Question: I’m a relatively new rider and have read that a higher cadence is better, so I’m trying to increase mine to 100 rpm. I have no trouble maintaining 95-100 with my bike on a trainer, but when I reach 95 on the road, it feels unnatural. Is there something about riding outside that makes me want to use a lower cadence than I should? — Mark G.
Coach Fred Matheny Replies: Good question, Mark. I’ve noticed the same thing and I think it depends on what kind of indoor trainer you’re on.
Because of the way resistance is generated on magnetic or fluid trainers, they “reward” you for pedaling faster. The resistance goes down because you’re producing more pedal speed, thus dividing the workload per minute into smaller chunks.
On the other hand, wind trainers get harder in a given gear when you pedal faster. On the road, the resistance varies with speed, too, given flat terrain and consistent wind, so the feeling is nearly identical.
Also, riding the road isn’t a steady effort like on a trainer. If you use a power meter on your bike outside, you’ll notice that the reading jumps all over even if you’re trying to maintain a steady pace.
Little changes in grade that you can’t even see, minor puffs of wind or differences in pavement texture mean that you slow and accelerate time and time again. This makes a fast, consistent cadence harder to maintain.
One other point: On a trainer, your bike is in a fixed position. All of your attention and effort can go into pedal rpm. On the road, as cadence increases, the bike reacts to any pedaling choppiness or body bouncing, which could cause the “unnatural” feeling you mention.
The more you ride at higher cadences, the smoother you should become. I’ll bet that 95 rpm will feel very natural on the road as your technique improves.