By Kenneth Lundgren
I remember racing Bear Mountain Fall 2005. A breakaway of four went up the road. On the final lap, one of the riders, Ryan Morris of Cornell University, had flatted, and we picked him up road-side. Two more guys were scooped up, leaving only Dan Zmolik up the road, able to stay away for the victory.
In the downhill sprint, Morris, off the front for most of the race, was STILL able to take the sprint for 2nd. Pretty. Damn. Impressive. It was apparent that when Morris flatted, the horsepower of that break flattened, too?
I raced with him a month later in Rhode Island at the Jamestown Classic. We got into an early breakaway, and man this kid could ride! We were caught mid-way, a rider soloed off, and in the final sprint, you got it, this kid Morris took the sprint for 2nd! He had a very fluid, effortless pedal stroke, able to power in TT-mode for long stretches, and he could also sprint?
In May 2006 I found myself in a 2-man break with him at the Hollenbeck Road Race, Cornell’s home race. We hammered for 44 miles, and this kid just did not seem to tire. He crushed me in the steep uphill finish, putting 11 seconds into me in less than 200 feet. Afterwards, we got to talking, and he told me of his training secret.
As an engineering major at Cornell, Morris was thinking of inventing the ultimate training tool: independent cranks. But then he realized they already existed: POWERCRANKS. Morris was on them immediately, riding them a ton, and in less than two years, he went from being a Cat-5 to Cat-1 and one of the top time-trialists in America.
Purchasing a set of PowerCranks, second only to a power meter, is where you should put your money if looking to improve performance. Carbon frames, aerodynamic wheels, lighter pedals, hugely expensive wind-tunnel testing, the latest 10-speed groupset: these things should not be your ticket to getting faster. PowerCranks offer a plethora of benefits: they teach you how to pedal more efficiently, strengthen your core, strengthen your legs, help you maximize your strength, and teach you how to best fit on the bike.
PowerCranks force you to pedal each leg independently. When you get on the bike, both crank arms are hanging down. You clip in and must pedal each leg individually, picking your leg up and pedaling in complete circles: there is no fixed bottom bracket holding the cranks together in a 180 degree position. You can pedal one leg at time, both legs at the same time. The moment you stop pedaling, both legs fall to the down position. Most guys who get on them either want to not ride them again, sell them, or can do only 5-20 minutes at a time. You usually ride very slowly and the cadence is very, very low, most likely you find the 11 and keep it there! You are hitting new muscles you never hit before and simply do not have the ability to keep picking your foot up.
But if you stick with it, PowerCranks will help you create the perfect pedal stroke. Let’s break down the pedaling action: your hamstrings are not only used on the upstroke. As you’re pedaling down, you should already be pulling back. There is a lot of hamstring in the downstroke. If you can access this large muscle in your downstroke, you will increase power.
As you get to the bottom of the downstroke, Greg LeMond’s advice from the 1980’s remains the best and most succinct: “(*censored*)(*censored*)(*censored*)(*censored*) e the mud off the bottom of your shoe.” Never will you feel like you’re s(*censored*)(*censored*)(*censored*)(*censored*)i ng mud off the bottom of your shoe as much as when you are PowerCranking.
The upstroke is primarily a hip flexor and hamstring effort. One way to improve your pedal stroke, without using PowerCranks or doing pedaling efficiency drills, is to mountain bike as it forces you to pedal in circles to gain traction and get over rocks, roots, steep inclines, and other challenges in the trail. When you start mountain biking, you’ll realize how important a perfect pedal stroke is as you struggle through a rock garden or ride over a log. It’s not surprising that many fast mountain bikers are also avid PowerCrankers: mountain bikers have excellent pedaling action!
The final part of the pedal stroke is the top, and you need to drop the heel as you come over the top of the stroke, something PowerCranks automatically make you do. I can tell you from absolute experience that after first riding these things, muscles in your ankle, in your calf, behind your knee: muscles that you never knew you had will be sore because you’ve never used them on the bike before.
Team Campmor’s Eddy Ceccolini, New Jersey’s fastest and one of New England’s best professional mountain bikers, rides PowerCranks religiously. Fast Eddy commutes to work on them 2-4 times a week during the race season, and in the off-season he’s on them usually 4 times, generally 8-12 hours a week. He doesn’t try to do too much structure, he just tries to ride them consistently as he knows how beneficial they are.
Just remaining upright on the PowerCrank bike forces you to use core muscles in your abs and lower back that you don’t use when pedaling traditional cranks. Westwood Velo’s Mike Gisler, the 2007 New Jersey State Time Trial Champion, noted that if he gets back on the Power Cranks after a break, his core is sore the next day. He credits Power Cranks for not only giving him a more powerful and efficient pedaling stroke but also a very strong core, a powerful ingredient to time trial success. Mike believes he also avoids injury because his tendons are super-strengthened, not to mention PowerCranks prevent muscle imbalances because his pedal stroke has become complete.
As the name implies, PowerCranks also do just that: they improve your power. Because it’s tiresome to keep picking your leg up, you end up pushing a bigger gear than normal, putting more stress on your quad. I should also mention another important fact about PowerCranks: they are HEAVY. When I put them on my Ghisallo, I added close to three pounds to my bike. So, when pedaling you can certainly feel the weight of these suckers, making the workouts even harder!
After PowerCrank training, on your regular bike you will notice that you can push a bigger gear, either when climbing, riding at threshold, or just cruising at tempo. But the Cranks FORCE you to strengthen your hamstring and hip flexors, so if you’re now using three muscles more effectively as opposed to one on the road bike, do you think you can ride harder, longer? The muscular workload is divided more evenly.
Something I’ve discovered is PowerCranks can take your strength and maximize it: The Tale of Two Opposite Time Trialists. Westwood’s Mike Gisler rides them a lot, and he is wicked fast on them. He time trials at around 80-85 rpms, so he’s right at home on these things. At 80 rpms on the TT bike, he’s putting out even more power because he’s utilizing a complete stroke.
I’ve been riding the PowerCranks for almost a year now. I’m the opposite of Gisler, spinning a much smaller gear in TTs, 105-110 rpms, and I’ve still garnered improvements because of the Cranks. I thought the PowerCranks would help lower my cadence, but they really didn’t: the cadence has actually increased! On the Cranks, I’m usually at 90-95 rpms. But I notice when I’m time-trialing, I can stay at a higher cadence without fatiguing because my pedal stroke is much improved. As a result, I feel much, much more comfortable time-trialing now. The quads, hip flexors, hammies, core: everything just feels solid. My legs aren’t fatiguing like they used to, whereas before I lacked the massive power to TT fast at 110 rpms. PowerCranks catered to my personal riding style and helped my capacity for time-trialing.
Succinctly, PowerCranks help strengthen your strength. If you are a sprinter doing sprints on them, I can guarantee you will sprint faster on your road bike (you truly learn to balance your body, you can’t even sprint on PowerCranks without a powerful core). If you are a climber and consistently did hill repeats on them, whether a spinner or big-gear masher, when you get on your road bike you will climb as if shot out of a cannon!
Once you put the Cranks on a spare bike, over time you’ll tinker with the position so you can ride them better. On my PowerCrank bike, I now have my handlebars higher, my saddle more forward and a little lower. I’ve found that with my bars higher, I can keep my hip angle open, allowing me to keep picking my leg up. Additionally, if you slide the saddle back, you’ll find it easier to ride the Cranks.
However, I’m focusing on TTs, so I have the saddle more forward, making it harder to pull up (further back, you can ride longer because you’re incorporating more leg muscle and core, and further forward you’re more aero but relying more on your quads and will fatigue faster, this is why if you want to become a good time trialist, as with anything else, you need to train the position).
I also found it easier for me to pedal with the saddle slightly lower, as I can pedal THROUGH the stroke more effectively. I see too many riders with their saddles too high, hips almost teetering up there, feet pointing down to reach for the bottom of that pedal stroke, and if they had that same height with PowerCranks, they’d have difficulty. With the saddle a smidge lower than usual, I can power down and through the stroke with more control. When I made the adjustment, I felt exponentially more competent on the Cranks. If you began applying these concepts to your road bike fit, I guarantee you’d benefit similarly.
Roger Aspholm of FinCraft Endurance Sport Coaching and one of the nation’s strongest 35+ racers has been riding PowerCranks since 1999. He understands that you need to balance the body and get both legs equally strong, that you need to properly tune that V8 engine! He thinks they’re pretty much the greatest training invention, teaching the neurological system to pedal perfectly.
Aspholm makes a good point in that it takes a long time to build strength on these things. “There is no shortcut to stardom, so be very patient,” Roger says. Once you have eliminated all your weak spots in your legs, you can pretty much train normal on these. I do sprints, hill intervals, longer steadier intervals, and once in a while even fast group rides on these. If you have a PowerTap, then you have something to stare at when you are dealing with the pain. Pain is good!?
Now is the time to ride them. In the winter, we should all be returning to the gym, hitting up a progressive lifting program. As the leg strength is developed, endurance and force work on the bike can then be done. All the while, we should be working on our pedaling efficiency, so this means hitting the PowerCranks regularly! In my program, the first six weeks of Foundation training focuses on pedaling mechanics: this is what we need to do as we embark on winter riding. As the training progresses, you’ll be able to do tempo and force work on them, and then during the season you should ride them at least once a week. Last year I rode them on my easy days, hoping to get acclimated to them. This year, I’m going to hammer on them once during the week, actually make a PowerCrank day, they’re that important.
Doing group rides on PowerCranks is beneficial because it gets you on the Cranks for a few hours, usually without going too too hard. Don’t get me wrong: PowerCranks HURT. During a group ride, you’re working twice as hard as the guy next to you. But because you really can’t focus primarily on the downstroke and are instead hitting your hamstrings and hip flexors so much, it’s difficult to get out of the Tempo zone, or even elevate the HR up for extended periods. In a way, PowerCranking prevents you from going too hard and keeps you in the proper training zone because it’s difficult to hammer 100%.
PowerCranks are not magic, not some fast secret, not an easy recipe to the podium. You need to put in the time and be willing to suffer. Aspholm makes a good point in that success does not come overnight. Like with everything, you need to take your time with them and gradually find improvement. But this much is guaranteed: if you have the desire, motivation, and the ability to push yourself, PowerCranks are a great way to help you realize 100% of your potential.