Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A Year in Cadence

Some time ago I discovered the concept of cadence. Put simply, cadence is the rate at which the cyclist is pedaling, measured in crank revolutions per minute (rpm). People I ride with will sometimes tell me mine is high, which is how I became curious what it is. For a while I had a computer with a cadence sensor and was able to monitor it. When I first got the sensor it was typically in the mid-80s. Eventually it grew into the low 90s. Then last Spring I got my new bike, and it came with a new-fangled fancy computer, but no cadence sensor. I meant to add it, but then forgot. A year went by during which I had no idea what my cadence was. Then last week, again I got a comment from someone riding next to me. It was something like "Jeez you pedal like you're going downhill on a fixed gear! Might as well take off that big ring, eh? Looks hardly used!" (this is true). At the same time, this post appeared on Heidi Swift's site, glamourising riding in the small ring à la Julie Krasniak. So I figured the universe was trying to tell me something.

I asked at my cycling club (which is also a bike shop, which is also a cafe) about installing a monitor. "Oh it's easy!" they said, and swiftly attached an enormous ugly thing to my bike's left chainstay. The sheer size and alienness of it took me aback, since my previous cadence monitor had been just a wisp of a thing. Eying the monstrous appendage apprehensively, I got on my bike and pedaled away.

Getting up to Just Riding Along pace, I glanced at the cadence and saw that the number was 103. I thought no, that's not right. And with all that thinking going on, it did drop a bit - but then promptly rose again. I rode a loop on rolling hills, glancing at the cadence occasionally. Mid 90s - low 100s seems to be a range I am comfortable with, without getting out of breath.

Curious, I decided to check how high I could make that number go up. Seeing 112 was pretty fun, rising toward 120! I kept that up for a bit, until suddenly I was overwhelmingly nauseous. I will have to experiment more carefully...

I'm not sure what to make of my rising cadence numbers over the years. I guess I just plain like to pedal fast and feel little resistance. Alas, I don't seem to ride any faster or more elegantly because of it. But it's fun to see the number go up. And it certainly explains why I like having low gears on my bikes!

50 comments:

  1. The high cadence came to you naturally, which is a splendid thing. It's good for your heart and your knees. As you've discovered, you're never out of breath. And, you can pedal for miles and miles.

    I had to order two chainrings the other day: the granny gear and middle ring. The sales guy tried to sell me a 26T granny gear instead of the 24T that was currently on the bike. I told him to order the 24; no sense messing around with a low combination that's worked for 25 years!

    Spin away to your heart's content.

    ReplyDelete
  2. It's much easier for the lungs to recover than the leg muscles so high cadence seems much better than low and pushing a big gear.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I'm the opposite. I love to pedal slowly and I enjoy the feeling of resistance with bigger gears. My big ring gets lots of use. But, I have been wondering if it would be better and more efficient to spin more. Would I be faster? It doesn't seem like it based on what my little computer tells me, and spinning just doesn't feel as good to me. Not sure what my usual cadence is, but when I measured it at the gym one time (the one and only time I ever tried spinning at the gym), it was around 80.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Huge topic.

    First I'd like to get this out of the way: I told you you didn't need to micro-manage your gear inches. I'll bet you could easily get away with a 1x10.

    There is an absolute enormous range in the riders represented: you, Swift, and Krasniak, both in ability, genetics and coaching, not to mention coming through the junior ranks. Krasniak has a pro's pro's spin, but don't let that fool you into thinking she has no power. Swift came late to the sport, you even later, that's the dif.

    You've found your natural cadence that allows you to get through the day; the cadence sensor is only relevant if you pay attention to it as a monitor of effort over time or speed short bursts. I used to be able to tell within 5rpm where I was, think 170 some was my top.

    It's all an irrelevant mind game if you have no strength/speed or technique improvement goals, numbers for numbers' sake.

    ReplyDelete
  5. . The goal is to get closer and have everytime the right gears to take the best of a high cadence, it’s never spinning and you everytime have to feel pressure on the pedal."

    Yeah, a pro's way of pedaling, not what mortals think of as a spin.

    ReplyDelete
  6. BTW Krasniak needs no help in her English - it would only dilute the message.

    ReplyDelete
  7. It seems to me that spinning is easier on your legs than mashing. I tend to be a masher going up hills but a spinner going down hills. That, of course, is a function of the limited gearing I have on my bicycle. With only four gears available, as I ride a vintage IGH bicycle, I am forced to adapt since there is no intermediate gear to put me at an optimal cadence.

    I have a funny story that comes to mind: A few weeks ago when I was in my CompuTrainer class, we were trying to spin at 110 RPM for five minutes at a time for four or five intervals with two minutes between each effort. For the last interval the coach told us to go all out, so I bumped my cadence to 120 and spun there for about a minute. All was good, so I bumped it up to about 130 and held it around a minute when I decided there was still more there. I managed to spin up to 135 and held it there when, around another 30 seconds in, my left leg decided to cramp. Typically, at the end of each class we would do a simulated sprint and, over the course of the class, I came to dominate the sprint. Unfortunately, any hope of winning the sprint that evening were dashed when my overzealousness collided with reality.

    That's a lesson learned which I'm hoping I won't repeat again…

    ReplyDelete
  8. 90 is a sweet spot for me - 15 in 10 seconds is easy to count...

    ReplyDelete
  9. Just the opposite for me; dunno if this is due to aging or to riding fixed which made me a masher, not spinner.

    20 years ago, when I obsessed about a wide range of gears with very close spacing, my habit was about 112 rpm, ~21 mph in a 65" gear, my favorite cruising gear; and my range from ~108 to 120. After 16 years of riding largely fixed, my favored gear for an unladen bike is 72" to 75" and my default flatland cadence seems to be 85- 90 rpm. OTOH, I now find that I am comfortable in a very wide range of cadences in a very small range of gears (my new Rambouillet has the center three cogs giving me 66", 70", and 74") and 8/10 of my riding, uphill and down, load or none, head-or tailwind, is in these three gears-- though, frankly, I don't even shift out of the 70" that much.

    Which may explain why I am so much slower.

    ReplyDelete
  10. You are in good company. All hour records were set with cadences of 100-105 rpm, with the exception of Graeme Obree, who was so constrainted on his bike that he "only" could spin at 95 rpm.

    110-120 used to be the recommended cadence for road racing, and I find it works well for me.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Almost everyone has a "natural" cadence speed where they feel comfortable. Professionals often ride at 95-105 rpm to help tax their cardiovascular systems, which recover more quickly, than their leg muscles. I personally seem to be quite happy at 85-95 rpm but can go a lot higher if the occasion should arise. You will hear a lot of talk as to one cadence speed being better than another. But most of it doesn't amount to much... I really enjoy the blog. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  12. Are you keeping time or singing to yourself in your head? What drives you to spin at the pace you have? 65-70 lines up with pop music and it's where I wind up unless I'm trying to match a number on an exercise machine.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No, not at all. It just seems to be my natural rhythm.

      Delete
    2. A LBS course I took years ago said to think of the Miss Gulch tune in The Wizard of OZ. You, know, the one where she's pedaling her bike (and, is Toto in the basket?).

      This simple message and tune has stuck with me all these years. What it means in rpm is beyond me.

      Delete
  13. Overwhelmingly nauseous... That can only mean actually barfed, right?

    Spindizzy

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Nope, I held it back. I hate puking, so will try to avoid it at all cost.

      Delete
  14. I only mention that because few things are as interesting to me as other people hurling...

    Spindizzy

    ReplyDelete
  15. Interesting! I don't have a computer but can tell you I'm the complete opposite.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Personally, I have developed a signature low cadence/low gear style, which results in extreme slowness. Perhaps because most of my cycling has been for transport (for which I usually pedal at a fairly leisurely pace), with road cycling only starting 2-ish years ago, but I just can't seem to get comfortable spinning much higher than 65-70 rpm, even on my compact gearing (50x34, 11-27). Much faster starts to feel very "wicked witch" to me, and I feel like I'm bouncing around in the saddle a lot (part of this is probably due to my weak core, though my pedal stroke is pretty smooth at lower cadences). Maybe it's because my cardio isn't stellar, but my legs are strong like ox. I don't know, it just feels weird to be spinning a lot but not going very fast?

    I would like to increase my cadence, and have installed a cadence sensor for that purpose. But staring at my Garmin throughout my ride isn't much fun.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. When I ride for transportation, I am pretty sure my cadence is considerably lower. I don't have a monitor on my city bikes, but I can feel the difference.

      Delete
    2. No need to stare. If you have a Garmin you should be able to set cadence alarms (as always, assuming it works as advertised).

      Delete
    3. I don't and can't monitor cadence on my city bike, but I find I'm in my 75" gear 99% of the time, which puts me at a cruising cadence of about 90RPM around the city. Of course that varies with traffic, but assuming no hindrance by traffic, that's my natural cadence. On a road bike my cadence is slightly higher, more like 95-100RPM.

      Delete
    4. For the record, I don't have any kind of computer on my city bike, so I don't monitor that. I just know it's slow. I think that low cadence has just become such a habit for me over the years that it's hard to speed up, even on the road bike. When I try to spin faster, I really have to concentrate on it, and I can seldom maintain that focus for very long.

      Haven't experimented w/ Garmin alarms yet, though I would probably also hate having something beep at me repeatedly during my ride. Might give it a go, though. Start doing little ring-only rides just to get in the habit of spinning faster.

      Delete
    5. Yeah, I don't like alarms and lots of gadgets either, but for me I need something to help me focus on what I'm actually doing if I'm going to have a chance at successfully changing my habits. Somervillains awareness of gear inches and cadence, even on bikes without a computer is only going to come to me with the help of a device like this.

      Spindizzy

      Delete
    6. Oh god, Garmin alarms. For the record, I have a like/hate relationship with this device and after a year of using it I am no less ambivalent than when I started. It is great as a GPS navigation system, and it's also nice that the unit can be moved form bike to bike. But purely as a computer, I actually prefer my former CatEye. And I don't think I am alone, since I've seen riders with both a Garmin and a "normal" computer on their bars!

      Delete
  17. Back when I measured such things, I floated around 95-115 or so. I have not monitored this metric in years, but got to know what the legs feel like at that cadence. For me, it works. I get a bit of pressure (never free spinning) per pedal stroke but never drop down to mashing the pedals. I find I don't tire as easilly, have more power and better acceleration, and seemingly float on the bike.

    It is a great feeling.

    ReplyDelete
  18. The cadence you are pedaling at is something personal. Personally I feel the most comfortable at something between 85-95 and over 120 in a sprint. When I am climbing, that’s another story.
    I have a GPS with a cardiometer on my bike and last year I decided the cadence device, well it did give me my cadence but after a few ride I found that information irrelevant, no use for me. In fact this year I will not put the cadence device on my bike.
    There is a but to that, here winter time you have to train inside on a roller and then the cadence become important. I know that with a certain gear at a certain cadence, it’s the maximum I can push and if I go with a higher cadence then it means I am pushing more. So it’s a way to gauge the effort I am putting on the bike.

    ReplyDelete
  19. "I'm not sure what to make of my rising cadence numbers over the years."

    If your level of fitness is as you've described previously AND you pedal at 103 rpm, you may have a biological advantage. Apply yourself and consider getting a coach who will keep you disciplined. You could be capable of a lot more than you think.

    ReplyDelete
  20. One's optimum cadence obviously varies according to many different factors. I've read that as you age your fast twitch muscles decline, leaving you with the ability to grunt out the low cadence miles but leaving you exhausted when you try to twiddle fast. I find this is so in my case, but how much is due to native physiology, how much to age, and how much to habit, I can't say. But I can say that one of the great joys of cycling is climbing hills in a high-ish fixed gear: seated, for miles; and even standing. Not hills that are too long, mind you -- one appreciates a letup after a mile or so of mostly standing -- but, for me, much more fun than flailing desperately and vainly downhill or in front of a headwind. In fact, when I try to twiddle at a higher rpm uphill, I run out of breath. Slow and steady. I mean, steady and let the speed be what it may.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Actually it is cardio that determines how high a cadence you can do, that and how smooth/round your pedal stroke (smoother pedal strokes naturally do higher cadences). Fast and slow twitch muscle has little to do it with. Some people when they get older loose cardio, if they don't keep on with regular fitness.

      Delete
  21. funny, cadence has a similar but more complex meaning in music. Here is a definition: a cadence (Latin cadentia, "a falling") is, "a melodic or harmonic configuration that creates a sense of repose or resolution [finality or pause]." Something to think about when you are cycling, I guess, that every pattern and rhythm has to bring one a sense of repose in the end.

    ReplyDelete
  22. No 100 is good. Don't listen to others that think it's high, they are just jealous. The higher cadence you can naturally comfortably hold without trying to make it go higher, the more endurance you have. Your cadence has gotten higher because you have become a stronger bicyclist.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Another thing, having a naturally higher cadence means you have a more rounded more efficient pedal stroke, it is a very good thing. Low cadence is not efficient, and kills muscle recovery.

    Back in the days when I was a strong bicylist my natural cadence was around 115-120. I could go forever and even did a double century back then.

    ReplyDelete
  24. Actually you never want your cadence to fall below 90, unless you are standing hill climbing, or mashing big gears for a sprint or time trial. Ideally you should keep your cadence above 90, and if it is going anywhere between 90-125 that is the perfect range. People with better fitness and a more smooth pedal stroke will tends towards the higher end of that range. The higher end of that range will let your muscles recover better while pedalling so you ride longer. Lower cadence uses more muscle power. Higher cadence uses more cardio power.

    ReplyDelete
  25. I suppose it's a lot like a car/lorry engine. You have to keep you 'revs' in the power band. Too high and you're just wasting energy, too low and you're labouring the engine without making any real progress. All types of engine have different power bands. A big diesel will pull along at low revs whereas a racing car will scream along at high revs. I suppose it's just a case of finding a cadence which your body as an 'engine' works best at. For me on the utility bikes it certainly feels less hard work pedalling faster than pushing hard for the same speed.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. @Dennis: you're speaking my language. There's a difference though: You can widen your power band through training. It's one of the benefits of training on fixed gear. You develop smooth peal strokes, and a broader power band. Transfer that training to a geared bike and you are ready for anything.

      Delete
  26. So after reading this post, I intentionally tried something on the Wed. night ride. I let myself settle into a cadence that felt just a bit on the upper end of the natural/comfortable scale, looked at the readout and then tried to increase it by 10 rpm, hold it and see how it worked. My "normal" cadence is a bit higher than it used to be after spending the last year or two focusing on it a bit(almost said "working"on it, that would be an abuse of the word), it's typically from the high 70s to the low/mid 90s. Adding another 10 was surprisingly "easy" and definitely made a positive difference on that ride on that evening. I'm going to keep doing this and see where it leads.

    I gave up on bike computers for a while years ago because I always focused on speed and never had one with cadence. I would find myself trying to get "better" by going faster, usually by shifting into a higher gear and trying to grind that out at my natural 60 to 75 rpm. It didn't work very well and the stupid computer would just sit there on the bars showing me how powerless I was to keep the readout from steadily winding down. The only coaching I was getting was mostly advice to ride lots of miles and the cadence advice was sort of vague and off hand. I also thought I was spinning faster than I actually was.

    I now try to adhere to the notion that speed is a function of rpm and resist automatically up-shifting when I want to go faster and prematurely downshifting when I start to climb. I've finally gotten to the point(after spending 35 years messing around with bikes) where I make those shifting choices based on cadence and I'm enjoying my bikes and my time on the road even more. The Luddite in me would love to be able to attribute this to something other than an electronic device hectoring me from the handlebars but, there it is.

    My daughter was on the ride with us last night and was struggling in exactly the points where I was finding it easier than normal. While she has a higher natural cadence than I did when I was getting started, she isn't shifting based on rpm. I need to see if I can get a deeper understanding of how to express and implement this technique so I can teach her effectively without it sounding like my usual Old Man, stream of consciousness mumbling.

    Spindizzy

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. One thing I found useful about the particular flavour of women's paceline training rides here, is that - at least in the beginner group - they'd make us all get in the same gear and pedal at the same rate, sometimes with lower and other times with higher gears. So we got a basic but informative briefing on how gearing, cadence and pressure/resistance on the pedals all tie together and relate to speed. Sometimes a physical demonstration works better than an explanation.

      Delete
    2. No kidding.

      Mansplaining fail = blog theme.

      Delete
    3. Everyone in the group riding the same gear doing the same thing makes the line smoother and develops group cohesion.

      I've been in three clubs where the (unusually long) warmup had gear mandates. Three best clubs ever. The last one promoted three raw recruits to the pro ranks in short order.

      Delete
  27. Back before the world knew the truth about Lance, I used to use a training book by his coach, Chris Carmichael. Part of the key to Lance's success is that Carmichael had converted him from a Masher into a Spinner. Using lower gears at higher reps is much more efficient, he said. Obviously, Armstrong's reputation is forever tarnished, but the advice in that book remains valid, even if Carmichael had been aware of the doping. I remember once reminding a friend who had really bad knees not to push those big gears. After a while, he agreed that it seemed to reduce his knee pain.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That was, what ? Like, the last century ?

      (Sorry, can't resist)

      Delete
  28. A top end of 120rpm will make it impossible to sprint competitively. Otherwise your pedal speed is admirable.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Not sure why a top RPM of 120 would prevent competitive sprinting.
      Mark Cavendish sprints between 110-125 and Thor Hushovd usually only between 90-110.

      Delete
  29. Back in the 70's when I was a teenager a mentor suggested I ride a low fixed gear so it would increase my candence, always keeping preasure on the peddles and if I was spinning to fast to use my brakes to slow down.
    When I ride now I still prefer the higher revs on a lower gear... not sure what my candence is as I don't have a gizmo, but I assume it would be highish.

    ReplyDelete
  30. Good discussion, makes me want to run out and get a cadence monitor! I don't have one and don't track my cadence now. But I've noticed that if someone passes me, shifting into a bigger gear often makes it harder to catch up whereas shifting into a smaller gear and increasing my cadence makes it easier. But I think blindly increasing cadence can be counterproductive. As one other poster noted, if you're bouncing on your saddle, you're pedalling too fast, there can't possibly be enough resistance on the pedal stroke and efficiency goes out the window. Like Ms. Kwasniak said, you have to feel resistance in the pedal.

    ReplyDelete
  31. Garmin 800? What cadence sensor did you add to it?
    DummyDiva

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Garmin makes a cadence sensor compatible with it; I do not recall the model # but there might only be the one.

      Delete
  32. Fascinating! I'm interested in your gearing, because I am having a hard time imagining any gear I could be in and maintain a 120 cadence without ending up bouncing in the saddle. As a spinning instructor, I usually coach my indoor riders not to exceed 100-110, because most of them can't maintain that cadence with any meaningful resistance on a fixed-gear flywheel. Did you feel like you were hitting maximum power output with the cadence you had?

    ReplyDelete
  33. I always learn from this blog.

    Adding more paraphernalia to your bikes electronics isn't required; a simple speedometer will do. Go to Sheldon Browns gear calculator and inter your gear info. Your speed/RPM in each gear can be calculated.

    Example: My three speed:
    Ring = 46
    Cog = 21
    Sturmey-Archer model= ????
    90 RPM = 11.8mph (LOW), 15.7mph (MID), 20.0mph (HIGH)

    ReplyDelete