Whoever said doing the locomotion was easier than learning your ABCs—I'm lookin' at you, Little Eva—wasn't talking about biking. Pedaling healthily and efficiently requires at least A, B and C: (a) getting a frame that fits you and setting your saddle to the right position, (b) picking among several pedal options, and (c) working on your pedaling form.
Having a well-fitted bike and a well-positioned saddle are inextricable from pedaling well. That's because when you ride a bicycle that's too big or small for you, or the saddle is too high or low, you're not using the largest, strongest muscles in your legs—the quadriceps and hamstrings—to turn the pedals, says Dr. Tim Joslin, an assistant professor of family medicine at Oregon Health & Science University with a particular interest in sports medicine.
"Those muscles aren't getting lengthened and contracted at the optimal distance," he explains. "You might be using more of your torso, when you should be using your hips and your buttocks."
Joslin—a bike commuter and competitive cyclocross racer—says poor frame fit or saddle position can result in knee or lower-back pain, sometimes necessitating physical therapy. But it doesn't have to be that way. Finding a bike in your size is as easy as asking for help from your friendly local bike seller—like Ashley Mitchell, a worker-owner at co-op Citybikes.
The basic rule of thumb for frame fit, Mitchell says, is when you stand over a bike's frame with your feet flat on the ground, there should be an inch of clearance between your crotch and the top tube, and when you sit in the saddle with your hands on the handlebars, your arms and torso should form a 90-degree angle. Finally, with respect to saddle position, Mitchell says when you're in the seat with your foot at the bottom of the pedaling cycle, your leg should be fully extended but your knees shouldn't be locked.
"Get the bike where, after you test-ride it a couple times, there's no, 'I like this bike, but this doesn't feel right,'" Mitchell says. "You can make adjustments...but if you still have some things that don't feel quite right, it's not the right bike for you."
Once you've got the right bike, you need the right pedal setup. The most efficient, says OHSU's Joslin, is clipless pedals—the kind riders lock their feet into using special cycling shoes. They provide the most efficient transfer of energy between rider and bike, he says, because they let riders put energy into the pedals at nearly every point in the pedaling cycle (rather than only on the downward stroke, as with regular platform pedals).
Mitchell advises people wanting to go clipless to first find good cycling shoes, which start at around $75, and then buy pedals that are compatible with them, since not all shoes and pedals are a good match.
"It's very important that you have a shoe that's comfortable and fits well, because you're putting such specific weight on your foot when you're riding clipless," she says. "[If] you get these $85 pedals and then you don't like any of the shoes that come with them, thatâs kind of a bummer.â
The typical "starter" clipless pedals are a type called SPDs (Shimano Pedaling Dynamics) (See No. 1 in diagram). They're inexpensive, ranging from $50 on up, and let riders either tightly lock in their feet or "float" a little. Mitchell recommends clipless pedals where the locking mechanism is integrated into a platform pedal, allowing riders to use the pedals with or without special shoes. At approximately $50 to $80, she says, "they're more expensive, but they're awesome."
For new bike commuters, Mitchell advises starting with an option besides clipless, as being locked into pedals takes getting used to and needing to wear cycling shoes can be inconvenient.
âIt seems a little bit extreme to do that while your whole body is adjusting to cycling,â she says.
The next best thing is a cage or a strap; both facilitate energy transfer on the upward stroke of the pedaling cycle, no locking in or special shoes necessary. Plastic cages (See No. 2) are cheap ($5 to $10) but don't hold your feet very tightly (though you can supplement the hold with fabric "toe straps"). Metal cages (which run $12 to $25 and usually come with toe straps) grip your feet more firmly, but they scrape along the ground when not in use. Power grips (See No. 3)—straps worn across your feet diagonally—offer a firm hold sans scraping, but are pricier (approximately $30). The final option is both the costliest and the coolest: a large, BMX-style platform pedal with a special, wide strap (See No. 4). The strap alone costs perhaps $45 and BMX pedals run between $15 and $50, but, Mitchell says, the combo is "kind of the up and coming thing right now."
The last component you'll need? Good form.
"Getting on a bike, staying upright and propelling oneself forward is just the beginning," says Russell Cree, founder of local cyclist/triathlete training center Upper Echelon Fitness. "Being efficient will greatly enhance your cycling experience.â
Bikers with good, efficient form, Cree says, use their legs evenly, apply pressure to the pedals throughout the pedaling cycle using fluid ankle motion, and adjust their pedaling rhythm, which cycling geeks call "cadence," to the riding surface.
Cree tells bikers seeking to improve their form to begin by simply being more aware of their pedal stroke.
"Make a conscious connection to your motion," he says. "Can you pedal without rocking your hips, keeping your back stable? Are you ankles fluid through the pedal stroke, or do they stay rigid?"
Riding at a low rhythm, try delivering power to the pedals throughout their revolution, he suggests. Your chain should be taut and your drivetrain should sound constant. Next, try upping your cadence—but stop before you start bouncing or rocking.
Pedaling efficiently conserves energy and prevents injuries, but it does take work, Cree says. "Making two independent circles with each leg is harder than you think," he says.