The Art of Cadence

For many who are new to cycling and those who can’t understand why mile after mile after mile you aren’t getting any better, here is something I noticed in my quest to help others. No, I’m not the know-it-all in the group who is constantly babbling about tips and advice while getting dropped (side note: ever notice that many who have a lot of advice can’t hold the last wheel of the group?) Anywho, here’s what has come to my attention.

For most who ask me what is something they can do to improve (by the way, I rarely give advice without it being asked of me), the first place that I inquire is about his/her cadence work (how many times a minute the pedals go around in a circle). So far, 90% or so of the people whom I ask don’t even have any way of measuring cadence on the bike! Most just point to a speed sensor on the front fork. No, that’s how fast your bike is moving. From there, I began to look at people riding in various places and various riders in groups to see if I could find a cadence monitor on their bikes. Funny thing is that the bikes I saw that do have measurable cadence were the “fast” and “strong” riders of the groups.

So, what is so important about cadence? It’s all about efficiency. This is how to get the most from your body and bike with the least amount of energy consumed or the absolute best way of using the energy that you do have without waste. Think about driving. When you’re on an interstate or highway, if you hammered the gas peddle and backed off and then hammered the gas and backed off for 100 miles, how good would your fuel efficiency be? If you’re traveling in high mountains or a very hilly area, why not put your car on the cruise control and go at a certain “speed”? Fuel efficiency. Cadence on a bicycle helps you be efficient.

What is the ideal cadence, you might ask? Not one. Seriously, it depends on where you are as a cyclist. What a UCI professional does will NOT translate to you . . . I don’t care if you have the same bike he has and wear his kit (please don’t). To judge where you are NOW, use your heart monitor and find a stretch of rode that is flat and runs about 2-3 miles. After a good warm up, ride that whole stretch at 80 rmp and constantly monitor your heart rate; easy pedal back then ride it at 90 rpm; then repeat at 100 rpm. The lowest heart rate wins the title of your perfect cadence for now. As you train in this cadence zone, I promise you’ll see your cadence rising and your heart rate staying down. This is being efficient with your energy. Do NOT be upset if your cadence happens to be lower than 80 right now. It WILL rise.

Ask most CAT riders or any professional, and he/she will say that cadence is important. It is VERY important. As a matter of fact, I personally switched the “big” number on bike’s computer screen to be cadence instead of speed. It is THAT important. Since I have been riding for cadence, my speed and endurance have increased tremendously. After all, interval work (Google it) without cadence work is almost useless. Another added bonus for sprint speed, attack speed, and acceleration out of the turns in a criterium is how quickly you can turn the pedals and for how LONG you can maintain a speed.

In a nutshell, everyone is concerned about speed and endurance. The wrong way of thinking is that slower cadence on a big gear=more power=speed. When in reality, slow cadence in a big gear cooks the legs quickly. Yes, professionals turn a big gear at 100-115 rpm for a long period of time, but it took years of training to get there. Just because you own a swimming pool in your backyard doesn’t mean that you can try to match Michael Phelps lap times. He’s been at a while. But don’t get frustrated. Keep working and trust the method. You WILL see results.

8 thoughts on “The Art of Cadence

  1. This is an extremely helpful post, thanks for all the info. I may have to look into buying a cadence monitor, because counting manually is somewhat tricky.

  2. Hi again SRC. While you’re correct about the importance of cadence, I don’t use a cadence measuring device. Tried one once, but got rid of it, just another distraction. While it can be useful if you want to train by the numbers, I think if you have enough experience riding fast/strong, you develop a sensibility about cadence that obviates having the meter. Your automotive metaphor is spot on – perhaps I have an innate cadence sensibility due to having underpowered manual-transmission cars ever since I started driving.

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