If riding a bike is really as easy as riding a bike, why do so many people get it wrong? When I do a fitting I have an easy way of showing people how they’re doing it wrong. I stop the pedal at 3:00 and tell them to look down at their foot on the pedal and push down on the pedal. almost everybody fires their vastus lateralis (the large muscle in the quad). I point out that they are extending the lower leg from the knee, pushing mostly forward, not down. It’s the skill set of lifting your body weight, which is the basis for walking, standing or running. It only works if your hips are directly over your feet. On the bike the quads can’t push down – nobody tells you these things…
You have an active skill set to use your quads, it’s your most used skill set. There is a passive skill set that you use all the time which activates your glutes. It’s called sitting (I list sitting in my resume as one of my strongest skills). If you lean forward while you are sitting your body weight is transferred to your feet on the floor my firing the glutes. You don’t notice it because it’s the largest muscle in your body, compared to the width of the muscle it’s doing very little work. Learning how to use the glutes on the bike takes three things: Trust, Gravity and Lazy – in that order.
Trust: You trust the ground you walk on, it’s solid, it will support your weight. Ever miscount the number of steps and try to put your weight on something that wasn’t there? As soon as you realize your mistake your hands go in search of some solid object. On a bike the pedals turn. As soon as the pedal starts falling away, your brain says “don’t trust that!” and your hands go in search of some solid object like the handlebars. This is why most people never get their full weight on the pedals, instead they try to make a bridge between the saddle and the handlebars using their spine and arms.
Gravity: The problem with trying to push down on the pedal is the trying part. Your most practice skill set is firing the quads to lift your body weight. If you think about pushing down your body will fire the quads – this is well practiced. You don’t have to push down. F=M*A. Force = mass X acceleration. The mass in this case is your upper body, the acceleration is gravity. Just lean forward – there’s your force.
Lazy: This is where you need to think like a sack of potatoes. If you push a sack of potatoes off a table it falls straight down. Do the same with a person and they flail their arms and legs in search of something to support their weight. Be the sack of potatoes, lean forward, fall into the pedal.
You have a finite amount of weight. If all of that weight is put on the pedal it is called power and it moves the bike forward. If none of that weight is on the pedals it finds it’s way to the handlebars, and it’s called uncomfortable. Unless you have learned how to levitate, this is how physics works. The only way to solve the problem of too much weight on the hands (and the aches and pains that come with) is to put the weight on the pedals.
At this point I usually have to deal with the mental image that most people have of a cyclist – there should be almost no upper body movement, right? Most cyclist have been told that upper body movement is wasted energy. It’s not. Think of the torso as a lever arm, if you want to push down from the hip you need that lever arm to supply force.