It takes a lifetime to learn to pedal, and we'll all probably die before we get it right.
Most of us, all of us, learned to pedal by mashing.
We rode platform pedals and had no other choice except to mash, and, besides, mashing comes naturally.
The first thing we learn, the way we learn it, and the setting in which we learn it becomes the file into which we put all subsequent learning regarding whichever skill or preference we have learned.
"They" call this primacy of learning
Whatever we learn first affects everything we learn thereafter.
At some point in our riding, it occurs to us we can improve our pedaling by pulling up on the back side of the spin cycle.
Toe clips and straps represent the first means of pulling up on the back side of the spin.
Those who ride on the track and take it very seriously can strap in so tight they can pull backwards on the pedal at the bottom of the spin.
My son, who rides a geared bike (coasting bike) on the street, prefers clips and straps to clipless pedals, and he straps himself in tight; so tight he can't easily pull his foot out of the clip and strap.
He can do this because, when he wants to stop, he can coast and bring his foot up within reach of his hand while he loosens the strap.
On a fixed gear bike, though, riding on the street and not on the track, strapping in that tight requires considerable skill.
I think on the street most people choose or learn to ride with their straps loose enough so they can pull out of them in an emergency.
This also means for a portion of the spin, say from 6 to 8 o'clock (viewed from the right), the rider with loose straps cannot pull backwards and up without pulling his foot out of the straps.
Set that aside and let's talk about clipless pedals and shoes.
When clipless riders first start studying their spin, they tend to pull up on backward part of the spin, from about 7 o'clock to 10 o'clock, and then they mash from 1 o'clock to 5 o'clock.
Many riders have difficulty remembering to do this, and only do it irregularly, when they think of it, usually when the fronts of their thighs get tired from mashing.
Additionally, most riders think they pull as hard as they mash.
Not everyone does.
Old habits and accomodations die hard, and, since mashing feels normal to us, we have little means of measuring the amount of effort we put into the mash as compared to the pull.
If we have the luxury of riding our bike on a computerized force-measuring training device, we can see a real time graphic representation of how we distribute the work throughout the spin.
Almost all of us, without coaching or training, pull from 7 o'clock to 10 o'clock, and mash from 1 o'clock to 5 o'clock; and we mash more than we pull.
Further, given the additional luxury of a coach watching us from the side, he will probably point out to us that, on the back side of our spin we raise our heel and point our toe down, and, by doing so, we make the backs of our thighs do all of the pulling.
So, how do we fill in the clock, so that we do as much work 5 o'clock to 1 o'clock as we do from 1 o'clock to 5 o'clock?
And, do we really want to go to all this trouble?
Regarding the motivation to fill in the clock, one might have heard the saying "many hands make light work."
Applied to the body, one might also say "many muscles make light work."
When we only mash in our spin, from 1 to 5 o'clock, three and a half of the four major muscles in the fronts of our thighs do all the work, produce all the watts, that get us from here to there.
The rest of our thighs, calves, hips and buttocks just go along for the ride.
However, with a full spin, we recruit the second half of the most powerful muscle in the front of our thigh, as well as the backs of our thighs, the fronts and backs of our lower legs (calf and shin), and many more of the muscles of our hips and buttocks.
So, let's say we want to fill in our spin and get all of those muscles involved, each doing a small part of the work and not getting tired.
The recruiting of many muscles makes light work.
The easiest way to fill in our spin involves a three-part visualization.
First visualization: the rider should imagine he wants to bring his knees to the handlebars as he pulls up on the back side of the spin.
When we visualize bringing our knees to the handlebars, it recruits the single most powerful and complex muscle in our thighs, so that it first brings the thigh forward.
This muscle, the rectus femoris
, alone of all the quadiriceps, does not touch the thigh bone.
Rather, it begins in the pelvis and travels down the thigh, attaching to the knee cap, and directs its force to the front of the shin.
The rectus femoris
both flexes the thigh at the hip (brings the knee up to the handlebars) and straightens the knee (mashes), but only one task at a time: it can't do both at the same time.
When we visualize bringing our knees to the handlebars, it pre-organizes our muscles so that the rectus femoris
pulls up on the thigh, and so that the various deep muscles of the hip and back (some of which run from the spine, through the pelvis, to the thigh bone) all get involved in the pulling, as well as the obvious muscles in the backs of our thighs.
Second visualization: drop the heel.
We normally, in the absence of coaching, drop the toe and raise the heel.
This seems, intuitively, like good and effective form.
For various reasons, requiring too many words to explain, it works the opposite of what seems right to us.
For maximum effectiveness, and fullness of spin, we should drop the heel.
The third visualization helps us "see" the wisdom of dropping the heel.
Third visualization: square the circle.
We have used clock positions to describe the spin.
Clocks normally have round faces.
Make the face of the clock square, especially so that the back side of the spin at about 7:30 o'clock becomes a corner of a square clock face.
If the rider aims his heel at this back corner, at 7:30 o'clock, it will automatically square the entire spin, and, in the long run, make the spin more circular.
Yes, square the spin to make it more circular.
Anyway, when we direct our heel towards this back corner, with the anticipation of bringing our knee to the handlebar, it makes us involuntarily "scrape" the bottom of the spin.
Similarly, it will also make the rider "push" over the top of the spin.
By visualizing a square and directing our heel towards the back corner of the square, we fill in the empty spots from 5 to 8 o'clock, and from 10 to 1 o'clock.
In a nutshell: visualize bringing the knees to the handlebars, drop the heel, square the circle and direct the heel to the back corner of the square...and then bring the knee to the handle bar, drop the heel, square the circle and direct the heel to the back corner of the square...and then bring the knee...
Try it with just one leg and foot.
Don't try it with both.
We all have a dominate leg and foot, just as we have a dominant hand.
Pick the dominant leg and foot and try the visualizations.
Then switch to the other leg and foot, and without judgement (bad leg!), compare the two sides and let the right leg teach the left leg teach the right leg teach the left leg.
Spin with visualizations with one leg for awhile (the other leg can go along for the ride), and then spin concentrating on the other leg for awhile.
Do this whenever the rider thinks about it, and, after about four months it will become natural, especially on hills and into a wind.
By the way, I didn't invent this out of my own head.
At this phase of my life, I happen to have the means to afford coaches and therapists, and they have taught this to me.
I like to share and I enjoy the challenge of putting these ideas and concepts into words.
Please let me know if this works for anyone.