Cycling Inefficiencies — Beginner to Intermediate
Are you working harder than you have to?
When you’re out there on your bike, you may be wasting energy and not getting the most out of your effort. If you’re not competitive at all, this article is still for you; this isn’t just about being able to go faster or further, but also being able to do a bit more with less.
This is especially relevant if you are a heavier rider, have a heavier bike, and/or live in a place where hills are unavoidable. It’s doubly important if you suffer from recurring injuries — you want to make cycling as efficient for your body as possible — but I’ll save the injury topic for another article.
There are lots of contributing factors toward friction and general resistance that may cause you to require more power for the same amount of work, which can fatigue you and your muscles, joints and cardiovascular system faster.
1.0 — Mechanical Inefficiency
Some bike upgrades may help, but a lot of them aren’t free, so maintenance and adjustment can be the cheaper option.
1.1 — Drivetrain Cleanliness
A recently cleaned and well-lubricated chain can make your bike feel like new again. Your pedal strokes and shifting will feel much smoother, especially if it’s been a while or if you frequent dusty or dirty roads. You should clean and re-lubricate your chain often. And that is just a start; you should also clean the gunk from the sprockets on your cassette, the jockey wheels, and the chainrings on your crankset whenever it starts to build up.
If you visit your friendly local bike shop regularly for a tune-up, that’s great. In between tune-ups you may want to go a bit extra and clean the chain and sprockets yourself if you’re even a tiny bit mechanically inclined – there is a lot of YouTube content out there for DIY maintenance.
1.2 — Avoiding Unnecessary Chain Friction
Speaking of smoothness, make sure you’re not cross-chaining with your current gear selection. For example, using the largest chainring (front)+ the largest cog on the cassette (rear), or the smallest chainring (front)+ the smallest cog (rear).
If you hear rubbing of the chain against the guide of your front derailleur, it could* be that you’re using a combination of gears that should not be ridden. These will be duplicates of existing gear ratio combinations anyway, so don’t worry about not using your “full range” of gears. It has been said that on a 2x11 setup, there can be as little as 14 unique gear ratios, and up to 17, depending on the configuration. A gear ratio determines how many rotations the rear wheel rotates per each pedal stroke.
Given you have a 50-34T chainset and an 11–30T cassette if you have two gear combinations that both have a mathematically similar ratio (e.g. 50/30T vs 34/20T of front/rear), the one with the chain going in the straightest line would be the more efficient, which is the 34/20T combination.
The cross-chaining performance loss is small in watts, but if your gear selection results in rubbing and therefore unnecessary friction, all of these tiny inefficiencies combined will add up together, especially over time.
*Other reasons might include imperfect derailleur adjustment, or that sometimes on double or triple cranksets you can’t get it perfectly quiet on every gear combination.
1.3 — Wheel Rub
If any part of the wheel (including disc brake rotors) is audibly rubbing against your frame, mudguards or brake pads, then this will definitely be creating extra friction. If you try to freely spin your wheel when it is off the ground, and it stops relatively quickly, then this is something you need to check more closely into.
2.0 — Technique and Biomechanics
How efficiently your body is using your bike is also a factor.
2.1 — Nutrition and Hydration
To put it very simply, your muscles require sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium and other electrolytes in order to contract and relax, and water helps deliver these to your muscles through your blood efficiently. Unfortunately, you are also going to sweat some of this out. Conveniently, you can replenish a combination of these in the form of a drink; this is why athletes use electrolyte drinks during physical activity. Though, water should be fine for shorter workouts.
If you become thirsty during a ride it already means you’ve dropped the ball on staying hydrated — keep on top of it but don’t overdrink. Carbohydrates are also used to fuel the energy you’ll be producing, so eating a few hours before the ride is a good idea.
While you can go on rides consuming only little amounts of fluid and/or on an empty stomach, you’re going to be making it harder than it has to be. Your muscles may tighten up quickly, and once this happens, they can become increasingly sore and less efficient. If you’ve had muscle cramps, spasms, or had a muscle completely seize-up on you before, it is probably due to overuse, but your nutrition and hydration are definitely going to be a factor.
What to eat or drink, and the appropriate amount for your body and your workload is different for everyone. Seek professional advice.
2.2 — Stretching and Fatigue
If your muscles are already tight while you’re relaxed at home, you need to address this. Your next few rides are only going to make them tighter. You can get to a point where cycling slower than your average still feels twice as hard as when you’re at your best. If you keep pushing, eventually it really goes downhill from here; despite your recovery, injury is often not a one-time thing, but something you have to live with and manage.
Stretching your quads, hamstrings and calves, and rolling your IT band, gluteus medius and hip flexors regularly after every ride (even if it doesn’t feel tight) can help prevent overtightening. If you wait until it feels tight, you’re already playing catch-up; stretching every day, getting in more rest days and seeing a professional, are going to be a mitigation tactic rather than a preventative one. These can be the only things keeping you away from injury if you’ve let it get really bad.
2.3 — Bike Fitting
Getting a professional bike fit isn’t just for serious riders; with a poorly fitted bike, your body can be working against its natural tendencies, and can even result in injury. Most local bicycle shops won’t let you walk away with a purchase without at least a rudimentary fit for the sizing of the bike, but a decent bike fit is done by appointment and is tailored to the individual. There are many adjustments to be made which make it the most beneficial for your body in the long term.
2.4 — Start Shifting As Required
This is more about personal comfortable cadence (how many RPMs you pedal) but is also completely related to understanding drivetrain mechanics. Whether you’re starting from a cold stop, approaching an incline or decline, are accelerating or slowing down, you need to adjust your gear to best maintain your cadence or target power.
It sounds simple, but you’d be surprised at how easy it is to go for years without mastering your much-needed attention on this. You don’t want to grind away in a hard gear at low speeds, and you certainly don’t want to spin out at higher speeds. You should only stay in a gear for as long as it continues to be efficient for the current workload, which is not a constant. You’ll tire your body much more quickly by habitually staying on gears that aren’t the most efficient for your current pace. This can exacerbate your injuries.
2.5 — Leaving the Saddle
Naturally, you might find yourself subconsciously lifting out of your seat and standing on the pedals when you need to produce more torque in lower gears or want to output more power. This is typically from cold stops, for climbing hills or for sprinting.
Knowing when to do this is important. Doing it too much can tire you more quickly because it’s mostly used for short bursts of power, requiring a lot of energy. Conversely, if you take bad advice from arrogant riders who might say that “leaving the saddle is for people with weak legs”, you might end up putting undue stress on your muscles and joints. It shouldn't be hard to find a balance; listen to your body instead of forcing yourself.
2.6 — Flat Pedals versus Clipless Pedals
I’ve been told by a bike fitter that clipless won’t even give you a single watt in extra power, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t more efficient. Going clipless will help recruit different muscle groups not used with flat pedals, freeing some of the load off your quadriceps.
Having overdeveloped quads in proportion to your other leg muscles or joint tissue can lead to injury, and once injured, every tiny inefficiency will add up to much quicker fatigue.
2.7 — Pedalling in Smaller Circles
Crank arm length affects your pedal stroke. The stock cranks on both my size 56 bikes are 172.5mm, and the stock cranks on a size 51 bike might be 170mm. We can see the logic in making shorter cranks for shorter bikes. However, not all people of the same height are equal; some have longer legs and some have more of the height in their torso. See a bike fitter to check your ideal crank length.
3.0 — All About Physics
I haven’t run my own math on this section, so if you're a physics geek, feel free to roast me. I encourage that better cycling is challenged by science; cycling marketing is very sciency, but real-world conditions might differ in results from the lab-testing which is not done independently from the manufacturers.
3.1 — Rolling Resistance
Tire widths and tire pressure can make a bit of a difference in how hard you have to pedal to maintain a certain speed, but not all situations are equal. You can go from 700 x 25c to 28c to 32c (or 40+ for gravel) trying different pressures on each. With higher pressures (usually on lower volume tires), it can definitely feel like you don’t have to try as hard to go fast, but that’s very difficult to quantify. Keep in mind, the correct range of pressure also differs between rims and rider body weight.
A thinner, harder tire is not deforming its walls as much in order to grip and peel off the road while rolling — as long as you’re on a smooth surface; as soon as you hit a bump, each vertical force from every tiny bump is like a micro-deceleration. Conversely, a wider, softer tire will not only be more comfortable but will be more helpful with traversing through bumpy roads or gravel by both providing better traction and by absorbing vertical shock.
Tire treads are also a big factor. Slicks are great for smooth surfaces, and knobby tires are excellent for gravel and dirt, but there are also gravel/all-road tires which are more or less slick down the center, and knobby on the sides to get a balance of both worlds with one set of tires. Many clever cyclists just swap their wheels to switch between road and gravel to avoid needing a separate bike for each, but you have to ensure your bike frame supports the tire clearance for the typically larger gravel tires.
If your riding is mostly on one type of terrain, you can cater to it accordingly. If your regular ride consists of a combination between recently laid asphalt, ageing and crumbling concrete, and a little bit of dirt, no single tire width and pressure is going to be the best for all 3 conditions; you must strike a balance.
3.2 — Aerodynamics
Aerodynamics might sound too advanced for beginner or non-competitive riders, but the truth is that the less efficient you are at this, the harder you have to work. And this gets worse the faster you try to go.
There are many factors that contribute to the aerodynamics on your bike, but the main contributor is the largest surface mass – your body. There are a couple of things you can do to mitigate this.
You can make your body smaller by your position on your bike. An upright position can turn you into a wind sail, especially if your body is quite wide. An aggressive, more horizontal position allows the air to flow around you a lot better. Different kinds of bikes will put your body in different positions, but you can also affect your aerodynamic profile with your riding style.
If you think you look stupid in lycra or tights, riding in your jeans or loose-fitting clothes aren’t doing you any favours. Firstly, you will probably rip the crotch/bottom of your favourite pairs of jeans faster. Secondly, your loose unbuttoned flannel long sleeve over your tee shirt will be more like a parachute, causing the effect of pedalling against the wind. Even just a loose-fitting shirt flapping in the wind is enough to cause drag. Thirdly, sweating in casual wear feels pretty gross in comparison to lycra.
3.3 — Carbon Road Bikes
A lighter and stiffer bike frame, and also lighter and stiffer wheels, can make a world of a difference. The weight will matter more on inclines, but the stiffness applies to each and every pedal stroke. By being able to put the stiffness in the right places, means that more of your pedal stroke is put directly into propelling your wheels forward; with less stiffness, a lot of your energy is absorbed before it can be transferred.
There is no doubt that carbon frames and wheels will likely get you faster and/or further with the same amount of effort (or the same speed and distance with less). However, bike geometry (angles and lengths of the tubes, and the position it puts your body in) is also a big factor in how energy is transferred; a carbon frame built for comfort might not be any faster than a metal frame with racing geometry.
And lastly, on carbon, the benefits of lightweight are going to be more accessible if you’re already the ideal body weight. If your new carbon road bike is almost 10 lbs. lighter than your aluminum or steel bike, but you are 20, 30, 40+ lbs. above the optimal weight for your height (e.g. BMI), then your body is going to be your biggest inefficiency. Especially on climbs.
Please understand all about geometry, stiffness, and weight before spending a small fortune on what might be your best (or worse) investment ever.
There are lots of ways to get better on your bike, and sometimes it’s as simple as getting the most out of your work by reducing inefficiencies – and that’s a good place to start. This certainly won’t take you to the next level, but hopefully, it helps you at your current level.