Cranking Away

Believe it or not, this marks our fifth post on Catalyst Content. We hope everyone has been enjoying it, as we certainly enjoyed having a spot to do some writing and ranting. If folks have not been enjoying, well we’ve still been enjoying writing it, so we’re still happy. Folks will remember our kick off post was a feature with the charming Matti Rowe, taking a look at one of his favorite workouts. Well, the spotlight turns today to Stephen Bassett, as we ask him the same question.

Stephen is a professional road racer, with the Silber Pro Cycling team. Concurrently, Stephen is a student at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, pursuing a degree in English. With a big road season on tap, but also a limited of time to train due to school in the fall, getting the most bang for the buck out of his workouts is the key for Bassett. We asked Stephen what his favorite winter workout is, and here is what he had to say:

One of my favorite things to do in the offseason is train with PowerCranks. For those of you who don’t know, this is a crank system that isolates each leg. Both cranks drive the chainrings, but they don’t connect in the middle. This makes it impossible to “cheat” your way around the pedal stroke by compensating with the opposite leg. So, if you can imagine doing single-leg drills, with both legs simultaneously, for a couple of hours, you can see how this is a pretty unique training challenge. I’m convinced that with the proper application they can really help your efficiency on the bike by eliminating wasted wattage and keeping you engaged all the way around the circle. If this all sounds very out there, it’s because this is one of the weirder training methods you can find. They had a brief period of popularity in the early 2000s, but have since faded from favor. It’s a big investment (you have to designate a whole bike for it, plus scrounge around on the internet for a used set) and it hurts a lot for at least 6 months as you struggle to figure out the neuromuscular coordination requirements. I also notably got dropped trying to use them on the Saturday shop ride and have yet to live down the shame.

I started training on the PowerCranks in 2014, mostly inside for the first few weeks. It took about 6 months to be able to stand up on them. At this point I can train on them and not really notice any difference, which is the goal. I like to ride a lot of different kinds of bikes in the offseason (fixed gear, mtb, etc), but sometimes I want to go in too many directions at once. So this year Nate and I decided to limit our focus and felt like the PowerCranks were the most worth spending a good deal of time on. I’ve been riding them once a week, mostly Zone 2 pace. Totally anecdotally, I can tell you that the day after riding these you will feel like a champ back on your normal cranks.

In essence, these things are pretty wild, but if you’re into the unconventional and a lot of pain in muscles that were doing JUST FINE BEFORE, there are gains to be made using them. Plus, you can freak people out by demonstrating the “Kangaroo” pedaling method! Thanks for reading my nerdy but non-scientific assessment of this contraption. I wonder what Nate has to say about them...

As we hit on, while Stephen is in school the aim is really to make every ride count. With the power cranks, every pedal stroke counts, and in that they are super valuable. With all the data we have right in front of us, it is really easy to get so focused on power production, that we can lose sight of the goal of efficient power production. The power cranks, as Stephen said, are super challenging, but they are also really good at building an efficient pedal stroke. It’s not fair to say that we don’t use our technology to work on pedaling efficiency. There are tools like the Pioneer power meters that look at stroke efficiency, and plenty of power meters that measure (or claim to measure – angst) left/right power balance. However, at the end of the day, more often than not the athlete goal is make more wattage. If the wattage is applied super inefficiently around the pedal stroke, athletes might just be burning up a bunch of kJs going nowhere fast – like that badass revving his Camaro at the stoplight – burning some gas for sure, not creating a lot of speed.  Pedal stroke efficiency does not solve the world’s power production problems, but it is probably a piece of the puzzle.

Well, why don’t we just have Stephen ride them all the time, and have a super baller pedal stroke? Everything with an upside usually has a downside. The power cranks are really fatiguing on certain muscles (especially the hip flexors!) so it is easy to overdo it and get a muscle strain. Additionally, the volume and intensity an athlete can put in on them has a relatively low ceiling. At this point (after 3 years of use), Stephen has worked up to comfortably doing 3 hours, all of which is at a comfortable aerobic pace. So if that is our training objective for the day, by all means, the power cranks are great. We get the aerobic stimulus we need, and some bonus muscular recruitment work. However, when we need to focus on higher volume, or higher intensity, or both, the power cranks need to go away.

What can folks do that want to work on the pedal stroke, but don’t want to ball out on a set of power cranks? One leg drills. Someone probably mentioned them when you first started riding, athlete tried a few, and they were not super fun. That did not last long. Well, they are probably still not super fun, but maybe now athlete read this post, wants to be like Bassett, wants to build some pedal stroke efficiency, does some one legged drills. Start out with 5x30 second one-leg drills, at a low cadence (70-80 rpm) on an endurance ride. Build up to doing 60 second reps, at 100 rpm. Need a bit more of a challenge, throw them in as a “bookend” to a long ride – do a set of 5x60 second reps one hour into the ride, and another set 3-4 hours into the ride – see if you have a noticeable drop in cadence on the one leg drills, as fatigue sets in. If you do not, congrats!