Perfecting Your Pedal Stroke

An Interview with Movement and Bike Fit Expert Jason Barcoff

As a cyclist and coach, I have grown a love and appreciation for the finer details in cycling including the pedal stroke. Having ridden with and/or coached riders from beginner to professional, I get excited when I see a cyclist with a beautiful pedal stroke. It looks so smooth and efficient that you start to question whether the rider has to exert any effort at all to turn the pedals over! On the flip-side, some pedal strokes look very inefficient if not downright painful. This begs the question, how does one perfect their pedal stroke?

While I have done my fair share of searching for answers on this subject, the science and consensus seem to continually change. So, I thought I would consult an expert in the space where perfecting your pedal stroke begins, bike fit.

Bike fitting is arguably a niche profession of biomechanical and movement experts who essentially help fit your bike to your body. The end result is a more comfortable, efficient and powerful version of yourself on the bike. From there, you are ready to tackle the more nuanced methods of perfecting your pedal stroke including lots of practice!

The expert bike fitter I consulted was Jason Barcoff. Jason is a member of the National Association of E.M.S. Educators, USSA Development Committees, and FMS. He is certified by the International Bike Fitting Institute and currently performs bike fits virtually at Team Wilpers and in person at Bespoke Bike and Ski. I asked Jason a series of questions on the subject and below are his answers. Enjoy!

Matt: What is the “perfect pedal stroke”? Is there such a thing or is this a moving target that we have to focus on getting close to the rest of our lives?

Jason: The perfect pedal technique is unique to each person and the ability to provide consistent, sustainable power is the goal. Using the imagery or concept of pedaling in circles is ok, but the reality is trying to pedal in a perfect circle is not sustainable and will likely reduce efficiency of movement. Even the pro’s do not have perfect pedal strokes and that’s okay. Instead, the focus should be on optimizing your individual economy of movement and economy of power.  

Matt: Why is a proper bike fit essential to developing a good pedal stroke?

 Jason: I often hear from my clients that they are unable to perform said task (relax the shoulders, engage my glutes, etc). Proper positioning on the bike, based on the individual’s mobility, is paramount for the body to provide force / power to the pedals.  Without a proper fitting tailored to the individual, one might never be able to work the specific muscle groups properly to achieve their goals. 

Matt: What are some mental cues cyclists (especially indoor riders) should think about when riding to improve their pedal stroke?

Jason: Classically, the reference of driving from the heel or scraping mud / gum from the bottom of the shoe are terms used often as imagery for a pedal stroke. These work well for some, but I have also found success in relating the pedal stroke to that of the front crawl swimming stroke:  we never pull or scoop water ‘up’ in the back portion of the stroke, but the arm still has to move back over the top.  

Matt: What are some drills riders can do to improve their pedal stroke?

Jason: ‘Spin-ups’ where you pedal 15-20 seconds as fast as you can in a lower gear every 5 min or so can be beneficial, (caveat being you need to have enough resistance, so you do not lose contact with the saddle and end up ‘bouncing’).

Single-leg drills allow for a slightly greater TUT time (time under tension) isolating and working key muscle groups. Cadence should be in the 100’s for 1 min intervals, alternating legs, for a total of 6 minutes (3 min. each leg). 

As you can see, it was a fun and informative interview with Jason. For more practice and tips on perfecting your pedal stroke, please check out my Low Impact classes at Peloton. Until then, have a great day and remember to train hard, train smart and always have fun!