Cycling Inefficiencies — Beginner to Intermediate

Are you working harder than you have to?

Photo courtesy of the Author

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.

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).

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

Professional geek. Wannabe cyclist.