Insights into Bike Myths and Truths (part 1)

A cycling friend of mine, who happens to be one of the best fitters in the U.S., asked me my opinion on the following observations made on FaceBook:

For the record, I WHOLLY OR MOSTLY DISAGREE with each of the following statements, and more importantly, could point you to peer reviewed scientific studies to back up my positions on most of them.
1. Shortening your crank arm will cause you to lose power.
2. "Scraping mud", "powering the upstroke", "making perfect circles", or any other technique advice beyond "push hard" is the correct method to pedal.
3. There is a performance benefit to changing your cadence from what feels natural (usually raising the cadence).
4. One legged pedaling is a good drill.
5. Riding a trainer doesn't prepare you to ride outside.
6. You need to climb hills to get better at climbing hills.
7. Road bikes climb better.
8. Road bikes are faster for some triathlon courses.
9. Train outside year round to stay heat acclimated.
10. Increasing your flexibility will allow a better aerobar position, usually referring to hamstring flexibility as it relates to aerobar drop.

My response:

1--The Law of Facilitation states that once an impulse travels through a given set of neurons, it will tend to do so at a future date. And each time it traverses the path, the resistance will be less. Basically, practice makes perfect. Or more accurately, practice makes permanent. Thus, any change, even for the better, will likely cause a decrease in performance (e.g. power) in the short term until the body has acquired the ability to perform the new skill(s) autonomously.

2--Depends on what the goal is. If you simply want to produce the most power, "push hard" is probably a decent idea. However, if your goal is efficiency over a given distance, an ability to respond to attacks/changes of pace, maintain traction/control over unstable surfaces, or running off the bike to your potential, the ability to apply force (notice, I'm not saying MAX force) anywhere/anytime during the pedals stroke and have a variety of different muscles contribute synergistically is a good skill. Like learning how to drive, taking martial arts, etc., learning begins at slower speeds (e.g. cadence) until proficiency allows for replication of the acquired skill at higher speeds/subconscious levels. This is one of the reasons why better sustained power numbers are easier to see when climbing at lower cadences--the cyclist doesn't have the neuromuscular efficiency (i.e., skill) to pedal with the same quality at higher cadences. And while I could give anyone examples for each of the above goals, remember it is the ENTIRE body that pedals the bike--not simply the legs. You may find this blog post of interest here:

3--It depends on what the goal is again. And the point made in #1 above is applicable here, too. Hell, terrain needs to be considered; temperature and humidity play a role. Additionally, the biomechanics, muscle fiber type, training history--even the hormonal profile of the cyclist in question are factors to consider when choosing the optimal cadence. That being said, power is (roughly) an equation of cadence x gear size. Increase one or increase the other or increase both. The limiting factor in gear size is typically the muscular system while the limiter in cadence is often the aerobic system. Neither system works independently from the other, of course. And neuromuscular efficiency is a component of both systems. While both the muscular/aerobic systems have genetic caps (which most of us will never come close to finding), the neuromuscular system can always become more efficient.

4--if you need it, yes. See #2 above. Also #3's reference to efficiency of the neuromuscular system. Again, note that it is the whole body (including all of its systems) which propels the bike and these limiters are often revealed as well as trained during the course of one-legged pedaling drills.

5--aerobically, it does. But it doesn't prepare you (optimally) for descending at speed, cornering in wet conditions, bumping shoulders at 40mph with 200 other cyclists, bunny hopping pot holes, curbs, or even fallen riders, or any of the other "skills" a cyclist is forced to address if you ride/compete enough. I can tell you that racing in America is different than racing in Europe. And while, like the trainer, it's better than nothing, ultimate adaptation doesn't happen until you're exposed to the specific stimulus. Train exclusively on the trainer and then go do an average Belgian kermesse. You'll get yourself dropped out of fear if you don't crash yourself (and others) first.

6--you don't NEED to. Is it the most efficient way? Perhaps. Are there changes in many if not most aspects of riding on the flats vs. riding on a climb--yes, including mental ones. Specific adaptation to Imposed Demands. Wanna get good at climbing? Climb. Wanna get even better at climbing? Stop eating crap and ignoring the Foundational Factors of Health while working on power:weight ratio, and you'll see improvements regardless of terrain or chosen sport.

7--depends again. Not when the fit is right or the person is adapted to a particular position.

8--if the course is straight up and the person is accustomed to riding the road bike, yes. Otherwise, a properly fit tri bike will be faster.

9--if your race is in the cold, acclimate for the cold. If it's in the heat, acclimate to the heat. Heat can be MUCH more of an issue when riding inside if you want it to be--and a huge advantage both physically and (more importantly) mentally for those who are adapted to hot/humid conditions. Note, however, quality sessions performed exclusively in "hard" conditions will likely result in an athlete sacrificing quality and, therefore, not realizing their full potential. Consider the adage of sleep high/train low. Same goes for temperatures.

10--Flexibility/stability need to be developed before strength which needs to be developed before power. I wrote a whole book on this subject, but I would agree that lower (often predicated on flexibility and core strength) does not mean better in regards to aero position. If you're sacrificing either power or comfort in order to get lower, it's not going to pay the dividend you're looking for as far as results. And aero is more than just low frontal surface area. That being said, if you're limited in flexibility or stability, you will not realize your full potential on the bike or any other discipline. And it's quite likely you'll eventually get injured trying. But if it brings you into my studio, that injury could be the best thing that ever happened to your performance.

The original poster (who is, himself, quite an accomplished bike fitter) then responded with:

These are some really good examples of how individuals thoroughly (and properly) trained in how the body works, can take that information and thoroughly complicate the simple act of pedaling a bike.

Just starting at #1, that's a great theory and probably true, except it never happens. Pedaling a bike with a crank arm 2.5-10mm shorter is so entirely similar to pedaling at the longer crank length that phrases such as " will likely cause a decrease in performance (e.g. power) in the short term until the body has acquired the ability to perform the new skill(s) autonomously." simply does not apply after the first 30 seconds. Body knowledge says it should, while thousands of real world examples say otherwise. Crank length change is below the threshold of mattering for anything beyond the positive change to thigh-torso clearance.

For 2,3 & 4, I can't argue with Andrew, but I don't need to. There are multiple studies on changing cadence and modifying your force application beyond simple alternating pushes. The vast majority show a decrease in efficiency. How to pedal a bike in a steady state, time trial effort is pretty settled science. Track riders, sprinters, super high power instances and low traction situations are exceptions, that rarely apply to my target audience. The exception is not the rule.

5. I addressed this, but to restate, I never suggested that riding a trainer or always using a super controlled environment was the way. What I said was ALL of those other skills and adaptations are relatively quickly and easily addressed, when compared to the scope and magnitude of aerobic development that can be better achieved in those super controlled environments.

6. Specific adaptations to imposed demands indeed. The primary demands of climbing a hill are light weight and high power. The secondary ones are gearing, pacing, "mental fortitude", and actually climbing a few hills to know how it feels and engage slightly different muscles slightly differently a small portion of the time. The only argument I make is (again) let's stop turning secondary demands into primary ones. The exception is not the rule.

7&8 Yay! We agree!

9. I think we agree here as well, but just to be sure.... Adaptation to climatic conditions is fast. Aerobic development is slow. The exception is not the rule.

10. "Flexibility/stability need to be developed before strength which needs to be developed before power." Again, I can't argue with this, but I don't have to. Flexibility is rarely a limiter in developing a world class bike position. It just isn't. In other words, it is not that hard to ride a bike in the same position as the best in the world. Most of us have the chassis to do so, but we lack the engine to go as fast. A tri bike is the most athletically demanding of all bikes, and even there, most riders can get national caliber results with the biggest limited not being flexibility / mobility / stability / strength / power, but far more often the 20 extra lbs hanging around their mid section.

The phase "going lower isn't always faster" is without a doubt true. Here is a phrase that is 'more' true. "Going lower is usually faster." The exception is not the rule, and we need to consider the target audience.

Age group triathletes hear that 1st statement and sabotage themselves as they come into a bike fit determined to not ride "too low". Of course, simply bending them over to the will of the bike fitter is not the process. Taking them down, forward and adjusting crank length to achieve the lowest position where pedaling mechanics, breathing and digestion can be maintained is the goal. Anything higher than that is less aero the vast majority of the time. That is what the wind tunnel says, and barring a trip to t he wind tunnel, our best approach during a bike fit is to play the odds.

We want to also drop the upper back and head down between the shoulder blades, but that is a secondary concern to getting the rider as low as we can while maintaining the abilities of pedaling, breathing, digesting.

As far as strength, the strength required to pedal a bicycle at 300 watts and 90rpms is about the same force that is required to stand up from a chair. It's close to a 45lb single leg press. Something the vast majority of humans can easily accomplish one time without taxing the ability to produce force very much at all. In other words, we are not talking about all that much force, and hardly anyone is anywhere near force or strength limited when riding a bike. What does limit us is the ability to produce that force 90x a minute for multiple minutes or hours. Otherwise known as aerobic capacity.

Again, I am not really trying to argue with Andrew, because I can't. He knows more about the body than me by orders of magnitude. In the end, we are all after the same thing, results. And that is my battleground. Exercise physiologists, physical therapists and the larger research community have always lagged behind real coaches. Great coaches find performance, and then everyone else figures out how they did it. While not able to hold my own in any body knowledge debate, what I would certainly do is rest my case for simplicity on the performance of my athletes, the results of my bike fits, and my excellent record of not injuring the vast majority of them along the way.

To which I then replied with an extensive thread that you'll find in Part 2 of this Blog Post.

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