In the first installment of this two-part series on How to Pedal a Bike, you learned the basics of my philosophy of how to pedal a bike.
Humans are meant to push down so we need to understand how to optimize that motion for cycling.
We’re going to break down how to pedal in different conditions:
- We will look at the demands of the event that will help us decipher what disciplines have what requirements for the type of pedaling you must do.
- Then, I will break cyclists down into pedaling phenotypes. When we talk about cycling phenotypes (sprinter, time trialist, etc.) in terms of pedaling, understand that it is a spectrum.
I hope these thoughts lead to insight in your own training and spur you to think more critically about how you ride.
Welcome to the Cycling in Alignment podcast, an examination of cycling as a practice and dialogue about the integration of sport and right relationship to your life.
Colby Pearce 00:26
Hello there space monkeys, you’re in for a treat today! This is How to Pedal a Bike 102.
Preemptive comments: “deep core” and face clock
Colby Pearce 00:31
Just a few brief comments before we start; after editing this episode, which is a dense one, I’m not gonna lie, I’ve got a few comments to make. These are pre-emptive corrections. One, I refer repeatedly to something called the “deep core”. Well, that’s what I call it, but it might be better termed the “inner core”. And I define that, when you get to the right point, you’ll know what I’m talking about, but I just wanted to let you know my terminology was perhaps a little juxtaposed there.
Colby Pearce 01:00
Which brings me to my second correction, which is when I’m describing our face clock, as a reminder, the face clock is what I overlay on top of the crank set from the right side in order to draw references so that we are using a common language when I’m discussing pedal stroke, and specifically crank position and foot technique. I actually use the word juxtapose when I should have said superimpose. What I mean is I should have superimposed a clock face over the crankset. And I use the word juxtapose, so I juxtaposed my words. Confused? Good. Let’s move on.
Colby Pearce 01:14
So again, without any further prognostication, I will let you venture forth into the adventures of my mind movies, and hopefully get something wonderful out of our one sided discourse. Thanks for listening.
Colby Pearce 02:01
Greetings and salutations listeners. We are back, well, we’re back meaning Jana and I, but we really means me because I’m the one who’s talking and Jana just gets to listen to me talk. And Chris isn’t here today even though we’re talking about how to pedal a bike -again. You thought that after two hours of me talking about how to pedal a bike, there’s no possible way I could say more. And yet, here you are, you’re surprised, your jaw hits the floor because I’ve got so much more to say. I mean, pedaling a bike is, on the one hand, quite simple and on the other hand, it’s quite nuanced and quite complex. And only I, the person who has been doing it for 35 years, can ramble on about it this much. What do I have to say that might be interesting, that might encapsulate some sort of new brilliant concept you’ve never thought of before? Make your mind parts explode? Let’s find out. Or maybe you’ll turn it off or fall asleep. Either way, onward.
A refresher on How to Pedal a Bike Part One
Colby Pearce 03:04
So a really brief refresher on How to Pedal a Bike 101. Did we actually call it 101? I don’t know, I think we just called it How to Pedal a Bike. And then now this is 102.
Colby Pearce 03:17
So, we’re just going to pretend retroactively that we’re smart enough to call the first one 101 because it was your intro course, your two hour intro course. And this is, it’s not really that much more advanced – well it is, but it really just breaks down the topic further. Because what I did in 101 was give you the basics on how to pedal a bike, my essential philosophy, and why. And I talked about how humans are meant to push down and how we can optimize that. And the really, really simple Cliff Notes, as a reminder, is I would like you to focus on pedaling, when the crank comes around to vertical at 12 o’clock. Remember, when we look at the right side, crank arm, we are juxtaposing [superimposing] a clock over that crank set. So 12 o’clock is when the crank is vertical, three o’clock is when the crank is horizontal, six o’clock would be when the crank is vertical pointing down. Let me rewind: at three o’clock is when the crank is pointing forward towards the front axle and nine o’clock would be when the crank is horizontal pointing towards the rear axle. So that’s a reference point. When I use those landmarks, hopefully, you’ll understand what I’m talking about.
Colby Pearce 04:27
And in 101, what I described is that what I would like you to focus on, and most riders will benefit from, focusing on making downforce, or really forward and downforce, starting when the crank is vertical at 12 o’clock. 12, 1, and 2, that’s the place to focus on pushing forward and down through that first part of the power phase of the pedal stroke and the power phase is from 12 all the way down to six.
Colby Pearce 04:56
We don’t need to focus on anything past about two o’clock, or really three o’clock, or four o’clock or five o’clock because those are hardwired into all humans and all vertebrates – because verdtebrates pushddown to resist the force of gravity, or to go forward or both – so that part will take care of itself.
Colby Pearce 05:17
And then at the bottom of the stroke, at bottom dead center at 5:30, or at absolute center at six o’clock, we are pulling back, not up, but back.
Colby Pearce 05:28
So, my whole philosophy on how to pedal a bike is push forward at 12 o’clock, pull back at 5:30 and don’t pull up at nine. That’s pretty much it.
Colby Pearce 05:41
Why did you listen to two hours for me to just say that?
Colby Pearce 05:46
Oh, because you’re discerning, and you wanted to know the why, that’s why.
The demands of an event and how it relates to pedaling a bike
Colby Pearce 05:51
Onward into peddling 102. So 101 is a very 50,000 foot overview of how to pedal, now we’re going to break down how you might pedal in different conditions. And we can do that in a couple different ways. On the one hand, we can look at the demands of the event, and simply put, I’m going to break cycling into disciplines. And the purpose of that is to help us decipher what disciplines have what requirements for the type of pedaling you must do. And then on the other side, I will break cyclists down into phenotypes, pedaling phenotypes.
Colby Pearce 06:27
In case you don’t know what a phenotype is. It’s a term that’s been popularized by Andy Coggan, Dr. Andy Coggan when he started talking about rider phenotypes. And for those of you who are familiar with training peaks and WQO software, you’ll know that a phenotype describes what type of rider you are: are you a sprinter? Are you a time trialist, or an all rounder? And the data can sort of suss this out to a degree based on your watts per kilo. Although without CDA, it’s really quite incomplete in my opinion. This is because physiologically, you might make very good steady state power, but that doesn’t mean you’re good time trialist because the demands of the event for time trialing are watts per gram of drag and without knowing your CDA, you can’t really tell someone’s a good time trialist. You can tell physiologically if they have that tendency, but they might be a disaster in any time trial where air resistance is the primary battle and most time trials, unless it’s a hillclimb time trial, that is the case.
The athlete spectrum: elastic to rigid/aerodynamic
Colby Pearce 07:22
So, when we talk about cycling phenotypes in terms of pedaling, what are we talking about? We’ve got a spectrum. And where does an athlete fall on that spectrum? That’s what we’ll learn. One end of the spectrum, we could call the elastic athlete. And on the other side of the spectrum, we’ll call the athlete the rigid/aerodynamic athlete. These are two extreme ends of a spectrum of how to pedal. And what I’ll do is break those down. But before I get into the spectrum of phenotypes for pedaling, we’ll talk about the demands of the events.
Where different cycling events fall on the spectrum
Colby Pearce 07:59
So, I’ll assume that most of my audience will think of pedaling in terms of road racing. That’s a classic default mode network on how we kind of tend to think about things, define things, we think of the Tour de France as the essence of cycling, unless you’re a cross country mountain biker, even then there’s a good argument that a three weeks stage race is sort of the end all be all.
Colby Pearce 08:22
So what do road races demand of us? Well, road racing is a good example to start with because road racing requires many different types of pedaling or different ways to drive the bike through the pedals. We have long climbs, we’ve got short climbs, we’ve got steep climbs, we’ve got shallow climbs, we have flat roads, we have downhills, we have windy sections of course. We also have changes in terrain and direction, which require acceleration and then when you’re in a peloton that also requires accelerations or changing pace. Anytime you’re in a peloton, you’ve got micro surges to move forward in the group, to accelerate out of a turn – because of the elastic nature of the peloton, it goes through a turn and maybe narrows down because the corner is narrow, and people have to adjust their line and then they have to accelerate to keep up etc., or the accordion effect, right? This gets exacerbated in events like criteriums, or circuit races with more corners and a higher average speed. But this happens in plenty of road races also, look at the European classics and you’ll see lots of accelerations in a file from a race like that. Very stochastic data.
Colby Pearce 09:34
So when we have lots of accelerations in the race, that will put us towards the elastic end of our spectrum. When we have a long climb that puts us more towards the rigid/aerodynamic end of the spectrum. And so what I’m saying is a road race falls in the middle of that spectrum in terms of demands. Most road races have some demand for different types of pedaling at different moments. And the hillier the road race, or the more undulating terrain the road race is, the more we’ll have the mid range of that spectrum, but at moments of the race, you may have to touch either end of that spectrum. So as I break down the spectrum, this all become more clear.
Cyclocross and mountain bike cross country
Colby Pearce 10:21
On the elastic end of the spectrum, in terms of events, we also have cyclocross, or mountain bike cross country. These are events that are, require more even more changes in acceleration and also more torque based efforts. And I’ll explain why that puts us on the elastic end.
Time trials and track events
Colby Pearce 10:41
On the other side of the spectrum, we have time trials and track events. And, you’ve already guessed by the way the name is laid out: rigid/aerodynamic, that that end of the spectrum requires or points is more towards the end of the domain of events, such as time trials, where we want a rider to be more areo- focused and a little more rigid, specifically in the upper body. So that’s kind of our big picture layout.
Qualities of the elastic rider
Colby Pearce 11:12
And I’ll reference those events as I describe the spectrum, which I’m going to do now, ready, set, go.
Characteristics of elastic pedaling
Colby Pearce 11:19
So we’ll start in the elastic end; the elastic end of the spectrum can be described as, the characteristics of pedaling are described as springy, or boingy – I like to use really scientific adjectives, so springy boiny are right up there. Meaning when someone is a springy pedaling style, they derive their strength from almost an elastic component of movement. So a really simple way to just demonstrate this is to think about – do a thought experiment, jump out of your chair and do this – don’t do this if you’re in your car, it may not work out so well – crouch down on the ground as low as you can, and then jump up and touch a point on the wall or the ceiling that’s as high as possible. You can jump x distance. Now stand rigidly in place, with your knees just barely bent, and jump up and try to hit the same point. Without crouching down, you’re not going to hit the same height, you’re not gonna be able to achieve the same vertical height. Why? Because there was no elastic load placed on that tissue. So as soon as we crouch down to jump, and we just pause for the slightest microsecond, and then we explode up, what we’re doing is we’re loading the elastic tissue, the muscles and the fascia, with a bit of tension. And we’re using that tension like a rebound, like a spring, to help enable our movement. And you can do this type of elastic movement in anything, you can use this during cycling, you can use this during running. So when we’re on the elastic end of our rider phenotype and our spectrum discussion, there are athletes who naturally sort of gravitate towards and understand and use this type of movement. And we can do this during cycling. And it is definitely desirable during pedaling at certain times.
Colby Pearce 13:22
When we have this boiny quality to the moment, this springy quality, we’re going to see more movement of the shoulders, a little more head bobbing, we’re going to use the weight of the torso, it’s going to kind of rock from side to side over the bars and specifically, the shoulder will come forward and it will move laterally relative to the top tube, bend forward relative to the bars, to sort of go over vertically over the leg that is forward the knee, that is forward the foot on that side. So when we do this, there’s a very rhythmic almost snake like quality to the movement, think about someone climbing in the saddle, on a steep grade, we’re talking 8-10 percent, you’ll see this shoulder motion, head motion, bobbing, right? And alternately, there’ll be tension and relaxation in the arms. And when this is coordinated, it can make a very efficient athlete. It’s a rhythmic, controlled attention.
Colby Pearce 14:26
And this type of elastic movement on the bike is contingent on the engagement of a sling system. Really what I mean is sling network. What does that mean? That’s the global facial tension throughout the body. And that tension is your spring that you’re using, just like when you crouch down and load up the spring system, the tension of the knees, the tension in the hips, the tension in the feet, to use triple extension to explode up and jump and touch that wall really high. You’re kind of relying on that spring tension throughout the pedal stroke during efforts, in this example, in a seated effort on a steep climb. This has distinct advantages for how to go fast.
Muscles involved in elastic pedaling
Colby Pearce 15:16
Some of the muscles that can be involved in this type of pedaling include the lats, the latissimus dorsi, which are big fan shaped muscles that run down the back that connect kind of the shoulder drip girdle down along the spine. And so when you pull on the bar, specifically, if my right foot is at 12 o’clock, and I’m pushing forward at 12, 1, and 2, I’m counter opposing that force by pulling back on the bar when my hand is in the hoods or in the drops, or it can be on the tops, also, to be any three of those locations, you’re going to pull back to counter oppose that force. So when we have a balanced counter opposition of forces, using the upper body and core properly, it doesn’t mean we won’t see any motion in the shoulders or the head or the spine, or the rotation of the ribcage, we do want and will see some of that movement. but really, those forces are fundamentally pretty balanced, then the bike will go pretty straight. Might have a little tiny bit of sideways movement, a little bit of the wheel sneaking back and forth across the road. but primarily, those movements should be relatively balanced I would say. There are few exceptions to this, and I’ll talk about those.
Colby Pearce 16:36
And I’ll give you some examples of riders who use these techniques, and will point you in the direction of some videos you can look at and some resources you can see to visualize this because I know many people are visual learners, and they like to see this stuff. So if you’re at your computer, you want to follow along, you can you can pull the trigger on some of this, as we discuss. Check out our show notes for video options, video resources.
Colby Pearce 17:01
Other muscles, besides the lats, include the deep core [inner core]. So we have our core, we have our muscle beach core, right? That’s our rectus abdominus. That’s the six pack or eight pack muscle, that’s the one in front that people typically train when they’re doing crunches, that’s the I’m-flexin’-on-the-beach-check-me-out kind of thing. The deep core is the core that really stabilizes the hips and braces the spine under load. And this is a discussion I have with my riders a lot in the fit studio, if you are constantly conditioning the lower extremity muscles, namely the glutes, hip flexors, quads, hamstrings, and calves, and you’re not really making them stronger on the bike per se, not in a strength perspective, you’re really making them more durable most of the time is how I would describe it, but you’re making them incredibly durable by working them over and over again repetitiously in the sagittal plane, well, the stronger or the more durable those muscles sets get, the more they’re going to challenge the core to maintain stability of the spine and the pelvis and the relationship between the pelvis and the spine. And the shoulder girdle.
Colby Pearce 18:25
So what I’m saying is, if you keep training that lower body musculature to become more durable, but you don’t correspondingly train the core, there becomes a delta, or differential between the durability of one set of muscles and the other. And anytime we have too much of a differential in our major control centers of our body you’re inviting problems. So this is a common theme I see when I have people come into work with me for fitting. There are really two issues: one is that the area of the deep core either isn’t switched on, it’s not intervated at all or that it’s just – I won’t say weak, I don’t really like it when we describe cores being weak, maybe your cores weak, maybe it’s not. Relative to what? Well, the only relevance is, okay, we have to train the athlete to meet the demands of their sport. And if the demands of your sport to have really, really strong legs, strong lower extremities, and you train that all the time exclusively, but you you do that at the peril or ignore the core, then the delta between the two becomes too much and then you can’t control the motion in the torso. So the legs are too strong relative to the torso, and that’s what causes the problem. So we have to make an effort to condition those two areas of the body, at least in some synchronicity. It may not be that your core is weak, per se, it’s just not as well conditioned as the lower extremities, the legs and hips.
Colby Pearce 20:05
There are two kind of control centers, we’ll call them, of the body. There’s the pelvis, or the lumbo pelvic complex, and the shoulder, shoulder girdle. And both of these areas are connected by the core and all of those have to be functional, we have to have a global facial tension between those two control centers, including the core, in order for you to pedal elastically effectively.
Colby Pearce 20:31
What does that mean? It means that when you make a lot of force at the pedals, there has to be some coordination of that effort that moves all the way up the chain all the way to the shoulders. And some of you may be thinking, “Well, why do I have to use my shoulders that much to pedal a bike? Pedaling is about legs. Legs are what hurt when I ride hard.” Yes, that’s true. And if your legs are always your rate limiting factor, think about it for a moment, that suggests that you’re not actually transferring the tension of the force of pedaling over a broad enough muscular system. Either out or your bike fits way off. Or your technique sucks. We’ll say your technique may benefit from some optimization.
Colby Pearce 21:14
So think about pedaling, especially under high torque demands, meaning pushing really hard, as a way – the proper technique is to spread the load over a greater fascicle volume. Or as Pablo Tsatsouline would say, “Strength is a skill.” Meaning when you go to pick up a really heavy kettlebell, you don’t necessarily have to have these giant biceps and pectoral muscles to do this. If you use the elastic system of the body, and you know how to distribute the force, many times you can get that weight off the ground quite effectively. Brute strength isn’t always the way. This is the essence of how elastic pedaling works. It’s distributing a load over a long period of time and sort of dispersing it over the tissues of the body in the right way so that nothing in particular becomes loaded up; the lower back doesn’t get loaded up and become sore, the quads don’t become a rate limiting factor, your calves don’t become a rate limiting factor. If any of these things are happening that’s giving you a clue that something’s not quite optimal either in your technique or your fit.
The “deep core”
Colby Pearce 22:25
So, to continue with qualities of the elastic rider. The deep core includes, I was defining the core before I went in that little journey in the grass there, thanks for falling along. The deep core can be thought about like a box inside the center of your abdomen. And it’s composed of fundamentally four things, we’ll say – somewhat simplistically, but this will illustrate the concept effectively. On the bottom side of the box, we have the pelvic floor. The front side of the box is made of the TBA or the transverse abdominus. The transverse abdominus is as a muscle that the fibers run horizontally from your belly button out to the sides of your waist. It’s like if you went to high school prom and you rented a tux, you got a cummerbund. That’s what your TBA is, it’s your cummerbund. So when it contracts, it pulls the belly button towards the spine. And it is like a corset. It’s like your natural weight belt that stabilizes the viscera, or your guts. And it also helps stabilize the spine. The top side of this box is made up of the diaphragm, which is the most important muscle for breathing and also makes up this ceiling of the deep core. The backside of the deep core is made up of the multifidus, which are too long muscles that run up and down the spine, it’s kind of the workhorse of the spine. Multifidus is used in a lot of different things. So if you have poor innervation of any of these muscle groups, or if you’ve been injured, or if you’re a woman and you’ve given birth, and you haven’t done work to work on your pelvic floor, regaining functionality and strength, there’s some probably low hanging fruit. These are some of the muscles that can be engaged in this system, not all of them. I don’t need to give an exhaustive list to illustrate the point.
Colby Pearce 24:42
Another issue is that since the diaphragm is part of the deep core, and it’s also the primary muscle used in breathing, the diaphragm has to be able to move without restriction. We can’t have a lot of visceral restriction or diaphragmatic inhibition in order for you to have a strong and stable core. And a stable deep core is what’s essential for this elastic movement. So this is a stone that can easily be unturned by you all, if you want to go dig into it, we’ll put some resources in the show notes. I’ve spoken a bit about this on other episodes, but some good go twos are: there’s a seven day Soma breathwork class that I can put into the show notes, that’s a free resource. Another one is you can check out The Oxygen Advantage, which is a really good gateway drug book into the world of breath work. So The Oxygen Advantage, which is a book by Patrick G McKeown, that’s a really good intro into the world of breath work as well. So if you haven’t investigated this, as an endurance athlete, I feel it’s a stone that every serious endurance athlete ought to take a look at. And maybe you go through Patrick’s book, and you do a lot of his tests on your breathing ability, and you find that you’re already checked all those boxes. And that’s great, it was still worth doing, and worth educating yourself about, in my opinion. I would expect that most riders who go down this path will find that they’ve got some ground that they can gain, particularly in the area of co2 tolerance. Because going hard in a bike race, ultimately, we’re always flaunting that edge of co2 tolerance. That’s a very real boundary for us. And the more comfortable you get at that, and the more training you do there regularly, the more comfortable you’ll be at that boundary and the more effective, you’ll be able to execute technique and tactics at race pace. When you’re really really uncomfortable, because you’re basically feel like you’re gasping for air the whole time and if you’re not trained well to handle that load, then you’ll be completely preoccupied with that task, and that leaves are less resources to do things like think about what gear you should be in or whether or not you’ve eaten enough or what’s happening in the race or when you’re going to hopefully recover or chase back on and then make your next move, etc.
Colby Pearce 27:10
When we describe this elastic movement, I’ll make a note that excessive torso motion can become counterproductive to forward movement. We want, as I said, a rhythmic, controlled tension. When the right foot comes forward at 12, 1, 2, the right shoulder will come forward and trace the movement. But if it’s excessive, meaning if the shoulders flopping or snapping forward really quickly, or diving excessively, that is more of an indication of perhaps a lack of control in the core. If the ribcage is moving excessively, if the hips and pelvis particularly are swimming all over the bike wildly, that tells us that there’s a big delta between what the lower legs are doing and what the torso is capable of sustaining. And there’s a lack of tension there. And while we may be thinking of an elastic athlete as someone who is flexible, that’s not necessarily the case. We don’t mean that we need some excessive range of motion in the hips, or excessive range of motion in the spine to be able to perform these activities, remember cycling is about repeatability. It’s not about one flash in the pan, it’s not about 1500 watts, although that’s all what we’d like to think of is a neat number, or even 400 watts for five minutes, or 500 watts for five minutes, depending on what level you’re racing at. Those are neat, but really cycling is about durability. It’s about, okay, if I can send you out the door and give you a 20 minute warm up and have you ride five minutes flat out and you get x number, 250 watts, we’ll just say, after three or four hours of riding, what’s your rate of fatigue? What’s your rate of decay? And I think a lot of people tend to think metabolically in terms of this like “Well, okay, I can only make 310 watts after four hours of hard riding, so I just need more five minute intervals, I need more kjs and I need to work on my fatmax and I need to improve my vo2and all the things…
Colby Pearce 29:16
But if mechanically you are falling apart if your core is fatiguing to the point where your legs are no longer producing effective force into the pedals at hour four, then you may not need any more training in terms of vo2 or fatmax or sparing of glycogen or other techniques that are metabolically oriented. Your problem could be mechanical in nature. It could be that your durability is based on fatigue of the nervous system and the muscular system not based on glycogen depletion or based on ability to deliver more vo2. So there are multiple ways to think about this problem. And I’ll just say that any software, this is one big problem with a model, any software is not going to pick up on this limitation. And these are the types of gains that good coaches can see an athlete might be missing, because they’re not doing enough gym work or foundation work or core strength of the proper type. And they’ve intuit that this is how they’re going to make these gains. And it’s also hard for an athlete to see these types of gains be made and have the payoff be direct, because what we tend to do is look and say, well, what’s my best five minute power? Well, it’s still 350 watts, maybe your best five minute power is 350 watts, no matter what you do for the next 10 years. But how repeatable is that? How durable are you? How many minutes can you sustain? Or how many times can you recover and come back to that same power? How many total minutes in a five hour road race can you do a 350 watts, time in zone? These are the types of gains that you can see when you do this type of training, this type of core conditioning to match the durability training you’re doing in your lower extremities. It’s quantifiable by software but you have to dig a little deeper, you have to look discerningly. You can’t just look at five minute maximums all the time. Dig deeper people. Thank you.
What is fascia?
Colby Pearce 31:13
Back once again to the description of the elastic athlete. Elastic riders, riders who tend to be on this elastic side of the spectrum, will tend to stand up a lot out of the saddle. Because when you’re standing, you’re sort of naturally engaging that facial system and remember fascia….
Colby Pearce 31:35
Let’s take a moment to define fascia not extensively, but just conceptually. Fascia is like when you go to the store, and you pick up a bag of new potatoes, and they’ve got that little black, sort of meshy bag that they come in. It’s like a ventilated bag. That’s fascia. That fascia surrounds every muscle in your body. If you stood up and all the fascia was teleported to another universe, your muscles would hang off of your bones, like bags, they would sink down like water balloons. When you put a water balloon in that mesh net, it gives it structure, it holds it. Now the muscle will have structure when you flex it, because then the fibers are firing and that gives the muscle form. But when the muscles completely relaxed without a facial sheath around it, it would just flop to the end, it would be pulled down by gravity and flop to the end of range of motion of the tissue and be like a water balloon would be saggy and floppy. And for the record, that’s actually what we want muscles to be like when they are at rest, we want them to go to zero. If there’s always some tension in your muscle, that’s a hypertonic muscle which is simultaneously weak and also fatigued. So, fascia runs around every muscle. It also divides compartments of muscle, it also runs between the organs. It’s highly innervated and it communicates electrically with the nervous system. So fascia is sort of an unknown to some system of the body that plays a huge role outcome in our role as athletes. And when we train fascia, when we when we train with the facial system in mind, we can accomplish certain things. When we ignore it or when we try to zip code it sometimes it could come to our detriment. And a good example of that is overstretching or yoga used in an excessive capacity we’ll say or next to an excessive degree, you can actually disconnect the fascia or cause facial rifts and problems with it. So too much facia can disconnect one area of the body from the other and ruin that tension that we want, that elastic tension, that rubber band tension that we have and want to be able to distribute stress among that network.
Colby Pearce 34:05
Fascia runs tip to toe, literally balls to bones, soup to nuts, it goes from the top of your head all the way to the the little toe in one continuous line. Those fibers are all connected and communicating. So even though when you stretch, you may be feeling tension in the fascia of a particular area, your elbow, the back of your knee, and conceptually we might feel that acute discomfort, What we’re getting is global tension across the fascia and you’re just registering it at the point of highest tension. It’s like a weak link in the chain. But it’s still all connected.
When is elastic pedaling used in events?
Colby Pearce 34:47
So the elastic phenotype of pedaling will be used more in cyclocross, on steeper climbs especially, but really, there’s probably a breaking point for most riders where they will change or adapt from the more rigid style of pedaling to a more elastic style of pedaling. And that’s probably around 6,7,8 percent gradient for most riders. That’s assuming that they are adaptable, and they can move back and forth on this spectrum. And to be clear, just like we always want the most durable athlete in terms of strength, we want the most durable athlete in terms of weather conditions, we want the most durable athlete in terms of capacity to manage their own blood sugar, so they’re not limited by substrate failings… We also want an athlete who can transition from one side of the spectrum to the other. We want an athlete ideally, to be able to craft and utilize effective power on the rigid or aerodynamic side of things and on the elastic side of the spectrum of the pedaling phenotype.
Colby Pearce 35:54
If you are limited to one side of the spectrum or the other, then you are limiting yourself to the types of events that you can perform at your best at. Simply put, because most events require some of each. Not all, there are events that are exclusively on one side or the other, and I’ll define those, just so we’re clear. Since we’re on elastic right now we’ll talk about that.
Colby Pearce 36:20
An elastic event, an event that would require exclusively elastic pedaling would be a mountain bike hill climb on steep, loose terrain that had no discents and no flats. That’d be a good example of an event that required only elastic pedaling. The rigid or aerodynamic pedaling will not do any good.
Colby Pearce 36:41
And I know I haven’t defined rigid or anaemic yet, but just while we’re on this topic to give you the contrast, the rigid/aerodynamic side the example would be in hour record, Except for the first lap, 100% of that event falls into the rigid slash aerodynamic category of event demands. So as we go through that definition, you’ll see why. It’s probably already intuitive if you’re followinging to this point.
Examples of elastic pedaling
Colby Pearce 37:07
So here’s our case study for the elastic pedaling phenotype. Our poster child is Alberto Contador the amazing Spanish cyclist. I’m sure you know his name. Contador is the essence of an elastic rider, so much so that he has trouble going to the other end of the spectrum. What makes Alberto an elastic rider? You can see when he’s riding – and, again, we’ll put some videos of this, specifically I’ll put a couple links in the show notes of videos I’ve watched of Alberto that I think exhibit this characteristic, or these characteristics clearly, so you can kind of get the idea of what I’m talking about. When it Contador rides, his elbows kind of bounce a little bit, either in or out of the saddle, more so out. When he climbs out of the saddle, his front wheel actually makes a snaking movement across the pavement. He doesn’t ride in a straight line. His bike kind of weaves back and forth up the hill. He has a snake like rhythmic movement of his torso when he’s in the saddle and out of the saddle and he’s got a fair amount of head bobbing going on. So you can clearly see that Alberto is relying on distributing the stress of pedaling throughout the system of his body.
Colby Pearce 38:27
And what is it that leads Alberto to pedal this way? Probably a couple things. One is that he has a really high VO2. And there’s probably a bit of an imbalance between his ability to process O2 and CO2 and metabolically handle the load of cycling and his muscular strength. So by becoming more elastic, he is relying on that VO2. Why? Because if he tries to hold his body really rigid and only pedal using quads and glutes, eventually those muscles are going to get fatigued and fail him. So I don’t know if he’s conscious of this or not, I haven’t interviewed Alberto, but I would guess he’s probably not. Most world level athletes aren’t conscious of how they do things per se. Maybe they are if they start to dig into it, maybe if they’re total knobs like me, they figure it out. But I’d be willing to bet Adam Hanson’s thought about a lot of this stuff. The guy a critical thinker, he made his own shoes. Alberto, I don’t know.
Colby Pearce 39:23
Point being is: elite athletes solve the equation for themselves. How do they do that? It’s really simple. It’s kind of like they do because they must. In order to go faster, they figure out how to go faster. At some point early in his career, Albert figured out that if he just did what his body felt was natural, he would go up the climb faster than whoever his childhood rival was. His brother or whoever he was riding against regularly. And that worked for him and then he just went with it and went with it and it worked for the most part. When things are functional and in balance and if you’re doing the right to offset how those systems get stronger and stronger through their relentless level of training of cycling, if you compensate for those imbalances, then you can have long term success. If you ignore those imbalances and they grow too big, eventually you have problems, chronic problems, things like back pain and IT band pain or knee pain, etc.
Colby Pearce 40:21
So, Alberto is our poster child for elastic riding. You can also see there’s a famous Time Trial video of him racing against one of the selects in the Tour for the win and Alberto loses and he’s scooting all over the saddle. Now, even the commentators notice this on this day, this is a very common problem in time trialing riders, especially riders who favor elastic style riding will have trouble with time trials at times because they want to move and use that elastic system to distribute force. But the discipline of time trialing, when it’s idealised, requires that you do much less of that. You can get away with it, but especially in flat TTs, we want, the demands of the event require, that your head is motionless, your shoulders are motionless. And your shoulders are pinned. And that gives you less of a base of support to distribute the facial load. The wider your base of support is, the easier the exercise is.
Colby Pearce 41:21
What do I mean by that? Do a push up with your hands together so your thumbs are touching. Do 10 push ups. Now put your hands two feet apart. Do 10 push ups, which one’s harder? Unless you’ve got frozen shoulder syndrome or bike rider shoulders that are really bad. When you put your shoulders wider, it makes the base of support wider which regresses the exercise. So when we narrow the base of support, we progress the exercise. What am I saying? When we pin the elbows together in time trial position, we make the exercise more challenging. We’ll unpack that a little bit more in the rigid aerodynamics section.
Colby Pearce 42:00
So this is an area where Contador is a little bit challenged. And classic climber style riders who are dependent on VO2 as their mechanism to go fast can be challenged to make power in the time trial bike because that archetype is more towards the rigid aerodynamic side of the spectrum.
Colby Pearce 42:21
How much is too much? Well, an elastic rider can start to swing and sway too much on the bike. And I would argue that at some moments, Contador is borderline on the edge, because there are videos where you see his bike sneaking across the road. Now, there’s always that balance and where the line falls would probably require some really serious analysis in Contador’s individual case. How would you do this? You’d have to make an n-of-1 and get a truckload of data. You’d have to have him climb the same climb multiple times and correct for weather and his fitness, I’m talking over a year or two, and have him ride we’ll say snakey style versus a little straighter – we’d have to coach him on how to do each one. And whether or not the snakey riding would be offset by the facial systems ability to distribute load over greater muscular mass and for him to recruit more of his capacity of VO2 to go fast up the climb whether that would offset the time lost in increased rolling resistance from him weaving back and forth on the road and also the extra distance he rides. That’d be a great question. I’m sure there’s somebody out there who can model that. And if Contador were still competing and trying to win the Tour, it might be worthwhile for his coaches to do that. Maybe they did. I don’t know if they have, I haven’t seen any word of it. I’m sure there are athletes who have done this type of analysis.
Colby Pearce 43:48
Now, just to contrast, briefly, before I go into rigid/aerodynamic, you may be thinking okay, so all climbers tend to be elastic and time trials tend to be rigid/aerodynamic. That’s not necessarily true. A great example of someone who is arguably one of the best climbers in the world, or at least was before he crashed recently, hopefully will make a comeback, hate to say anyone’s career blunted by crash. An example of this rider who is a climber but does tend towards rigid/aerodynamic rider tendencies or phenotype is Chris Froome. How do we know this? Because whenever Froome accelerates, he uses a very high cadence and his upper body is relatively still. He’s not dependent as much on bobbing heads. Yes, his head moves. Yes, his ribs move. But you look at how he makes power, what is its essence? Reduce the rider to the essence of how they’re driving the bike and you see that Froome has a very high cadence with mostly a still upper body. And he drives the bike forward, and whenever he attacks successfully, it’s frequently in the saddle and with a much higher cadence than his competitors. And that is rigid/aerodynamic phenotype.
Colby Pearce 45:04
What I’m saying is the phenotypes don’t necessarily correlate to the type of rider that we see in terms of how they perform on the bike. There’s definitely some generalizations there, but it’s not a rigid rule. When we have the snake-like rhythmic movement of the torso, it can’t be to excessive. That’s what I was trying to say without Alberto. I think there are moments where all that movement leads to so much handlebar movement and then subsequent tire movement that whether he’s gaining or losing, there’s probably moments where, arguably, he could be perhaps a little too loosey goosey, we’ll say.
The spinal engine
Colby Pearce 45:41
Also, as far as this elastic component, when we have the shoulder rocking and the torso rotating, we are engaging what some coaches and trainers will call the spinal engine. This is the engine that is used during a good runner’s stride. As the right foot comes forward, there’s a counter rotation of the pelvis and the left arm comes forward at the same moment. This is activating the spinal engine, this rotation of the spinal engine is what activates the sling system and helps the runner distribute load elastically throughout the system and kind of have that springy, bouncy movement.
Colby Pearce 46:23
So if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll immediately wonder why cyclists do it backwards. The reason we do is because we’re pulling on a handlebar. What do I mean by that? We do it backwards because when the right leg is forward, we’re pulling back with the right arm in most cases. We’ll talk a bit later about standing technique and how that changes, but. Mostly, that’s true. When you’re climbing out of the saddle, when your right leg comes forward, your right arm pulls back. This is a disambiguation of what is arguably a natural sling system. We are meant to run and walk fundamentally as humans and when we run and walk we counter rotate with the torso relative to what the legs are doing. So this is why sometimes when you take an athlete who’s been riding their bike all season long, and you ask them to stand in place and march, initially, they will do it backwards. Meaning when the right leg comes up, the right arm will come forward. And that is not a strict classic human march. What we want to see is a counter rotation of the pelvis.
Colby Pearce 47:37
This is why running in the offseason is pretty fundamental. It’s also why you can do some simple exercises in the gym to re-combulate those movement patterns that when when you do a deadlift or squat or a lunge, you can do some simple step ups where you activate a counter rotation of the upper body and reengage that athleticism of rotation of the thorastic spine. This is also why cyclists tend to have tendencies towards frozen shoulder and really rigid thoracic spines and we tend to look like a crane over time because we add a healthy dose of kyphosis and then we put a helmet on and ask us to crane our necks up all the time. And you got a recipe for kyphosis and forward head posture and frozen shoulders.
Colby Pearce 48:36
So cycling out of the saddle, when we’re pulling on the bars, deprograms this, probably what is a natural movement engram that we learned when we were running across the playground as kids. Watch a child run, and when their right leg comes forward, their left arm comes forward. This is how human beings run in balance and that twisting of the spine is the spinal engine. That’s what engages that. When we ride our bikes we are going against that program to a certain degree. Obviously it works.
Colby Pearce 49:22
Why do we do it? Well, if you push forward with the right leg from 12, 1, 2, when you’re standing out of the saddle, and you pull hard on the left bar, the bike will twist and do weird sneaky things in a non-constructive way. And I’m not even talking about in a Contador way, I’m just saying the bike becomes unstable. You got to pull on the same side to have to offset the force of the leg. That’s just the way bikes work because we’re balancing. That’s the why.
Colby Pearce 49:53
So when you’re aware of how this cross patterning becomes deprogrammed, it becomes obvious to me in any any case, that in the offseason, or even arguably, during the season at times, we want to rewire that pattern or touch base with it. It’s also why some riders have figured out that if they go for a weekly run, even during the season, which is, we’ll suffice it to say, extremely counter intuitive to an old school cycling culture, that when riders do this, they figured out that their back stays healthier, that their legs seem fresher on the bike, because they’re waking up the proprioceptive system a little bit, the impact of the heel strike on the ground helps to keep things neurologically alive, that’s assuming they’re not using super cushiony crappy shoes, like Hocus. I’m just going to drop that bomb.
Colby Pearce 50:51
So there’s no perfect in the world of the elastic athlete, there’s just a rhythm, a balance to it, a natural amount of springiness. When it becomes excessive, the bike motion will become maybe not fluid. When it becomes excessive there’s just excessive bobbing to the riders head and shoulders.
The steeper the climb the further the progression towards elastic riding
Colby Pearce 51:36
Last point on elastic riders: as cadence slows on a steep incline, the progression towards the elastic end of the spectrum progresses. It continues, it expands. So the steeper the climb, the more elastic energy the athlete normally has to use to make it up that climb successfully.
Colby Pearce 51:57
When the elastic system falls apart, that can be an indication of global fatigue, dehydration, hyponatremia, poor electrolyte balance in general, complete tactical failings, or that their facial system wasn’t trained to handle the demands of the event, right? So to illustrate this point about the fact that we’re not always limited only by the number of watts we can make for five or 20 minutes in those tiny bins, there are a lot of things that can influence a riders perspective, or a lot of riders outcome in a race, performance in a race. And we have to constantly be mindful the big picture perspective, what is the rate limiting factor?
The rigid/aerodynamic end of the spectrum
Colby Pearce 52:42
Onward to the other end of the spectrum, the rigidness/aerodynamic rider. This phenotype or archetype of riding is characterized by an extremely still upper body, motionless upper body, motionless shoulders. The rider is driving from the lower body only meaning from the iliac crest downwards, there is motion, ideally. This is the ideal archetype of this end of the spectrum.
What are archetypes and how are they useful?
Colby Pearce 53:12
Not all riders can achieve this, many cannot, no matter what they do. And on that point, this is a yoga class discussion, these are archetypes, they’re ideals. What is an archetype? It’s a conceptual ideal of what something is. Think of a chair right now. What you just thought of was the archetype of chair, the platonic archetype of chair. Maybe some of you thought of a wooden teacher’s chair, maybe some of you thought of a crazy ergonomic office chair with gizmos, maybe some of you thought of a wooden stool, some of you thought of a lazy boy – whatever that archetype is in your head. It’s an ideal of what your cultural experience and human being experienced on this planet Earth has thought of as “chair” to this point. These are philosophical archetypes we’re talking about and different riders who exhibit those characteristics at different times in the races.
Colby Pearce 54:02
They’re ideals for us to strive for during different moments. But the point of this discussion is to understand how they play a role in our cycling, in our quest to be faster as bike dorks – sorry, bike kings and queens. (I can be on the dork end of the spectrum.) How we want to exhibit that archetype or how we want to try to fulfill that archetype is contingent on a few factors, but we may never reach the ideal. That’s okay. That’s not the point. So when you go to yoga class, and you see the 23 year old, super hot, six foot two ectomorphic yoga instructor who does the perfect down dog and then puts her leg behind her head – not in the same pose – and you go, “Okay, that’s what I have to do to be good at yoga.” That’s not the case. You have to utilize or integrate yoga into your life specifically ensenada movement aspect of yoga, to the benefit of what works for you, and you may never even get remotely close to what that 23 year old hot chick can do. That’s okay. That’s not the point. The point is not comparative. It’s about you using the archetype to benefit you in your life. What do you get out of doing that asana? How does it serve you to become a better human or better cyclist or more healthy person?
Colby Pearce 55:12
Same with these archetypes, you may try to become the most rigid aerodynamic cyclist you can and have the perfect head position during time trials and motionless shoulders and it just may not be in your phenotype, in your DNA, in your capacities. That doesn’t mean there isn’t fruit to be gained by you learning about this and integrating that practice into your cycling.
Colby Pearce 55:32
So our point of the discussion of the spectrum is to enable you to give you tools so that you can figure out where you lie on that spectrum. And if you’re extremely one side or the other, to understand why that may be limiting your performance, and then subsequently, to be able to work or strive towards perfecting or actualizing your ability to go more towards the other end of the spectrum – assuming that that’s something you want to do. Most cycling disciplines require you to be able to be flexible or adaptable on this spectrum.
Colby Pearce 56:02
That’s our last category of rider: first is elastic on one end, this other side is rigid or aerodynamic, and in the middle, we have adaptable.
Avoiding Frozen Shoulder
Colby Pearce 56:16
When you are on the rigid or aerodynamic side of the spectrum, you are driving from the lower body only. The legs are moving, turning up and down like a sewing machine. That’s our colloquial example we use, right? The head is tucked in motionless, the shoulders are drawn towards the ears.
Colby Pearce 56:36
So just to define this, because I also see this a lot in my cycling studies and in my fit laboratory. (I like to call it a laboratory, it’s really just a room – laboratory sounds so much cooler though.) Many cyclists are borderline frozen shoulder, meaning they just have really not a great ability to move their shoulders in any plane of motion.
Colby Pearce 56:58
So while you’re sitting in your chair right now, not in your car, you can do a quick exercise. Take your shoulders and pin them up to your ears. This is elevated. Now push them forward, away from your spine as much as possible. This is protracted. Now lower them down all the way to the bottom as low as you can push them down, that’s depressed. Now pull them back. This is retracted. This is a really basic exercise.
Colby Pearce 57:29
As you go through these four points: elevated, protracted, depressed, retracted, you can start to draw circles and make the end range of motion bigger and bigger. As you have a more functional shoulder joint and your scapula becomes unglued from your rib cage, you will be able to do this more effectively.
Colby Pearce 57:47
Shoulders are a control center; your shoulders should be able to help you stabilize the force of pedaling on the bike, especially in the elastic model, but in all models, they still function as a stabilizing system. So don’t assume that because you’re always riding around pedaling with your legs that you never need to work on your shoulders. The opposite is actually true because you’re always using your legs, you have to work on your shoulders, otherwise dysfunction will ensue in some form. And I have had riders who have gone through frozen shoulder, which is the extreme outcome of when the shoulder literally just locks up because everything is glued together from lack of motion. This is extremely expensive and painful. So trust me, you want to avoid this if possible.
Colby Pearce 58:31
So, during the rigid aerodynamic phase we want the shoulders to be locked and pinned toward the ears in aerodynamic situations. (Although that’s only relative to airspeed, so there are times when we can use this type of pedaling and not necessarily pin the shoulders to the ears.) In order to pin your shoulders to the ears and have them be motionless i.e. in a time trial position, we need a shoulder that can do all the things; it needs to be adaptable, just as I was saying earlier, we want a rider who can tolerate different temperatures, tolerate different blood sugar levels, tolerate different types of pedaling. We want shoulders that can tolerate stillness and pinned positions or fixed positions, isometric contractions, and we also want shoulders that can be dynamic and move. We want all the things.
Colby Pearce 59:21
Do you not want all the things? Except for the things you don’t need. But you think you need, you really just want.
How to ride aerodynamically in a time trial
Colby Pearce 59:28
So, in aerobar specifically, since time traveling is really the ultimate expression of this archetype of rigid aerodynamic pedaling, we’re going to talk about the demands or a checklist of to dos that you must have in order to go into this position.
Colby Pearce 59:47
Okay, we’re going to go in order roughly. Our checklist of to do’s when you do a time trial: one you have to fold at the hip to the point where your torso is horizontal or very close to horizontal. That is a challenge neurologically and muscularly and in terms of mobility.
Colby Pearce 1:00:04
Two: we’re going to pin the elbows and hands together.
Colby Pearce 1:00:08
Three, we’re going to drop the head with the chin as low as we can towards the elbows.
Colby Pearce 1:00:15
Four we’re going to pin our shoulders up to our ears.
Colby Pearce 1:00:19
Five, we’re going to roll our eyes up to see forward because our chin has dropped. That means the front of our face is not vertical, we’re not verticalizing the face to look up the road, because we do that the head periscopes above the shoulders, and that is not arrow. We want to drop the head down, which means that the angle of the face will be closer to 45 degrees rather than 90 degrees. And to do that, that requires you roll the eyes up to see where you’re going. And when you roll your eyes to one extreme angle or the other, up or down, or left or right, or any of those limits of range of motion, that applies more tension to the facial chain. Eyeballs have fascia that’s connected to the global chain just like every other muscle in the body. So eyeball muscles.
Colby Pearce 1:01:06
Six, you have to take your pace to maximum and sustain it. Whenever you ride at maximum pace, at least some of the muscles in your body, the muscle fibers are firing and this increases muscular tension. This should be obvious. If you do a squat for 30 seconds now touch your thighs, feel your quads and you’ll feel that the fibers are integrated and the muscles are hard. That’s because the muscle fibers are firing. So we’ve increased the facial tension around all those muscles. Because remember that facial sac, that sheath around the muscles are now being tensioned and pushed on.
Colby Pearce 1:01:43
That’s a big to do list, functionally. That’s a lot of things. When you’re folded at the hip, you’ve pin your elbows together, so we’ve taken away your base of support, we’ve dropped your head, pinned your shoulders and rolled your eyes up and now made you go as hard as possible – most riders have a challenge with that to do list, especially when they’re put in a very aggressive position. And if you want to see evidence of this, go find your local time trial series online and flick through the photos that are posted.
Two accommodations of the time trial position
Colby Pearce 1:02:15
You’ll see one or two accommodations in probably 95% of all the riders. The first one is the head pops up, it periscopes up above the back. This is an indicator that the global facial tension in particular on the posterior chain which runs from the toes, all the way under the heel, under the foot, around the heel, up the calf, up the hamstring, around the butt, all the way up the spine, and to the tip of the head – through the neck and up to the tip of the head, that line is too tight. How do you relieve it? You pop the head up and periscope.
Colby Pearce 1:02:53
What’s the other way you relieve it? The second relief angle is the toes point down on the heels come up. that relieves tension at the bottom of the end of the spectrum. So when we see a rider time traveling down the road, who normally pedals close to flat footed – and if you want to know why I think that’s advisable check out my podcast on How to Pedal a Bike, Episode One – when we see the toes pointed down and the heels pointed up there sacrificing the mechanical advantage of the pedal stroke, especially in the first part of the power phase. When their head pops up above their shoulders, they’re probably nuking their aerodynamics. What that tells us is their position is too aggressive on the bike and/or they are not trained adequately to handle the demands of that position, especially under load. It’s one thing to go ride your time trial bike around in zone one or zone two all the time it’s another to do it at race pace. These are different things.
Colby Pearce 1:03:49
As part of the demands of being able to enact the rigid or aerodynamic phenotype, the rider must be able to handle higher muscle tension loads locally in the lower extremities, read legs, everything below the hip bones. That’s the iliac crest by the way. Or the rider has to offset this tension with a higher cadence.
Colby Pearce 1:04:12
This brings us right back to Froom. Froom does this, even on climbs his cadence is crazy high at times, and if you look carefully, you’ve seen a few times where our Froom has been under big pressure. In most of those occasions, he’s run out of gears, his gears been too big.
Colby Pearce 1:04:28
Also, the colloquial example for that is Lance. He was one of the riders who really pushed the cadence envelope early on, before all the opro wave came and blah, blah, blah. So he pedaled, especially in the mountains, at a very high cadence. A lot of people have a lot of theories about how that related to doping, but I think was much simpler than that. That was Ferrari suggestion that we distribute load over the fascial system or over the, really the aerobic system of Lance and take it away from the muscular system so we don’t accumulate muscular fatigue locally. Makes sense? So he could ride with a relatively motionless upper body in the mountains, but his cadence was higher. Now, Lance was a very adaptable rider, he could do all the things, but we’ll get to that.
Colby Pearce 1:05:19
Also note that this archetype, this rigid aerodynamic archetype will be challenged, as I said, most people transition around 6, 7, 8 percent gradient, they are required to transition from one to the other, not all riders, but most are. And so you’ll see that slight bobbing of the shoulders, light bobbing in the head, that slight rotation in the torso, that slight spinal engineering activated and the distribution of load happening over a greater amount of muscle mass will happen as the grade steepens and then the steeper the grade, the more that happens.
Colby Pearce 1:05:51
If you want to watch, you can see this if you’re looking for it quite easily, look at the peloton riding hard on the flats and then watch the peloton riding up the finish of a steep climb at one of the stages of the volta and you’ll see a lot of riders bobbing. And that’s a natural solution. Most riders are fairly adaptable on the spectrum. But there are a handful of riders who are, good case studies of riders who are not very adaptable. Sometimes they have success, sometimes not.
Breathing in a time trial position
Colby Pearce 1:06:17
Also note that breathing can be more challenged in this position, especially in a time trial position, clearly because we’re folding the hip and a lot of times when a rider folds into hip, that means they’re folded over their diaphragm. And if you’re flexed in the lumbar spine around, we’ll say L three, L four, and you’re folded over, then the diaphragm can’t expand to push the viscera out and get that deeper breath. When the diaphragm pushes the viscera down, remember lungs aren’t muscles lungs are just sacs. So how to breathe as the diaphragm pushes down and then the lungs are able to inflate with air passively, it’s like you’re getting out of the way for the balloon to fill up. That’s how that works. But if you’re folded over your diaphragm, your diaphragm can’t push down as effectively. So this is a big challenge in time trialling is how you make the rider breathe.
Colby Pearce 1:07:03
Well, the simple way might be to push the saddle forward and or raise the bars. But as you push a saddle forward you sacrifice glute recruitment etc. causes other problems – I won’t go any further down that wormhole.
Duration in a rigid, aerodynamic position
Colby Pearce 1:07:14
The other aspect to keep in mind is that just the simple duration of long term riding in this position, this rigid aerodynamic position with a fixed upper body, that in itself is a challenge because you’re just placing all the muscular demands of the sport on less muscle, meaning everything from the iliac crest down.
Where is rigid, aerodynamic climbing advantageous?
Colby Pearce 1:07:37
Where is this type of riding advantageous? On the track. On flat roads and road races, especially windy locations. In tail winds, when your airspeed, it’s not about ground speed is about airspeed, when your airspeed is low you can use this technique to pedal very quickly with high force. And this is useful. But you don’t need to pin the shoulders to the ears. In fact, you don’t really want to because you’re not fighting against airspeed at that point. But it may be advantageous, the higher your ground speed, the more often it makes sense to use a higher cadence. And there’s some minutiae of physics that get into why that is. We don’t need to break those down at this point. It’s just the way it works out. And the reason I believe that’s true is because when you watch riders in tail winds, they tend to pedal quicker. When you watch riders on climbs and head winds they pedal slower. And I believe that riders solve the equation in the best way possible naturally instinctively. So we can do a post mortem and analyze the physics on it but for this moment, we don’t need to.
Colby Pearce 1:08:40
However, when you turn into that still wind on the flats or even a slight headwind then aerodynamics become really important. A huge rate limiting factor on how fast you’re going in a tailwind situation, it’s just raw power. There’s no watts per kilo on a flat tailwind road race situation or road. It’s just how much power can you make? So bigger rider always has the advantage in a tailwind situation, especially the stronger the tailwind.
Colby Pearce 1:09:08
I figured this out early in my career when I made a few selections in key cross wind road races and we turned into a tailwind and I got dumped because I was only 62 kilograms, which is probably about 10, 20, 30 pounds less than most other guys in the race. Oh, just mixed my units, five to 15 kilograms less, relevant units only people.
Colby Pearce 1:09:32
But then we turn into that headwind and your rate limiting factor is watts per gram of drag. That’s a headwind on a flat road. Weight means very little in terms of performance there. Yeah during brief moments of acceleration, it will impact you, but far more important determiner of outcome is watts per gram of drag. How much air you pushing versus how much how much power do you have to move that air out of the way? So then you’re pinning your shoulders up your ears, you’re dropping the head, your horizontal lines in the torso. And the more shoulder and head movement you have the sloppier you will be aerodynamically. So you want to ride in that rigid aerodynamic fixed position, driving from the lower body only.
Colby Pearce 1:10:14
So riders who are on the elastic end of the spectrum will be rate limited in these types of conditions. So, if you’re one of those riders who’s like, “Man, I’m so good at climbing and I suck on the flats.” This is one possible explanation why.
Colby Pearce 1:10:26
The other possible explanation why is in a rigid aerodynamic scenario many riders who gravitate towards these types of events and tend to be arrow, I’m talking about me in this case, we, I’ll use we we tend to –
The three ways to make power and how it relates to riders deficient in aerodynamic pedaling
Colby Pearce 1:10:47
Look there are two ways to make power, there are really three ways to make power, this goes back to my old aymeric story. Young school child.
Colby Pearce 1:10:53
“Mr. Mercs, I want to win my local time trial series. How should I do it? Should I pedal a little gear quickly? Or a big year slowly?” Mr. Mercs thinks and thoughtfully responds, “You should pedal a big gear quickly.”
Colby Pearce 1:11:08
There are three ways to make power because power is made of two components: how hard you push and how fast you push. How hard you push in a circle is torque, how fast you push in a circle is cadence. So what are the three ways you can make more power? One, you can push harder. Two, you can push faster. Three, you can do some of both. Most riders colloquially, superficially, commonly understand that making power means pushing harder. And most riders associate going faster on a bike with pushing harder. They’re thinking in the elastic paradigm in this respect. They’re pushing harder on the pedal and they want to do it on a climb. If you’re in the world of velodromes and track and you’ve got only one gear, you both push harder. And eventually there’s a point where you can only pedal faster. In fact, after a certain point, you’re pedaling faster and faster, and your force goes down – or stays the same depending on how the physics works out and the wind and various other factors.
Colby Pearce 1:12:11
So my point is, if you’re one of those riders who rides a rolling time trial, and you really struggle to follow the pace or keep your power up on slight downhills when you’re still able to pedal, but you have to pedal more quickly, that suggests that you might be deficient in the rigid aerodynamic aspect of pedaling, which is stop using the elastic system and use your legs only and focus on pedaling faster, not pushing harder.
Colby Pearce 1:12:38
It’s in my experience, it’s more common as a coach for riders to be able to struggle with keeping power up by pedaling faster than it is for them to push on the pedals. The reason for this is pretty simple: One when you’re pedaling on a climb, inertia is pulling you backwards down the climb and so your pedal stroke by definition becomes a little more complete, 12 the six must be more complete, dead spots become magnified when inertia pulls you backwards, and cadence slows down. So if you have a dead spot from 12 to one for a certain number of degrees, and you’re pedaling at 60 RPM, that’s going to be a much longer moment in time than it is going to be at 120 RPM. So it’s going to be more obvious to you when you have a dead spot. So you’re going to push harder on that pedal, but also, two, you’re going to feel the proprioceptive contact of the foot, pushing against that pedal. (He said while making a slapping noise with his hands as though that had anything to do with feet pedals.) So you’re going to push against that pedal, or really the insole of your shoe, and you’re going to feel that contact that pressure on the bottom of your foot. That proprioceptive signal is what’s telling you that you are pushing air quotes “hard”. Going air quotes “hard”. When you train with power for a long time and look at the numbers you can also see that you can be on a flat road and simply pedal faster and faster and faster and faster and assuming you don’t run out of gears or run through the torque window, you will make more power. So different ways to think about that paradigm.
Who are good rigid, aerodynamic riders?
Colby Pearce 1:14:15
My examples for good rigid aerodynamic riders: we can look at Brad Wiggins during his hour record, we’ll put a video of that in the show notes, Facili Carianka, a rider whom I competed against on the track quite a bit. A lot of track riders, anytime anyone’s in an opponent’s race, team pursuit, or individual pursuit, they are exemplifying this rigid aerodynamic characteristic when they’re at speed – that is discounting the standing start or about the first lap of the event. The first lap is highly elastic if the rider is doing it right. Then they switch and they have to transition immediately into rigid aerodynamic. Not always, but frequently.
Colby Pearce 1:15:00
The line gets blurred right around kilo distance. So you see some kilo riders who are really wrestling the bear, fighting the by hard, they’ve got some shoulder motions and head motion, they’re pulling on the bars a bit, but they’re fighting to keep the bike straight. And this is what the beauty of track cycling brings out is the fact that – I don’t think road cycling is really that aware of this. But in a road TT, if you’re snaking down the road, and your bike is weaving back and forth, or even and hillclimb time trial, if a hillclimb time trial is 12 kilometers long and you ride 12.4 K, because you’re snaking across the road, pretty clear you’re giving up some time. But it’s not really obvious in road time trials, at least there’s no way to really quantify that I’m aware of. You just look and see that the riders overall time is slower. And maybe it might explain, in some cases, why you might have riders who are the same weight, hypothetically, and put out the same power and one rider goes a lot faster than the other, even though they rode the same conditions, that would be a perfect textbook example. I don’t know that one of those exists…
Colby Pearce 1:16:02
But on the track, this becomes incredibly obvious really, really fast. What do I mean? Track cycling is the only sport I’m aware of where it’s actually legal to cut the course. When you’re doing an hour record, the sponges are not put on the black line. The black line at the bottom of Triassic track is exactly 250 meters around four laps to a kilometer. But the sponges give you about 10 centimeters of error. So if you’re really good, you can ride below the black line in both the corners. That means you could theoretically complete a lap of 248 meters, but it would be counted as a full 250. That’s what I mean when I say it’s the only sport I know where it’s actually legal to cut the course. Pretty cool.
Colby Pearce 1:16:52
So if you want to see examples of this, find Evelyn Stevens hour record and watch her line in Colorado Springs. And we can clearly see where she gave up a lot of distance. We’ll put a link to this guy in the show notes. In contrast, look at Alex Dowsett. His hour record, not the one he’s doing in December of 2020, but the one he did a couple years ago, Alex is a textbook perfect hour record line, he’s on the black or just below it almost the entire ride for an hour straight at race pace. This is not a trivial feat. This requires a lot of practice a lot of balance on the bike, and also perfect execution or nearly perfect real world execution of the rigid aerodynamic archetype. Because he’s able to make power from the lower leg only, which means his upper body is relaxed. And that’s how he’s able to steer the bike clearly and also not just steer straight, but keep the bike on or below the black line during the corners in the banking at race pace.
Colby Pearce 1:18:02
Another really outstanding example this is Vittoria Bussi hour record she did in 2018. Outstanding ride. Victoria, if you watch her ride, she was a model of precision. So much so that she rarely if ever looked up during the record, she simply looked down at the black line the entire hour. That is impressive. Now you can only do that on the velodrome, obviously. If you do that on the road, you’re asking for it. Even on the track, it does not come without risk because weird things happen on the velodrome. So try riding staring down at the road sometime and see how it goes at race pace. Actually don’t try that. That’s a terrible idea. I didn’t say that.
Colby Pearce 1:18:49
The other examples of riders who are more real world, World Tour level pros who exemplify this rigid aerodynamic rider archetype are, well I already mentioned Vasil Kiryienka, who’s a track rider, he was a world points champion a couple times. I was also in that race. I was not World Champion. And Tony Rominger. Tony is an outstanding example of this archetype.
The middle of the athlete spectrum: an adaptable rider
Colby Pearce 1:19:16
To tie these two ends together, we’ll talk briefly about the adaptable athlete, the one who can transition back and forth between these techniques, these alternate extremes of rigid aerodynamic and elastic rider and ultimately, to be a really good road racer, you’ve got to have this ability to transition back and forth.
Colby Pearce 1:19:37
And our most outstanding example, I’m gonna let this fall out of the bag, one of our most outstanding examples of this is Alejandro Valverde. He has a rider who can ride very still very quiet upper body, but at times can be quite elastic and explosive. But even when he is elastic and explosive when he violently accelerates, you don’t see excessive motion in the upper body, you see a crisp execution of clean technique. So think about a road race where you have varying conditions, you’ve got wind, you’ve got hills, steep climbs, long climbs, you’ve got valleys, you’ve got descents, how is the adaptable rider going to use these different techniques? Well, on long climbs of say 4%, they may choose to be slightly more efficient and use the rigid end of the spectrum that is, legs making power upper body relatively still. Then the grade increases to 6, 7, 8 percent, it becomes steeper; they may use a light elastic technique. The last kilometer of the climb the grade steepens, dramatically to 12 or 14, even 20%. Then they shift more towards the elastic end of the spectrum. There’s more rotational energy, more spinal engine engaged, more upper body, slight upper body movement. They crest the climb, they descend, now they’re on a 4%, straight downhill and they’re pedaling slightly off the back of the next group or trying to chase on to the next group this is a time to immediately transition to the rigid aerodynamic side of the spectrum and tuck the head and shoulders because airspeed is a high rate limiting variable in this equation, more so than power if you’re going 70, 80, 90, 100 K an hour. As the descent becomes twisty and serpentine, jumping out of each of those corners, they momentarily change to elastic as they accelerate out of corners. They’re standing, they’re pulling on the bars, they’re pulling on the bars explosively and elastically to engage the sling system. Then they’re back in the saddle chasing and immediately switch back to rigid aerodynamic because their speed is still very high. Then they hit the valley in the middle, the flat road. It’s windy, the peloton shatters into echelons, they’re again using rigid aerodynamic because every gram of drag counts in how fast they can traverse that valley and whether they can stay in the lead group or whether the first group can stay away from the second group or etc. The field explodes. And they’re doing their best to, when they hit the front of that Echelon, that 12 rider Echelon, they want to make as little power as possible to keep up pace to keep the rotation going. It’s about minimum effective dose, you’re not there throwing watts all over the place, that’s the wrong place to throw a lot bomb when you’re an elite group of 12 guys and you’ve got 60 K to go. So you’re keeping pace, you want to contribute to the group, you’re in a good position, but you’re laying some of your cards down on the table. And that means contributing to the speed of the group without delaying it without frustrating the other riders, but also using minimal energy. That means being as Aero as possible when you’re in the wind. Then as you drop back and the wind becomes still and you’re falling back in that Echelon, you can sit up slightly relax the shoulders, focus on deep breath and relax the head and neck. Because every time you ride in that rigid, every second you ride in that rigid aerodynamic position, it comes at a price of facial tightness, potentially.
Colby Pearce 1:23:16
So, you’re balancing the demands of those equations and using the aerodynamic moments and the elastic moments at the key seconds of each race to get the job done. You’re constantly swinging back and forth on that spectrum. Then you hit a short steep climb, and you’re standing out of the saddle and you’re using the elastic component again. So you get the idea.
Colby Pearce 1:23:44
During a road race, we would use all of these. During a mountain bike race or a cyclocross race we would dominantly be on the elastic side and you see this in the style of riders. Some riders are more bouncy and springy and bony during their elastic moments. Others are a little more, we’ll say, organized.
Colby Pearce 1:24:04
In time trials and track races and hour records, were almost exclusively on the rigid aerodynamic side, except for that first lap of course, right? Team pursuit, individual pursuit, almost totally motionless in the upper body. Points races, etc.
Colby Pearce 1:24:18
Madison, whole other category on its own, one of the most uniquely demanding events in cycling. Arguably, even more demanding neurologically and in terms of total body, body muscle recruitment, then, maybe enduro riding is possibly an exception to that but arguably – maybe I’ll get a mountian bike coach in here, we can debate it sometime. So anyway, if you don’t know what a Madison is we’ll put a link to that in the show notes as well.
Colby Pearce 1:24:48
As a final example of our rigid aerodynamic case studies, I’m going to drop in a link to a video that is a continual, it’s like a 20 minute video, it’s a continual video of repeated head on shots of all the riders competing at Time Trial World Championships. And you can see that most of them are exhibiting this rigid, aerodynamic archetype. But not all. You can see some are slightly elastic; look for the riders whose heads are bobbing and the shoulders are bobbing even while they’re in the Ural bars. These are riders who are not quite able to actualize this rigid archetype, most of them have it pretty dialed. And you can see the examples pretty clearly. It’s also really interesting to compare the frontal areas of different riders, and the pedaling styles, even while they’re using this rigid aerodynamic archetype.
Colby Pearce 1:25:43
The last bit I want to talk about and unpack slightly is: standing efforts. Standing is, probably when you dive deep, it’s quite complex, but we’re going to just take a simple overview to consider how forces made during standing and what type of standing is constructive.
Colby Pearce 1:26:02
Clearly, anytime you’re standing up on a bike, whether it’s a standing start in a track event, standing on a steep climb, or accelerating in the final sprint of a road racer criterium, this is on the elastic end of the spectrum. What’s different, instead of your body weight being supported by the saddle, it’s now supported by your feet and your hands exclusively. Your weight, typically, in most cases, shifts forward, your butt comes forward over the bottom bracket. When you’re on a grade, effectively, your weight, your center of gravity, probably stays about the same place over the center of the bottom bracket, in most cases, off road riding being maybe an exception. But let’s say you’re in a flat criterium and you’re sprinting for the finish, then the weight is forward over the bottom bracket and that can cause trouble. For some riders, occasionally, when they stand and accelerate, if their weight is too far forward and their pedal stroke is really choppy, they can skip the rear wheel. Or when things are really cross wired, they can skip the front wheel. And tends to not be good.
Colby Pearce 1:27:12
Additional implications of standing out of the saddle, aside from the center of gravity being shifted forward are: one, that some of our paradigms of how to pedal a bike apply and some of them get uprooted, or rototilled. And two, your dead spots will increase dramatically. It’s just a function of physics of riding out of the saddle. So don’t get all bummed out, when you figure out that you’ve got a giant dead spot, it just comes along with riding a bike out of the saddle. It’s one of those things that’s just the way it works. Because of the fact that your weight is shifted forward in most cases, and because more of your way to supported on the feet, your downforce is going to go up dramatically. That’s why when you stand up on the bike, you get higher peak power sprint numbers and you can even increase your power for short durations on a climb. Yes, it comes at a greater metabolic cost because you’re supporting your weight. This is why bikes are so efficient, we can run a long ways and when runners finish across the line, a lot of times they collapse on the ground, because they are not only running forward, they’re also supporting the weight of their body. But bikes support the weight of your body. They do that job when you’re seated. So that’s why you can ride so far, and then you just coast and slumped over the bars. The bike is a more efficient converter of metabolic energy into mechanical energy then when a person is running. That goes out the window when you stand and sprint. But of course, in short term power production, the payoff is worth it if you’re trying to win a race.
Colby Pearce 1:28:51
Occasionally, I get riders who are confused on this point. They’re sort of conflicted between the additional metabolic cost of standing up out of the saddle. Make no mistake about it: for short duration efforts, the faster you want to go, the more likely it is you’ll have to stand. And if you’re a competitive athlete, you want to win a race, most of the time you’re going to be sprinting in line out of the saddle. And if you’re sprinting on the flats, you should be sprinting on the drops by the way, not on hoods. This is a point of leverage. If you’re not sprinting the drops on flat road, then either your technique is poor or your bike setup needs to be changed or maybe you just need to be educated about how to make better force and go do some deadlifts.
Colby Pearce 1:29:30
So, when we’re standing, what are we doing? Okay, let’s think about how the right foot comes forward again from that power phase 12,1,2,3. It’s pushing forward and down. When you’re in the drops, and you’re sprinting on a flat road, what you’re doing is you’re pushing down with maximal force on that right leg and you’re also pulling back with the right arm.
Colby Pearce 1:30:01
I’m going to correct myself there: Let’s say, this is not a maximal sprint, this is an acceleration, not 100%, just 85% 90%. You’re pulling back on the right arm and your counter opposing the force of the left leg at 12, one, two, so the vector of that force would look like a line. On the right side, it would go from about the junction of the seat tube and top tube down towards the front hub at approximately a 45 degree angle. That’s roughly the vector of the most of the force that you’re starting the power phase with. And what you’re doing is pulling against that force with the upper arm. In order to counteract that, the vector would need to be going the other way, from the front hub up towards the junction of the top tube and C tube, or we could say, from the front hub to the saddle. That might be clearer.
Colby Pearce 1:30:56
So when those two vectors are roughly equal, assuming your core is strong enough to transmit the force between those two opposing distal forces or the force produced at the foot and then force producer to hand, they’re going against each other, if the core is strong enough to handle that load, then the bike rockets forward and you go fast.
Colby Pearce 1:31:15
But if the core is super weak, then what happens is as you push down on that pedal, your hips are going to twist up and back. And if you pull on that bar, and your shoulders are really weak, your shoulders are just gonna pull down forward, and you’re gonna get this twisty, weak, wet noodle torso in the middle. And you’re going to be losing a bunch of that forward force. And I’m sure we’ve all seen examples of this in riding, maybe we didn’t understand them or know what was going on there, but it’s pretty common. And I hate to say it, but the perfect thought experiment to set up this scenario is we’ve got a really strong woman athlete who’s lightly built, she’s got a strong athletic background in something like running and then she jumps on the bike, and she’s got this massive aerobic capacity and she skyrockets through the sport because she’s got a great VO2 and great aerobic conditioning, but she doesn’t have the core muscular strength to handle the load of cycling specifically, this is pretty common. We see these hips and shoulders, these two control centers, twisting out of plane of each other under the load, they just twist in opposite directions. So that’s a real indicator that that rider needs core strength. This can happen man, woman, wookie, child, droid, whatever, I’m just giving you this thought experiment to illustrate how a common pathway to that might an be an outcome.
Colby Pearce 1:32:40
So that’s scenario one of an 85 or 90% acceleration. Why do I say that? Because when accelerations become maximal, and you push really hard on that pedal, two other things have to happen. One is you got to start pulling with both arms to counter oppose the strength of that leg or during a sprint, a field sprint, or a sprint and a criterion for a priem, you actually start to pull with the contralateral arm instead of the ipsilateral arm. Isn’t ipsilateral a cool word? It just means same sided. Contra meaning opposite sided. So if I’m pushing for with a right arm, I’m using the contralateral arm that the left hand to pull on that bar. Incidentally, but non trivially, if your handlebar angle is screwed up, and you do not have a neutral wrist, when you pull on that bar, you will be missing a key opportunity to generate simple force. If your shoulder is not anchored and strong and capable of having an organized joint for that control center, you will be missing the opportunity to counter oppose that force.
Colby Pearce 1:33:47
And just as a pop quiz, what do we think has more muscle? If I’m pushing down on a pedal, and I’m using my glutes, my quads, my hamstrings and my calves all to make force maximally. And now I’m comparing it against an arm, which has we’ll say lat, tricep, bicep, all the musculature of the forearm to pull on that handlebar, which control center has more more muscle?
Colby Pearce 1:34:19
Well, I’m going to go ahead and answer the question for you since you’re not here, I can’t hear you if you’re saying it.
Colby Pearce 1:34:25
It’s the leg. So it is really important for that arm and that wrist to be neutral and to be to have its act together for that motion to be organized, to borrow the terms of Kelly Starrett because we want to pull on that force with maximum effectiveness in order to counter oppose the strength of that leg pushing down. Otherwise, the hips twist, the shoulders twist, and the bike doesn’t go straight. We’re pushing down on that pedal so hard. It’s not able to be reciprocated by the upper body and then it gets lost somewhere or is ineffective force. So you can have the strongest legs in the world. And if your arms can’t counter oppose that force in a sprint, in a standing sprint and your core is not strong enough, your deep core isn’t strong enough to stabilize the hips, stuff just goes everywhere.
Colby Pearce 1:35:17
So in a standing sprint, we can alternate between pulling on the contralateral arm with both arms bilateral, or the ipsilateral arm depending on the grade, how big the gear is, and how maximal the effort is.
Colby Pearce 1:35:36
And the insight that led me to figure this out is, when you’re sprinting on the road, let’s say a normal sprint, a town limits sprint, you’re with your buddies, and you’re going to go for a sprint to assign or crosswalk or whatever. Don’t hit any small children, please. So you’re rolling along at gerrae pays for most people, that’s about 30 k an hour in a group ride, and you go to sprint from that pace. You stand up, you pull hard, push down on that right side pedal and pull back on that right side handlebar or upwards at 45 degrees. And then as the sprint ignites, you might pull with the contralateral arm, and the bike snaps back and forth and has that gentle elastic component. Left, right, left, right, left, right, and you sprint and accelerate sprinting, sorry, shift shift shift. And that’s a natural thing for us to pull with the same side hand.
Colby Pearce 1:36:29
Now try the same thing from a standing start. To simulate this, go to a flat road, put your bike in a 53:13 or 12. (Or if you’ve got semi compact rings 52:12.) And literally go to a dead stop meaning just about the point where you’re almost gonna fall over but you don’t put your right pedal at two o’clock. And now do a standing start. And try a couple drills. If you’ve never done this, you might find it insightful. Try a few of these starts just pulling with the same side arm, the MC lateral arm, then pull only with the contralateral arm for the first few strokes, then pull with both arms and see what the difference is. Pulling with both arms is very, in my experience, unnatural for riders when they’re not used to it, but it can become a powerful technique to use when you are in a really big gear, high torque, low cadence situation. It requires a lot of core strength. But you’re using two arms to push against all the mass of that one leg for that moment of torque. If you only use the contralateral arm of that big gear, you kind of don’t go anywhere and the bike wants to flop over to one side is my experience. If you only use the ipsilateral arm, it’s just not effective force, you’re not generating enough force with the one arm and the one leg when the gear is that big. So what I’m saying is the arms have to change movement patterns and be recruited or not recruited based on those factors that I was talking about. When you’re on a steep climb in a little tiny gear, but it feels like a big gear because you’re on a steep climb, then you’re using the ipsilateral arm. If you’re in the hood, and you push down with that left leg, you’re pulling back with that left arm. And that’s the balance. And we can see that in the contour videos. That’s how you make power on the bike naturally that way you pull the same side.
Strength and conditioning to stabilize the torso
Colby Pearce 1:38:31
What does this tell us about strength and conditioning?
Colby Pearce 1:38:33
Well, an ipsilateral bent over row is probably a pretty good exercise, split stance rows probably pretty good exercise that directly helps us offset the torque load of pedaling. But the goal of that row is not to build strength in the arm. It’s to learn how to stabilize the torso and not let the hips and ribcage roll too much while you’re under that load. Then you complement that with exercises that actually do work that spinal engine and thoracic mobility so that you can then use the spinal engine onto that load. So we work both ends of it. These are some of the fundamentals of how the elastic system works during standing riding. Your dead spots will grow that’s inevitable.
How pedaling a bike is different when you’re standing
Colby Pearce 1:39:22
The last point I’ll make is when you’re standing and accelerating out of the saddle, whether it’s a sprint up a little roller in a road race or you’re jumping out of a corner in a criterium, there’s one big rule that gets straight up broken. Or I’ll say changes and adapts, evolves from my how to pedal a bike one on one. Remember my prime points, one pedal hard starting at 12 one, two, and also pull back but not up at 53:0. When you’re standing out of the saddle, this paradigm changes. There’s no way to pull back at the bottom when you’re supporting your bodyweight, it just doesn’t work. So the emphasis rule number one still applies. When you’re standing out of the saddle, you’re initiating the power phase, as soon as you can, you won’t be able to do it at 12, because in most cases, your butt is further forward over the bottom bracket. So that automatically makes your dead spot longer. That’s okay. We still want you to initiate the power phase as early as you can, while standing as possible, this is going to be more possible, the lower the effort and the steeper the grade. So if you’re sprinting on flat ground, we sort of accept that this isn’t really possible. What we’re doing there is applying maximal downforce to the pedals. Also, remember, the harder you go, the less conscious control you have over your nervous system activity. And in a maximal sprint of 10 or 12 seconds that’s pretty much the end game.
Colby Pearce 1:40:51
The rule that changes or adapts evolves gets broken is the pulling up. When you are sprinting out of the saddle, it is acceptable and advisable to pull up on the backside of the stroke. Because we can’t pull at the bottom, we cannot drive back with the heel at 5:30. So we’ve got to apply some pressure in the backside of the stroke. And the way to do that is to pull up with hamstrings.
Colby Pearce 1:41:16
What does that tell us about how to train a sprint, or how to train the posterior chain specifically the lower posterior chain, the hamstrings, for sprint training or for climbing? So when we are standing up out of the saddle, pulling up on the backstroke now becomes desirable. Thus training high speed open chain hamstring strength is advised for standing sprinting performance. I’m gonna just drop that little nugget, that seed and let you guys go figure it out.
Colby Pearce 1:41:50
So another important point about how to pedal a bike involves this concept of axial extension. For those of you who studied Kelly Starrett, you know he talks about organizing movement a lot he talks about giving the movement a little bit of direction, a light tension. For example, when you go to squat, in the gym, and you go to the bar, he has you screw your feet into the ground. He’s not the only PT to ever have these techniques but Kelly’s my go to example on this. You screw your feet in the ground, which means you twist them to have a slight external rotation to the femur. So when you look at your headlights, otherwise known as your patella, they’re pointing straight ahead or sometimes if you’re prone towards a bit of pronation pointing in towards the top tube. When you screw your feet into the ground, you are externally rotating the femur in the hip socket slightly, and your headlights will then point either from infinitely rotated to straight ahead or from straight ahead to slightly outward pointing out at maybe a 10 degree angle as an example. Depends on the architecture of femur and you’re astabula and a whole bunch of other stuff, but you get the idea. The point is then when you squat, your external rotators are active. And that helps keep your patella tracking in a cleaner line over the second and third toes, which in most cases under heavy load we want. The flip side of that is if we only train in that plane, we’re only tolerant to that plane. So there are times when you arguably want to train the knee under light load to handle some different forces. But the heavier the load generally speaking, the tighter we want the movement, I think that’s safe to say. So when we activate TfL or glutemead, and we kind of tidy up that hip a little bit, we organize that motion that helps us track in plane.
Colby Pearce 1:43:46
When people sit on a bike, it’s really common for them to collapse into the bike. It’s also common for people to collapse into a chair and hunch. And this brings out the colloquial I have air quotes “bad posture”. Posture that is not good or bad, it just can sometimes be optimized will say. So when your posture can be optimized one of the ways we do it is to focus on axial extension. So when you’re standing axial extension means you’re making your spine as long as you can, from tip to tail or from the crown of your head to your tailbone. It is as though someone were pulling you up by a string and that string was attached to the very crown of your head and making your spine long.
Premises of posture and the importance of spinal curves
Colby Pearce 1:44:32
This drill, this concept of exercises based on some premises. One premise is that most people spinal curves are not ideal. That’s one. Two, when we pull someone to actual extension it will normalize their curves.
Colby Pearce 1:44:48
What do I mean by that? So the spine normally has three curves: a lumbar, thoracic and a cervical. Those curves are, typically, within certain ranges of degrees of flexion or extension, depending on which curve you’re looking at. And we can measure this. Paul Jack’s made a device, I have one at my office, that you can use to measure spinal curves. So if someone has excessive kyphosis, for example, that means their shoulders are rounded forward and their thoracic spine has too much flexion. So their spinal curve in the thoracic area is too flexed, more flex than we would like. And this happens as a result of poor posture and poor habits, movement habits and postural habits over decades of life, years of life.
Colby Pearce 1:45:36
When we get on a bike, guess what? Certain curves tend to become abnormal. If you stand with your heels against a wall, and your butt against a wall and your shoulders against a wall, a normal lumbar curve means that you can fit your hand behind your lower back at the height of your belly button, about to where your knuckles are – that’s sort of an old Italian wives tales method to check your lumbar curve. It works in most cases pretty well. If you’ve got really big glutes, and you’ve been doing a lot of squats and deadlifts, and you got shelf, this rule may not quite apply. Likewise, if you’ve got no butt this rule may not quite apply. So you have to kind of interpret it based on the muscular structure of the athlete. But in many cases, it works well as a guideline to understand how your lumbar curve is.
Colby Pearce 1:46:28
And because cyclists spend so much time in forward flexion that is hinged forward, forward bent, we tend to undo or deconstruct that healthy lumbar curve, the spine is made this way for a good reason, because we’re made to run and walk and the spine helps with that process. It helps absorb shock, it gives structure to the torso. And it also compresses and extends based on when we’re running. It also allows rotation of the upper body for things like throwing, lifting and pulling or pushing. So the spinal curves are there for a reason. Don’t mess with them. No, you cannot over engineer this. But we just need to understand the basic concepts.
Colby Pearce 1:47:13
So when a cyclist bends forward to reach the bars all the time, they tend to, in most cases, undo their lumbar curve. There are exceptions in the cycling world where I’ve seen the opposite happen, the lumbar curve becomes more pronounced and the hips dump forward, the hamstrings are long and loose, or sometimes just long. And this I refer to as duck butt – you’ll know exactly what I mean when I say that. But most cyclists do not suffer from that they suffer from the opposite problem where their lumbar curve becomes deconstructed, and it becomes flattened. We don’t have enough lumbar curve. Most cyclists suffer from excessive thoracic curvature because we’re reaching down and craning over to the bars. Also, driving a desk does this. Sitting in chair does the same two things to these curves, generally speaking. So we’re kind of ice skating uphill, because if sitting is the new smoking, well guess what? Cycling is just more sitting. I hate to say it. Primal movement patterns, cycling is a forward bend statically with a bunch of lunges, and some pulling either contralateral or MC lateral pulling depending on where you break it down.
Colby Pearce 1:48:24
So, one last one, cyclists tend to destroy their cervical curve as well, which is at the top of the spine. And this is because when our torsos I’ll say is at a 30-35, 40-45 degree angle, 50 degree angle, most of the time relative to the horizon, depending on whether you ride a mountain bike or cross bike, how flexible you are, and how good or disastrous your bike fit is. What we do as humans is we tend to verticalize the face. We want our our eyes to be level and our face to be relatively vertical, because we are visual creatures and one of the most important ways to stay alive is to look at stuff like tigers or cars when you’re on a bike. So in order to do that, you need a clear path of vision. In order to do that we keep our eyes level and our face vertical. When we verticalize the face and our torso is at 45 degrees, you can see what happens to the cervical curve, we’re basically kind of creaking up, right? We are increasing the cervical curve past the point that we would consider healthy and we’re adding the weight of a helmet to that all the time. So that’s a lot of strain on the cervical neck musculature. It’s got to carry the weight of that head, it’s got to deal with forces when we’re mountain biking or even road riding there are undulations in terrain and potholes and you know when you run over foxes and cats, stuff like that.
Colby Pearce 1:49:56
Don’t run over foxes, foxes are cute. We love their fluffy tails.
Colby Pearce 1:49:59
So as I said this exercise, this concept is based on two basic premises one is that your spinal curvature is becoming disrupted. And when we move towards axial extension to a certain degree, it will normalize the curves. That may or may not be true in every case. However, it’s also a recommendation based on the second principle, which is that we are organizing the movement. And I would argue that in many cases, that actually overrides the correction of spinal curves. True correction of spinal curves should be done in a corrective exercise program which is done off the bike.
Making power through axial extension
Colby Pearce 1:50:44
What we’re trying to do on the bike is minimize damage to spinal curves, and put the rider in an ideal posture to make power. How do we do this? By axially extending on the bike?
Colby Pearce 1:50:56
What do I mean by that? That means when you’re riding in the hoods, or in the drops or the tops, but we’ll use the hoods as an example, you are applying the same principle; you are trying to make your spine as long as possible from your tailbone, through the crown of your head. Now notice, it’s really easy to forget about the cervical curve, because again, our default is to verticalize the face and horizontal eyes, the eyeballs. So it’s really easy for me to ask someone to axial extend when they’re riding on the trainer in my fit studio, and they kind of almost make military posture, which is they make the spine long and then they their head goes bolt upright. And that’s actually not really the goal. So imagine if I put a dowel rod, a closet dowel rod, which is about an inch in diameter, five feet long, down the back of your jersey, and I had you stand with that dowel rod tucked inside your jersey or undershirt. We would want ideally three points of contact one of the sacrum, then the lumbar spine would curve away from that del one in between the shoulders as the thoracic spine touched the dowel, and then a third at the back of the head because the cervical spine will curve away from that dowel.
Colby Pearce 1:52:17
Now when you assume a forward hinged hip position or bent position on the bike, we can expect again some of those curves to straighten especially the lumbar curve. But as a general rule, using a dowel like this can be a good guide. And most people will tend to automatically put their head into that dowel immediately as they go to verticalize as the face.
Colby Pearce 1:52:39
So if you’re unsure about how you’re sitting on the bike, try this on the trainer: using an undershirt, put a dowel down the backside of your undershirt parallel to the spine. It’s a good way to educate yourself about what’s going on. You can also film yourself or you can watch yourself in a mirror if you’ve got the right technology, it sometimes requires tricky angles. The point is when we extend the spine axially we are engaging very important muscles that help stabilize the spine under load. And if you recall, since cycling, when we break it down into primal movement patterns, fundamentally it’s a static hip hinge and a series of lunges. When you’re lunging, when you’re pushing down hard with the right leg, what is the tendency for an unstable pelvis? It’s for the pelvis to twist under that load. Well how do we prevent that twisting? With a strong deep core and engagement of spinal musculature. So when you’re pushing really hard on that 8% grade, really hard down on the pedal at two o’clock or one o’clock or 12 o’clock like I asked you to because you’re doing you’re dead legs like a perfect student, we’ve got to make your spine long and strong to stabilize that effort. This is as of course also assuming that your spinal musculature is working properly and all the muscles are switched on which means you can integrate them properly…
Colby Pearce 1:54:02
Whole other topic we can dig into that with future PTs some more. Maybe, I’ll get Charlie mural back on the show.
Colby Pearce 1:54:07
Some of the muscles that are used in axial extension that help you brace with this long extended spine include the lats, latissimus dorsi, longissimus, Elio kostopoulos, serratus, posterior, multifidus, and quadratus lumborum. These are all superficial and deep muscles of the back and in particular, elio kostopoulos and longissimus kind of go from the spine in the lower back, in that lumbar region, up towards the shoulder. So when you push down hard with that right foot, and you have that slight body tension where the right shoulder comes over that foot during that moment, we have tension on both the contralateral and ipsilateral sides of those two muscles, Elio kostopoulos and longissimus. And that enables you to have that tensegrity.
Colby Pearce 1:55:03
Axial extension is the key to having tensegrity. If you are pushing super hard with the lower extremities only the glutes, the quads, hamstrings, and calves. But there’s flasced muscle engagement from the iliac crests northwards, then you’re only going to get so far, especially on a steep grade where we have to use the elastic system of the facial tissue to distribute load over more muscle tissue so that you don’t suffer from acute fatigue in one muscle group, ie the quads.
Colby Pearce 1:55:47
So one of my most important cues for how to pedal a bike is to focus on axial extension. You don’t want to dump the pelvis, meaning have it rotate backwards, and round the spine and sit lazily on a bike. We want a lightly active core, we want the deep core to be functioning and innervated properly, which requires some training and some breathing. But also, we want to organize the motion. This is what you see when you see a rider producing very high amounts of power and things are relatively tidy. Yes, you see shoulder motion, yes, you might see some head motion, you see a slight rhythmic bobbing of the shoulders in rhythm and timing with the appropriate leg. We don’t see excess of sneaking of the bike, we don’t see excessive rotation of the ribs. We don’t see excessive movement of the shoulders and head – and I realized that tidy versus excessive is subjective. But if you review some videos with these concepts in mind, you can pretty much figure out what I mean. And after watching some videos carefully, you can start to see which riders have a little more core control and are a little more neuromuscularly engaged in the activity holistically rather than kind of jabbing at the pedals.
Colby Pearce 1:57:08
One last reminder, the low hanging fruit for us to figure this out is to go out and YouTube a bunch of World Tour bike races. Just because someone is winning races or competing at the World Tour and getting paid to ride their bike does not mean their technique is ideal or optimized. It may be optimized for them and it may be kind of a train wreck. But in most cases, when it’s pretty bad, you can pretty much guarantee that they have made it to the world tour level in spite of not because of. Does that mean that their technique is a really rate limiting factor a low hanging fruit way there to improve their results? I would argue in most cases, yes. But I also am not privy to that athletes path. I don’t know what they’ve been through to get there. Maybe these athletes have been hit by cars or had severe accidents or had some sort of an illness as a child that gave them some sort of neurological challenge. Maybe they were born with a congenital abnormality that prevented them from functioning with a proper deep core. There are lots of possible explanations…
Colby Pearce 1:58:16
So my point is, I don’t make assumptions or I don’t try to speculate about why a rider looks the way they do on the bike or what their support network is, what kind of training they’re doing or not doing. I just observe. I’m here to observe not judge. And I see riders and I see some riders whom I think may benefit from improved neuromuscular coordination and core tension. An improved, we’ll say, aspect of global tensegrity. There are other riders who are quite tidy. And in that case, maybe it’s because they’ve been doing lots of stability work, lots of deep core work, they’ve got excellent trainers, they do a lot of off the bike work, or maybe they’re just blessed. This is the fractal of human existence, right? You put 100 people in a room you get one person of every type, and you’ll have one you fall in love with and one that you want to stab in the face with a fork. Just the way it works. And 98 of them are in between.
Testing your axial extension
Colby Pearce 1:59:26
So axial extension is one key aspect to riding. If you’ve never tried or thought about it. My suggestion is stand with your heels and butt and shoulders and head against a wall, find out how much axial extension you can actualize. A common compensation for riders who have poorly managed spinal curves or humans in general, when they do this wall drill just to figure out what their actual extension is, is their lower ribs will pop out away from the wall. That’s an indicator that you’ve got some dysfunction going on. Also, if you can’t press your shoulders flat against the wall, meaning your scapula, that’s an indicator that your scapula is are glued to your rib cage, which is really common in the world of cycling. Bike racers kind of think of their arms as these useless objects they wish they could saw off just so they can go uphill faster. And that’s not the case, by the way, you want your arms, trust me.
Colby Pearce 2:00:31
So then try a dowel drill. See if you can put that dowel down your undershirt, your tight fitting undershirt, so it doesn’t drop out and stand that way. Then try a hip hinge at 45 degrees. Look sideways in a mirror, see what happens to your spinal curves. Are you able to maintain a lumbar curve while standing with this dowel? If you can, that’s a good sign, you probably won’t be able to maintain that lumbar curve while you’re riding a bike because you’ve got a saddle between your legs. Even a good saddle like an SMP or proper saddle with a cutout will not allow most riders to maintain it proper neutral lumbar curve while they’re riding in the hoods. Maybe in the tops, pretty unusual though. That’s okay, that’s not really our goal. We accept that we are going to make compromises to our lumbar curves while we’re riding bikes. As I said, when we use axial extension that helps to maintain a healthy spine that is braced under loa a.nd then we do a corrective exercise program off the bike to improve our spinal curvatures if they are totally disastrous.
Triple extension revisited
Colby Pearce 2:01:38
The last part I want to say is that I do use, I’ll say a sub optimal example for to explain the concept of triple extension. So I’m going to lay this out now what is triple extension, it is simply the extension of all three lower extremity joints at once to produce explosive power: the ankle, the knee and the hip. You would use it when you are exploding to jump as high as possible, for example, to jump up and touch a point on a wall.
Colby Pearce 2:02:07
Maybe some of you are familiar with a test and explosive power test where you can crouch down and jump up and flip a little lever. It’s kind of like a there’s a rod that extends upwards and on that rod are attached several we’ll say levers, they look like little street signs. But there’s one after another and each one’s an inch tall. And they go up and up and up. So when you jump up, you flick the signs away these little levers. And when you do this, it measures how high you jumped. It’s an easy way for someone to test their vertical gain.
Colby Pearce 2:02:43
An example, what I’m explaining is how to use triple extension elastically. And I used a slightly poor example. So I’m going to refine that right now. If we’re using elastic muscle force, the way to do this is to crouch down, begin at a standing position, crouch down, bend at the knees, bend at the hips and bend at the ankles, pause for just a fraction of a second, a microsecond and then explode upwards. This is using elastic recoil of the muscles in the facial system to generate explosive force explosive upward momentum. We can take away that momentun by doing a simple thing: we can pause longer at the bottom. So you can try this experiment at home if you want. Stand next to a wall, one you don’t mind touching perhaps with your dirty fingers, so you know where you hit it. Jump up as high as you can. Do it twice. Using the first method, crouch down and just for a fraction of a second, a tiny pause at the bottom almost imperceptible crouch down and then explode back up immediately. In the second attempt, I want you to crouch down to the same depth, but pause for three full seconds, deaen your muscles. Pausing that long will even give them a touch of fatigue. But more significantly, you’re going to have to re accelerate your mass, your inertia, and then jump up. You won’t jump as high. Guaranteed.
Colby Pearce 2:04:16
This may sound counterintuitive, because you might think well my momentum and inertia are going the wrong way when I crouch down and then reverse. But that’s exactly what you’re doing is kind of winding a spring. It’s like you’re pulling back a rubber band and letting it elasticache in the other direction. This is what makes elastic motion and this is part of, believe it or not, pedaling technique at the proper moment in cycling.
Colby Pearce 2:04:40
That was a lot of talking about pedaling. I’m going to go home now and eat some lunch. I hope you enjoyed my ramblings. You know where to reach me. If you have comments. Hit me back. Are you a bio mechanist who wholeheartedly disagrees with what I said? Are you a coach who thinks I’m full of crap? Or do you agree with me but you want to expand on what I said? Reach out to me. Let’s have a discourse. Let’s get you on the pod man. I want to talk more about this. These are my thoughts. This is my experience. Doesn’t mean I know everything. In fact, I’m enlightened because I know that I don’t know a lot. There’s an audacious statement for you. I just said I was enlightened. I don’t know what that means. Anyway, these are my thoughts. I hope you like them. I hope you find them useful and insightful. I hope they lead to insight in your own training and how you think about training. If you’re a coach, if you’re tackling how you train your athletes, if you are self coached, and you’re trying to figure stuff out, if you’re just a person who thinks a lot about bike pedaling like me then maybe you find this discussion insightful.
Colby Pearce 2:05:56
Reach out to me email@example.com.
Colby Pearce 2:06:03
And onward, we will go. Remember to take care of yourself in these will say volatile times. And remember, take care yourself all the time. Because what else is there? As Paul would say, I, we, all, all comes first. Sweep the doorstep, then you can be your best year. Thanks, everyone. Until next time.
Colby Pearce 2:06:30
Attention space monkeys public service announcement. Really, technically, it’s a disclaimer. You already know this, but I’m going to remind you that I’m not a lawyer and I’m not a doctor. So don’t think anything on this podcast to constitute morally or doctorly advice. I don’t play either of those characters on the internet. Also, we talk about lots of things. And that means we have opinions. I guess opinions are not necessarily reflective of the opinions of anyone who is employed by or works at Fast Talk Labs. Also, if you want to reach out and talk to me about things, feedback on the podcast, good, bad or otherwise, you may do so at the following email address firstname.lastname@example.org