A bike comes complete with 2 wheels, a handlebar, a seat and 2 pedals. You would think that’s all there is to it. Not when it comes to discussing triathlon bikes! Each piece can be replaced with something specifically designed for peak performance. The amount of money that you can put into your bike can be astronomical! Let’s just look at the pedals.
To know what kind of pedal is best, it is important to understand the pedal stroke. Because of the design of the bicycle, the strongest push is on the downstroke. But that is only 25% of the pedal stroke. If you can increase the push on the other 75% of the cycle, theoretically, you will have a stronger stroke, and the bike will be propelled faster.
The 4 parts of a pedal stroke are the down stroke, back stroke, up stroke, and forward stroke – in that order. As mentioned earlier, the down stroke is the strongest part, as you are using the large muscles in the front of the thighs (quadriceps) and butt (gluteus maximus) to propel the pedal down. This stroke becomes even stronger when you stand on the pedals to push down.
Even with traditional flat pedals, it is possible to increase the strength of you back stroke and front stroke, using a technique called ankling. Ankling is the action of raising or lowering your heel to change the angle of your ankle compared to the ground. If you raise your heel during the back stroke, you push the pedal backwards, increasing the strength of the stroke. Likewise, lowering the heel at the top of the stroke will push the pedal forward. This relatively simple (in theory anyways) should increase the speed of the bike, by making your pedal stroke smoother and consistent.
The backstroke primarily uses the hamstring muscles in the back of the thigh. Start the downstroke between the 3 and 4 o’clock positions of the pedal circle to make it more efficient. Continuing to push down to the bottom of the stroke wastes energy, as the pedal is not actually moving down at the 6 o’clock position. This effectively gives the quaddriceps and gluteus muscles a tiny rest in every stroke.
Pulling on the upstroke requires some sort of system that attaches the foot to the pedal. Again, if you are able to work through the entire stroke, instead of resting on the upstroke, you have more power to move faster. The upstroke uses a different set of muscles, again – The hip flexors. By allowing different muscle groups to work at different parts of the pedal stroke, you are reducing fatigue and increasing the distance or speed at which you can ride. Even if you don’t need to increase the power of your stroke, lifting the foot slightly on the upstroke decreases the weight that the opposite foot needs to move on the downstroke.
So which is better, clipped-in or clipless pedals? Clipless pedals provide an additional safety feature compared to toe clips and straps. Your foot will disengage from the pedal by twisting your foot slightly. With toe clips and straps, your feet may come out of the pedals if you fall, but they may not. Clipless pedals also increase pedalling efficiency by allowing the orientation of your foot on the pedal to change slightly, making movements optimum.
The cost: Toe clips at Mountain Equipment Coop (MEC): $8 for plastic ones with nylon straps, $14 for metal clips with leather straps. Reviews say that the plastic ones are better.
Clipless pedals: Anywhere from $30 to $411 at MEC. And then you need to buy the shoes!
For a beginner triathlete, the expense of clipless pedals may not be worthwhile. I the meantime, I will try to develop a strong back stroke on my flat peadals, and put toe clips on my Christmas wish list!