Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Training - Working On Form

Apparently I left out a huge part of my whole trainer routine thing, namely how I work on pedal stroke (and resulting form) on the trainer.

I'll state a few "rules of the road", for lack of a better term, and go from there.

1. Rollers offer the best way to improve form.
2. Trainers offer the best way to improve strength.

Strength and form can be mutually exclusive. You can be strong and have horrible form. You can have excellent form and get beat by a 4 year old.

If you watch my helmet cam clips, you'll see a wide variety of "form". The riders that seem "normal" have good form. This is because most of us watch cycling on TV for some period of time, and that's when we can study other riders most intently. At least that's the case for me - if I'm groveling in the hurt pit trying to hang onto a wheel, I don't notice much about another rider's form. But when I'm watching a helmet cam clip or a race DVD while munching on dinner, weird form pops out right away.

Just like us, commentators may comment on poor form, simply because it's unusual at the top level. Phil Liggett mentioned something while watching one Casino rider in a Liege Bastogne Liege (1996?). The guy's name is Massi and he has his saddle so low that Phil commented that it looked like he was "pedaling with his knees".

Sean Kelly is famous for his low saddle height and crunched up top tube. It almost looks like he's riding a bike that's too small, but it worked for him.

Other poor form riders include Pedro Delgado (watch him bob and weave to the end of time trials and mountain top finish lines) and Tyler Hamilton (he moves his upper body a lot too, although his hips are relatively still).

Some will criticize Greg Lemond for using bigger and bigger gears - he climbed best when turning over enormous gears, looking like he'd almost fall over at the bottom of each pedal stroke. His redeeming quality was that he was otherwise smooth and had one of the more optimized positions on the bike. As another pro described it, he said something about "Greg is Greg" and went on to comment that he's a pro, he's aero, and even when not in shape he's incredibly strong.

However, when you watch amateur racers, especially from a helmet cam, and compare them to the pros, you'll see some things in the amateurs that you never see in the pros.

To work on your pedal stroke you need to have good form. And to have good form... you need to know what makes for good form.

What makes for good form?

Well, there are a few things.


First, power should come from the hips, the glutes and quads and associated muscles. I'm not a physiologist so I don't know the terms, but the pelvic area is the center of the rider. This needs to be stationary, anchored, solid. Even Tyler, with his bobbing and weaving head and shoulders, keeps his hips anchored solidly on the saddle. This is the key to efficient riding. I can't think of one pro that bounces in the saddle. My helmet cam clips are not so picky.


Second, cadence should be "reasonable". New or less experienced or slower learning riders tend to spin too much. Others push too big of a gear. As someone that grew up (in a cycling sense) following the big gear likes of Greg Lemond and Bernard Hinault, I tend to push gears rather than spin. Others will follow the faster cadence stylized by Lance.

What's too fast or slow?

Someone told me about some study where they found efficiency drops off dramatically over 105 rpm. This study was linked to a relatively famous-for-his-analysis rider and basically laid the foundation for his faster cadence style.

I do find that my perceived effort is much, much lower at a high cadence, especially when climbing. Of course I also tend to explode doing this since I think, "Hey, this feels great" not realizing that I'm holding an unholdable-for-me 450 watts at 100 rpm.

Too slow... that's debatable, but anything under about 75 rpm will get you some sideways glances. It's natural to let your cadence drop when climbing or when you blow up. I seem to go about 81-83 rpm when I blow up or climb, respectively. I don't know how I got to that number but it must be related to my physiology as well as my training.

So basically if you're pedaling at over 105 rpm (let's say 110 rpm) or under 75 rpm, you're probably doing something either wrong (i.e. unintentionally) or different (i.e. intentionally).

Upper Body

The final aspect of form has to do with upper body stability and... I can't think of the term, but it has to do with being able to absorb unexpected inputs without crashing.

In other words your upper body is relatively stable and is both relaxed and anchored enough that you can brush off relatively significant impacts with no need to brace yourself or change your position.

Now that you've decided you're like a tree in quicksand with rock-like rigid limbs about to snap off in the wind, how can you improve things before next year's races start?

Working on Form


The best way to work on keeping your hips stable is to... keep your hips stable. Now I have to confess something. When I first started riding I had the luxury of having more experienced riders tell me, flat out, what I was doing wrong. And believe me, I was doing a lot of stuff wrong.

One of the first things that someone noted was that I steered with my bars. That seems natural, that you steer with your handlebars, but you're on a bike, not in a car. And on a bike you steer more with your hips (by leaning) than you do with your bars (by turning). Sure you turn the bars a bit, but the motion is more a "push the bar" rather than "turn the bar".

So when a more experienced rider matter-of-factly told me that I was doing it wrong, I felt determined to fix it. Since there wasn't a manual on "how to steer with your hips" I made up my own manual. This is what I did.

First, I had rollers. You can do this on the road too, but rollers help isolate the exercise.

Second, I used smaller gears, easier gears, at that time a 42x17 or so (39x16).

Third, I basically clenched my whole upper body, from my pelvis to my neck, holding myself totally rigid. Movement? Forget it!

Then I pedaled, riding in a straight line, at whatever cadence I could hold (90-110 rpm). I'd try and move over a few inches by willing the bike to go that way, keeping my upper body totally rigid. I naturally put a tiny bit of input into the bars, but it was minimal.

Yeah, it was exhausting. My neck would almost seize, my arms got exhausted, heck, even my glutes were tired (from clenching them). But my upper body didn't move at all.

It was rock solid.

Now, mind you, this is NOT the way to ride in a group. I was always alone. If someone so much as tapped me on the shoulder I probably would have ricocheted off into the woods, I was that wound up.

But, after I got the initial rigidity down, I tried to relax my upper body. I let my neck tension go. I let my shoulders go. My arms. And, finally, even my hips.

After a couple exhausting weeks of rollers and outdoor sessions working on steering with my hips, I tried it in a group ride. I was in a paceline and consciously tried to avoid turning the bars. Instead I'd kind of push my saddle one way or another with my hips, at least that's the sensation I felt.

And you know what?

The guy never said another word about steering with my hips to me.


Part of a rider's repertoire is their pedal speed. Just like a flexible engine operates at a wide range of rpm, a good rider should be flexible enough to ride at a wide range of pedal cadence. High cadence isn't always ideal or possible, nor is a low or mid-range cadence. Therefore you need to work on all ranges, not just focusing on, say, spinning.


This is probably one of the best ways to work on pedal stroke. I used to play violin a lot. This involved some fast playing here and there, the fancy blurred-finger stuff that sounds so impressive. What I quickly learned is that you don't learn the piece by going blurred-finger fast over and over and over.


Instead, you start by playing the passage painfully slow, carefully getting the intonation right (because violins don't have frets, you have to be able to place your fingers accurately else it sounds horrible).

As you master the intonation (for us cyclists we'll associate intonation with "pedal stroke form"), you start playing faster ("increase cadence"). You practice small bits at a time; if it's a bunch of fast stuff in a row, you break it up and practice it in sections. For us cyclists that's like doing 1 minute efforts with perfect form for a given cadence.

You slowly pick up the tempo so you're going faster and faster. You may need to make an extreme pace change, a large jump up in tempo.

One of my workouts when I was still in high school was to do 20 minute intervals in a huge gear at low rpm. On my trainer that meant a 53x15 (my biggest gear at the time, due to Junior gear restrictions), about 60 rpm, for 20 minutes.

Believe you and me, this was a difficult workout. I think it still affects me because after doing them devotedly once a week for something like two or three winters, I have a hard time completing more than a few 20 minute intervals in a year.

The big gears force you to pedal hard through the whole pedal stroke, helping you smooth it out. The low cadence doesn't allow you to kind of "jerk" the pedal into place and then coast for a bit, like you'd do if you were lifting weights over your head. Instead, you need to focus on each part of the pedal stroke, pushing and pulling and lifting.

Initially you'll be able to focus on just one leg or one foot. I find it natural to focus on how to exert force on the pedal. I don't think much about what muscles to trigger, just that I want to "lift up" or "push forward" or "push down". It's not like "Okay, now do a hamstring curl... okay now to like a leg extension... and now a leg press."

Later, at least for me, I could focus on both sides at once. I had this idea of pulling up on one side of the cranks with one foot while pushing down on the other with the other.

Then I incorporated that pedal stroke into the other interval described in the detailed workout booklet that came with the RacerMateII - the 60 seconds at 120 rpm interval.

The interval consisted of, wait for it... 60 second intervals where you pedal 120 rpm. Who'd'a thunk? For me that meant a 42x16 or so, else I'd explode after two or three efforts.

Now I had to think about the pedal stroke, be smooth and anchored, but still flexy and willowly, all while cranking away at 120 rpm.

Ultimately it worked. My best sprints on the road are when I have the mental capacity to focus on my pedal stroke while assimilating all of the tactical permutations in the field around me with 300 meters to go. I focus on working both my feet together to get the bike tilted and the cranks turning. Tilted because I stand when I sprint, and it's important to rock the bike when you do that. Turning because that's the pedal stroke focus that I do when the riding gets difficult.

Higher cadence works too, but everyone works on that. Spin here, spin there, spin up the hills, shift down a gear, whatever. Before downloadable data existed I could only go by averages, so when I finally got a cyclocomputer that showed average cadence, I'd go out and try and do 120 rpm average for an hour. Initially I did this on my rest days because I figured it'd be "easy". After the first attempt or two I made the 120 rpm days my hard days.

It's hard.

Since the tendency is for everyone to overspin, I'd focus on working on the low rpm stuff. Then spin on all the easy days. Shift into an easier gear if you're getting a bit bogged down, and do it again. Spin. It's easy.

Upper Body

The folks that ride with me will chuckle on this one because of all the people to talk about stable upper bodies, I'm probably not the one to lecture on it. See, my upper body bobs a reasonable amount when I'm under pressure.

But I can tell you that it's, um, kind of tree-like. Sapling-like to be exact. Push and it gives a bit, without falling. Push hard and yes you'll move it. But it (almost) always springs back in place, ready for the next bump. Like a tree in the wind, my upper body moves around. But my hips are anchored firmly in place, just like the tree's trunk is rooted to the ground.

A rider needs to hold the bar firmly enough that a bump in the road doesn't let the bar escape the rider's grasp. At the same time the rider can't clench the bar with a death grip - that automatically causes the arm to become too rigid, which then makes the ride vulnerable to lateral impacts (i.e. a bump or a push).

This is a prime reason why you should never lock your elbows while riding the bike. A locked elbow cannot flex at all so it transmits all shock from the hand to the shoulder. Not only will potholes and such affect your line, so will lateral bumps. A locked elbow rider can't effectively absorb shock to the shoulder or elbow because there is no give there. If you ride with locked elbows frequently then you may have a fitness problem (typically with your core/torso) or a poorly fit bike.

Obviously the best way to practice this is to do it while riding the bike outside, preferably in a "softer" environment (grass field for example). But in Connecticut, in December, that's probably not possible.

If you feel adventurous, put your rollers next to a wall. Then pretend the wall is trying to push you aside. Push back at the wall; use your elbows a few times, your shoulders next, even your finger tips (extend them out like you're trying to wave "hi!").

Heck, try using your head, a la Robbie McEwen. Just remember that when your head tilts you'll oftentimes tilt the bike too. On rollers that spells "crash".

If it's boring, you're probably okay.

Hm. This turned into a form thing, not just a pedaling thing. But hopefully it'll help someone out there.


Anonymous said...

thanks CDR

- A.S.

Aki said...

No prob :)

Aki said...

AS - Forgot to add... PM me if you have questions.

xyxax said...

Really good stuff. I seem to be a slow-twitch guy (muscles and brain), and for the same speed up a hill spinning less in a higher gear is easier in terms of RPE than a "normal" cadence of 80-90 in a smaller gear. Did you work on an 80-90 cadence and slowly increase the gearing as you got trained to it? This may have been years ago for you.

Aki said...

Initially, like before I started racing (13 yrs old), I worked on doing 60 rpm, on my Schwinn Cotton Picker, a 56 lbs 5 speed banana seat bike with front suspension etc.

Then, when I got a road bike, I worked on 90 rpm (counting pedal stroke while keeping an eye on my watch - this at 13-14 yrs age). When I started using cyclocomputers, I started focusing on over-spinning so 90 would be okay; that's when I was doing 120 rpm rides (late teens; the Cateye with avg cadence was out). I jumped up in goal rpm from 95 or so to 120. This really overloaded my system but within a few rides I was okay with it. This at 20-21 or so.

I did some VO2 max tests as part of various friend/student's studies (25-27 yrs old), and for some reason, when power was held by the gizmo regardless of cadence, I was best at 111 rpm. I'd hold 111 rpm without knowing it until I exploded. After that I held 81-83 rpm.

Nowadays I find it hard to hold 120 rpm for more than 20 minutes, but in my excuse I run 175s now, not 170s or 167.5s, and I figure that's worth about 10-15 rpm.

xyxax said...

Hmm, maybe starting at age 50 instead of 13 is my real problem.
Isn't there a formula?
120 rpm - your age or something?

Thanks for your good posts.

Aki said...

There's something to be said about the whole Junior gear limit thing. I rode with a 53x15 for three years because that's what I was limited to using. Prior to that, without any outside influence, I decided to change my gearing to a high of 49x14. That happens to be basically the same as the 53x15. So it was really 4 years of 53x15.

Of course I bought a 13-something long before I became a Senior, and I would sometimes ride it on the group ride. I noticed the biggest difference on the downhills and in fast bits, but otherwise I had learned not to overgear too much (relative to the time - a 42x21 would be considered very high today for some of the climbs we did back then).

It would be interesting if there was a Cat 5 gear limit, to force riders to learn to pedal, and to sort of 'cap' the max speed of the really strong guys. This would be like restrictor plate racing in NASCAR - top speed limited at some level, therefore it helps level the playing field. A 53x14 or 15 would be a very interesting limit.