Advertisement

Sign up for our newsletter

Advertisement

Souplesse: The art of perfect pedalling

Nick Soldinger
31 Aug 2020

What exactly is souplesse, and how does one obtain it?

Souplesse – only the French could look at the way a bike is being propelled and devise a term for it that makes it sound delicious. Although, to be fair, get your pedalling right and the results can be pretty tasty. Not just to look at, although that is part of the appeal, but in terms of riding efficiency.

To do that you need to develop a fluid pedalling style that appears almost effortless. Think Bradley Wiggins or Marianne Vos, how smooth their movements on a bike are.

Or, to put it another way, how cool they look when they’re pumping those pedals around.

OK, so they may be among the world’s greatest-ever riders but what you’re witnessing when you watch them ride isn’t just down to some kind of natural elegance, it’s actually superb technique. And technique can be learned.

So what, to put this souplesse business into more prosaic terms, is the best way to turn your pedals?

Cadence

Defining what constitutes the ideal pedalling technique is difficult to define because pedalling is highly individual with your perfect rhythm being almost as unique to you as your heartbeat.

Let’s begin, though, with the number of revolutions you can make your bike’s crank turn in a minute (rpm)– or cadence as it, too, is more poetically termed. 

There have been plenty of studies about what ideal cadence is and broadly speaking most serious cyclists tend to aim for between 80-100rpm – townie riders tend to be happier at around 60rpm.

Finding the cadence that works best for you and choosing the right gear is the key to developing your pedalling technique. If you’re in the same gear as the rider next to you but you can pedal faster, it figures that you’ll go faster.

If you don’t have the strength to pedal as big a gear as the rider next to you, then your higher cadence may not make any difference, and you might even find yourself travelling slower than them.

Whether you can grind out big gears or are more effective spinning in lower gears depends mainly on your muscle composition and the proportion of fast-twitch to low-twitch fibres they contain.

Each of us has our own optimum cadence based on muscle make-up, although this can, of course, be changed with appropriate training – see ‘Fast-twitch vs Slow-twitch Muscles’ below.

If you push a comfortably high cadence when you train, you’ll develop the more efficient slow-twitch muscle groups and burn fat more quickly than you will if you’re struggling to turn the pedals in bigger gears.

This is why you often see experienced riders preferring to use the small chainring in the wintertime or when training. Also, watch how the pros do it – even at very high speeds, you’ll see they tend to spin in the lower gears, preferring to maintain a high leg speed.

This isn’t to say they never push big gears. It’s just it’s more energy efficient to keep cadence high in lower gears working off of the slow-twitch muscle fibres for the majority of a race.

Their fast-twitch fibres will then be fresh for the short, violent bursts of energy they’ll need as they make a break or sprint for the line.

Developing the seemingly effortless, fluid-style that epitomises souplesse is fundamentally about finding the right cadence for your style of riding. So in that sense, there is no ideal cadence, no one size fits all.

As a general rule, however, try to aim for somewhere between 85-95rpm, finding the gear you feel most comfortable riding at that speed to maximise the efficiency of your pedal stroke.

Selecting a bigger gear than you need, believing it’ll give you greater speed and the ability to ride further is a common mistake made by inexperienced cyclists. After all, it’s not the gears that do the work, it’s your legs.

Fast-twitch vs slow-twitch muscles

Why do cyclist shave their legs?

Our muscles are made up of two types of fibre that behave very differently when we exercise – learn the differences to maximise efficiency on the bike and enable yourself to ride further and faster.

At different stages of a ride, different types of muscle fibre are recruited depending on what type of rider you are, your level of fitness and what you happen to be doing.

Most rides predominantly use slow-twitch muscle fibres, as you should be aiming to maintain a fairly even level of effort and intensity.

When you need to sprint, however, or tackle a short, steep climb, you’ll engage your fast-twitch muscle fibres. But these fibres require work to develop, and deteriorate with age. So if you haven’t trained for explosive efforts, don’t expect your body to necessarily answer the call.

As a rule of thumb, though, it’s worth remembering this. The higher the gear you’re in, the slower your cadence will be.

This means more torque (effort, essentially) is required from your muscles, so your fast-twitch muscle fibres will be called upon to do the heavy lifting as these can produce a greater deal of force than slow-twitch fibres.

In doing so, they also sap muscle energy both in the form of glycogen and oxygen, so you won’t be able to maintain efforts using these fibres for very long.  

Lower gears allow you to cycle at a quicker cadence meaning that, for the most part, you’ll be employing your slow-twitch muscle fibres.

These lack the raw power of your fast-twitch muscles but do allow you to exercise for longer, making them ideal for endurance sports like cycling.

Gears and chains 

Shimano Dura Ace 9100 cassette exploded

Gearing also has a part to play when it comes to cadence. The main thing to bear in mind is that the gears a pro rider can spin are far higher than the average club rider can manage simply because they travel a lot faster (which is why they’re pros!).

But they, too, will concentrate much of their riding spinning in relatively low gears.

Another way to maximise pedalling efficiency is to make sure you have an efficient drivetrain. This is dependant on gear selection and avoiding extreme chain angles which will both slow you down and increase wear on your chain, gears and sprockets.

The most efficient chain line you can have is one that runs in a straight line, directly from the chainring to the sprocket. So the outer chainring is best used with the outer (smaller) sprockets and the inner chainring is best used with the inner (larger) sprockets.

If your bike boasts a triple chainset, the chain will probably reach both the smallest and largest sprockets comfortably but may foul the outer chainring.

If that’s the case, you’re probably best off avoiding the smallest sprockets while in the middle chainring.

As ever good maintenance is also essential, so clean and lightly oil your drivetrain after every major ride. Not only will it last longer (saving you money in the process) but you’ll find you’ll spin more effectively.

You should also make sure that the size of your chainring matches your aspirations. If you’re headed out on a long sportive, for example, where you’re likely to average a speed of up to 30kmh (18mph), then it’s a good idea to make sure you’re bike’s rocking a compact chainset with no more than 50 teeth on it.

Don’t be tempted to go for a big 53-tooth chainring – leave those for the serious racers looking to push their average speed up to 35kmh (22mph) and beyond.

After all, you ideally want to remain as comfortable as possible when you’re pedalling, to stay loose so your pedal strokes feeling as effortless as possible. Remember, you’re aiming for souplesse, not useless.

• For information on how the Wattbike Atom can help you achieve your training goals, visit wattbike.com/gb

Read more about: