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Road Bike Hard to Pedal?

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Your road bike can feel hard to ride for multiple reasons ranging for novice mistakes, to learning your new bike, worn-out parts, and even if the frame doesn’t match your frame. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell, but usually, the answers are more straightforward than you’d imagine.

Is a road bike hard to pedal?  Today’s road bikes aren’t harder to pedal. Aerodynamics, riding competence, the type of bike, and proper and regular maintenance, even the weather can feel like your bike is harder to pedal. A clean bike moves faster because everything is working as it should – from cables, gears, and lubricated chains – and such basic methods can make all the difference.

Join us as we talk about what it takes to make your bike feel easier to ride, how to conduct a safety check before you go riding, and why some bikes are indeed hard to pedal. We’ll also discuss how to make an uncomfortable bike fit you better, what regular maintenance looks like, and tips on what to do when it’s time to replace parts.

Is Your Road Bike Hard to Pedal?

If your bike feels hard to pedal, there’s a reason behind it. Often, it comes down basic bike dynamics and rider knowledge. We’ll begin with how far road bikes have come over the years.

Why Some Road Bikes Are Hard to Pedal

It’s not that road bikes are hard to ride. It’s that older bikes used to be hard to ride, but modern ones have made significant changes to address it. They have easier gears, are lighter, more comfortable, and are better fitting.

For example, the evolution of the gears went through several transitions. According to Bike Station, on original bikes, “the cog was a fixed part of the rear wheel.” Then came the freewheel, which was a single gear, but it allowed for coasting.

The more teeth on the gears, the lower the gear. The lower the gear, the easier the ride. Newer bikes have more teeth – and that makes them feel easier to ride than their older relatives.

Newer Bikes

New bikes are more compact, and the chainring size is a 50-tooth ring and 34-tooth ring. The choice of chainring can affect everything: how much energy you expend, how smooth your cadence is and how hard pedaling is on your knees. Smaller rings mean less work and less stress.

Newer bikes also ensure that you’re sitting higher, which puts less stress on your back. A longer wheelbase enhances stability, and wider tires hug the road and feel more comfortable.

Here’s What to Do if Your Road Bike is Hard to Pedal

Even with modern bikes, some are hard to pedal because of a multitude of other factors. Here’s how to check which issues you might be facing and what to do about it.

Keep Your Road Bike Clean

A clean bike means the transmission is reliable and operating smoothly. Your bike tends to move faster because everything is free of mud and grime, debris, and dirt. Making sure your cables and drivetrain (i.e., the chainrings, cassette or cogs, derailleur, pedals, cranks, and chains) are clean makes your bike more efficient.

Depending on where and how often you ride (dirt paths, through mud, and puddles), your bike will need cleaning more regularly. The dirtier it is, the harder it is to clean, so the key is to get into a routine.

TIP: Cleaning Routine
Take a few minutes after each ride to inspect and wipe it down, that way its less of a hassle to do before you go riding, particularly with regular winter cycling. If you do a quick once-over post-ride, you can save a big clean for every other week or even once a month.

Check Your Tire Pressure

What is the easiest tire maintenance to perform yourself – doing a regular check of your tire pressure. It’s not only one of the simplest maintenance tasks you can do on your road bike, but it’s also one of the top reasons you get greater performance during your ride.

Soft tires increase rolling resistance, and you’ll have to work much harder to keep an average speed. Not to mention, it can lead to pinch flats and slow flats. Air pressure that is too high can cause blowouts or punctures.

Some experts say if you run on 90 PSI tire pressure, you can round corners faster and decrease leg fatigue on long rides, and they recommend 100 PSI as a good in-between for “maximum rolling speed and good grip.”

There is no agreement on what the best PSI should be, and the range varies:

It’s best to look for your bike’s ideal pressure on the tire sidewall and experience to see what works best for you. “A tire needs to be replaced when the tire’s cross-section is no longer around, it will take on a square shape. “ – Bike Radar

TIP: Replacing Road Bike Tires
If your bike is getting frequent flats or patches aren’t working anymore, it’s time to replace your tires. Look for tires appropriate for your type of bike as the wrong ones will slow it down. Check your tubes and rim strips, as well. Look at the outer rubber part of the brake blocks because uneven wear will affect efficiency, and harm your rims.

Gear Adjustment and Road Bikes

Properly working gears increases drivetrain efficiency. They wouldn’t skip in the middle of a ride, and on steep gradients, you wouldn’t be “thrown into another sprocket,” says Cycling Weekly. You’ll know when your cables are stretched, and gears need adjusting, “if one click is no longer resulting in a sharp movement into the next cog,” says Total Women’s Cycling.

Steps to adjusting gears:

For more details, this is a great article on what each step involves. If you’re visual, here’s an excellent YouTube video that puts it all together:

TIP: Worn Bearings
Good-quality bearings go together with well-adjusted gears, and both make for a more comfortable ride. Bearings can be found in the hubs, headsets, bottom brackets, pedals, and derailleur pulleys. If your bike has either cartridge or sealed bearings and they begin to feel weird, swapping them out can make all the difference.

Brakes Should be Adjusted

When your road bike feels slow, it could be that the brakes are rubbing (this happens on both disc and rim brakes).  Brake pads can wear down quickly, and if they’re not equal distance from the rims or the brake cables are worn, it will decrease your speed and braking performance.

If, when you pull the brakes, they don’t engage before the levers hit the handlebar, you need to replace them. Make sure brake pads are equally contacting the rim on either side and not rubbing the tire.

TIP: Cable and Brake Replacement
If your brakes are feeling stiff, it could be the cables. Also, if your shifting is sluggish and inconsistent (despite adjusting), it’s time to change the cables. Brake cables should be replaced “with every third set of gear cables,” says Bike Radar. If you have hydraulics, a bleed is the next best thing.

Lube and Bike Chains

When your chains are well-lubed, your drivetrain will be efficient, which in turn means you’re not working as hard (aka the bike isn’t as hard to ride). Lube also reduces the amount of grime your bike accumulates during the rainy season, and it makes shifting smoother.

When applying lube, don’t put too much on to the point where it’s a thick white paste. Apply a small amount of on the inside of the chain as you rotate the wheel backward, so the length of the chain receives an even coating. Do it slowly, and when you’re done, wipe off any excess lube. Check out my favorite chain lubes here.

TIP: Chain Replacement
Good chains are a necessity, but don’t put new ones on a dirty drivetrain. When replacing them, use it as an opportunity to overhaul the drivetrain, and see if any parts need replacing, as well. For example, the gears, cassette, and chainrings might do well with an upgrade.

Riding into the Wind

Something as simple as riding into a headwind can make the bike seem hard to pedal. In fact, if you’re a novice rider, it’s one of the hardest things to get used to. There are bikes today, however, that are flatter than traditional bikes and shaped to cut through the wind, making it less of a challenge.

Adjust the Height of Your Saddle

A saddle that’s too high can make you ride slower because, with each pedal stroke, you’re not getting the full benefit of your effort or fully engaging the combined power of the bike. According to Cycling Weekly, “the distance between your bottom bracket and the top of the saddle should be your inseam measurement minus 10cm [3.93”]. So, if your inseam is 80cm [31.49”], then your saddle height [should] be 70cm [27.55”].”

Riding too long without adequately adjusting your saddle can lead to back, hip, and knee pain. In fact, the position of your saddles, cleats, and handlebar height will not only make riding harder but will also cause fatigue to specific muscle groups and can cause back and neck issues. See what Cleveland Clinic has to say about that here.  

TIP: General Contact Point Replacement
When the firmness, shape, and form or support of your saddle collapses in the middle or shows signs of deep creases and cracks in the cover, it’s time for a new one.

Pedal Tension Check

If you don’t make this adjustment, you will lose efficiency. Different pedal systems have varying spring tension, so be sure to follow manufacturing instructions and leave a small amount of float to prevent injuries.”

Some recommend using clipped pedals because you’re less likely to slip off the pedal, and this allows you pedal with ease and leads to less leg fatigue. However, getting used to it is easier with a mountain bike than a road bike.

Others believe that clipless pedals are far more beneficial – allowing you to the freedom to use more of your key muscles while pedaling, which makes for more significant forward momentum with every revolution. Either way, choose what feels best for you to make your bike pedaling easier. 

TIP: Pedal Replacement

When it’s time to replace your pedals, especially the clip-in types, know that they have multiple moving parts that wear down, though new brands are more durable. Also, look at your cleats to see if they’re showing signs of wear.

The Size of Your Road Bike Matters

One of the most important things you can do is check your bike size. REI recommends that “when you’re standing over the bike with your feet flat on the ground, there should be at least 1-2inches of clearance between your crotch and the top tube (bar) on a road bike.”

As for the bike seat height and position, they say to make sure the saddle is adjusted to your height. Also, check that your knees are slightly bent and that they are positioned front and center over the pedal, “when your feet are parallel to the ground.”

Levers That You Can’t Reach

If you have difficulty reaching the gear and brake levers, it will feel like the bike is hard to pedal. This can mean the handlebars are too wide, the stem is too long, or the levers are too far away.

Check with a bike shop to see if your bike is the type where levers can be adjusted if the problem is the distance between the lever and the bar. You can also purchase a different handlebar (probably with a shallow drop). As for the levers, you can always get a shorter stem and a narrow handlebar.

Riding in the Wrong Gear

When your gear is too high, your cadence (revolutions per minute or RPM) will be off. If you have a cadence monitor, it will make it easier to see when you’re spinning.

RPM is based on the individual, but some experts recommend it be closer to 90 RPM on flat roads and 70-80 RPM on hills. If you are pushing too hard and it’s still slow, you need to shift to lower gears. Overdoing it will only damage your knees.

Finding the Right Cadence to Your Ride

What is the right cadence to ride in? Speaking of which, high cadence cycling for nonprofessional cyclists is less efficient and will tire you out more than anything. A new 2019 study in the International Journal of Sports Medicine found that pedaling faster than 90RPM, is counterproductive for the novice rider. It said that you could produce the same wattage by pedaling at a variety of cadence levels

“It’s about the work you’re producing and what feels comfortable and what you can sustain,” says Selene Yeager of Bicycling. By finding the right RPM that is best for you to be able to cycle smarter, longer, and have a greater overall experience, you get more benefit than trying to keep up with some pre-established best RPM rate.

How often should I do safety checks on my road bike, and what do I look for? In 2018, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said there were 857 bicycle fatalities in the U.S., and it was 75-percent more common in urban areas. They suggest before heading out that riders do a safety and maintenance check. Here is a quick maintenance checklist that you can follow all year-long.

Pre-Ride Checklist – 10 Things to Look at Before Each Ride

  1. Chains: are you using the right lube for your road bike? Apply it to the inside of the chain and not on top of the chain.
  2. Gears: shift through each gear to make sure it transfers smoothly.
  3. Brakes: are they working independently, is it engaging before the lever reaches the handlebars, are brake pads worn, and where do they hit the rim?
  4. Wheels: lift the bike and spin the wheels to see if they’re rubbing on the brake pads or anywhere in the frame. Are wheels turning freely, and is there any weird noises?  Also, check the quick release tension.
  5. Rims: spin the wheel and check that rims are straight and not wobbling from side to side.
  6. Tires: check for any cuts or nicks in the sidewall, or cracks and excessive wear and tear.
  7. Air: check air pressure, and that it is properly inflated (a minimum of 100 PSI).
  8. Shifting: the rear derailleur should shift evenly and smoothly.
  9. Cranks: check the arms (that attach to the pedals) to make sure they’re tight.
  10. Frame and Headset: check for any cracks in the frame and that the headset is tight.

Regular Maintenance Cheat Sheet

Each time you ride: *Wipe down chain and bike frame
*Inspect tires for cuts, nails, and debris
*Check shift levers and derailleurs
*Inspect pedals
*Clean bike from handlebars to fenders
*Check wheels for straightness
Every Week *Check brake pads
*Inspect and tighten crankset
*Clean all parts and components, including cassette, derailleur pulleys, chainrings  
Every Month *Check for wear on chains and brake pads
*Degrease drivetrain
*Lube everything: cables, brakes, derailleur pivots, and pulleys  
6-month Checkup *Check tubeless tire fluid sealant
*Service suspension Bleed hydraulic brakes  
Annual Checkup *Replace chains, cables, and housing, tires, brake pads, grips, bar tape, tubeless tire sealant
*Service frame  

Related articles:

The 5 Best Chain Lubes for Road Bikes

How to Clean a Road Bike Chain and Gears

Do Bike Hubs Make A Difference? Here’s the Truth

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