By Martin Sigrist
Takeaway: Your cadence is one of the most important factors in determining how fast and how far you can go on a bike. So it’s sensible to spend a little time experimenting and ensuring that your rpm is best for you in all the conditions in which you will ride.
Two quick questions.
Do you know your preferred cadence?
Is it your preferred cadence by choice?
If the answer to either of those questions is no, I’d suggest you are missing a trick in terms of becoming a better rider.
Riding a bike is a simple activity. In the same gear the quicker you pedal the faster you go.
There are a number of training “need to knows” that follow on from this. Here are a few:
1. A simple way to increase your FTP is pedal just a bit quicker.
Increasing FTP (or any other watts target) can seem daunting if it is watts number on a screen. However an alternative to increasing watts is increase cadence. You don’t need to go from a “grinder” to a “spinner” overnight. Just an increase of 1 in your average rpm will produce more power. Manage that and add just 1 rpm and the effect in terms of FTP could be noticeable.
2. The body learns at extremes.
The above is one training goal, just increase by 1 rpm over the course of a few weeks. Something that complements it nicely is to plan rides when you go to the extreme. Try to pedal as fast as you can for a solid period of time, say 10 minutes over 100 rpm if your usual cadence is 70. Or try the opposite, pedal at half your normal cadence pushing a big gear.
There’s an established model of skill training that supports this approach. The body learns by experience and if you push it to its limits it will react so that when you return to the norm it is better. An example is Sir Chris Hoy, one of the best track cyclists in history. His “normal” cadence is 150rpm. That, for him, feels “normal” because he trained on a “clown bike” with 5” cranks spinning a low resistance gear at 320rpm!!
I’m not suggesting that you go quite that fast but it can be fun just to try spinning and seeing what the highest rpm you can hold for a set time is. While not recommended for the road it’s something perfectly suited for indoor training over winter.
3. The longer you ride the slower you pedal
It’s normal that on long rides lasting many hours that as you go longer you go slower.
Leg fatigue is one reason for this but so is mental fatigue. Pedalling is a pretty mundane activity and after hours it can get monotonous so the brain just switches off and you pedal more slowly as a result. There’s a double whammy as by that time you are likely to be running low on carbs and the brain needs carbs even more than muscles do.
This combination can mean your rpm drops without it even being noticed. Just a small amount is less power especially if your leg muscles are tired as well.
The “fix” is simple. Put your cadence on your head unit and keep an eye on it. Buy a cadence sensor if you can’t do this, they cost little and are worth it.
4. Practice at event cadence, make sure you compete at your preferred cadence
They bike shops in towns that host gran fondos make a fortune the day before a big event. They are filled with riders who realise that their gearing is wrong and they go on a desperate search to find the biggest cassette they can.
This is too late. Practice as you plan to ride for real. This includes cadence, so you should practice at the cadence you will ride at. This can be tricky if everywhere for miles is pan flat and you will ride in mountains that rise in double digits. However tools exist to check what gear you need for a given speed at a given cadence (try Sheldon Brown) so it is possible to do some advance planning. Turbo training is a great way to practice riding at the cadence you plan at high resistance.
All the above fit neatly into a stacking approach to training workouts. Pedaling is one of the essential perishable skills that a cyclist has no choice about doing. So given that you have to pedal a bike it is just common sense to aspire to do it in the best way you can.
Just as with other elements of stacking spending time on understanding and improving cadence has a double benefit. It makes you a better rider and having something other than a watts or timer to focus on can make training time, even hard training time, pass more quickly and be of higher quality.
Email me on [email protected] if you want more info on this or any topic I have raised.
Now among the world’s fittest sexagenarians Martin Sigrist started riding on doctor’s orders in 2005 and had to push his bike up his first hill. Next year he soloed the Tour de France. He has since experienced every form of road cycling from criterium to ultra endurance. His ongoing mission is to use the latest in science and technology to fight a, so far successful, battle against Father Time.
Kerry Irons says
Chris Hoy might have finished his sprints at 150 rpm but it was not his “normal” cadence. Here’s a quote from him in 2016: “Cadence much lower now, down to around 120-125rpm vs 150rpm in the ‘old days’. Biomechanically more efficient.” All of the world hour records have been set at 100-110 rpm. Striving to develop your cadence in the 90-100 range should be a goal for nearly all cyclists. The historical approach has been to spin at your target cadence for 10 minutes or so, several times per ride. Likewise “spinning out” on downhills or with strong tailwinds rather than shifting to bigger gears are proven ways to increase your cadence. Adding 1 rpm requires about 1% more power and so yes, you will be faster if you can do it.
Lyman Orton says
Thanks to Kerry Irons for simplifying Martin Siglist’s convoluted piece on cadence that references the extremes of cadence by champions. What good does that do 99 percent of cyclists? I have been cycling for 54 years (now 80) and have always practiced the 90-100 goal that Kerry mentions and it has served me well, although it does get more difficult with each passing year. Kerry nails it with advice to spin faster on flats and go crazy on downhills.
Physical condition may be what dictates a cyclist’s ideal cadence. By far cadence is the most important aspect for all of my rides. I’m missing my left leg almost to the level of my hip, though I am able to ride with a prosthetic. In order to protect the only knee I have left I have to ride at a higher cadence, but I also have to factor other things. For example, I had been riding in the average of about 90 RPM and was able to sustain that pretty well for about two hours. My other knee felt very good and I wasn’t expending as many watts, but could really sustain a ride on flat land. But it led to pistoning of my prosthetic limb and skin causing bad breakdown. So after consulting my orthopedic specialists we decided to aim in the low 80s and ever since my knee has remained fluid enough and not exerting too much stress on it. It’s been working well for several months.
And above all else, I would say the cadence that doesn’t leave your knees (or body) inappropriately aching and also provides you with a ride you enjoy is the right cadence unless in competition.
Forgot to mention that I’m 51 years old and have been an amputee for 33 years.