Every mile. Every meter. Every watt. Every bit of play, propulsion, and progress you make on your bike begins with pedaling. Which is why riders have been fixated on pedaling since inventors first attached cranks to wheels (and later to drivetrains). How fast (or slow) should we pedal? How can we make our pedal stroke stronger? How can we pedal so efficiently that we can ride forever (or at least a very, very long way)?

We’ve pored through the research and called in experts who have been studying, investigating, teaching, and applying pedaling technique and biomechanics for decades to shed light on your most pressing pedaling questions.

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Is there a perfect pedal stroke?

There is and there isn’t. Twenty or 30 years ago, editors of this magazine would have told readers to pedal perfect circles. Now we know that’s biomechanically impossible—and unnecessary. Though there are riders who have silky smooth pedal strokes and those who look like they’re stomping through mud, both styles can win world championships, says Jeff Broker, PhD, a biomechanics researcher and associate professor at University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.

“Riders tend to pedal in the style that suits them,” he says. Making yours more efficient can save you effort and energy. The goal is less about “spinning circles” than maintaining momentum by ensuring all your power production is propelling you forward without wasting watts.

Picture your pedal stroke from the right side as a clock face. The bulk of your power is produced on the downstroke, from where your pedal is at high noon to about 5 or 6 o’clock. The goal of the upstroke isn’t to create more power—it’s a waste of energy to try—it’s to get the back leg out of the way of the power that the front leg is producing so you don’t have dead spots with little to no productive power, Broker says. That means you want to start producing power over the top of the stroke as early as possible while resisting with the back leg as little as possible.

cyclists racing in harlem crit
Trevor Raab

If you mash the pedals, you allow the cranks to be vertical and then need to push really hard on the downstroke, which can lead to wild power oscillations, Broker says. “If you’re riding at 200 watts, it’s more efficient to oscillate between 300 and 100 than to oscillate between 400 and 0,” he says.

To a certain extent, pedaling style is dictated by body type and the kind of riding you do. Sprinters tend to have the highest oscillations, likely because they tend to have the largest legs, which take more energy to lift. Mountain bikers usually have the least dramatic oscillations because creating balanced force around the stroke helps them maintain traction on rough terrain. Legendary mountain biker John Tomac had “the most uniform power delivery in the lab I’d ever seen,” Broker says. And he suspects top gravel riders also have lower oscillations.

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Practice This

As your leg is coming up, imagine driving your knee toward the bar and your foot horizontally over the top. That will help you initiate power by the time you hit 12 o’clock.

As you apply pressure through the downstroke, some experts recommend dropping your heel to parallel or 10 degrees below 3 o’clock, and sweeping through the bottom of the pedal stroke as if you’re scraping mud off the bottom of your shoe. But avoid ankling, intentionally dropping your heel in an exaggerated motion and using your ankle to pedal, which wastes energy and robs power.

“When you drop the heel, you’re absorbing some of that downward force and creating a dead spot,” says Hunter Allen, founder of the Peaks Coaching Group who specializes in pedaling and power dynamics. “Imagine bounce-passing a basketball. Dropping your heel is like putting a backspin on the ball. It stops the forward momentum and brings it back in the opposite direction.”

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Drill This

High-speed pedaling drills help smooth dead spots by training your muscles and neuromuscular system to work together to stay on top of the power on the downstroke without resisting it on the upstroke, Allen says.

Start by pedaling in a light gear at 80 to 90 rpm and build to 100 to 120 rpm over the course of 30 to 60 seconds. Recover for a minute or two and repeat three to four more times.

Work the drill into your rides once or twice a week.

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Do single-leg drills help?

Back in the day, riders did a lot of single-leg drills to try to create a more perfect pedal stroke by optimizing each leg individually. But unless you perform them like researchers do in a lab (with a counterweight system on the opposite pedal to assist with the upward phase of the stroke and preserve normal biomechanics), they can cause more problems than they fix, Allen says.

Without that counterweight or the momentum from the opposite leg’s downstroke, the pedaling leg is forced to overuse muscles, like the hip flexors, that usually play smaller roles. “It also encourages ankling,” Allen says. Both increase risk of injury without any benefit.

Training one leg at a time also doesn’t appear to change your pedaling when you go back to using both legs, Broker says. Back in the 1990s, decoupled left/right cranks came out, and they forced you to pedal with each leg independently. But, he says, “I had one athlete who used them for six months after an injury. Her mechanics went right back to where they were with no adaptation at all when she went back to her traditional setup.” Research echoes Broker’s experience, showing decoupled cranks didn’t result in changes in any physiological or performance measures in well-trained cyclists.

What if one leg is producing more or less power than the other? That’s normal, Allen says. “Riders often have a 5 percent difference between left and right.” If you have a more pronounced difference, that’s something to address in the weight room with moves like single-​leg squats, bridges, and step-ups, Allen says.

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What’s the link between pedaling position and knee pain?

Knee pain is usually a product of improper bike fit and/or an unresolved biomechanical issue like a collapsing arch, says Andy Pruitt, EdD, cofounder of the Colorado University Sports Medicine and Performance Center in Boulder. In other words, most people can even ride a poorly fitted bike without knee pain.

But if you start riding longer and harder, imperfections in the system can magnify and result in pain. “Fit is the first thing we address for knee pain,” Pruitt says. “Then we address biomechanical challenges like a knee that collapses inward. Lastly, we resolve muscle strength or mobility issues with appropriate exercises.”

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Will riding a fixie make me better at pedaling?

Nah. On a fixie, you may feel like there are no “dead spots” since there’s no freehub, but really the motion of the bike is pulling your feet over the top of the stroke. Depending on the gearing, you also may find yourself ankling to keep forward momentum. On the positive side, riding a fixie may help you get more comfortable at a wide variety of cadences because you can find yourself going from 30 to 200 rpm in hilly conditions. It also can build strength because you often work harder than you would with gears.

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But in general, a better approach for developing a smooth riding style is to use rollers, which encourage steady power production to stay centered on the spinning drums. Kreitler Alloy Rollers are the gold standard: USA-made with aircraft-grade aluminum drums, sealed cartridge bearings, and a welded steel frame that fits most bikes.

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What cadence is most efficient?

Mathematical analyses of energy consumption and conservation show that 90 rpm is the sweet spot (and preferred by many trained cyclists), but trying to force a higher cadence (outside of training intervals) can be counterproductive.

You can achieve the same wattage and go the same speed by pedaling 75 rpm, 100 rpm, or any other cadence. It depends on what feels comfortable and what you can sustain. That varies from person to person since pedaling depends on both aerobic fitness (the ability to use oxygen to create energy for your muscles) and muscle strength. The cadence you select should allow you to balance both systems without either one burning out before the ride is done.

Many riders prefer a higher cadence than the one that is the most efficient. In one study, volunteers reported preferring an average cadence of 81 rpm despite using the least energy pedaling at 60 rpm. Scientists believe it’s because most of the work of pedaling is done by specific muscles and those muscles work better at a higher velocity. In the study, the riders’ preferred cadence is where the vastus lateralis—one of the primary cycling quadriceps muscles—produced maximum power without wasting energy.

Allen finds that riders tend to select a cadence largely based on two factors: main muscle fiber type (fast-twitch or slow-twitch) and level of cardiovascular cycling fitness. The balance of those factors (which can change over time) determines your ideal cadence.

If your quads make it hard to find pants that fit, you may have more fast-twitch muscle fibers and prefer the lower end of the cadence spectrum because you have more muscle to push with. If you don’t build muscle easily or are on the leaner side, you likely have more of the slow-twitch fibers and may prefer to pedal faster with less force per pedal stroke to do the same work.

If you’re not in your best cycling shape, you will pedal more slowly because your cardiovascular system can’t handle the higher heart rate that comes with high cadences and will prefer to rely more on your muscle strength. As you get fitter, you will tend to shift the work to your cardiovascular system and therefore pedal more quickly. “When my riders are peaking, they always pedal about 3 to 8 rpm faster than they do the rest of the year,” Allen says.

Here’s how optimal pedaling cadences tend to shake out within these parameters:

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Fast Twitch

Slow Twitch

More Fit

You’ll tend to be more efficient in a moderate cadence range, about 85 to 90 rpm.

You’ll likely be more efficient at the higher end of the pedaling cadence spectrum: 95+ rpm.

Less Fit

Your preferred pedaling cadence is likely slower, in the 75 to 85 rpm range.

Your preferred cadence will likely be in the moderate range of 85 to 90 rpm.

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What’s the deal with elliptical chainrings?

Noncircular chainrings are designed to simulate a larger gear on the downstroke so you produce more power, and a smaller gear on the upstroke to eliminate dead spots. They’ve come and gone in popularity since the early ’90s. Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome both won the Tour de France using oval chainrings. But there is little scientific evidence to support a significant performance gain. The latest study published in the December 2021 edition of the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance found noncircular chainrings didn’t save energy or improve performance in a group of trained cyclists in the lab.

“For people who need them, they can be effective,” Allen says. “I had a client who had a dead spot from 12 to almost 2 on the downstroke that we couldn’t get rid of. Working with Q-rings eliminated it and ultimately increased her FTP by 30 watts. That’s a sizable gain.” A professional bike fitter can help you determine whether these would be useful for you.

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Are my legs actually different lengths? Does it even matter?

Probably, and usually not. “2mm to 3mm difference is pretty common,” says Pruitt. The body can generally compensate for the small difference. But, says Pruitt, “Anything over about 5mm or about ¼ inch should be addressed.” A fitter can put a spacer between the cleat and the shoe, or a shim inside the shoe. If the difference is pronounced in the femur, such as if you’ve broken your leg, you may need a shim/spacer and a cleat adjustment.

cyclist pedaling on road
Daniel Wakefield Pasley / Manual for Speed
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What happens when I pedal out of the saddle?

Standing to pedal means you use your body weight and gravity to assist with the downstroke. That might feel good at first, but it also uses more energy because standing forces ankling, especially when the grade is steep, and creates more dead spots. “That’s why your heart rate goes up,” Allen says. Standing can give your body a much-needed break on a long climb, but it’s more economical to pedal seated.

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Does it make sense to get a bike fit?

A professional bike fit can ensure you’re in the optimum position for your muscles to flex and extend just the right amounts for strong and efficient pedaling. As a start, aim to have your saddle height set so you have a 25- to 30-degree bend in the knee when your leg is at the bottom of the pedal stroke. That will give your leg room to bring the pedal down and around the rotation without overextending or underextending, both of which waste watts and set the stage for overuse injury.

Headshot of Selene Yeager
Selene Yeager
“The Fit Chick”
Selene Yeager is a top-selling professional health and fitness writer who lives what she writes as a NASM certified personal trainer, USA Cycling certified coach, Pn1 certified nutrition coach, pro licensed off road racer, and All-American Ironman triathlete.