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Cycling, Speed and Cadence – Why the 90 RPM Cadence is So Important to Cycling Fast

September 2014
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This post is for my friend, Sandra.

One of the tougher things to grasp for slower cyclists who want to get fast is the 90 revolutions per minute cadence.  Why is it preached to pedal so fast?  There are a few ways to explain this but I like to make the attempt to keep things simple…

First, here is the poetry in motion, one of the coolest and most colorful cyclists in the last generation or two, Jens Voigt breaking the world 1 hr. record, riding about 31-3/4 mph in that hour to do it – at 43 years-old:

At any place in that video, take a stop watch and count his pedal strokes over ten seconds and multiply that by six.  What you’re looking for is one count every time one foot bottoms out (count the right or the left, not both), you’ll come up with 100-108 rpm.  Now keep in mind, Jens is one hell of a strong cyclist.  He’s known for putting a hurting on the peloton when he’s racing…  In that challenge, he chose that cadence and set up his gearing to it.  He’s on a single-speed track bike – there is no coasting on that bike.  If you’re moving you must pedal.  And guessing, he was using a 53 tooth front chain ring and a 13 tooth rear cog.  If I use Sheldon Brown’s gear calculator I can see that a 53/13 combo at 100 rpm works out to 31.6 mph so it’s fairly simple to glean from this that at 100-108 rpm he’d be right at his 31-3/4 mph average speed. [Ed. The guys at the shop said he did it with a 55/14 setup]

With “How it’s done” out of the way, let’s look at the important part, “why” – or more to the point, why cycling with a high cadence is so important to generating and maintaining speed.  There is a simple way to look at this, we can simplify the concept.  If you take weight lifting and doing curls with a 30 pound weight, how many single arm curls could you do?  10?  20?  30?  Now, how many could you do with a 5 pound weight?  You could go all day.  Cycling with an easier gear works on the same principle.  Unfortunately, if you’re going to use an easy gear, to go fast you have to pedal that gear at a faster cadence to generate the speed.  Why 90?  Well this is fairly simple.  First, getting up to 100-110 is a bit difficult to sustain but more importantly, if you’re riding in a group and pushing 90, you have a little gear left to respond to a sudden surge, it’s that simple.  At 90 you have enough gear to accelerate.  At 110, it’s too hard to get your legs to spin faster without a massive amount of training.  So let’s look at this, using the gear calculator again, in that light.

Let’s say a typical cyclist uses a 60 rpm cadence.  Here are the results of a 52/36 chain ring combo with a 11-28 cog cassette (11 sp.):
52-36 and 11-28
Now, if you want to average 20 mph you have to push the second hardest gear on the cassette at 60 rpm (I use that gear to hit 31 by the way).  That’s a lot of pressure on the pedals to move so slowly.  Let’s look at the same gearing at 90:
52-36 and 11-28 at 90 rpm
To hold 20 mph you can use the sixth or seventh cog on the cassette.  It’s as simple as going back to that 30 lb. vs. 5 lb. weight for curls.

Now that we’ve established that you can push less weight if you can pedal a little faster, training to do so isn’t exactly as easy as just doing it.  First, gone are the standard platform pedals.  In order to keep your feet on the pedals at 90 rpm, you almost have to lock your feet onto them.  I tried to ride in a group on platform pedals one time and I’ll never do that again.  The problem is trying to keep your feet in the proper location on the pedals at speed – it’s not easy.  So you’ll either need the pedals with the straps on them (called toe clips interestingly enough) or go with the shoes that have cleats that lock into the pedals.  Once we’ve got the pedals and shoes sorted, it’s a matter of training the body to operate smoothly with a 90 rpm cadence.  The easiest way would have to be on a trainer or spin bike where you don’t have to worry about balance and can work a stop watch and count your revolutions out as you go.  I rode for several months before I started concentrating on cadence…  I learned how to pedal faster out on the road.  I fine tuned that on the trainer over the winter.  Another way, albeit a little more risky, is to ride in a group and match the cadence of those in front of you.  If you work at it, training your body to use a higher cadence should only take a few weeks at the most.

Now let’s look at the benefits of the higher cadence – beyond being able to ride faster and hold more speed for a longer period of time.  First and foremost is acceleration.  Jumping from a 90 cadence to 110 in the sixth gear is a hell of a lot faster and easier than going from a 60 to a 70 cadence in the second to the last gear.  Folks, it’s not even close.  I can accelerate on a dime (well maybe a quarter) in the easier gear but I’ll labor to pick up the speed, maybe even have to do so out of the saddle, in a harder gear.  It’s not even close.  Second would be climbing.  When I’ve got that 90 cadence wound up and I hit a hill with it, selecting gears to maintain that cadence is very simple and again with the acceleration – the difference is even more profound when you’re going up a hill.  Finally, and it might take a while to realize this for yourself, you’ll find that once you get used to that cadence, it’s easier to hold a certain speed once you get into that happy zone between 85 and 95 rpm.  Now this will go by feel so it’ll be tricky to grasp at first but if you look at the 90 rpm chart above, you’ll see in the big ring (52) column, the 15 tooth cog is good for 24.4 mph at 90 rpm.  In that gear I can hold 24.2 mph easier than I can hold 23 mph.  In other words, I can go faster with less effort.  Don’t take my word for it, try it for yourself.  Just give yourself a few months to get used to the cadence first.

When it comes down to it, if you still have doubts, look at it this way:  Who’s right, you or every professional who has clipped into a pedal in the last 40 years or so?  Learn to push the easier gear with a higher cadence.  If you’re looking for the “easier, softer way”, that’s it.

UPDATE 2016:  James Smith dropped in to comment that there isn’t really a “one size fits all” approach to cadence and he’s right.  You’ve gotta ride your ride.  If you’re constantly leaving gaps in the pace line and can’t react to a surge within the group, chances are you need to downshift and pedal a little faster though.  Call it a safe bet.

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41 Comments

  1. Sandra says:

    Ooooo! Excellent! 🙂 Two weeks to train me? You’re ON! 🙂

    FYI: That is my hill problem, in a nutshell. I have a cadence sensor on both my bikes. Let the games begin!

    • bgddyjim says:

      Sweet. Good luck, you’ll get used to it pretty quick. Trust me.

      • Sandra says:

        I remember going to a spin class and hearing them say to kick up the cadence. That it’s okay to bounce around until ya get used to it–it’s normal. After a whole you will learn to stay in the seat.

        Any other advice for someone trying to speed up cadence other than just doing it? 🙂

      • bgddyjim says:

        Let’s see… Your breathing is probably going to be a little messed up and it’ll take a few miles to get that under control, just keep at it. Also, it takes some time to tone the muscles up right with that pace (different twitches) so be prepared for that. Just lock it down and don’t worry – keep pedaling. Oh, and you can build up to it too. You don’t have to be a 50 and jump to 90. Try the jump but pare back if you have to.

      • Sandra says:

        Thanks, I hit the path today and tried to figure out where my comfort zone is and how 90 feels different. I’m between 77-80, so the push to 90 won’t be terrible, but it *is* a challenge. And yes, breathing is messed up. Thanks for saying that. I wondered if it’s because I’m still sick, or asthma, or what. . . Thanks!

        (I cannot maintain it for the entire ride yet–I’ll need to go to KCMO and go to one of my coach’s gearing clinics, i suppose, for hill issues)

      • bgddyjim says:

        Nah, here’s the rule for hill gearing: Use your cruise gear passed the base of the hill. Just before you start up, pick up the cadence so you carry some speed. Once you feel a drag on the cadence, downshift and bring the cadence back up. Hold it for as long as you can and downshift again. When you get to a point where you have to change chain rings, it’s very simple but tricky to get the timing… Two UPSHIFTS in the back, then shift to the easier chainring. This is done quickly, bang-bang-bang. Trust your gear, it’ll work if it’s properly tuned. The two gears up in the back will get you in the perfect 1 gear easier overall with the smaller chain ring. 😉

      • Sandra says:

        Copied and pasted into my bike folder! Thanks.

      • Sandra says:

        It’s the “hold it as long as you can” part that gets me! LOL!

      • bgddyjim says:

        Nice. You need to change that tape you play in your melon for a new one that says, “I can”. Leave the t-shirt at home, change the melon committee.

  2. xVx cyclist says:

    Good post! It’s something I fell into quite naturally myself on the road. I’m not sure if having a background in MTB had anything to do with it, regularly spinning the middle chainring of the triple-chainset for trails or obviously the granny ring with the larger cogs of the cassette for climbing, but a higher cadence always gave me a better feeling of putting power down.It obviously translates over to riding on the road too, as your whole post brilliantly explains! 🙂

  3. Usually I’ve been in the 80-90 range, but the last couple of rides I’ve upped it that wee bit. I’ve noticed round here, as it’s quite undulating & downright hilly (8 – 18%) round here, it’s hard to keep a regular cadence. So I’ve been undulating(?) between 87 & 95 a lot. Still, it adds interest. Also I’m doing and 80+ mile Sportive tomorrow so maybe it’s not wise anyways?

    • bgddyjim says:

      Good luck tomorrow, I was supposed to do 60 but the weather won’t allow it (thunder and lightning)… I’m jealous too, we’re relatively flat here so it makes the averages look really sexy but I LOVE climbing.

  4. MJ Ray says:

    I wonder if it depends on the person. Some (most?) people are sprinters, capable of fast small efforts, while others are distance runners, steadily ticking the legs over slowly for mile after mile. The distance runners will never be top bike racers unless they force themselves into the spinning box, but they might do well at audax. Either way, it’s good to see them out on the bike too.

    • bgddyjim says:

      There’s no doubt that it’s good they’re out there. A friend of mine asked for a refresher on why cadence is so important after watching Jens Voigt take the record in the hour challenge. While anyone can and should ride a bike, if they want to get faster, the key is in the cadence. You can add up to 2 mph instantly just by using the correct gearing and cadence. Training the body to adapt to this takes only a matter of weeks (or it did in my case and I’m certainly no superstar).

  5. Thanks,. I am going to make sure when I set the bike up on the trainer this winter to push for 90.

  6. Wow!! This was super informative. I have been doing the high gear, lower cadence and grind it out approach because I think I thought that made me tough. I lowered the gear and upped the cadence to around 90 on the way to work today. What a totally different feeling yet my speed was hardly affected. Not feeling like you are grinding it out as much is actually good for the psyche as well. It will definitely take some getting used to but I can see how this is better.

    I feel like you are my personal cycling coach. Learning about this is awesome!

    • bgddyjim says:

      Thanks Jason… It does take some getting used to and there are times to grind it out too. Grind when you want to get your heart rate down, spin the rest. Good luck man, I know you’re tearing it up lately!

  7. Great blog, do you mind if I reblog it

  8. Great post. I used to pedal at medium to low cadence, simply because this concept was alien to me 😛 … after I discovered cadence and started to practice above 90rpm my cycling tecnique improved really fast. At first it was odd to pedal with so many revolutions, but now it feels very, very natural. Just this morning I did a group ride in a circuit and at one of the sharp curves I noticed some cyclists grinding the gears to recuperate speed, while i came out of the corner easy breeze with my high cadence, recovered cruising speed much faster and it was noticeable that I spent much less watts than them to do so. Great post!!!

  9. D.R. Tharp says:

    I have a gym quality spin bike. I used to road cycle religiously but lost my love. I cannot run anymore because of back issues. I had a trainer for my road bike but it’s not comfy for me. I spent the bucks to get a bike with a simple onboard computer and my focus on each workout has been 85-90 for 45 minutes. I feel that fluidity in my pedal stroke coming back and there is something to be said for fixing issues and getting technique sharpened on a stationary bike, imo. Depending on your route, you can spend half of a 30 mile ride coasting. I feel that on the spin bike, I can put in the effort and controlled intervals and get as much in 1 hour as a two hour ride outdoors. Again, depending on the terrain. my focus is fitness, not racing, so my goal is to increase resistance slowly while keeping the rpm’s where they need to be.

    • bgddyjim says:

      Thanks for commenting D.R.. First, a spin bike is a little better than a turbo trainer because you get more resistance. For me, it’s all about the road though. I only put in the trainer miles so I can stay in shape for the spring. I’m glad for your happiness with the spin bike. Enjoy.

  10. James Smith says:

    Nice article, save for asinine appeal to authority in the closing. Top cyclists all fall within a stone’s throw of 150lbs, and I weigh in at ~220lbs (~44% muscle) with legs capable of lifting in excess of 1000lbs. I started out maximizing my speed by playing to my strengths with lower cadence and higher torque (27 inch tires, biggest possible front gear, smallest possible rear gear, etc). I’d still be doing that now except for two things: 1) it puts pretty extreme stress on the chain and other associated components, requiring them to be changed far more frequently (hint: upgrade to 32 inch wheels instead), and 2) I found out the hard way that cycling that way disproportionately strengthens the quads to such a degree that it leads to patellofemoral pain syndrome in far less time. It’s for these two reasons that I dropped back to easier gears and higher cadence…and subsequently lost 2mph from my average speed. The point I’m trying to make here is that there isn’t a one size fits all answer. Probably not even one size fits most. Different body types, strengths, and priorities require different approaches.

    • bgddyjim says:

      Thanks James, much appreciated. My asinine appeal to authority was written with a very specific cyclist type in mind. That cyclist who turns up his nose at the conventional wisdom while continually leaving gaps in a pace line for others, who can actually respond to a surge at the front because they’re in a reasonable gear, to make up. I ride with a group that will surge from 26 to 32 mph to drop a cyclist who demonstrates they are a danger to the group. If you’re not ready, you’re gone. My apologies for the offense, in the four or five years since writing this post, you’re the first to notice. I don’t know, having matured quite a bit since, if I’d call it “asinine” or an “appeal to authority” as much as it was an attempt to jar a specific cyclist’s thinking a little bit. We noobs, especially those who plod along at a 15-16 mph average, pushing a 50-14 (why have a compact when you’re a horse?!) and they can’t figure out how to get faster….

      Personally, I’m amazed that you dropped two mph, but you said it well… To each his or her own. You just happen to be a rare horse. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    • bgddyjim says:

      I updated the post to reflect your comment. Thanks for taking the time.

  11. spin, spin, spin! says:

    I always tell people to think of cadence like the rpm of an engine.
    Using a cadence sensor really helps reinforce this principle.
    I found my natural cadence is about 82 but my most productive is 95-100, I can time trial so well if I keep it above 95.
    I use my cadence sensor like the revs of a car engine, if my legs start to feel the burn and I notice my cadence dip below 90 I drop it down a gear, likewise, if I find my legs are not hurting or filling up with lactate and my cadence is over 100 I step up a gear.
    Using this method I can easily do a 10 mile TT at over 23mph, and considering I am over 40 and smoked all my life, drank too much and eaten junk food yet I only started road riding in Sep 2014

  12. Rdupuy says:

    I love your blog, I am reading through many of the posts. Well,I have clipless shoes and pedals on order. I’m slowly learning all these lessons, and trying to even speed up the learning process… for some reason I rode 2016 on platform pedals. Goodness knows what my cadence might be, I thought it was fast, but you say you can’t even be that fast without clipless,…oh dear. I joined a bicycle club last month. I was the only one wearing tennis shoes and pushing platform pedals on a 35 lb vintage bike. Everyone else seemed to have a carbon bike with clipless pedals, and bike shoes and silly things like winter gloves 🙂 I’m laughing at myself for being so far out of it. But after reading your blog, I realize I didn’t get it all wrong….I did attack the hills and trained hard to go up them fast. I made progress on that, so I’ll hold onto one small miracle. At least the whole year wasn’t a waste. But, I’m absolutely chomping at the bit now, to get my clipless shoes/pedals! – I want to do high cadence training without delay. It’s time to average 20mph!

  13. Worth remembering that cadence isn’t everything – cycling buddy of mine and ex 24 TT champ, averaged 60rpm for 24 hours and won with 520 miles. Strong men don’t need cadence – oh yes, he is only 75kgs…. Some athletes work with ‘slow twitch’ muscles and can put down all the power they need at lower cadences. Also worth mentioning that they do lose out on acceleration though…road racers need to match instant accelerations in the peloton so hence the higher cadences are better for them. You need to work out at what cadence you can produce the most power for the duration – it isn’t always 90!

  14. bonnev659 says:

    funny I am rereading this, I am in the upper 70’s low 80s when doing hills… flats I am around upper 80s. I know I been working on this with the trainer.

    happy riding and it be mud season soon

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