The #1 Lie About Pedaling Technique

Pulling up on the pedals through the top of the pedal stroke is a very common technique taught to mountain bikers. They are told that by pulling up with the trail leg they can generate equal tension on the pedals through the entire pedal stroke. Driving down hard with the leg, a.k.a “mashing”, is discouraged and is said to decrease power and efficiency.

However, some recent studies have called that advice into question (Mornieux et al. Int J Sports Med 2008; 29:817-822 & Korff et al. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2007; 39:991-995). Two studies in particular have shown that top level cyclists are not actually applying force to the pedal when pulling the trail leg up and, in fact, the power is coming almost exclusively from the lead leg. However, this does not mean that you do not want to “pull up” with the trail leg.

When looking at a good pedal stroke I keep going back to what a good running stride looks like since both are just ways to power lower body locomotion. I call it Barefoot Pedaling, which is an attempt to restore and apply natural movement to the bike, not actually pedaling without shoes.

When running, you need to flex the thigh with the hip flexors to return the trail leg to the start position so it can drive down hard into the ground to propel you forward. This means that you are pulling up with the trail leg but you are not trying to apply force into the running stride. If you are lazy with this return portion of the running stride you will have a weak overall stride and you will have to work on it, however you never try to add to your forward momentum with the trail leg.

That’s where the difference lies on the bike as well and where the confusion over good advice stems from. There is a HUGE difference between pulling up with the hip flexors to get the trail leg back into position and purposefully applying force into the pedals in an attempt to “add to” to the pedal stroke’s power. Top cyclists are pulling through the top and spinning circles, they are just doing it through a much different mechanism than most riders arrive at when given the same advice.

You don’t want to relax the trail leg and let it create drag on the pedals, which interfere with power being generated by the lead leg. However, when you tell a rider that they want to apply force through the top of the pedal stroke they can accomplish it in a variety of ways that have nothing to do with maintaining a solid core and proper use of the hip flexors. The most common way is to pull up on the pedals by bringing the knees towards the chest using the abs, which will usually place a lot of strain on the lower back.

This is also why riders have trouble switching from clipless pedals to flat pedals, which is indicator of a bad pedal stroke. In fact, one of the studies mentioned earlier showed that top riders apply the same pedal stroke technique regardless of the type of pedal they were on (Mornieux et al. Int J Sports Med 2008; 29:817-822). You can still pull up with the hip flexor to get the trail leg over the top and in position with flat pedals but you can’t apply force into the pedals any more – flat pedals simply highlight which technique you are using.

If you find that your feet fly off the pedals when you try flats then you have developed some bad habits that are being exposed – concentrate on the lead leg drive and focus on pulling the top of your thigh up towards your belly button, not on pulling the pedals up with your feet.

I think that this explains why there is so much confusion when it comes to proper pedaling technique – top riders explain what they “feel”, but what they feel and what drives that feeling are two different things. By focusing on the symptoms of a good pedal stroke we’ve missed the boat on the true cause, which is a focus on the hips and not the feet/ pedals. This will help you restore natural movement to the bike and help you develop a pedal stroke that you can apply to any type of pedals and see better power and efficiency.

The #1 lie is that you want to pull the foot and pedal up – you instead need to focus on pulling the thigh up at the hip. This technique will help you develop a smooth, consistent pedal stroke to flats or clipless pedals.

-James Wilson-

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  1. WAKi says:

    I am amazed how many people are devoted to clip-ins. I started reading a lot about positive aspects of clipping in, because I don’t want to get biased, I like hearing both sides of the argument. I’m sure you know better than me, but there’s so much “scientific stuff” behind it that, how shoes are built to limit certain muscles in foot, how does that support certain biomechanic, about different pedalling trailers, toe tippers. This is such a vast mass of material, mostly written by shoe manufacturers, because you can tll by looking at some reviews in magazines that they were written almost straight from a brochure. UNfortunately it is written in a way that it reminds me of my visit to car shop. You get bombed with so much information about what has been improved that really, asking “how does that help me to get from one point to another” is not an option.

    I think it’s great that you fight for more understanding among people stuffed with hype. Change to flats changed my riding, I’ve never ridden in such balance, I uphill slowly and gently stuff I never thought I could, I ride skinnies, wooden bridges that seemed impossible two years ago. In rockgarden I no longer feel I’m fighting not to tip to one side or the other. My rides are longer than before (ok your program helped as well but still…)

    But unfortunately your “crusade” will always end up as most of good things in the world, in the shadow of the hype. People like to be cheated, people like cheating themselves. They will always use what racers use. And after a short romance with flats on Dh circuit, caused by Sam Hill, we’re back in clipless business. it does not change anything for amateurs in reality, but people will always think they will be faster by using clips even if it means non-qualitative riding. They don’t care if they mask some skills. They don’t care that they can’t even use the eventual advantage. Really many are fully aware of it tha clips can mean bad habits.

    However every converted person is worth it I think 😀 – so thanks!

    Reply • November 7 at 9:50 am
  2. John K. says:

    Cool, I have to admit I’ve never focused on actively bringing the trailing leg back forwards. I look forward to trying this next year.

    Reply • November 8 at 9:35 am
  3. Bruno says:

    So, to be clear, in your opinion the chapter about efficient pedalling in “mastering mountain bike skills” book is not actually true?

    Reply • November 8 at 1:27 pm
    • bikejames says:

      If it advises that you actually try to apply force through the pedal with your upstroke then yes, I would have to respectfully disagree.

      Reply • November 8 at 3:15 pm
  4. Phil says:

    I agree with WAKI, people do like hype. I used to ride clipless and basically used them to get me up technical climbs thinking I wouldn’t be able to do it without them. Once I made the switch I soon learned that I do the same things and more on the flats without the risk. I love the freedom of them. I just don’t ever have to even think about whether I can put my foot down or not. I didn’t have trouble unclipping when I rode clipless or anything like that, it’s just so much simpler. Plus I’m not walking around in those crazy shoes. I’m not a super pedaler or anything but I can ride anything on flats that my skills will allow me too and i don’t have to worry with clipping in or out. A good pedal stroke is key with or without. You are still pedaling smooth circles getting your power from pushing down not pulling up. When you learn to do this on flats your feet stay on the pedals and your stroke is smooth.

    Reply • November 8 at 6:53 pm
  5. Chris Q says:

    Yeah Bang on James! You are single handedly bringing this sport into the 21st century. Don’t stop any time soon.

    For anyone that cares, I’m faster racing XC on flats this season than I ever have been for the last 10 on clips. For the last couple of years I’ve been trying different shoes and pedals and shoe modifications to make the clips on my xc bike feel like the flats on my slalom bike, i.e. basically bring the cleats back on the shoe. Last summer I got a set up that felt nearly identical. So I stopped using the clips altogether. I found that riding the XC bike with a high seat (low by xc standards but high compared to a slalom bike) I was struggling to stay on the pedals in rough and steep sections but this was due to poor riding. I don’t care to argue if clips are faster than flats, but one fact is irrefutable – clips let you get away with poor technique. After a few days I started to get my posture and range of motion on the bike working properly again and now I can definitely say that flats are not slowing me down.

    When people ask me about my flats at XC rides and races I’ve been telling them that in five years time no one will ride clipped in! So there’s a challenge for you James.

    In light of Waki’s comments, there’s a couple of things I’d like to say. Mountain biking has grown enormously in the last five years. IMBA and official trails have made mountain biking accessible to a lot more people now. It used to be that you had to look for trails and be prepared to do a lot of exploring. Now you can easily rock up to a car park and get a nice flowing loop in that is sign posted with gradual climbs that won’t hurt you too much. The trails are nice and wide, worn in and bermed up and this makes it easy for people to get on a 29er and pedal with awful posture and have a good time. Not entirely sure that I have a point here, just an observation. Not that I’m complaining either, we are riding incredible bikes that are affordable, and it’s easy to find fun trails, it’s a good time to be a mountain biker. The other thing I wanted to mention and James you will have a better perspective on this, is that everywhere I look at the moment (maybe it’s just the places I’m looking) people are craving some hard style. Look at how popular Kettlebell training is and everywhere on the internet is primal this and paleo that. Is it just me or in these days of internet banking and pre cut meat are people looking for a connection to something authentic. Fight club anyone? If all these guys on the internet are teaching authentic movement and building strong bullet proof bodies, how long will it be until it is taught in Universities and schools and generally accepted as conventional wisdom? 5 years is probably a bit optimistic…

    Reply • November 9 at 2:42 am
    • bikejames says:

      Yeah, don’t get me started on my feelings about the “growth” of our sport lately. Dumbing down our sport so that roadies and weekend warriors with no skills can call themselves “mountain bikers” is a dangerous game to play. Industries exist to make money, not to protect the integrity of a sport and I think that mountain bike companies are all too happy to push this kinder, gentler version of mountain biking to the masses.

      Reply • November 10 at 11:08 am
  6. WAKi says:

    I must say that there are pretty many people riding on XC/trails on flats in my area (western Sweden). I think more and more. Some people I meet mention James website, I think his point is finding more and more ground. There’s a light in the tunnel. Though it’s just a David&Goliath fight, I mean if Sidi can afford paying for most of Eurosport’s coverage of Tour De France then well – clip-in people sit on some serious money, enough to generate hype. Hopefully more companies will do more flat pedal shoes. Teva, Vans, Wibram – seems promising. What I miss though is a lightweight flat pedal XC shoe. Something more “barefoot” than Low-Impact but still stiffer and bit more “professional” than their freerider. Pedals go in a good direction looking at specialized or point one. I think if flat pedal shoes would get a bit more of “pro” touch, more people would go for them. It’s too much difference now between “pro” XC race ballerinas and amateur “fun stuff” of 5.10.

    Reply • November 10 at 6:44 am
    • bikejames says:

      You see the same thing in fitness – big, bulky cardio equipment and machines are not needed or even the best way to train, yet what do you see in most gyms? Lots of machines and cardio equipment. Then you see who is sponsoring all industry trade shows and buying big ads in magazines – the people who make the machines and cardio equipment. Clipless pedals will always be popular because they offer instant gratification and have a lot of money behind them.

      Reply • November 10 at 11:03 am
  7. WAKi says:

    A thing is James, not many in the world are fortunate to have technical trails. I’m so happy that I ride in terrain where a 6″ AM bike is not much of an overkill, even though hills barely exceed 300ft.

    My hometown in Poland though lies in pretty mellow mountains up to 3000ft where “natural” singletracks almost don’t exist, just as there are simply no typical XC trails. 99% hiking trails are fireroads, the only “singletracky” trails are few little downhill trails built by riders. So you either have fireroad racing or downhill.

    In such situation it is very difficult not to justify going clipped-in on a 29er and training on a road bike for fitness.

    Reply • November 11 at 3:44 am
  8. Geoffrey says:

    As I rode in this morning, and thought more about the trail leg, the difference between riding and running is that you have no way to load the rear foot in running. That is, you can have a big downforce on the rear foot on a bike, which could slow you down. Then it struck me, similar to what you are saying: the front leg requires force, the rear leg requires speed. That is, you need to smoothly move the rear leg out of the way so that the front leg can deliver torque to the rear wheel.

    BTW, one limiting factor I had in terms of mobility was getting my rear leg over top dead space of the pedal stroke. That was something I had to work on for some time.

    Reply • November 11 at 12:06 pm
    • bikejames says:

      Great observations, I plan on doing more on this subject soon since lack of understanding about this is one of the reasons so many riders struggle with hip mobility.

      Reply • November 13 at 12:44 pm
  9. Matt says:

    Your assetions about efficiency vs mechanical effectiveness are incorrect, especially with regard to the Korff study…eg – an 86% increase in mechanical effectiveness using the ‘pull up’ technique vs a 9% decrease in efficiency….what was your argument again?

    Reply • August 10 at 10:38 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I guess I am confused – I said that there was an increase in mechanical efficiency but also a decrease in gross efficiency, which is what you are saying as well. What did I say that was wrong?

      Reply • August 13 at 10:17 am

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