about if you were to take the picture above and using the same electrical muscle sensors were to analyse and overlay the firing and actions of both legs and more importantly how about if we were to add the question of timing into the equation.

Would you see an overlap of one leg driving and the other leg recovering, or would you see the opposite and actually witness a complete pause where no power is applied to the pedals at all. Is this where the secret lies for the uber cyclists mentioned above? Is it the timing of one leg driving and the other leg starting the next drive phase the key?

We all know that cyclist that stomps on the pedals in a jerky manner. Not only is this not a cycling style that is very easy on the eye but also the amount of wasted effort and energy is apparent instantly. The coaches eye in me wants to throw a substantial amount of money at this athlete and take them to the lab to have the electrical muscle sensors show them that there is actually an almighty gap between the drive phase of each leg. If we then compared this with an uber cyclist we would then see that there should be absolutely no gap and in fact there should actually be a certain degree of overlap where both pedals are subject to the force of a drive phase at the same time.

We have all been told to pedal smoothly by somebody at some point in our cycling careers, perhaps this article can enlighten you as to how and what pedalling smooth actually means.