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Cadence: both ends of the spectrum

Updated: May 27, 2021

At some point when training with Sans Chaine you are likely to ask yourself - why am I doing this workout at 110rpm? And then you may also wonder why you are riding up a climb on Zwift doing 60rpm. Valid questions indeed.

The easy answer is that as cyclists we need to be versatile in our cadence ability. We need to be comfortable riding at both very high cadence - in an extreme scenario think a paceline in a blazing tailwind where you have run out of gears. Or at quite a low cadence, and this one is an easy real world situation - grinding up a long climb at 60rpm for an hour at a spring training camp somewhere exotic.

At the high end we are actually talking about co-ordination. The ability to turn the pedals quickly, while being smooth on the bike, with little tension in the legs. This is more challenging than it sounds. And the first time you do a high cadence workout your heart rate is likely to be quite high. Don’t be alarmed.

This type of high cadence work has to be done with good technique. Forcing yourself to ride a high cadence while you bounce all over the saddle won’t improve your co-ordination. You want to ride where it is challenging to be smooth, but where it feels good. Over time you will find your cadence moving up with less effort, and amazingly, your heart rate staying stable.

A real world application of high cadence can be experienced in riding with a peloton, using variation in your cadence to manage your effort and your position in the group. Thereby saving your muscles.

On the other end of the spectrum is the need to be able to ride under tension for long periods of time. Think of that monster climb at the end of a long day at your annual training camp.

Here is an example of a rider struggling to get to that lower cadence. The workout called for 6 x 10-minutes at 60-65rpm, while this ride was more in the 70rpm range. Even then the rider wasn’t able to keep the legs under tension, with the cadence moving up and down to relieve that sensation of tension in the legs.

And here is the same rider a couple of months later with the wattage and cadence perfectly stable, now able to sustain that tension on the legs for a full hour!

We need to have that versatility of cadence in our Toolbox. If you are always the one grinding big gears in the group on the flats you are likely going to fail muscularly. Having good co-ordination could save your day. Conversely, without the ability to manage the muscles pushing against a steep gradient, you won’t be able to shine in the hills.

In the real world we might not ride at the 115 or 60rpm you will encounter in a workout, but being good at either end makes riding in the middle feel like butter.

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