Question: I ride with a couple of buddies who seem to easily drop everyone on the hills. It’s not like they’re wispy little guys doing it with a crazy power-to-weight ratio. What’s the secret to getting up the hills faster like them?
Coach Rick Schultz Replies: My reply may sound a little trite, but it works: Spin to win.
Before I go any further, let me share what my personal gearing is:
- For flats/rollers/fast group rides, I ride a 52/34 front and an 11-28 cassette
- My climbing bike is geared as a 50/34 with an 11-32 cassette
It’s easy to “prescribe” spinning as a solution, but since most cyclists’ cadence is 85 or less, you will need to first build up your spinning over time to a higher cadence before you can tap it as needed on the road.
It will take about 6 months to build up to being able to pedal efficiently at 105 rpm. But once you do, it will become your new normal.
For example, if my cadence dips to 95, it feels like I am mashing the gears instead of spinning.
There are simple training drills that don’t take much time AND can be done in conjunction with any of your regular rides. I’ll cover those in a future article, but first you need to consider your gearing, and how to use it. That’s our focus today.
Gear Up for Spinning
The ideal cadence for climbing is range of about 90-105 rpm, regardless of whether you’re cruising or going hard. As a frame of reference, for sprinting, the optimal cadence is 120+ rpm. If you can’t do 120+ in a sprint, your gears are too hard for you. The same goes for the 90-105 range for climbing.
In general, use as much gear as you need. In other words, when going up a hill, use whatever gear you need to use so that your cadence is between 90 and 105. As you get used to spinning, you will find an rpm that will be the most efficient for you. This will typically be around 100 rpm.
If you live in a hilly area, use a road bike compact crank (50/34), along with an 11-32 cassette. If that’s not enough gearing to spin at the optimal range, look into a MTB cassette. You can easily find a MTB cassette in a range from 11-40 to 11-46. If you do elect to move beyond an 11-28 or 11-32, with most bikes you will probably need to swap out your rear derailleur for one with a longer cage.
Take if From the Pros
If you think a compact crank is just too small for you, or you’re worried what your buddies will say, consider a few illustrations from the pro ranks.
Let’s start with Mark Cavendish, the best sprinter of his generation, and one of the best all time. And let’s consider what he can do at 130 rpm? Why 130 rpm? Because that is the cadence of the world’s top sprinters as they cross the line.
Cavendish is one of very few people who can spin out a 50/11. On a 50/11 at 130 rpm, you will be eating up the road at over 46 mph (74 km/h)! If you can spin out a 50/11 at 130 rpm on the flats, there are quite a few world tour pro teams that would like to talk with you.
Let’s also take a look at where Peter Sagan was in his first year vs. where he is now. What’s the difference? Why is he so much better now? All you have to do is look at his cadence. Early in his career, he was pushing/mashing much bigger gears compared to his current spinning style. He’s usually the first sprinter over the top of each mountain.
Or how about Chris Froome? On 15-km climbs, Froome averages 414 watts (5.78w/kg) with an average cadence of 97 rpm. How about Cavendish? He sprints at 1600 watts and achieves a speed of almost 49 mph. Yes, he’s spinning 120-130 rpm.
Former pro Levi Leipheimer may have best summed up the proper cadence by providing a sort of over/under take on it: “You can consider anything under 90 rpm to be a low cadence, and 90+ rpm would be a high cadence.”
The Last Word
So you still think you need a bigger gear? At 130 rpm, a 53/11 will move you down the road at over 49 mph (79 km/h). But let’s just agree that even the A-dog roadie in your group can’t come close to spinning out a 53/11. A 50/34 provides plenty of gearing for a recreational rider.
Bottom line: It doesn’t matter what others think about your gearing. Ride a big cassette cog the size of a dinner plate if that’s what you need!
One final article for your reference: “Adaptation of pedaling rate of professional cyclist in mountain passes.” This is a scientific paper published by the National Institutes of Health. The conclusion? “Pedaling Rate was modified according to the characteristics and the race strategies adopted by the cyclists, thus the cyclists chose higher Pedaling Rates to improve their performance.”
If you want to explore at what speed you can go in certain gear combinations, look at www.bikecalc.com. Play around with the gearing calculator and see what results you get.
Coach Rick Schultz is an avid cyclist who trains, races and coaches in Southern California. Rick is an engineer by trade, and in addition to being a coach, he’s a bike fitter and prolific product reviewer. He’s the author of Stretching & Core Strengthening for the Cyclist and Bike Fit 101: Your Toolset for a Great Bike Fit in the RBR eBookstore. Check his product reviews website, www.biketestreviews.com, and his coaching site, www.bikefitnesscoaching.com. Click to read Rick’s full bio.