There’s nothing quite like celebrating ‘Murica, pounding hot dogs, and enjoying three weeks of the Tour de France. July is the real “most wonderful time of the year” during which the greatest bike racers on the planet battle over the most storied tarmac in our sport. For nearly 100 years the discussion over cycling cadence has been a component of this battle . From Lance Armstrong’s high cadence during the 2000’s, to Chris Froome’s 120RPM death spirals up Mt. Ventoux, RPM’s have taken center stage during the most decisive moments of the Tour. In this article we’ll take a closer look at the research exploring cycling cadence while drawing some practical considerations from a sometimes contradictory body of evidence.
When it comes to world class pros, the most interesting research on cadence comes from Spanish researcher Alejandro Lucia [2, 3]. His 2001 study examined the preferred cadence of seven pro cyclists during the Giro, Tour, and Vuelta. Since most cycling studies are done in laboratory settings, Lucia’s work was novel in examining “real-world” conditions during the three Grand Tours. Lucia found that cadence averaged around 90RPM for TT’s and flat stages and close to 70RPM for high mountain stages . In a 2004 study examining cycling efficiency, Lucia found that gross efficiency was significantly higher at 100RPM than at 60 . In short, pro cyclists prefer higher cadences which are also more efficient at higher power outputs. While the preferences of pro cyclists shouldn’t be the primary driver of your training decisions, they do serve as a starting point for understanding elite performance.
So what is it about higher cadence that makes it preferable to elite cyclists? To answer part of that question a short (and admittedly incomplete) primer on muscle fiber is in order. Most athletes understand the basic differences between Type 1 (slow-twitch) and Type 2 (fast-twitch) muscle fiber. In simple terms, Type 1 fiber serves as the primary currency in endurance sport due to its greater fatigue resistance and efficiency . Think of Type 2 fiber as your turbo, great at producing watts but limited by a short fuse . Higher cadences can preserve your turbo by reducing pedaling force  while lowering RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) . It’s no surprise that the best cyclists in this year’s Tour will possess the endurance to ride for long periods of time while simultaneously preserving the ability to hit the turbo when it matters most (think sprint finishes, time trials, and decisive climbs). So if riding at a higher cadence reduces neuromuscular fatigue what exactly is the ideal cycling cadence?
Any discussion about “optimal” anything gets sticky. While good cyclists seem to choose an “energetically economical” cadence during high-intensity cycling, they also prefer a higher but less economical cadence during submaximal cycling . What’s good for high intensity riding doesn’t seem to hold true for lower intensity riding. A new study out of UC Davis seems to confirm this fact by demonstrating that riding at a high cadence (100RPM) during “prolonged, variable, low-moderate submaximal exercise intensities” results in greater energy expenditure and reduced maximal power output when compared to a lower cadence (80RPM) . That’s a fancy way of saying that during a long race, you might be better off averaging around 80RPM than 100RPM in the low to moderate intensity segments.
Sometimes 80, sometimes 90, maybe 100, what is it? Cyclists have good reason to be confused about what is “optimal”. Having said that, here is a short summary that might be helpful.
- Pro’s prefer higher cadences .
- Efficiency improves as cadence increases (for high power outputs) .
- A higher cadence is less “fatiguing” .
- Riding at a lower cadence (80 vs. 100) might be more beneficial for low to moderate power outputs [7, 8]
What does it mean for you? Here are a few suggestions…
- Get familiar with your preferred cadence over different terrain. Sustained climbs, TT’s, flat group rides/races. What does your data say? How closely do you compare with the riders in Lucia’s study or in this year’s Tour?
- Experiment with different cadences; track your average power or compare your Strava times.
- Mix up your workouts by challenging yourself to ride at a variety of cadences (80, 90, 100).
- And finally, experiment on long group rides/races by selecting a lower cadence (80) in anticipation of high-intensity segments. Are you able to produce higher peak power outputs toward the finish of rides/races? Maybe a variable cadence approach to your riding/racing is the special sauce to you getting a win or setting a new PR.
References1. Benedict FG, C.E., Muscular work. A metabolic study with special reference to the efficiency of the human body as a machine. 1913, Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington. 2. Lucia, A., J. Hoyos, and J.L. Chicharro, Preferred pedalling cadence in professional cycling. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2001. 33(8): p. 1361-6. 3. Lucia, A., et al., In Professional Road Cyclists, Low Pedaling Cadences Are Less Efficient. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 2004. 36(6): p. 1048-1054. 4. Faria, E., D. Parker, and I. Faria, The Science of Cycling. Sports Medicine, 2005. 35(4): p. 313-337. 5. Ahlquist, L., et al., The effect of pedaling frequency on glycogen depletion rates in type I and type II quadriceps muscle fibers during submaximal cycling exercise. European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology, 1992. 65(4): p. 360-364. 6. Pandolf, K.B. and B.J. Noble, The effect of pedalling speed and resistance changes on perceived exertion for equivalent power outputs on the bicycle ergometer. Med Sci Sports, 1973. 5(2): p. 132-6. 7. Hansen, E.A. and G. Smith, Factors affecting cadence choice during submaximal cycling and cadence influence on performance. Int J Sports Physiol Perform, 2009. 4(1): p. 3-17. 8. Stebbins, C.L., J.L. Moore, and G.A. Casazza, Effects of cadence on aerobic capacity following a prolonged, varied intensity cycling trial. J Sports Sci Med, 2014. 13(1): p. 114-9.
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