I've had the chance to watch some of the Giro in the last week or so. One thing that impresses me is how the pros can pedal so fluidly and make it seem so effortlessly.
I know it's not effortless and that's the point. Pedaling efficiently while putting down massive watts takes a lot of practice, a lot of good pedal strokes. When I learned to play various pieces on the violin, I have to focus on good habits/technique, practice things slowly at first, then faster and faster. Likewise on the bike I have to have a good, smooth pedal stroke, and then I need to bump it up in speed.
I'm nowhere near as fluid as a pro, even when I'm going relatively easy. I know there are two ways to work on pedal stroke.
1. Ride the rollers. A lot. And keep a high cadence while you're on them.
2. Spin a lot while riding outside.
Rollers really helped me with my pedal stroke. I used to try and average (average!) 120 rpm for an hour on rollers. It's quite hard because as soon as I dropped down to 110 rpm or something my average would drop and I'd have to go really fast for a while to bring the average back up. If any of you have average speed on your car computer you know what I mean - to average 50-55 mph means you're constantly driving 65+ mph on the highway because as soon as you hit the secondary roads your average speed plummets.
Likewise, if you allow your cadence to drop just a bit it will take a lot of work to bring the average back up.
Rollers are difficult for me. I can't stand well, even with the motion rollers I made (maybe my well ingrained habits are working against me there), so my crotch area goes numb in about 30 minutes. Standing is okay, it resets the numb clock, but then my average cadence drops. Doing 120 rpm for an hour is hard, hard work, but after a couple rides like that I'm pretty smooth again.
The other way of working on smooth pedal stroke is to ride outside in lower gears. In the old days everyone said that you had to do 1000 miles in the 42x18 on flat roads. If you were serious about the season then you were supposed to do 2000 miles, or maybe even 3000 miles.
Although a current coach may laugh at this concept there was some validity to the idea. If you were gear limited to a 42x18 (a 39x17 nowadays), on a flat road, it meant that you were limited by your max cadence, not your strength. You automatically worked on pedal form, on spinning, on being smooth.
Once you "graduated" from the 42x18 then you could start using bigger gears.
This concept still applies on the track. Racers will start off on an easier gear, like an 84" gear, and slowly work their way up to an 86", 88", and maybe even a 90" gear. It teaches pedal fluidity, speed, and gives you great snap.
The only problem with the "1000 miles in a 42x18" was that you spent a lot of time riding 1000 miles in a low gear. Although you worked on your pedal stroke, you didn't gain a lot of strength.
Greg Lemond was one of the first riders to go against this idea, at least in public. He advocated working on power, with the understanding that the rider had already honed their pedal stroke. This meant that after 5 or 10 years of doing the "1000 miles in a 42x18" and after the following 5 to 10 seasons of racing, a racer really didn't need to work on pedal form that much. A little bit of work would do just fine.
He advocated rolling bigger gears in the winter and doing a sprint day every week (adjusting training levels by increasing or decreasing the number of sprints). This seemed sacrilegious to the Euro pros, but then again they also avoided Coke, didn't believe in non-cycling activities (including staying away from sex for weeks before big races), and "fit" meant dropping the saddle and slamming your cleats all the way back on the shoes.
So why am I writing about cadence?
Because normally I work on my pedal form after a break on the bike by riding rollers. This usually happens in the dead of winter, after I get sick or something. By late January I start working on power, doing longer rides, and, from 2004 to 2011, going to SoCal to do multi week training camps (typically heading into the mountains for power work).
This year it didn't happen. With Junior on the way I curtailed my training. Instead we were prepping the house for his arrival, and I decided not to go chasing form for the racing season since I had no idea what to expect from this 2012 season.
I took a huge short cut and basically started racing on virtually untrained legs. It went reasonably well I guess, but even 29 years of base didn't really help my pedaling form.
Combine this with the absolutely incredible fluidity of the pros and I decided that, okay, I had to get my pedaling form back in gear before I did anything else.
My post on motorpacing kind of alluded to this. I wanted to get that pro power fluid pedal stroke right away, and motorpacing is a great way of doing that. It assumes that you have the resources to motorpace (i.e. a moto and a driver). Since I don't I figured I'd do my rollers thing.
One minor problem - I don't want to ride rollers right now. I don't know why but I just don't feel like it.
Therefore I had to take my training outside, on the road. I tried to raise my cadence on my own, keeping an eye on the SRM. I found that I kept dropping down into more a comfortable cadence (a sure sign that my pedal form is bad).
I started focusing on the Sportsiiiis that I have. I set my target cadence to 92-100 rpm. Although my training averages don't reflect it well (due to the coasting down hills and pauses at stop signs and such), I've been really good about keeping my cadence in the low-mid 90s. I regularly find myself in the 105-110 rpm range, one that on shorter 170mm cranks I would consider "normal", but on the 175mm cranks I've been using for a while I'd consider that cadence high.
For the last few training rides I've been diligently charging all my gadgets, the SRM, the Sportsiiiis, the helmet cam. I've gone out and focused on spinning, spending the majority of my ride in the small ring (okay, it's a 44T, but I'm using the lower gears in the back).
I've been working on a fluid pedal stroke. I try and spin up rises (no real hills), even if it means I'm in my bottom gear. I've been avoiding pushing big gears to gain speed, instead relying on spinning up.
I think about my 39T Rent race, where I ended up unable to use my big ring. Despite this handicap I won the sprint from our little group at the end.
I think about the pros, spinning their gears up monster climbs and in 30 mph time trials.
I think of a saying that the boys told each other back in the day: "Spin to win."
I spin my time away on my bike, trying to weave the tapestry of form that will let me race respectably this year.
If the weather holds, I'll be racing at the Rent tomorrow. When I line up all this stuff becomes secondary. If I race well, great. If not, well, then I have to figure out the best way to improve the fastest.
We'll see what happens.