On level ground, your bicycle is propelled forward only when your pedals are moved by your feet. That means, with regard to cycling, where your feet touch the pedals are your most important bicycle contact points. Sounds sort of obvious, but then why are you pulling up on the handlebars on a steep hill? That was your only option as a kid wearing basketball shoes and riding a bicycle equipped with flat rubber pedals. Things changed however when you graduated to cleated shoes and click-in pedals.
With cleated shoes and compatible pedals you can pull up on the backside of your pedal stroke. At least, it’s an option. Most pay only lip service to this pedaling technique since even casual observation will note it’s seldom used amongst even serious recreational cyclists. Old habits die hard though, and most recreational riders will resort to the childhood technique of pulling up on the handlebars so they can push harder on the pedal downstroke. To over-simplify Newton’s Third Law (the part about Equal and Opposite actions and reactions) if the handlebar pulling effort is equal to the pedal pushing effort – HALF your effort when riding up hills is wasted. Yep, 50% inefficient. (I said we were going to over-simplify, but the concept is still sound) The reason is simple; pulling on the handlebars does not directly move the pedals. Now, take all that wasted effort and instead put it into pulling that cleated shoe on the pedal upstroke. This effort is also opposed to the downstroke just like the handlebar pulling, but since it directly moves a pedal it’s not wasted effort like the handlebar pulling.
Try this technique when climbing as well as accelerating away from a corner or stop. Master it and you’ll feel less like you’re fighting it and more like your bicycle is pulling you up steep climbs. Now that’s more fun. (Note: To safely use this technique it's very important to stay in the middle of your bike rather than throw your shoulders forward as when puling up on the handlebars.)
If you enjoy cycling history check out the Timeline of Clipless Pedal History at Speedplay's site. Note: my first clipless pedals were the 1984 Look PP65.
BTW – If you want to be certain your cleats are optimally adjusted for your feet, check out the Bicycle Garage Indy Fitting Services web page.. And here's a previous blog about the importance of a proper Cleat Fitting. Consider reading Jay's blog if you have Never used Cleated Shoes / Pedals.
Frank Radaker, Certified Bicycle Fitter
Bicycle Garage Indy
Bicycle Garage Indy offers a complete selection of bicycling shoes and pedals systems, with shoes from Bontrager, Pearl Izumi, Shimano and Sidi, and pedals from Shimano, Speedplay, Look and Crank Brothers.