For a while I’ve been a little obsessed with my cadence and trying to improve my average on a ride, especially in events, with the view that doing this and maintaining a higher cadence, will result in an improved performance. I’ve done a lot of wondering ‘why’ recently, and particularly why does cadence matter and what cadence should I really be aiming for?
Cycling can be boiled down to 3 main controlling factors, effort (as illustrated by heart rate and heart rate response), gearing, and pedal cadence (revolutions per minute). Most people know that professionals generally pedal faster and harder than everyone else; for example Chris Froome on 2 hill climb stages in the 2013 Tour de France averaged c.80rpm, whereas Braddley Wiggins in time trials averaged 100rpm. (Although more recently he’s sighted efficiency improvements dropping down to 90rpm average). Such consistently high cadence coupled with high power stats is generally considered a dream, but there must be a reason why the pros cycle like this…
With the joys of relatively inexpensive bike computers and sensors, cadence data is practically available to anyone that cares and the ability to record and report on training through sites like Garmin Connect gives great feedback into training regardless how serious you are about it.
I’ve figured out over time that my natural pedalling style when the going gets tough (hills / head winds) seems to be grinding out a big gear. Studies have shown that when you have to put out a hard effort you will, generally, choose the way of doing it that your body likes best! This could be 60rpm or something nearer 100rpm. It seems sensible that you fall into a more natural style, but this isn’t necessarily the more efficient style and perhaps working to break this habit will make you a better cyclist. There is research that maintaining a grinding style (low cadence, high gear) is more likely to cause knee problems and an rpm under 50 is actively considered to be inefficient! Two reasons to break this habit…
The key thing it seems with cadence is that whatever you cycle at you should always feel pressure on the pedals to truly be getting close to efficient aka don’t just aimlessly spin your legs. Try and aim for 80rpm which has been indicated as providing the greatest ‘bang for buck’ in terms of effort/speed efficiency. Higher leg cadence makes for better blood flow and coupled with reduced muscle strain makes for better endurance. Training in such a way can also help improve the quality and smoothness of the pedal stroke which improves efficiency even if you continue to cycle at lower rpm.
If you are taking part in time trials and adopt an aero tri-bar position, then smoothness and stability of the pedal stroke matter a lot!
Unsurprisingly the more miles you put through your legs, the fitter and stronger you become and the more naturally you will maintain a higher cadence. Those times when you feel the need to ‘grind’ try adjusting the gearing to aim towards 80-90rpm as a training period interval. Perhaps try some of these turbo sessions which hit cadence well https://www.probikekit.co.uk/blog/its-a-hard-cog-life-winter-turbo-training/2013/
So far, year to date across all outdoor cycling activities, I average 68rpm. More recently I’ve focused on cadence and for the last 200 miles I’ve managed an average of 79rpm. It isn’t easy but feels good, but only time will tell whether I can change my natural rhythm, after all it is a hard cog life!
A Cog in Time
“To avoid the risk of riders using extreme lightweight bike which could compromise the solidity of the machines and thereby the riders’ safety, in 2000 the UCI decided that bikes used in competition should not weigh less than 6.8kg.”