Bikes have gears. They have been around for a long time. They are fantastic! It used to be that you only had a few options, but you were grateful for them. Now, modern bikes may have between 10 and 30 different gearing options (with some overlap), allowing the rider to dial in the preferred speed, cadence and power output.
Have you ever seen another rider, usually--but not always--a recreational rider, slogging away, struggling to make it up some modest incline, while mashing on the pedals and rocking the upper body all over the place in an attempt to find some extra power? Do you then look down and notice the hardest gearing combination? Do you wish you could tell the rider there’s an easier way to get there and all it takes is a flick of the finger or a twist of the wrist?
Although that example is extreme, it draws attention to something that many athletes may not ever give much thought to: the proper cadence for different types of riding. Many riders new to cycling will adopt a relatively low cadence, around 60-70 rpms. Lance Armstrong helped to popularize a higher pedaling cadence which led to many coaches, books, articles and other sources recommending a fast pedaling style of 90+ rpms as the best way to ride.
Rather than looking at cadence (and gearing, which is inextricably linked) as an absolute number you should adhere to, consider it a tool you can use to optimize your performance. First, let’s consider what really happens with cadence. Cadence is part of the equation that leads to power production, which in turn correlates to how fast your bike moves. If torque (how hard you’re pushing on the pedals) is held equal, changes in cadence directly result in changes in power and speed (assuming environmental factors like wind and terrain have remained constant as well).
So torque and cadence lead to power. What about heart rate? For a given power, heart rate as well as breathing will tend to be lower at a lower cadence, higher at a higher cadence. Seems like the goal might be keeping cadence as low as possible to keep HR as low as possible, right? We all know high heart rates aren’t very fun. Remember: as you lower your cadence, the only way to maintain power is to increase torque by pushing harder on the pedals. Now your breathing is relaxed and steady, but suddenly your legs feel like anchors. Striking the appropriate balance between cadence and torque allows the muscular, cardiovascular and pulmonary systems to work effectively in concert.
You’ve been reading patiently, waiting for me to tell you what the right cadence is, and I’ll start by saying it depends on the event. In short events, or ones with frequent changes in effort (time trials, criteriums, mountain biking), torque demands tend to be high. A faster cadence helps to reduce the torque demand and allow the greater endurance capacity of the heart and lungs to carry the load for the muscles so that muscular power can be reserved for the times it’s really needed--the steepest climbs or the hardest sprints. The shorter the event, the more important a high cadence becomes, because power will be higher.
Longer steady-state efforts like long triathlons and century rides will generally be completed at lower power outputs, meaning torque demands are seldom high enough to really fatigue the muscles. Since these events are prolonged, and dealing with a high heart rate for hours on end isn’t pleasant, a lower cadence and more controlled heart rate might be advisable. Traditionally, triathletes were coached to keep cadence higher to ease the transition to the run, but that has been changing recently toward lower cadences to keep HR low. However, I would still advise that most age group-triathletes only settle on sub-80 cadences after extensive testing during long rides and brick workouts. My reason for this is that the average age group-triathlete faces very different demands than an elite-level athlete. Although the torque demands may still be relatively low at endurance pace, their power is also going to be lower, thus they will spend more time on course, allowing more time for the cumulative stress of all.
For all types of athletes, regardless of what your race cadence ultimately is, I think it is crucial to practice across a wide range of different cadences, from 50 rpms up to 120 rpms and higher. That is not to say I would ever advocate spending extended periods at either extreme, but there are benefits to be gained from training the extremes. The benefits of low cadence-training are likely easier for many athletes to comprehend, because it’s similar to something they’ve experienced before like climbing a steep hill or fighting a stiff wind. Dropping cadence to 50-60 rpms while keeping power high requires high torque and leads to the capacity for greater force development, just like lifting heavy weights in the gym, meaning higher torque and ultimately more power. Another advantage of low cadence-work is that the slow rhythm allows you to feel tension throughout the pedal stroke, helping to smooth out pedaling mechanics.
High cadence-training is the area that I have seen many athletes ignore or not fully comprehend. Cycling is highly repetitive. At 80 rpms, you’ll accumulate 4,800 total revolutions per hour, so multiply that by several hours of training per week and it’s easy to see how you’d get really familiar with what that feels like. When I recommend high cadence-work, I’m thinking in the range of 100+ rpms minimum. Ideally, I would like to see high cadence-work completed at 110-120 rpms or even faster. When athletes tell me they can’t do it, or they’re not good at it, my normal reply is that they have to give it time. Most are very well adapted to the slower range, and so the higher cadences are hard because it’s an unfamiliar rhythm. Regardless of where you start, if you can incrementally increase the rate at which you can spin while remaining smooth and stable in the saddle, you will develop increased muscular coordination and ultimately pedal more efficiently at any cadence less than this upper extreme. This change can even begin to take place within the scope of a single workout. The first interval might feel stiff and erratic, but each time you return to high cadence, it seems to come a little more easily.
I want to wrap up by talking a little more about gearing. As I said at the beginning, gearing options are fantastic. They allow us to adjust to the changes we will inevitably face on any ride. Even if it’s flat, you’ll want to adjust for wind or shift down to make it easier to pull away from a stop light. The trend I’m seeing for athletes preparing for climb-focused events is for easier and easier gears. This started with compact crank sets, which offered a smaller combination of front rings. Now with a wider cassette available in the rear, the large cog of bikes is getting bigger and bigger.
Many athletes seem to think that these easier gears will help them to ride better, which is not the case. The easier gears only help make it possible to keep cadence at a higher range in more difficult terrain. In that regard, the riding may be easier or more comfortable, but it certainly hasn’t become any faster. The only way the rider gets faster is by increasing power or power-to-weight to be precise. The role that gearing plays in producing more power is limited to allowing a rider to limit the high torque that might otherwise be necessary on a steep grade that could lead to premature fatigue during long or repeated high torque efforts.
Throughout the year, lend some attention to both ends of the cadence spectrum. These workouts will be plenty challenging from a physical perspective. They also require increased focus to maintain the skill and practice with good technique. You’ll be rewarded with a new, or at least enhanced, arrow in your quiver that you can use to help optimize your performance in events of all distances.