Two bikes improve your cycling performance

Elite mountain bike riders have the best pedaling mechanics of all cycling disciplines tested.  Credit: Phil Walter/Getty Images
It doesn't matter if you are a road rider or a mountain bike rider; doing some training on both bikes will make you a better rider. Let me explain.

Pedaling skills

Research by biomechanists at the Olympic Training Center found elite mountain bike riders to have the best pedaling mechanics of all cycling disciplines tested. What the scientists were looking for was effective pedal stroke at the top and bottom of the pedaling cycle and power oscillation at the rear wheel.

Mountain bike riders are often climbing in loose conditions. If a rider has oscillations in power at the rear wheel, the rear tire tends to break loose and spin out. This is similar to punching the gas pedal of your car in icy conditions; it causes the tires to lose traction on the slick surface.

Riding, particularly climbing, in loose conditions on your mountain bike is an effective tool to improve your pedaling mechanics.

That lazy leg

I often write about doing single-leg quadriceps extensions, leg presses and hamstring curls in the weight room in the off season. This can help to balance strength between the two legs. Both legs might be equally strong; but I suspect you have one leg that is not as coordinated or as powerful as the other leg. This affects how well you can corner.

When you are riding a mountain bike and descending on technical single track, I suspect you are better at making corners in one direction or the other. This issue can be easily hidden on a road bike because the corners are not as tight, and they do not come up so quickly.

Looking further, I suspect if you are better at left turns, your right leg is stronger, and when you unclip at a stop sign, it is your left foot that unclips. (Or vice versa, if you are better at right turns your right foot unclips.) When you begin pedaling again, that strong leg powers the bike until you can get the other foot, attached to the lazy leg, clipped in.

So you think that other leg isn't lazy or less powerful? You think your balance on the bike is just as good -- right turn or left turn? If that is the case, you should be able to unclip either foot at a stop light and begin pedaling powerfully, no matter which leg is doing the work. Few people I know can do this effectively.

If you want to improve your balance and power, intentionally unclip "the other" foot when you stop for any reason. You can do this on the road or on the mountain bike. If you are uncomfortable doing it, start with the road bike. It will pay big dividends on the road bike because you will soon be capable of unclipping either foot and producing equal power with either leg. It will pay dividend on the mountain bike when you are trying to put a foot down to avoid falling.

Force your lazy leg to become more coordinated and powerful.

Where are your feet on a turn?

On the road, it's fairly easy to set yourself up for a turn. Usually for a left turn your left foot is at the top of the pedal stroke, and your right foot is at the bottom of the pedal stroke. If your left foot is down on a left turn, there is a high likelihood you will hit the asphalt with your pedal. A small tap is not a problem, but if you clip the asphalt hard you will probably crash.

On a road bike you can practice on one turn several times. Take the turn at different speeds and at different entry angles. Take the turn as a right turn, then as a left turn. Experiment with body position to see where you are most comfortable going the fastest speed.

Riding a mountain bike presents new problems. Sometimes you can't have your feet at the top and bottom of the pedal stroke due to an obstacle or other anatomy of the corner. There could also be sets of switchbacks that force you to be dynamic on the bike. Often, your crank arms are parallel to the ground, rather than being at the top or bottom of the pedal stroke, perpendicular to the ground, like on a road bike.

If your feet are parallel to the ground, I'm guessing that lazy leg covered in the last section is always forward. For example, if your left leg is the lazy one, I suspect you are most often found with that leg forward and your right leg back. This can get you into trouble.

If you make a right turn, your right foot should be forward. For a left turn, put your left foot forward. This handy trick helps prevent you from touching your foot to the tire on tight turns, and it helps you use your body to balance more effectively. For example, if your left foot is forward on a right turn, the tire can touch that left foot and put you down.



The next time you ride, think about where your feet are when they make a right turn. What about the left turn?

Where's your power?

If you mountain bike on trails that are mostly short climbs, you can benefit by doing some threshold intervals on the road. This means long time trial efforts or broken efforts with short rest at time trial pace. I prefer work intervals anywhere in the three to ten minute range, with rest intervals one quarter to one third of the work interval. I prefer intervals because athletes can typically keep a higher average power output for a given workout. I have athletes do steady efforts that are 20 or 30 minutes long, but that doesn't happen as often as an interval workout.

If you are a road rider that has trouble building power, a mountain bike is a great place to do it. Off-road riders often exert significant effort to climb over an obstacle in the trail or to get up a short climb. Many times this kind of effort is not found on a road bike because some athletes tend to give up a sprint when it gets too painful. A little extra effort on the mountain bike can mean the difference between clearing a climb or falling over. This effort can translate to the road for closing a gap, making a breakaway stick or sprinting for the finish line.

A road bike can be a great way to build lactate threshold power and a mountain bike can be a great way to build power in the 30-second to five-minute range.

Give the drills in the column a try and see what you think. Can you afford to improve your pedaling economy, the balance of power between legs, the speed and confidence that you can handle turning to the right or the left, and your overall power balance as a rider?


Gale Bernhardt was the 2003 USA Triathlon Pan American Games and 2004 USA Triathlon Olympic coach for both the men's and women's teams. Her first Olympic experience was as a personal cycling coach at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Thousands of athletes have had successful training and racing experiences using Gale's pre-built, easy-to-follow training plans. For more information, click here. Let Gale and Active Trainer help you succeed.

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