Suppleness: The key to an efficient pedalling technique
The French have a term "pedaler avec souplesse" which, means pedalling with suppleness and it is often used to describe the most graceful-looking of racing cyclists. The best of course do it without really thinking but for the rest of us it takes some practice, time and focus. I remember reading Bernard Hinault's auto-biography many years ago and in a section on climbing he notes; "when climbing one's upper body should be completely relaxed, to the point where one could play the piano". Now of course a little of that was lost in translation but the general gist is that a death grip on the bars when you climb is NOT helpful. The great Irishman, Stephen Roche once said that as a riders suppleness disappears, so does his ability to climb.
All elite golfers know that tension will ruin even the best golf swing because it "locks" the hands and wrists and stops them doing their job. In some ways muscle tension does much the same thing to the ankles of cyclists. If the ankle becomes "wooden" then the efficiency of the pedal stroke will be greatly reduced. The problem is, focusing on ankle motion will usually INCREASE tension, so back to the golfer. In order to reduce tension the golfer will usually do 2 things; first, keep all of the technical movement cues confined to the "big muscles" of the trunk and shoulders whilst using imagery to keep the grip light. In much the same way cyclists can move the focus to the motion of the hip joint whilst using imagery to keep the ankle as supple as possible whilst riding. So it goes something like this; as the load gets higher (whilst climbing etc) focus on a strong hip motion and keep the ankle "soft". At all costs avoid the tendency to become "quad dominant" which will really hamper your ankle motion. A supple ankle is absolutely vital because it allows the angle of force application to be responsive and fluid, critical for a "circular pedal action" and avoiding the dreaded "pedaling in squares".
Next time you are out on a ride, try these things during the more cruisy parts of the ride. In time you can attempt to maintain your "souplesse" during more stressful segments and on steeper inclines. Remember, keep your main focus on hip motion and allow the ankle joint to remain as soft as possible. When you finally get it, riding your bike will have a whole new feel.
Stay safe out there. Train Smart and Race Hard.
Brian Bubba Cooke
Exercise Physiologist, coach & cycling tragic for 30 years. Love the freedom, reward and sense of achievement that one can only experience in our amazing sport.