“Just hop on and enjoy the ride” – a mantra I can appreciate.
Throw all concerns to the wind, just get on with it, cut to the heart of a great ride.
If you want to go that little bit further, save that little bit more energy and make your long efforts feel that much easier, then a slight change in riding style is probably called for.
The reality is that any ride is directly affected by how effectively you pedal. When going for distance or going for speed, or anything beyond a quick spin around the block, how fast you pedal has a direct effect on your overall energy usage and power output.
People will hop on a bike and start to pedal at a pace that feels comfortable. And surely being comfortable is a major concern, right?
But what we find comfortable is actually more accurately described as “what you’re used to”. Pedaling in the same way as you always have is just falling back on your experience, and chances are that your experience has probably taught you some bad habits.
To break those bad habits you’ll need to bring a bit of science and timing into your pedaling action. So here’s the background information.
What is Cadence?
Cadence is how fast your pedals are turning around while you’re pedaling.
Thanks to the invention of gears you end up turning your legs around at about the same cadence all the time. You adjust the gears to be easier when you are climbing a hill and you adjust them to be harder when you are descending or on a flat.
Low cadences require you to put more pressure on the pedals to maintain the same speed. This puts stress on your muscles for hard strength. Spinning as low as 60 puts most of the strain on these parts of your muscles.
Higher cadences require you to put downward pressure on your muscles but require you legs to turn over very quickly. Racers will typically keep their cadence over 90, while spin at up to 120 during time trials and such speed events.
What Is The Best Cadence?
This article on Cycling Performance suggests that the perfect cadence is somewhere from 85-100 RPM.
It varies depending on the terrain, but a smooth, fast cadence will increase your overall efficiency.
How do you work out your cadence?
Many bike computers/speedometers and fancy bike gadgets work this out for you. They will have a sensor mounted by the crank.
But if you don’t have one you can get a general idea of how fast you are pedaling.
- An easily visible timer (preferably on the handlebar, a watch can be wrapped around the handlebar for this purpose too, if necessary)
- A clear road (because your focus will not be entirely on the road for up to 15 seconds)
- You math hat
- 1 revolution = right side pedal movement from bottom position (6 o’clock), all the way around, past 12 o’clock, and back to the 6 o’clock position
Timing (best shown by example):
- 6 seconds = every stroke from the moment the clock shows :00 to the last moment it shows :05 (stop counting once the clock shows :06)
- 12 seconds = every stroke from the moment the clock shows :00 to the last moment it shows :11 (stop counting once the clock shows :12)
- Start riding
- Settle into a single gear at a constant speed
- Start counting pedal strokes when the timer hits :00 (first stroke is the second time the right pedal is at the bottom)
- Stop counting as soon as the timer hits :06 (or :12)
- Multiply the result by 10 (or 5) to get your cadence
Because you’re multiplying by 10, it’s important to start and stop counting at the right time.
If your cadence is too low, change to an easier gear (bigger cog at the rear or small chainring at the front). If it’s too high, change to a bigger chainring at the front or a smaller cog at the back.
How Will This Help Anything?
There is a useful test you can do which is outlined at the link above.
The test goes like this:
- Thorough warm-up (20 minutes, with a few fast efforts)
- Rest for 5 minutes
- Pick your usual gears with slower cadence
- Go flat out for 15 minutes and time it
- 15 minutes rest
- Change to an easier gear
- do 15 minutes hard again
Try the same two days later, with the higher cadence part first and you will be able to feel the difference.