One of the most critical skills you can learn in order to cycle well is pedaling technique. The problem with pedaling technique is that what feels natural is inefficient. Spending time practicing proper pedaling technique and the drills I describe will reward you with faster cycling and less effort cycling.
By using an easier gear and increasing your cadence (revolutions per minute of your pedals / rpm) you will improve your cycling. A higher cadence uses more cardiovascular fitness than muscular strength. This is achieved by using the mechanical advantage of the gears instead of pure muscular power.
Most beginning cyclists will pedal at 50 to 70 rpm. A good cyclist will pedal at 90 to 100 rpm. If the two cyclist are going at the same speed the cyclist that is at a higher cadence will be using less energy.
To start, shift to an easier gear and increase your cadence. Spin as fast as you can. But, keep you upper body still. If you start bouncing, reduce your cadence by 5 rpm or until you stop bouncing. With practice you’ll be able to spin at a higher cadence without bouncing. Practice spinning on a flat or downhill section of road.
The key to increasing your cadence is pedaling in circles. Instead of just pushing down on the pedals, apply pressure throughout the pedal circle. Starting with your pedal at 12 o’clock push down on the pedal. As the pedal reaches the bottom of the circle (6 o’clock) push your foot backward – like scraping dirt off your shoe. Then pull up as the pedal goes from 6 o’clock to 9 o’clock (you need clipless pedals or toe clips for this to work!). When the pedal is approaching the top of the circle, begin pushing the pedal forward as it passes 12 o’clock again.
Be sure not to point your toes during the circle. Think – "Heel down pedal round" to help you keep your feet in the proper position.
Some drills you can use to improve your pedaling technique –
One Foot Pedaling – on a flat un-crowded roadway, un-clip one foot and pedal with the other foot. Pedal with one foot for 100 meters, switch feet and repeat with the other foot. You should do this drill on a weekly basis. When your pedal technique is good, you only need to do this drill early in the season to polish up your technique.
Small Gear Spinning – on a flat un-crowded roadway, shift to an easier gear and increase your cadence until you start bouncing. Slow your cadence down by 5 rpm or until you stop bouncing. Pedal at that cadence until you can no longer keep your upper body still. You can also do this drill on a downhill – instead of using a harder gear on the downhill, use an easier gear and increase your cadence to 110 to 120 rpm.
Saddle position – alternate your position on the saddle. This will switch muscles you use to pedal. By moving forward you use more hamstring and gluteus. By moving backward you use more quadriceps. By switching positions and using different muscles you relieve muscle fatigue and train the different muscle groups for a high cadence.