Image courtesy: Shuttterstock.com
Did you know there’s a technique to pedalling a bike? Learning to pedal ‘correctly’ is a learned cycling cadence skill that when perfected can make you a faster and more efficient cyclist. As you probably have noticed, the professional riders in the Tour de France all pedal with a high cycling cadence! There IS no professional rider out there who does big gear mashing with a slow cadence.
Indeed, in cyclosport as well as in cycle racing, remaining ‘efficient’ by conserving energy is absolutely key to cycling success.
In fact, when I started out cycling I used to push a big gear all the time thinking I wasn’t able to increase my cycling cadence – it just didn’t feel natural to me. It was only when I started cycle racing on the continent that I was ‘told’ over and over again to ‘spin, spin, spin’!
The French truly understand the art of cycling and I was fortunate enough to learn from the best, even if I did have it drummed into me season after season!
But WHY Learn To Spin?
Spinning means turning the pedals over ‘quickly’ – from about 80-100rpm (revs per minute) for flat cycling, and about 70-90rpm in the hills. Obviously this varies markedly between individuals depending on training, experience and adaptability. But one thing is for sure – the higher up the cycling ranks you go, the more pedalling efficiency plays a part in cycling success.
When trained, you can also gain more power by pedalling a lighter force but spinning that gear consistently over a period of time. Again, you only have to look at the top time trialers in the world to see this demonstrated. If you count the cadence of the top 5-10 world time trialists, the cadence is between 110-120 rpm – that’s phenominal – specially when the gear size is huge too!
Remember, there is a reason why the pros spin the way they do in endurance events and it all comes down to that little word efficiency. In all your cycling you ever do, you should continually be seeking ways to be more efficient – and pedalling is just one important facet that makes up cycling efficiency as a whole.
But I’m not suggesting you simply jump on your bike and pedal like a pro straight out! The thing is, it takes YEARS to learn to pedal like this to make it ‘intuitive’.
Here’s some tips on how to get started cadence training:
3 Steps To Get Started In Cycling Cadence Training:
1. One of the best investments you can make is to buy a cadence sensor. These can either be an ‘add on’ you buy with your heart rate monitor, or you might be lucky enough to have this integrated already with your speedometer. Either way, cadence monitoring is key during your training AND during sportives.
2. Ideally, you need to use the clipless pedal system and learn to “pedal in circles not squares”. This is important towards being able to increase your cadence on the bike smoothly. Cycling smoothly in circles AND cycling with good cadence go hand in hand. I’ve written a follow-on post here: How to Pedal In Circles NOT in Squares.
3. A good place to start cadence training IS on a turbo trainer and do a set of light intervals. No this isn’t hard work – it’s simply a controlled training for your brain to learn to ‘spin faster’. The training is almost immediately adaptatble to the road, simply because you adapt quicker to ‘neuron pathway training’ than specific muscular training…
If you don’t have a turbo, then simply do the following cadence training on a quiet road where you can concentrate:
Indoor Workout to Improve Your Cadence:
Warm up for 20 minutes.
Find your natural cadence ‘starting point’ by riding for 5 minutes consistently in an easy gear you might ride on the flat. Find roughly your average cadence for those 5 minutes. This is your BASE cadence we need to work from. For example’s sake, let’s say it’s 70rpm.
Now up the cadence for 5 minutes and try to hold between 75-80rpm – you’re looking to feel out of your comfort zone, but not so much you have to back down the cadence. Keep this on the same light gear as in the beginning 5 minutes.
Recover for 1 minute back down to normal pedalling cadence – whatever feels easy.
Repeat this 5 minutes x 5, so you acrue 25 minutes of this exercise. You can do this once or twice a week depending on your time…or integrate it into a long bike ride.
***The point is, you want to be able to measure your improvements, so (if you can) alternate between the turbo trainer and the road and note everything down from session to session.
To progress the above workout above: you should find you adapt quickly right from the first workout. Remember to look to take yourself out of your comfort pedalling zone again to train yourself to hold this new cadence for longer BEFORE upping your cadence again!
You are aiming for anywhere between 85-100rpm on the flat, for 5 to 10 minutes repeated four to five times in an easy gear….then, it’s a case of training to seek this new optimum cadence range out on the road with progressively higher gears and on different gradients…
NOTE: It is the ability to ‘hold’ a high cadence (85-100rpm) with progressively higher gears which takes seasons to train.
My point is, the higher the gear the more you will have the tendancy to drop your cadence. It’s therefore a case of finding the sweet spot between cadence and power output for every slope you encounter on a ride – and yes, after a few seasons of training, you get a feel for what feels efficient – and you’ll start to intuitively seek that sweet spot on all rides you do.
One golden nugget rule of thumb I was taught by the French was this – and it’s something I want you to remember for every ride you do from now on:
An example of this rule applies to your hill climbing – don’t struggle with big gears needlessly. Put on some smaller (lower) gears and learn to spin them up the hills, find that sweet spot (optimum range), gain more power by training, THEN up the size of the gear…..this IS the way to progress to faster hill cycling…!
Also [note to racers], if you are a time trialist, don’t just slap on a 54 chainring. Remember, if you can’t spin that gear at near 100rpm, you will be losing power all the way down the road…learn to spin your smaller gears efficiently FIRST before riding the big ones if you want to cycle fast!
Phew, that’s probably a lot to take in for a newbie cyclist.
Congrats if you’ve got the gist from this article! The bottomline is, be mindful how efficient you are with your pedalling. Drop a gear if you’re pushing too hard and experiment with upping your cycling cadence a little on every ride you do. If you can make these small changes habit, you could be in for some devastating personal bests!
If you liked this post and found it useful, do share with your cycling friends! I also love to hear any comments you may have: use comment box below ...
[Archived comments from 2011-2014 from former EasyCycling site]:
Kit July 18, 2011 at 3:22 pm
Along the same lines as this article could you maybe comment a little on ankling? I would be interested to know a proper way to pedal….
- Rebecca July 18, 2011 at 3:36 pm
Hi Kit – yes, as mentioned in post I’ll be writing shortly about how to pedal efficiently as the two posts go hand in hand….got a sick daughter on my hands, so might be a few days, but hopefully this week!
Thanks for your comment
Rebecca...post was written...
I always cringe at the [commuter] cyclists I see on the road always trying to push a bigger gear than they need to. I learnt a long time a go the wonderful phrase “Spin to Win” which has stuck in my head. It never ceases to amaze me how I can go just as fast if not faster when pedalling a higher cadence over a higher gear.
Look forward to the pedalling technique, I have been riding a fixed gear bike lately which has surprisingly helped smoothen out my pedalling when on the normal road bike.
Rebecca, I like your articles. Very good and go ahead. Thank you.
Another great article…keep them coming.
A big leap forward in my racing was (in addition to higher cadence) was the switch from push-down/pull-up pedalling to a smoother, sliding action. Much like wiping your feet on a mat. That way I get power to the pedal stroke for the full 360 deter revolution with dead spots.
If your local gym has a Wattbike then have a go on that….the screen shows a great diagram of your pedal stoke efficieny that you can work on to improve.
” full 360 deter revolution with dead spots”
sorry, should have read “full 360 DEGREES of revolution WITHOUT dead spots”
Very informative article. I would love to know your thoughts, Rebecca, on using rollers rather than a turbo for pedaling efficiency.
- Rebecca August 16, 2011 at 6:12 pm
Yes, rollers are a super alternative to the turbo trainer, the advantage being they are very close ‘in feel’ to riding out on the road..reason being you engage all your cycling muscles including your core to support you whilst you ride on rollers – as you do when cycling outdoors.
The other important advantage is the spinning is very ‘smooth’, so any qwerk in your pedalling style and you’ll be bouncing and weaving – so rollers tend to be excellent for technique because you ‘have to be steady’ – so they can ‘iron out’ any pedalling flaws, specially if you use a mirror as well…!
Another advantage is you can throw the bike on and off the rollers, so they are quick to get going…no fixing the bike into a turbo etc…this is one big reason why track riders love them – easy to jump on and off with the same bike and always teach you good pedalling style.
Mind you, there are some top notch turbo trainers too, BUT unlike rollers, you don’t use your core muscles to support you when using a turbo trainer because you’re fixed in – hence that slight drop in form if you’ve been riding turbo all winter and suddenly get outdoors!
When it comes down to ‘training’ though – either will do – with a slight advantage going to the rollers because of above – HOWEVER, we are splitting hairs here – you can get a very good technique workout on a turbo trainer too – no question!
The drawback with rollers is you have to learn to balance on them, but it doesn’t take long to learn if you keep persisting for a few sessions.
The other drawback is concentration….rollers DO demand a novice rider to concentrate and this can be tiring and ‘may’ detract from the quality of the workout. So if all you are doing is watching a DVD, then a turbo is probably best. If OTOH, you want to do a focused cadence training and know how to concentrate and carry out intervals well, then rollers could be better – IF you know what you’re doing.
You can also get rollers which change resistance as well as help you get out the saddle – something my old rollers could never allow me to do and this once interfered with getting severe cramp because I couldn’t easily relax tired muscles as you always have to keep pedalling….
Bottom line is if you have the money, get some rollers and have a go! It’s always good experience to know how to ride them…and you can then compare which one’s you personally prefer for your cadence training and pedalling technique etc.
Thankyou Kit, I’ve just discovered your blog, and read a couple of your posts w.r.t., pedalling efficiently. Even though I’ve been commuting 40 miles roundtrip 3-4 times a week for years now, I still only average 12 mph., now I’ll be honest speed isn’t that important to me, but efficiency is, and I’d like to make my commute quicker. I’m 60 and cycking makes me feel great, I feell powerful etc., but I carry too much weight, because when it comes to food I just have no self-disciplne. Sorry, I’m going on a bit, I want to say I’ve found your articles helpful, and will try to incorporate your advice into my cycling. Cheers.
- Rebecca October 11, 2011 at 7:46 pm
Hi Welshcyclist – cheers for commenting – LOL (laughing out loud): you say speed isn’t a big deal then say you’d like to make your commutes faster .. of course you want to get faster – don’t we all???!!! A general tip is simply to keep at it, keep your commutes going, up your pace on a few runs if you feel powerful and enjoy those long weekend rides…body composition over time should shift towards a leaner you…but you will also need to also start being more disciplined towards food portions too Keiron…the thing is, you can do it..just means making ‘small’ changes and going from there!
Hope that helps, R
It always nice to hear from you.
Rebecca, could you please give me some tips on how to work with the heart rate monitor and the candence snsor.
“There IS no professional rider out there who does big gear mashing with a slow cadence”
Yes there is. Bert Grabsch 2008 World TT champion.
- Rebecca April 19, 2012 at 6:32 pm
Hi Bobby – you might like to count his cadence on YouTube…you’ll see it’s around 95-100rpm. Ok he’s lower than most top 10 World TTs but he’s at his ‘optimum’….but he’s in no way ‘mashing’ a big gear with a slow cadence!!! Mashing is when beginners mash 60-75rpm on the flat because it ‘feels’ right, when actually it is inefficient. As I say, you only have to look at the top TTers in the world to see that a higher cadence is, overall, more efficient.
I’d hate to admit how many years I have been cycling thinking that the large gears with slower cadence were better. This article makes sense to me. Thank you for the time it took you to write it. Also, I now better understand the two cycling instructors I attend regularly, the first more of masher, the second tries almost always to get us to maintain about 100 cadence and work through different resistances holding that cadence. I now understand why the later preforms better in competitions.
I found a brilliant way to improve my (beginner’s) cadence last week on an indoor trainer.
I put a recording of the Olympic Road Race on and tried to match my cadence to that of the riders on the video.
It upped my usual average of 80 to 95 – which I managed to maintain for 40 minutes. A first for me!
Alternatively I’ve tried matching the beats per minute of the music I’ve listened to out on the road (just one earpiece closest to the pavement and mostly cycling on cycle paths!) using a BPM database like http://www.bpmdatabase.com.
All the best,
its all about torque, your legs BURN lots of energy at low RPM but don’t convert lots to speed.
think about your legs as a desk fan motor. whilst it will keep trying to push against your finger in a stall, all of the energy going in is only being converted to heat. eventually it will overheat as all the power that was supposed to go into momentum to keep you cool has been stuck inside the tiny motor and cooked it. if you have a lower gear use it. you only want to feel a small bit of resistance, and your legs should feel like you are going like a madman.
It’s with a heavy heart that I read your advice. I am a fat guy weighing in at 105kg and am 5’11 or 181 cm and am 43 years old. My natural rhythm is slow. I thought therefore that pushing bigger gears would be easier in the long run as I run out of steam spinning up hills and on flats. I sought out your article specifically to determine how to ride the bigger gears so I could keep up with my fellow cyclists by turning the pedals at a more humane speed.
Thanks for a good article. I would prefer that you were wrong.
Replace the conventional rotary motion of the bicycle pedals with the up and down pressing of the ratchet operated pedals in conjunction with the see-saw mechanism at a (an energy efficient) small angle around horizontal plane. This way the rider can use the body weight along with the muscles and thus the man’s simple walking efforts are used to propel the bicycle most efficiently.
I would like to get on my bike once a month if possible maybe Tuesday afternoon after my yoga class in Bracknell.
I have tried the CTC a few years ago and it was too much for me. Due to my cardiac disability i.e. have an internal cardioverter defibrillator plus medication.
British cycling once a month maybe better for me. Your opinion would be much appreciated.
Lionel Aloe Sunningdale Berkshire
- Rebecca July 26, 2014 at 9:44 am
Hi Lionel – Unfortunately Lionel I can’t give expert medical advice regarding your training with your cardiac condition. Please seek professional medical guidance as to what you can and can’t do with your cycling. Again, I’m sorry I can’t advise further as I’m not qualified to do so.
I’m 80 and still cycle every day. Believe me folks, he’s right!!