“Cadence”…… that’s a nice sounding word, all soft and lilty with a lovely warmth to it! It actually refers to the speed and flow of language and, in music, cadences are the musical punctuations at the end of musical phrases. However, if you are new to road cycling, you might well have heard the lovely word “cadence” talked about in terms of cycling performance as well.
What does cadence mean in road cycling?
In road cycling cadence refers to the number of pedal revolutions you do on your bike in one minute. This is measured in RPM therefore if your cadence is 70 or 70 RPM your legs are turning at a speed of 70 times per minute – simples!
You can measure your cadence simply by counting, and this can often be a good distraction from the pain you are probably feeling in most of your lower body as a beginner cyclist! You need a stop watch and you simply count the number of times, say your left foot, reaches the top of it’s travel in exactly a minute and this will give you your cadence in RPM.
Of course negotiating a stop watch and having the mental concentration to count such a mundane movement for a whole minute can be somewhat tricky not to mention tedious so it’s great news that a large number of, even cheaper, bike computers will measure your cadence for you and display it for you as you go along.
Thrilling, but why on earth do I need to know what my cadence is?
It stands to reason that, to go along at the same road speed you can either pedal quickly (ie with a high cadence) in a low gear or pedal more slowly (with a lower cadence) in a higher gear. It’s all about the amount of effort you are putting in and how hard you are pushing on the pedals. Using a low cadence will mean that you have to push harder, you will use and develop your muscles more. Using a higher cadence and pedalling more quickly will use less sheer effort but demand more of your body cardiovascularly
If you are aware of your cadence then you have some understanding of how hard your body is working. Now, for most of us this is hardly going to be a scientific exercise but an awareness will give us an indication of performance. Also being able to think about some numbers and vary your cadence at different times in your ride can help to give some focus and structure to a training session.
What’s a good cadence for road cycling? Give me some numbers!
Ok, so most beginner road cyclists start off by pedalling too slowly. This isn’t good as it puts unnecessary strain on the body in terms of stressing out the joints and muscles before they are ready. When I started out on a road bike I was naturally doing between 60 and 70 RPM on an easy bit of level road and this is quite common. Over the first few weeks I had a lot of back pain and I realised that I was just pushing too hard, in not a good way, for too much of the time. As I got fitter I practised spinning faster and, despite initially feeling like my legs were going round like a frog in a blender, my natural cadence has now increased to about 85/90 RPM. My back pain has eased and my cardio response is much stronger.
That area ie 80-100RPM is accepted as being a good compromise between pure pedal pushing power and gasping for air like a drowning cat that’s smoked 40 cigarettes a day for it’s whole life!
There are, of course, times when faster is better. When warming up for example easy fast cadence is good. Similarly when cooling down a few minutes of fast spinning is good for loosening up the leg muscles and getting the blood flowing. Also it can be really nice to use a low cadence when you are having a bit of down time between intervals when interval training.
So, what’s all of this mean in the real world actually out on the bike?
So, the long and short of it is that most people will start off naturally using a cadence that is a bit low. Have a go at practising spinning faster and gradually over time your natural cadence will rise and your cycling will be all the better for it. It’s generally accepted that between 80 and 100 RPM is average but that has to depend on your physical make up, bike fit and a host of other variable factors. I have ridiculously long gangly legs and I always put my natural lack of cadence speed down to my inability to really coordinate them and my legendary lack of athletic prowess. I’m not so sure now as faster is easier and I find myself increasingly changing gear to get exactly the right feel.
It has to come down to what feels comfortable and you will, over time, find your natural cadence. It can be reassuring if you are going through a bit of a tough patch on a ride to go back to basics and make sure that your cadence is good. You can also vary it deliberately to work on different aspects of your technique in your training so it’s helpful to understand and be aware of it. It’s also a good idea to work on a smooth and consistent pedalling technique at all cadences as this will greatly enhance your overall performance.
However for most of us try not to worry about it too much. Maybe have a bit of a count of your RPM if you are getting a bit bored for a while but remember that generally a little faster is better. Listen to your body and aim for comfort and smoothness. Don’t worry about it too much, concentrate on enjoying the view and choosing a yummy cake at the cafe stop, sometimes life’s too short to worry about how fast your legs are spinning round!