Have you ever noticed how easy virtuosos make their art look? It's as if they're not even trying. When it's time to perform, it looks like they are on autopilot.
Of course, decades of practice went into their craft, but to the untrained eye, it would appear quite simple. The same might be said about how the best cyclists pedal their bikes.
Turning a bicycle's cranks just to propel it forward doesn't take a ton of skill. However, to ride to your maximum potential takes some effort to master, and attention to efficiency of the pedal stroke is part of the technical proficiency and must be practiced.
A few out-of-element analogies might demonstrate how important it is to be proficient in our pedaling. Swimming is a great example of how efficiency affects potential—the freakiest VO2-gifted animals on earth can't swim fast if they don't have the technique to catch the water and propel themselves through it efficiently.
Here's another: Anyone can play chopsticks on a piano, but not everyone can make beautiful music. Pedaling is not playing a piano, but the efficiency of each pedal stroke is a function of neuromuscular conditioning, as is tickling the ivories with a master's skill. Pedaling action might seem automatic, but when you pull one foot out of the pedals, you'll notice it isn't.
It is very easy to take your pedal stroke for granted, but you shouldn't. After assessing many athletes over the years, I have come to appreciate the intricacy of the pedal stroke. Many cyclists are playing chopsticks, just following the cranks around, instead of skillfully guiding them around in well-orchestrated circles. Unlike mashing on the pedals, there is a rhythm to a refined pedal stroke, and beautiful music can be made with proficiency.
Determining Your Deficiency
There are 360 degrees in a pedal stroke. Because of the opposing nature of the cranks, when we're pushing with one leg, we are pulling with the other. In actuality, many of us are pushing one leg around to put it in the position to push the other leg around. That means that in varying degrees, power is being used to haul the deficient, significant other around to its productive position.
All one has to do to realize that there is a deficiency happening is to unclip one foot and let the other leg do all the work for a minute or so—usually, hip flexors and hamstrings begin to howl as deficiencies are immediately revealed. I have seen extremely gifted and strong cyclists fall apart after 30 seconds of isolated pedaling, their hip flexors and hamstrings unfamiliar with the load and the neuromuscular task.
Why does this matter? You don't race with one leg unless you only have one leg to deal with. The point here is efficiency. Are you achieving your potential? Is there a better way to utilize your tools?
There is. You need to study your stroke to figure out where it needs work and make improvements. You need to make beautiful music, to make the whole stroke productive. You can be very efficient at converting chemical energy to wattage, but you won't reach your potential if you are inefficient.
Analysis of any stroke will reveal different deficiencies for different people, but let's look at some general trends. The hip flexors tend to progressively atrophy, and the hamstrings will do the minimal amount needed to accommodate the more dominant quads. This tells a big story.
Hip flexors are hugely under-utilized in cycling. Consider that much of a 100-meter track sprinter's mechanical duty is to recover each leg to a power-producing position independently of the other leg, as fast as possible. Yet more and more, hip flexors are proven to be a limiting factor for the fastest runners in the world.