Stephen S. Cheung, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Dalhousie University
Every off-season, cycling magazines fill their pages with articles on indoor workouts. Two workouts that you’re guaranteed to find in every one of these are one-legged cycling and also high-cadence spinning intervals, both designed to improve your pedaling stroke and efficiency. Meantime, the old-timers wax eloquent about riding fixed gears during the off-season to improve spin. Now, products like Powercranks isolate your legs by making each crankarm independent of each other, while others like the CompuTrainer permits analysis of your pedaling stroke with their SpinScan feature. Is there any point to all this effort devoted to doing this blatantly simple task of pedaling?
Most clichйs are created from a nugget of truth, and an article in the December issue of the prestigious Medicine and Science in Sports & Exercise journal nets us the big shiny gem (1). This particular research group from Madrid has done a number of quality studies focusing specifically on the physiological attributes of world-class cyclists (i.e., guys who can drop us into the gutter with one leg, let alone two!). For this specific study, they grabbed 11 active Spanish-based pros (ranging from climbers to GC riders to TT aces) who just happened to have world championships or stages in the Grand Tours on their palmares. They performed a ramp test to exhaustion to determine their VO2max (maximal aerobic capacity, an excellent indicator of endurance fitness) and also a 20 min ride at a constant workload near their time trialing pace.
The really interesting thing that this study found was that, independent of things like body mass, age, or cycling specialty, there was a very strong inverse relationship between VO2max and cycling efficiency in this group. This is similar to the results from another study on the same thing in world-class runners. The riders with the relatively low aerobic capacity were able to compensate for this handicap by being much more efficient, resulting in their requiring less energy to generate a particular power output. One of the subjects was the just-retired Abraham Olano, and he is an excellent example of somebody overcoming “average” genetics to garner an incredible palmares that included two Worlds titles, a Vuelta, a 2nd in the Giro and a 4th in Le Tour. Unbelievably, he actually had a ludicrously low VO2max compared to the other subjects and even many amateurs, but he compensated for it by having the second highest efficiency rating.
So what does all this mean? First, don’t get too hung up on your “genetic” potential or comparing your test results to anybody else. Smart and dedicated training can help you to exceed your perceived limits. Second, the smoother and more efficient you can train your pedaling stroke, the less energy you require to maintain any power output or speed, and who wouldn’t benefit from that? Happy retirement, Abraham Olano, and thanks for reminding us of the beauty of the bicycle and the “power” of smart training.
1. Lucia, A., J. Hoyos, M. Perez, A. Santalla, and J.L. Chicharro. Inverse relationship between VO2max and economy/efficiency in world-class cyclists. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 34: 2079-2084, 2002.
Stephen Cheung is an Associate Professor of Kinesiology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, with a research specialty in the effects of thermal stress on human physiology and performance. He has been an avid roadie since beginning university in the mid-eighties, and still has non-indexed downtube shifters on his winter bike and wool jerseys hanging in his closet. He can be reached for advice or comments at email@example.com