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Although pedaling a bicycle seems easy, doing it with maximum efficiency requires some practice.

Improve your cycling with a better pedal stroke

Whether you're riding at a leisurely pace around your neighborhood, covering the dirt trails in the foothills or racing on the pavement, the efficiency of your pedal stroke can make a world of difference in how easily your bicycle moves forward and upward.

The bicycle is moved forward by a transfer of power from the pedal to the cranks to the chain to the chain rings, and finally to the wheels. Professional mountain bikers and road racers spend hours honing their pedal stroke to maximize the power gained with each turnover of the pedal.

I have read numerous technical articles on how to properly maximize the energy from each pedal stroke. Some studies divide the pedal stroke into more than eight different foot positions. For each foot position, they discuss the biomechanics, calculate the physics of energy developed and identify the leg muscles that generate the power.

I'm going to cut through all that technical stuff and get to the bare essentials of how to develop an efficient pedal stroke to increase power and enjoyment on your bicycle. Wearing cleats on your cycling shoes, so you can clip into the pedals, will significantly improve the pedal stroke.

The first prerequisite for a smooth pedal stroke is a proper bicycle fit. Most bicycle shops will do a basic bike fit for free when you purchase a new bicycle. If you already have a bicycle, they will usually adjust the seat and handlebars for a minimal fee.

Proper saddle height is the most important. Make sure that your hips are not rocking when you pedal. Have someone ride behind you and watch your posterior. If your hips are rocking back and forth, your seat is either too high or too low.

The fundamental pedal stroke is best described starting from the top of the stroke as your foot moves in a circular motion. The force of the pedal motion should be in a direction that is 90 degrees to the crank arm position.

As your foot comes over the top of the stroke, drop your heel and push the pedal forward, towards the front of your bicycle. This motion activates the large muscle groups in the back of your leg and creates the power stroke.

Following the frontal push, initiate a motion of scraping mud off the bottom of the shoe with the toes moving toward a pointed downward position. Pull upward through the bottom of the pedal stroke, activating the calf muscles. This will assist in keeping a constant force throughout the entire pedaling circle and help move the pedal up over the top of the stroke.

As you enter the second half of the upstroke, start thinking about the down stroke. This helps to initiate it earlier. As your pedal motion begins to come across the top, visualize pushing the knee forward. But only the knee, as the rest of the body should remain stable on the seat. As the knee moves forward, the hamstrings and glutes engage and the hip extends.

The average cyclist probably doesn't think much about the pedal motion. It just seems a natural procedure to turn the cranks over. However, it takes hours and hours of mental focus and spinning to achieve a good powerful pedal stroke.

Spinning, moving the cranks in an easy gear at a moderately rapid pace, is the best way to practice "ankling" through the power circle. At first you have to focus mentally on the mechanics of achieving the optimum motion. After lots of practice, it comes naturally.

There are numerous exercises to help one create powerful pedal strokes. These should be done in a flat area free of traffic so you can concentrate on pedaling and not have to worry about traffic. Focus on keeping your legs relaxed and creating a smooth transition between the upward and downward movements.

Single-leg pedaling focuses on favoring one leg at a time. Pull through the bottom, unweight the pedal as it's coming up and push your foot up over the top. Be sure to give each leg equal time. Try doing three to five revolutions with one leg before switching to the other leg. Single-leg pedaling forces you to rotate your feet in full circles.

You will notice how much work it is to pull through the bottom of the pedal stroke and lift the pedal back up and over the top. Try and eliminate the "dead spots" at the bottom and top of the pedaling circle, and keep the pedaling motion as even and smooth as possible. This will seem difficult at first, but you should begin to see some improvement after a few weeks.

Optimize the pedal stroke and you will go farther and faster with less effort.

Bicycling enthusiast Bob Korfhage of Phoenix is a former president of Siskiyou Velo bicycle club.

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