Beginner's Guide to Efficiency on the Bike

by League of American Bicyclists

To most League members, a "Beginner's Guide" may seem pretty basic, but the advice can sure come in handy for newcomers-so pass this page on to friends, relatives, co-workers and new bike club members. This list is not comprehensive - nutrition, stretching, weather and other factors influence efficiency - so consider an Effective Cycling course for more information.

GEAR DOWN: Spin, spin, spin! If you're a casual cyclist or new to the sport, there's a good chance you're pedaling in too high a gear, probably about 50-70 revolutions per minute (rpms). This stresses the knees and will cause you to fatigue faster than if you maintain a cadence of 80-100 rpms. It may feel unnatural to spin this fast at first, so increase your pedal cadence gradually. In time you'll notice how much more energy you have and you'll be saving yourself from future knee problems.

NO BULL: You know how a bull paws at the ground before it charges? That's what many cyclists look like when a light turns green. They push off the ground to get enough speed so they can balance and begin pedaling. Instead of doing the "bull dance," while stopped at the light put your weight on one foot and position the other pedal at the 2 o'clock position. When the light changes, push down on this pedal, and you'll have enough momentum to balance and begin pedaling. (If you use toe clips or cleats, wait until you are safely through the intersection before you clip in.)

LIGHTEN UP: Efficiency on the bike is influenced by how relaxed and comfortable you are riding. Assuming that you're riding a properly sized and adjusted bike, maintain your comfort by changing hand positions often, keeping your elbows relaxed, and doing neck and shoulder stretches throughout your ride.

DON'T ROCK AND ROLL: Many new cyclists ride with their saddle either too high (which causes a rocking motion) or too low (which causes knee pain and eventual knee problems). To get the most output from your pedaling, position your saddle so that when the ball of your foot is on the pedal at the bottom of the pedal stroke, there is a slight flex in the knee.

SKIP THE OL' SOFT SHOE: Shoes designed for tennis, running, and aerobics have cushioning built in for shock absorption. When you wear these shoes for bicycling, much of your energy output is absorbed by that cushioning before it ever gets to the pedal. A bike shoe's firm sole, on the other hand, allows more of your pedaling to actually propel the bike. Toe clips go a step further with a cage attached to the pedal that you slip your foot into and tighten. A clipless pedal system offers the most technological advantage by ``attaching'' your foot to the pedal with special pedals and a cleated shoe.

RED LIGHT, GREEN LIGHT: Accelerating up to a red light, just to have to stop and then start out again from a standstill uses a lot of energy. Rather than stopping and starting, time your arrival at an intersection (speeding up or slowing down accordingly) so that you can pedal right on through. If you do have to stop, though, downshift first so you aren't trying to start out from a high gear. Over the course of a long ride, these small behavior changes will reap significant energy savings. Safety Note: Predictability is the key to safety when you're sharing a lane with motor traffic. Be aware of how your changes in speed impact other drivers.

AVOID THE WALL: There is a well-known adage among cyclists to "eat before you're hungry and drink before you're thirsty." If you fail to follow this advice, you may reach a state of exhaustion known as "the wall," when fatigue and pain set in. Because of the severity of this condition, most cyclists only hit the wall once before learning their lesson.

Reprinted from "Bicycle USA", magazine of the League of American Bicyclists, Mar/Apr 1995. Effective CyclingTM.
For more information about the League of American Bicyclists, visit their web site,, or e-mail them at

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