If you watch professional cyclists ride, you’ll notice how fast they go while making it look easy. Their smooth cadence, or pedal stroke measured by revolutions per minute, is the key to that effortless appearance. Many recreational and less-experienced cyclists who come to me for coaching are partially limited by their low cadence and the associated low efficiency, which affects their ability to pedal for extended periods of time. Before you panic that this is your problem, let’s check to see if it’s a limiter for you.
1. YOU STRUGGLE IN A PACELINE
Many riders find it difficult to keep up as the speed increases — even if the actual wattage output is not increasing, the speed makes it harder to put power down. If you can stay with a group on climbs but get dropped on flat sections when cadence goes up, then cadence work helps.
Improve with intervals at 10–30 rpm over your normal cadence in your warmups or as a workout each week. Try 4 x 1 minute intervals at 110–120 rpm.
2. YOU STRUGGLE TO ACCELERATE
If you get caught out for the big sprint or attack, or you get jammed up in low gears when you need to speed up quickly, you are likely missing some speed-skills. Being able to accelerate your cadence, instead of shifting, lets you accelerate instantly and stay in the group.
Watch how you react to accelerations: Do you shift or do you spin up the gear you are in first? Generally, you should only shift to a harder gear if you have spun to a cadence you can’t sustain, just like when driving a standard car. If you are shifting first, you will see your cadence drop, and likely hear some loud sounds from your drive-train (these are bad!), as you bog down like a car climbing a steep hill in fifth.
Improve with 3–5 x 30 seconds where you gradually spin up to your max cadence for the last 10 seconds.
3. YOU ARE GOOD AT STEEP CLIMBS
If you love steep climbs where you can grind away to produce lots of power, you have a strength that you should preserve, as many people struggle on steep hills. You must also work on your weakness: Improve your ability to produce that power on moderate climbs and on the flats, and you will survive long enough to attack the steep climbs.
Improve by doing your normal intervals on flatter or less steep hills and ensuring that your cadence is higher, even if watts aren’t quite as high at first.
4. YOU STRUGGLE TO AVERAGE MORE THAN 80 RPM ON LONG RIDES
While we could argue over how high you need to get this average, I am going to suggest 80 rpm is a good general break-point. If you find it very hard, if not impossible, to complete your long rides at more than 80 rpm then you should put several sessions a week into improving your speed skill with short drills and also work on your rpm on your long rides.
Improve by tracking your cadence on your long ride and setting a goal to bump it up each ride. Including some high rpm drills will help boost it and make slightly higher rpm during the rest of the ride feel more normal.
5. YOU RARELY PEDAL MORE THAN 100 RPM AND RIDE IN YOUR SMALLEST COG OFTEN
Top riders use their hardest gear more often because they go fast down hills and in sprints. If you find yourself ‘running out of gears’ frequently, it is worth developing your speed skill to improve your ability to move forward faster in those situations.
Improve by shifting back one easier gear and making yourself pedal through the situation at a higher cadence. This is a very natural way to get some speed-skill practice in on your normal ride.
Cadence may be one of the least talked about aspects of cycling performance but learning to interact with your gears and how fast you pedal makes you a better cyclist — and helps you become one of those riders who makes things look effortless.