Cycling Pedalling Frequency – Fast or Slow?

When Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France back in 1999, he showed us a pedalling style with a very high pedalling rate, even in the mountains. Many experts have referred to this technique as one of the main reasons that Armstrong could beat his opponents so easily. With a high frequency it is easier to remove lactate from the legs, but it requires a high degree of special training to be able to maintain a high pedalling frequency.

What is the best cycling cadence?

For me, cycling pedalling rate has always been some kind of a controversial topic. I am not sure that is possible to change riding style significantly.

Nevertheless, I have tried to adapt some of my riders pedalling frequency to a faster one, believing that this would help them to save energy for the final parts of the races.

My conclusion until now is that it is not possible to make big changes, probably in the area of on average 0-5 rpm higher pedalling frequency. So special training at high frequencies can probably not explain why some riders are able to do it and others are not.

It is also worth to remember that a couple of riders who prefer slow frequencies also perform at world class level (e.g. Serguei Gonchar). Thus, a high pedalling rate per se is not predicting performance even among the best riders in the world. Take a closer look at the riders in the Tour de France and watch the differences.

Slow pedal rate might be a better choice

Ernst Albin Hansen, PostDoc, who is a scientist and previous elite cyclist, has been studying choice of cycling pedalling rate for more than 10 years now. In a study from 2006 he included 9 trained cyclists who rode two rides of 2½ hours at 180W followed by a 5-min all-out trial. Results: There were no significant differences, but trends showing that choosing a slower pedalling rate might be attractive.

Test setup:
• 180W, freely chosen pedalling rate (avg. 95rpm) followed by 5min all-out.
• 180W, calculated pedalling rate (which averaged 73rpm) followed by 5min all-out.

The calculated pedal rate was supposed to result in a minimum oxygen uptake.

Results
When comparing the two setups, some interesting results were found:
• Peak VO2 was lower after riding with freely chosen pedal rate
• Perceived exertion were higher with freely chosen pedal rate (7-9%)

These results indicate that riding like Armstrong might not be the answer for optimal cycling pedalling rate. If some of you think this study is interesting, you could consider trying the tests mentioned above in the gym during the winter. It is guaranteed a good workout for you.

Tell us about your experiences – Post a comment below!

Source:
1: Hansen EA, Jensen K, Pedersen PK. Performance following prolonged sub-maximal cycling at optimal versus freely
chosen pedal rate. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2006 Oct;98(3):227-33. Epub 2006 Aug 12.

12 comments… add one

  • walton maccaughern

    i have tried higher rpm’s in race conditions and experience severe
    cramping. also experimented on a training hill [5000 ft elevation gain over 16 miles] and had better times with less fatigue with my normal gear /cadence.

  • sebastiano

    Over time, I have tried lots of setups (crank length – no influence, saddle height – injuries, tube angles – higher fatigue, etc.) and several times have tested VO2max. I am more the Gontchar type, rather than the Lance one. My self-selected cadence is slightly below 90 (88) on flat terrains and “sweet spot” efforts. Anyhow, I have noticed that my all-time bests (5W/kg on a 5 mins-ramp and 4 on a serious 60mins climb at circa 80kgs BW) were obtained at 75 and 55 rpm avg, respectively…
    I tend to die even on overpasses when cadence approaches 100rpm, and have had a pre-death experience sticking to 100rpm on a VO2max test.
    I am now running a threshold increase protocol and in this first part, at softer wattage, I am keeping a rate higher than my self-selected cadence. I will try and do the same when times get harder, and we’ll see.
    In summer peaks, on the TT bike, I tend to pedal faster, but HR skyrockets! Typically, when I deploy a conservative pattern, I tend to ride harder gears so that I have the illusion of a better HR control.
    Will post more, as soon as I have more on hand…

  • Sean Boileau

    Hi,

    I’ve read some research on this, and my own experiences seem to generally align. What I’ve taken away from this research is that at lower intensities (ie. <200W) it is optimal to select a lower cadence (ie. less than 80) as it reduces the % use VO2 max. As intensities increase however, the difference in % of VO2 max for lower cadences diminishes such that at racing intensities, a cadence of 80-105 is roughly equal. In the research it has been hypothesized that use of lower cadence (<80) at high intensities uses up more muscle glycogen, and engages more fast twitch muscles, resulting in earlier fatigue (or perceived fatigue) and as such freely chosen cadence usually falls in the 80-105 range (I land in the 85-95 range for higher intensity efforts).

    In my opinion since each cyclist has a different physiological make-up, (ie. % of slow twitch/fast twitch muscle fibers) – it would be wrong to generalize and 'fit' everyone into a specific cadence # – however experimenting with different cadences for intervals in controlled environments (ie. indoor) and noting HR and perceived exhaustion is a good way to eke out small improvements in cadence.

  • @Sean – You’re are spot on with your conclusion. It is impossible to generalize and ‘fit’ everyone into a specific cadence. I think that this is one of the most important points to notice about cycling cadence. Nevertheless, this is very often forgotten when people discuss the most optimal riding style.

    @Sebastiano – These low cadences indicate that you probably were standing and using your arms to ‘dance’ on your bike. That helps you to push more Watts in the pedals. I have seen a similar pattern on the files from rider I’ve trained who used power meters.

    @Walton – Thanks for haring your comments. I’m not sure if faster pedalling should increase the rik of cramping? I have seen it more often with riders using too low cadence.

  • Hans Jorgensen

    So much to consider here, and much of my research/experience has been using both HR, Power, and RPE, as well as specific race results.
    Without going on too long, one cannot fairly compare cadence issues unless one has developed the neuromuscular adaptation to pedal a high cadence efficiently. Assuming one has:
    Higher cadence will put more demands on cardiovascular while sparing, to some extent, muscle glycogen.
    Conversely, any rider has a point where his power will fall off with increasing cadence (even Lance in his prime) and when this happens, a shift to bigger gear and lower cadence becomes almost an unconscious move.
    As a time trialist I have experimented with various combinations of cadence and over time, as my strength has improved, I’ve had better race results at lower cadences, meaning 100 rpm five years ago and 83-85 now (on generally flat courses).
    For a time trialist perhaps the most important effect is the optimum power output for the race duration. The demans of road racing change and to be in a lower cadence situation at the moment of a definitive attack can mean not being able to go with what may be the winning group.
    Early studies verified the physiological advantages of low cadence, but cannot be given too much value as they neglected the dynamic demands of any given race but rather applied more to a somewhat static demand of an ergometer. So much more to add on this subject; thx for reading.

  • The interesting thing about this study is that there was a trend that the riders chose to ride with too fast rpm. They performed better when they used the relatively low cadence of 73rpm. I agree that race situations require a cadence that is more dynamic. You should always be able to accelerate and react properly. That is not possible with 73rpm on average. Even though this ergometer trial is different from real cycling, it indicates that it can be worth to consider choice of cadence, and that fast pedalling not per default is the best way to ride. Thanks for sharing your studies and experience, Hans.

  • sebastiano

    @Hans: interesting post… agree on 99% of the content, the 1% leftover is based on personal experience, hence not statistically relevant. For instance, my speed bests on the TT bike were achieved at far higher rpm and bpm than in any other event or condition, but in a “state of grace” typical of my (single) peak of form.
    @Jesper: I never ride standing :) Due to my physical build, if I have arms working at the same time as the legs, I have 1 min “fuel”. All of the data I record, with extremely limited deviations, are from seated positions. I recall every single event when I used the small gear in 2010… and every single time I stood on the pedals.

  • Michael Leffler

    Well, here’s a observation take it as you will…my humble observations of myself seem to mimmick the erg mode on the computrainer where say you are doing a 10-15 min interval at ftp and as you get tired you power out using your leg muscles more to help compensate the increasing cardio load. Similar to a real long hill climb at high level getting up and standing. But if you spin even faster to get past your ftp on the computrainer the resistance of the unit decreases slightly which you create by spinning a little bit faster which at that high level feels more balanced and sustainable than cranking and muscles failing quickly at higher mph (which you created by spinning for me in the 100+ rpm range). It seems to be a sweet spot that allows you to punch out. In those moments of pain it’s like a survival mechanism to spin to ease the load but still get a great speed result. Granted you are approaching or in vo2 max area, pain is there – possibly like the guy taliking about near pre death experiences of varying levels or “shaking hands with god.” Now at 6.7w/kg like Lance or whatever high level it can be so many things I don’t know about. But it seems learning to spin at peak exertion is way better than trying to crank out. You last longer and can punch better. I wonder if people are all comparing various steady state high performance levels versus full tilt blow up the pack Lance moves. Maybe that last 0.1% spin effort over Ulrich style cranking is absolutely what it takes to win – as all other things being equal.

  • Experience. On my ride. I noticed that the spin cycle pedal with a high pedalling rate is often that we are tired faster. Spinning around, I think with the high pedalling rate is ideal for Track Cycling, for Road riders, I think should run around a middle pedalling rate is better.

  • My best ride in 2010 was high cadence in relatively flat terrain.
    I did most of my indoor training on rollers, hence high cadence helped.
    I lacked leg strength as it was my 1st year of cycling in many years. By using stomach muscles to forcefully exhale and with a short quick inhale I was able to boost my O2 intake so dramatically that my vision became brighter. I maintained 35-46 kph for about an hour, averaging 35 kph by midpoint of a 76 km ride.
    By not changing our breathing technique from that used to grind in low gears, I don’t believe anyone can get very good at high cadence cycling.

  • Bill Anderson

    I’m new to cycling. I ran for 27 years, nothing special, just very consistently running 30 miles a week, every week without missing a week. I switched to biking 3 years ago and just recently discovered I was pedaling very inefficiently. An experience rider taught me a better technique and I have moved my average cadence from 78 to 84.
    But that’s not what I’m writing about. It seems to me that bikers are a lot like car motors in that the produce power to propel their bikes. And yet, I’ve never found any research that suggests that bikers have horsepower and torque curves just like car motors. Perhaps if a study were done using a dynamometer some real world numbers could be put into the discussion. A dynamometer can be used to determine the torque and power required to operate a driven machine such as a pump, a car or a bike. By using a dyno to test a cyclist’s torque and power curves, a custom pedaling schedule could be developed for each individual.
    Just sayin’…

    Good site for background reading:
    http://www.epi-eng.com/piston_engine_technology/power_and_torque.htm

  • Davy G

    “When Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France back in 1999, he showed us a pedalling style with a very high pedalling rate, even in the mountains. Many experts have referred to this technique as one of the main reasons that Armstrong could beat his opponents so easily.”…… What about the drugs he took????

Leave a Comment