My husband, a cycling enthusiast, changed my experience of riding a bicycle forever. Previously, the extent of my experience on a bicycle consisted of coasting 200 yards of rough pavement back and forth between my dad’s house and my aunt’s, and zig-zagging 400 yards down the dirt road to the beach near my mom’s house. Through my husband’s retelling of the grueling details of leading teen cycling trips from London to Rome and across the United States, he taught me about the techniques of cycling. We discussed the biomechanics of cycling–from the height of the seat, to the angle of the leg on the downstroke, and to cycling as a personal character builder.
Shocked at my own excitement and anticipation while watching my first Tour de France, our conversations about cycling as a team sport came into play as I eagerly anticipated the Peleton gobbling its victims and leaving those who bonked behind. Intrigued by the effort and teamwork of a professional cycling team, I loved learning the roles of the team members in a professional race, the techniques of riding, and then attempting to apply them to myself.
As a new cycling enthusiast I found myself puzzled over the question:
How do riders stay on a bike that long?
I pondered the possibilities of the answers in LMA terms and from the perspective of a dancer. As my experience as a cyclist has improved and grown, I have translated what I consider “bike talk” and found connections to be able to apply the principles needed as a movement educator “Laban talk”. Here are my translations or, rather, my explanations through another lens.
My first successful ride (meaning that I finished the ride) was the TD Five Boro Bike Tour through New York City. It was a beautiful 42 mile ride through the boroughs of New York City on the coldest, rainiest day one May. I rode on pure euphoria for the first 20 miles or so, and quickly realized that I needed a lot more strategy than excitement.
I began to consider how I could finish the ride without wearing myself out. Besides taking rest breaks to relax my focus and muscles and snacking to make sure I had enough calories, I began to frame this question in accordance to Laban’s theme of Exertion and Recuperation. As a beginner, I found that I needed to find moments of recuperation while riding. I found three strategies: draft when possible, find and maintain an even cadence, and pedal efficiently.
1. Draft When Possible
On a long ride or race, draft when possible. It’s common for riders to take turns riding in the slip stream of another rider. While the front rider exerts his or her energy, carrying or leading the riding partner, the rider in the slip stream rests, conserving energy. In a competitive race, this allows the sprinters, the strong climbers, or the lead rider a rest before they exert their big move. The rider in the slipstream can save 20-30% of their energy and recuperate. This creates trust and camaraderie among the riders, and allows longer endurance rides for everyone.
2. Find and Maintain an Even Cadence
Find and maintain an even cadence. Cadence, the rate of rotation in the pedaling, is one way to find overall recuperation on a long ride. By finding an even and steady pace, this will allow efficient use of energy and strength. Through shifting, a rider can maintain an even cadence over many changes in the ride; the terrain can shift quickly from flat stretches to rolling hills to large climbs. The rule of thumb is to find a gear speed that allows you to pedal with a comfortable ease with balanced resistance–not too easy, but not too much force.
When shifting from gear to gear, it’s important to shift gears without losing the tempo of the cadence, so the timing of the shift according to the terrain becomes crucial. If you downshift or upshift too quickly it will cause you to have to alter the cadence dramatically which affects the exertion and muscle force you will need to get back to the steady cadence. Depending on the ride and terrain, each rider will find a cadence that feels right for them. I prefer a higher cadence with a lower resistance, and my husband prefers a lower cadence with higher resistance.
3. Pedal Efficiently: Yield-Push/Reach-Pull
Another way to think about Exertion and Recuperation is to make deliberate choices about pedaling. I began to pedal using a Yield-Push/Reach-Pull strategy that aligns with the strategy of most professional cyclists for finding an efficient pedal cycle. It’s typical of most beginning cyclists and riders (myself included) to emphasize the push by slamming the foot down on the pedal and over engaging the quadriceps. What can make the pedal cycle more efficient is to effectively yield into the push near or at the top of the cycle, push, reach at or near the bottom of the cycle to the extent of the reach of the leg, and then pull, engaging the hamstrings to finish the cycle and return to the yield.
You can see by the diagram above that the yield of one rotation of the pedal begins between 11-1 on the clock of the circumference. This is the point when the ankle is flexed and begins to extend. The push cycle, also known as the power zone, moves between 1-5, and the ankle reaches full extension through this phase. The Reach phase, between 5-6 on the rotation, reaches the maximum extension of the ankle. The last stage, the pull, moves from 6-11 on the rotation. The ankle is pulled into flexion by the flexion of the calf muscles.
A few things to consider are the length of the ride, the natural change of incline in the ride and how the foot attaches to the pedals. If you’re like me, as a young kid and only riding the length of a driveway, it might not be a long enough ride to really explore this connection. If you want to try this, take a lengthy cruise. If you’re forging up a steep incline and need to stand and crank, again, probably not the ideal conditions, but eventually this type of pedaling can be used on uphill climbs. This efficiency of pedaling is probably the easiest if your foot is attached somehow to the pedal. A clip shoe is the easiest. In it, the riding shoe clips and twists into a specific pedal. The next easiest are a foot strap or toe cage. The riding shoe goes through the strap, but be careful that the strap is not pulled too tightly. A toe cage primarily holds the toes and ball of the foot on the pedal with a small cage-like structure. With practice, pedaling more efficiently will lead to pedaling with more power and quickness when needed.
Exertion/Recuperation: The Big Picture
The most rewarding part of riding a bicycle has been riding for a cause. After my first ride in New York City, I rode in Pennsylvania for the Livestrong Challenge, Philly 2010. This was my first solo ride. Raising over $500 dollars, I rode the 45 mile course in memory of my friends and family who have battled and lost to cancer, and in honor of my friends currently battling cancer. I like the idea of extending Laban’s theme of exertion and recuperation in such a way that frames what riding for a cause means to me. I am exerting to raise funds for cancer research and exerting physically on the bicycle for those coping with cancer. It gives this type of ride an over-arching purpose and gives me, the rider, a meaningful experience. Having this higher purpose makes me work harder. I like the idea that my exertion in these efforts (the riding and fund raising) will bring much needed recuperation to those with cancer. Movement has meaning!