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Cycling Faster: The Art Of (and the Reason For) Spinning

June 2014
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What I’m about to lay down in this post is going to be tough to grasp if you are (or think you are) slow.  It’s really tough to explain well too… I take pride in being able to take tough cycling concepts for noobs to “get” and explaining them in simple terms but this one has had me stumped for more than a month.

For the last three months, taking slower rides (15-17 mph on average) with my wife, I’ve had to learn how to cycle slower and doing so has presented some interesting challenges.  Two weeks into riding a bike, almost from the start, I learned to spin at an 85-100 rpm cadence.  I learned as a kid, as most kids do, to mash whatever gear I was in, however once I clipped my shoes into my pedals, which kept my feet square on the pedals, and got some lift on the back stroke (and started talking to the owner of the local bike shop) spinning was possible and began to make sense.

From there cycling was all speed all of the time.  My easy efforts were only slightly slower than my hard efforts (only 2 mph slower) so I never had time to really concentrate on what went on at slower speeds.  Now, cycling with my wife and trying to match her pace (and even her cadence at times which is slower, 60-70 rpm), my eyes have been opened to a three-dimensional understanding of spinning. All too often we can get stuck in our own little world of “how stuff works”. I have spent quite a bit of time in that boat but re-learning how to ride efficiently with my wife added another dimension to how I look at cycling.

First, because I am comfortable with spinning at a faster tempo (it doesn’t wear me out in the least), I can tell you that two different aspects of speed change with a higher cadence:

A) If you spin in a specific gear at 60-70, if you downshift one gear (easier) and pick up the cadence to 90-100, your speed will increase.  Riding like this also, once you get used to it, takes a lot less energy and force on the pedals.

B) Once you become accustomed to that higher cadence, that gear you were cranking in to hit 15 mph at 60 rpm will require less force to pedal at 90 rpm than it did at 60. This means, literally, that you will be able to go faster with less effort – in the exact same gear that used to max you out.

I have found, on several occasions, that I can tax my legs at 16.5 mph if I match my wife’s cadence – and in a gear lower (easier) than I spin easily in on my normal recovery rides.  If I downshift and revert back to my normal cadence, I can match her pace but without taxing my legs in the least.  That second part though, that’s the tough one to impress upon those who want to get faster.  It’s hard to grasp because as a noob, you’re going to think, “how can pushing a gear that I’m already having a tough time pushing for my 16 mph average be easier if I spin faster“?

It absolutely is easier once you get used to the 90 cadence.  Noobs and speed challenged cyclists everywhere, know this: Going from a 60-70 cadence to a 90-100 is. free. speed.  Kind of.  Look at it this way: That gear you’re grinding at 60 rpm, at 90, is as much as 1-1/2 mph faster.  That means if your average is 16.5 mph and you bump your cadence up, you’ll be pushing 18 and with less effort than you did that 16.5.  It’s the honest to God truth.

Unfortunately, rockin’ a high cadence is not the perfect answer, if it is pretty awesome… Aerodynamics throw a wrench into the works.

Still, more speed is more speed and if you want to be fast, spinning rather than mashing is an easy way to get a good bounce.  Don’t take my word for it, try it yourself.  Take three weeks to get used to spinning at 90 rpm or better, in one gear easier than you’re used to.  After those three weeks, go back to that gear and spin it up to 90 and you’ll see first hand exactly what I’ve been attempting to describe in this post.

I have previously heard spinning described in the realm of lifting weights:  If you curled 80 pounds, how many reps could you do?  Five, ten, maybe fifteen?  Now, if you curled just the bar, how many reps could you do?  You could go for probably a half hour and quit out of boredom before your arms gave out.  While that principle very much applies to cycling, spinning is much more effective and efficient than the weight lifting analogy.

Spin ladies and gentlemen, and if you don’t know how to, learn to.  Buy a cadence computer if you must, or simply count how many times your left (or right) foot bottoms out in ten seconds and multiply by six (or fifteen and multiply by four).  I started this on a trainer and checked at different times in my winter workouts so I could be certain that I was holding close to a 90 cadence.  After a winter of keeping that tempo on a trainer, I tore it up the next spring.  Good luck and happy spinning.


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