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Cadence: High or low, which is better?

Michael Donlevy
30 Oct 2020

There's a lot more to cycling cadence than just turning the pedals, it's quite the art form

A turn of the pedal is the basic unit of all cycling performance. But while many never give it a second thought, the rate at which you spin the cranks can have a huge impact on your efficiency and ability to manage fatigue.

Watch historic footage of any bike race and the slow and laboured style of the riders is the first things to jump out at you. Even as recently as the 1990s riders tended to grind their way through stages.

Compare the sixty or so revolutions per minute 1997 Tour de France winner Jan Ullrich managed compared to Primoz Roglic’s leg-blurring, robotic cadence of over one hundred revolutions – and it’s clear there’s been a turnaround in the way pros push the pedals.

'Having a wide cadence "envelope" is a powerful tool in the cyclist’s armoury,' says coach Tom Newman.

'Being able to pedal quickly and efficiently is a core skill – think of team pursuiters and how they use a high cadence to maintain speed.'

How to measure cadence

Cadence, which can be measured using a bike computer, is important for three reasons, says British Cycling coach Will Newton: 'It matters in terms of how fast you can ride a bike. For a track rider, to ride fast means being able to turn their legs over faster, because they don’t have the option of changing gear.

'Secondly, it’s about efficiency, because cadence is about the amount of effort that’s required to ride at a certain speed.'

Finally, riding at a higher cadence is actually easier on your body. 'Lance Armstrong, who rode at around 110rpm, always worked on the basis that a higher cadence stresses your cardio system more, whereas riding at a lower cadence is harder on the muscles,' says Newton.

Coach Ric Stern agrees. 'Using a higher cadence – for example, 80rpm vs 60rpm – results in a better "feel", plus it reduces the forces you have to apply to remain at a specific power output.'

Still not convinced? 'To ride at any given power, a higher cadence requires less muscular force per revolution, therefore your pedalling is relying more on your muscular endurance and less on your strength,' says coach Paul Butler.

'This should make it easier to sustain that given power for long periods.'

Pros and cons of higher cadence

One benefit of a higher cadence is that it can help you up hills. 'Don’t change gear early simply because you see a hill,' warns Newton.

'A lot of people stick it in the little ring way too early and lose momentum. This is the difference between a road racer and a sportive rider. If you’re a road racer you attack the hill and chew your bars off to stay on the wheel of the strongest rider. If you’re a sportive rider you’ll ride at your own pace and do what it takes to get up the hill.

'That’s fine – a sportive is a personal challenge, not a race – but it won’t keep you in the bunch if you do want to race.'

It’s worth remembering that you shouldn’t always aim for a high cadence, though.

'One important thing about cadence is the ability to change quickly from low to high,' says Newton. 'Chris Froome's attacks on the Tour de France have involved spinning at a massively high cadence, so it’s about being able to attack or respond to an attack.

'If you're in a race and someone attacks out of the group in a high gear, you’ll be able to stay with them or close them down. If someone attacks in a lower gear with higher cadence, it’s much more difficult to stop them getting away.'

Simply thumping a big gear at a high cadence is not a good idea. 'If you hit a headwind or false flat you’ll run of steam,' says Newton.

'That’s why you need to train at higher and lower cadences – you can’t ride at 110rpm all the time in the real world.'

In fact, a lower cadence can have benefits too. 'All the evidence shows that a low to moderate cadence – 40-60rpm – is the most efficient,' says Stern.

'You use less energy and burn more fat. Pedalling faster expends more energy, and burns more carbohydrate.'

If you’re that sportive rider Newton mentioned, this may explain why you prefer a lower cadence uphill – so you have more energy when you crest the summit.

'Cadence is a dependent variable, rather than an independent variable,' says Stern.

'Say you’re travelling at 13kmh at a power output of 300W. With a lowest gear ratio of 39x25 you’d be pedalling at around 65rpm. You can’t increase that cadence without increasing your speed, which in turn requires an increase in power output. If you work on your fitness you can increase your power output, and therefore your speed.'

And that’s how you become a racer.

How to train your cadence

'Your racing cadence will normally fall between 90-100rpm,' Newman says. 'You can work at improving it over time so it becomes second nature.

'You can include a cadence session in your training runs by doing 30 seconds at 130rpm, then 30 seconds at 90rpm. Ride four to six of these in one block, then have 10 minutes of easy spinning and go again.'

'Generally, you’re better off working it into a ride or turbo session,' Newton agrees. 'But there is one session you can add to your regime: ride a single-speed for a few hours on a relatively flat course.

'Work out what speed you would need to ride at to maintain your target cadence and maintain that speed. It may be that you need to ride at 16mph to hit a cadence of 110rpm. It’s not perfect because there will be undulations and you’ll probably hit wind at some point, but try to stay as close to 16mph as possible.

'Do that every week until you can maintain your target speed. Don’t change gear until you can do it. It’s not the nicest session but I’ve recommended it to time-trial riders who averaged 80rpm, and they’ve got up to 110rpm.'

A turbo trainer definitely helps, even if you’re not in real-world conditions.

'One session I suggest is to ride at a moderate effort and, starting at 80rpm, increase your cadence by 10rpm every five minutes up to 120rpm,' says Stern.

'This is best done on a turbo because you can change down the gearing or alter the resistance so you can keep pedalling faster without altering your power output.'

You’ll need to work off the bike, too. 'Strength training will help,' says Butler. 'If you want to be able to ride faster, you need to develop the specific strength to push a bigger gear at your normal cadence.'

We never said it would be easy…

Style and substance

You might think that a high cadence relies on a smooth pedalling technique, but Newton takes a slightly different view: 'Higher cadence develops a smoother technique.

'Cadence is a neuromuscular thing. It’s why you see people who aren’t used to riding pounding a big gear into a headwind. At first, you think they’re trying to go as fast as they can, but then you realise they simply can’t pedal that fast. They’re trying to find a cadence that’s comfortable, but they’re never smooth.

'They’re fighting the bike and stomping on the pedals. Once you can pedal faster your technique will smooth itself out.'

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