How well you shift gears and your ability to use an appropriate range of cadences on your bike is called speed-skill. While high-flying skills and tricks are featured in many videos, the simple skill of shifting smoothly at the right time to maintain an optimal cadence is under-appreciated.
Similarly, wattage is a topic often discussed without considering cadence. You can grind at 200 watts in a harder gear or pedal at a higher cadence in an easier gear and produce the same power. With the easier gear and higher cadence, you may be able to avoid fatigue by pushing a bit less each pedal stroke. Pedaling faster in the same gear on the same stretch of road or hill is a simple way to understand how to go faster and, if you tend to struggle with acceleration or when speeds increase, this focus might really boost your performance
Before you start these drills to improve your speed-skill, make sure your bike is set up right. In other words: Do you have the right gears to optimize your cadence? Many bikes come with a stock gearing that may not be appropriate for your fitness or the terrain you ride. If you live in the mountains, a small cassette with many small (hard) cogs will not be appropriate. More and more racers are using larger cassettes with easier gears to allow for a more optimal cadence on climbs. This lets you push your best wattage on climbs rather than grinding at a lower RPM then you are used to and fatiguing early.
Here are three drills that will help improve your speed-skill:
Beginners often find shifting confusing, so starting with your bike on a repair stand is helpful to get the hang of what buttons shift easier and harder. Once you are comfortable with your controls, do a 10–20 minute steady effort on a flat road or steady grade guided by speed (on a flat road/trainer) or wattage. During the effort, shift one gear harder every minute for 5 minutes, then shift one easier each minute for 5 minutes. Repeat twice if you would like a 20-minute interval. Pay attention to how the effort changes as you shift harder and easier. More muscular at low cadences and harder to coordinate at a higher cadence. Doing this on flat terrain or a trainer first and then progressing to a steady climb is a great learning experience and a great workout.
SPIN-OUTS AND SPINUPS
A common mistake is shifting at the wrong time before you have accelerated the gear you are in. To ‘spin out the gear’ is to pedal faster, in the gear you are in until you get to a high rpm (for you) say 105 rpm at which point you can back off (like a clutch in a car) and shift one harder, then accelerate that gear, or hold that speed/cadence if it is in your preferred cadence range. Try riding a rolling course where you have to use an easier gear to climb up a roller then accelerate the gear you are in and shift, repeat 2–3 times and pedal down the roller to start the spin-out pattern again on the next roller.
Spinups are similar but have no shifting. These ask you to pedal 10 seconds fast, 10 seconds even faster and 10 seconds at the fastest cadence you can pedal without shifting. This skill helps you stay in a road group over the top of climbs or even drop other riders. Mountain bikers can use a spinup to gain speed into a climb or obstacle.
LOW RPM HILLS
While there is a lot of talk about increasing cadence, there are many riders who could benefit from doing low-rpm, high-effort work. These efforts can be specific to steep climbs but also help you understand how to push hard on the pedals and transfer that experience back to your optimal rpm, especially if you tend to select an easier gear to avoid higher muscle tension.
If you have had trouble with knee pain, be cautious for a few workouts at least, using a more moderate gear and hill to start. Try riding up a 1–2 minute hill at a hard effort, aiming to pedal around 60 rpm — conveniently one pedal stroke every second for those without a cadence meter. The effort should be high, so as you get used to it, do 1-minute efforts and gradually increase until you get up to 5–6 minutes at that hard effort and low cadence. Recover for about the same time as you worked so 1–2 minutes for a 1-minute effort depending on how you feel and progress through these difficult repetitions.
THE BOTTOM LINE
A final, seemingly obvious, way to optimize your cadence is to ride the terrain and intensity/speed you plan to race. While a variety of riding disciplines and terrains helps you adapt and transfer speed-skill, the most common issue I see is riders who don’t practice race conditions. If a race requires lots of climbing, then you should climb a lot in training. If you are racing mountain bikes, make sure you are riding mountain bikes fast a few times a week. Crit riders should practice spinning high gears and accelerating frequently (as well as cornering).
Ultimately, you’ll want to prepare your body and hone the skills necessary for the demands of your chosen event.