Thursday, February 5, 2015

Tractor Pulls and Bicycle Racing

Tractor Pulls and Bicycle Racing

Most of us have seen a tractor pull at one time or another, even if just in a television commercial. The sport was originally just a bunch of competitive farmers proving whose John Deere tractor could pull the most mass over a field, but it has since evolved, now involving insanely high horsepower “dragster” tractors complete with flames shooting out of the exhaust, pulling specialized weights with sliding loads. The basic premise remains the same, though: it’s still about seeing which tractor has the greatest pulling capacity or torque-producing ability.

What does this have to do with cycling, you ask? We cyclists all need a tractor-pull-type burst of torque on occasions; while we normally have very low loads of torque, there are times we need to have this ability to accelerate in a sprint, jump out of a corner, or climb up a very steep hill, or in track racing.

One of the challenges of weight lifting for cyclists is translating that new-found strength into something useful on the bicycle. A NFL linebacker who attended one of my power seminars could squat over 500 pounds, and for the life of him he couldn’t understand why he couldn’t automatically ride with the best cyclists on his Tuesday evening ride. “I am strong!" he said. "I put out 450 watts just when I push down on the pedals. But I can’t stay with the best guys on the bike. I don’t get it!” I explained to him that he had an incredible ability to create force on the pedals, but it wasn’t effective force. He was stretching the crank arms at the bottom of the stroke, but he wasn’t able to effectively use all his strength in a circular motion to create more forward movement. What he could do, though, was accelerate from a near dead stop in a 53:11 though and crush us all for the first 100 meters; after that his cadence became too fast for him to be effective any longer.

We all will have this problem (though probably to a lesser extent) when we try to convert strength gained in the weight room to the bicycle. Increasing our strength in the weight room can be easily done over a winter season, but typically that new strength is only applicable to the specific exercise we do (squats, ham string curls, etc.). The tricky part is taking that strength and making it effective on the bicycle so we go faster! How do we do that? Tractor pulls.

Before we go into the mechanics of “tractor pulls,” let me say more about why we need to do them on the bike and why it’s critical to do them correctly. Lower cadence workouts are great to do in the winter transition period and throughout the winter because they can enhance our muscular strength, which in turn can help us sprint with more peak wattages and push a bigger gear into the wind, in a time trial, or up a steep climb. Muscular strength workouts (tractor pulls) are based around hard but short intervals done in the biggest gear you can manage at a low rpm. 

Many people have long believed the myth that riding for hours in a big gear at a slow rpm will increase their muscular strength and consequently make them more powerful, but in reality this only makes you good at riding in a big gear at a slow rpm! Riding at 50 rpm for hours on end just doesn’t create enough muscular stress to strengthen the muscles.

Consider this analogy: If we want to bench press 200 pounds, we need to start at 150 pounds and build up to 200 with low reps, high sets, and the most weight we can lift. We have to use heavier and heavier weights to stress the muscle so that it adapts. If I lift 100 pounds one million times, I will never adapt to lifting 200 pounds for one rep. Pedaling at 50 rpm for hours on end is just like lifting 100 pounds for a million reps. While 100 pounds (metaphorically speaking) is more than our normal pedaling force of 80 pounds, it’s just not enough stress on the muscles to get them to strengthen. In order to increase our muscular strength on the bike, we need to do hard, short bursts of effort in a big gear.  

The mechanics of the tractor pull are simple but important. First, tractor pulls are usually best to do while in the saddle the entire time of the effort. Second, in order to elicit the most force, we do them on a flat road or false flat upward slope. For example, put your chain in the 53:12 gear and slow down to about 5-8 mph, then (staying seated) tighten your abdominals, grip your handlebars tightly, and with all your force turn that gear over until you reach 85 rpm. Once you’ve reached 85 rpm, the amount of force you’re putting on the cranks has reduced to a point at which it’s just not enough stress to create muscular strength improvements. Plan on doing about twenty of these power bursts in a session to create enough of an overload to achieve some benefits. Take a look at the chart below to understand what this looks like in a power file.

To confirm that tractor pulls are executed correctly, we can look at the Quadrant Analysis scatter plot in the power file. Most if not all the points from a tractor pull session should be in quadrant II, where the high force and low cadence intersect. When we see the dots in QII, it’s a great confirmation that we elicited the right amount of force from the workout. The higher the dots are up in the upper left quadrant, the better we did.

So there’s the secret of how to take your hard work in the weight room and make it effective force on the bike. I suggest that you do at least two of these workouts every week in the months of January and February, always at the beginning of your workout when you’re freshest and have the most strength to apply. Do them at the beginning of workouts that address other energy systems as well, maybe before your sweet spot 2 x 20s or before your FTP 4 x 10 intervals, or even at the beginning of a kitchen sink workout. These are great additions to indoor training, too, and they’re easy to execute correctly; just remember that if you can’t reach 85 rpm in less than thirty seconds, once you reach thirty seconds the interval is over.

Your sprint, your explosive snap, your time trial, and your ability to charge up steep hills will be forever changed for the positive!

Want more coaching and training tips? Request information about our coaching packages or schedule a consulting session with one of our expert coaches. With power training, we get powerful results. 

Hunter Allen is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach and former professional cyclist. He is the coauthor of Training and Racing with a Power Meter and Cutting-Edge Cycling, co-developer of TrainingPeaks’ WKO software, and CEO and founder of Peaks Coaching Group. He and his coaches create custom training plans for all levels of athletes. Hunter can be contacted directly through  

Originally published in Road Magazine.
Photo credit: