Why Is Your Bike So Hard To Pedal?

Whether you just bought a used bike or haven’t performed maintenance in a while, having difficulty pedalling is a relatively common problem. Luckily, figuring out the cause of the problem involves basic troubleshooting.

If you struggle to pedal, you need to inspect your bike. Check the wheels and all the components of the drivetrain for signs of damage, wear and tear.

How to troubleshoot issues with pedalling a bike

Difficulty pedalling typically means that something is preventing the normal function of the bicycle’s drivetrain, which are the components used to move your bike forward. The drivetrain includes:

If you find it difficult to pedal, inspect the components involved in the pedalling process. Make sure that each component is not too tight, loose, uneven, dirty or lacking lubrication. In most cases, the cause is something simple such as a dirty chain or increased chain tension. However, difficulty pedalling could also be the result of more severe damage, such as bent wheels.

Here’s a closer look at the potential reasons why your bike is too hard to pedal and how to fix the problem.

Rusty chain

Rust on the chains can lead to a variety of problems that make it more difficult to pedal. The rust from the chains may lead to debris and rust in the rest of the drivetrain, including the derailleur, cogs and chainrings.

Closeup of a rusty bike chain

Cleaning and lubricating your chain are essential parts of bike maintenance. Without frequent cleaning, the gunk on a bicycle chain may promote rusting. Lubrication is also necessary for protecting against corrosion and reducing friction.

If rust has already appeared, it may be too late to save your bike chain. Consider replacing the chain to improve the performance of your bike and keep up with maintenance on the new chain.

Low tire pressure

A flat tire or tire with low air pressure adds rolling resistance. The increased resistance forces you to pedal harder. Check the air pressure in your tires before riding. If the tires seem a little flat, top them off using a bicycle pump. You should also consider using a pump that includes an air pressure gauge.

Cyclist paused on a gravel trail to pump up a soft tire

Most tires include a recommended pounds per square inch (PSI) of pressure. Recommendations vary between manufacturers and types of tires. Road bike tires are typically inflated to between 80 and 130 PSI. Mountain bike (MTB) tires are often inflated to 25 to 40 PSI. Hybrid tires may be inflated to 40 to 70 PSI.

If the air pressure seems low after each ride, you may have a flat. Check the tube for holes and patch any leaks that you find.

Too high a gear

If your bike is relatively new, you may be confusing the high and low gears. Putting your bike in a lower gear makes it easier to pedal but requires more revolutions of the pedals to achieve faster speeds. The low gears are typically used for uphill pedalling and riding with extra weight.

The high gears require more pedalling effort to cover the same distance, which is useful for going downhill or giving yourself a workout. On varied terrain or traveling off-road, a high gear can make it unnecessarily difficult to pedal.

Examine the rear gear sprockets to see which sprocket the chain rests on. The smallest sprocket is for the highest gear while the largest sprocket is for the lowest gear. On the front chain rings attached to your pedals, it is the opposite.

Closeup of the rear cassette of a bicycle
On the rear cassette, the smallest sprocket makes for the most difficult pedalling.

Switch to a lower gear to make pedalling easier. Ride around for a while to test the gears. If you find that pedalling is too easy, move up one gear. Repeat this until you find the most comfortable gear.

Misaligned brakes

Brakes that become misaligned may start to rub against the rotor or rim of the wheel, depending on the type of brakes. The increased resistance of the brakes makes pedalling more of a chore. When you look at your bike directly from behind, the wheels, brake pads and gears should be completely parallel (true).

closeup of caliper brakes on a road bike
It doesn’t take much of a bump to knock brakes out of alignment.

Off-center rim brake pads may maintain contact with the rim of the wheel, forcing you to pedal harder. Off-center disc brakes may add friction to the rotor. Check the alignment of the brake pads and the rim or rotor. Spin the rear wheel and look for inconsistent gaps between the pads and rim or rotor. Make sure that they stand true instead of at an angle. Loosen the pads and adjust the rotor or rim as needed.

Out-of-true wheels

Wheels that become “out of true” no longer maintain a perfect balance of tension among the bike spokes. One side starts to pull as the other side loses tension. This causes the shape of the wheel to deform.

With out-of-true wheels, the rim may bend toward the side that retains more tension. The deformed shape causes the rim to grind against the brakes, making it more difficult to pedal. Along with difficulty pedalling, you may notice a grinding or rubbing noise as the rim rubs against the brakes.

You can attempt to fix out-of-true wheels by loosening the bike spokes on the side with more tension. Relieving the tension on one side may help realign the shape of the wheel. If the problem continues, you may need to replace the wheel.

Damage to cartridge system or cup-and-cone bearings

Damage to the cartridge bearing or cup-and-cone bearings causes several problems. You may find that the bike becomes harder to pedal and steer.

If your bike has a cartridge system, remove the bearing from the hub. Clean the bearing with a degreaser. Lubricate the bearing before reattaching. If the problem continues, you may need to replace the cartridge system.

If your bike has a cup-and-cone bearing system, you can check the bearings for the presence of dirt and grime. You may need to clean the bearings or replace them. You cannot replace the cup, but the cone and bearings are replaceable.

Mudguards

Mudguards, also known as fenders, are useful when riding in wet or muddy conditions. The guards help keep the tires from constantly spraying you as you ride. Unfortunately, the mudguards can also become a nuisance. If the mudguards extend too far or are improperly installed, they may rub against the back tire. The friction of the mudguard rubbing on the tire may require you to pedal with more effort.

Closeup of a mudguard positioned barely above a bicycle tire
If your mudguards aren’t set up just right, they may rub against the tire.

Remove the mudguards and take your bicycle for a spin. If you still find it difficult to pedal, you can safely reattach the mudguards. If you find it easier to pedal, leave the mudguards off.

Over-tightened components

The rear wheel axle, brakes, hubs, derailleurs, pedals, pedal crank arm and other components may get tightened too much when adjusting or maintaining your bike. Check your bike to ensure that nothing is grinding as you pedal.

Switch to the lowest gear, turn your bike over, and rotate the wheel. Everything should move smoothly. As you rotate the wheel, pay attention to areas of the bike where you feel extra tension. You may find that you overtightened one or two components. Loosen the tightened components and try spinning the wheel.

Bike frame is too small

One potential cause of pedalling problems is the size of the bike frame. If the bike frame is too small, your legs may not have the clearance needed to pedal efficiently. The cramped position may be awkward, making it difficult to pedal.

Use a bike size chart to estimate the right size. Most people are between 5-foot-7 and 5-foot-11 and would be most comfortable on bikes measuring 16 or 17 inches from the center of the crank axle to the top of the seat tube.

Most bike frames range in size from 13 inches to 21 inches. If you think that the problem is due to the size of the bike frame, you can either buy a larger type of bike or try to adjust the bike. For example, raising the seat and handlebars may create a more comfortable ride.

Visit the bike shop if all else fails

Difficulty pedalling is a common issue with a long list of potential causes. Start by checking the gear ratio to ensure that you are using a lower gear. A higher gear makes pedalling more difficult.

If the gear setting is correct, inspect the rest of your bicycle. The brake pads, wheels and rims should all be perfectly aligned and not off-center. You should also perform basic maintenance, such as cleaning the bike chain and checking the tire pressure.

If these steps fail to solve the problem or you do not have the right tools, you may need to take your bike to a local bike shop. Allow a professional to inspect your ride and detect the problem.

Take precautions to keep pedalling easy

You can also take steps to keep the problem from recurring. After each ride, clean your bicycle to remove grass and debris from your latest trip. Cleaning also gives you a chance to inspect the components of your bike for signs of wear and tear.

Store your bicycle indoors to avoid exposure to the elements and the risk of corrosion. You should also perform regular maintenance, including a monthly safety inspection and lubricating the bike chain as necessary.

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