Michael Hanslip Coaching

If you want to go faster, you have to pedal harder

Optimal cadence

TL:DR - faster is always better, except when it isn't

When you spot a cyclist who is struggling along in too big a gear, pedalling at an ultra-slow cadence, what do you think? I always think how much easier it would be if they would shift to a smaller gear and pedal faster. For most people, that impression probably only applies at numerically low cadences, such as 40 or 50 rpm. As a coach, I still feel that way sometimes at 90 rpm.
If there is one lesson I try to impart onto every cyclist I coach, it is an ability to pedal quickly. If you are a track cyclist, the only way to go faster is to pedal faster (only one gear on a track bike). Your top speed is usually governed by how fast you can pedal rather than pure power limitations. So, to be more competitive, you need more leg speed - more top end cadence.
Most of us aren't track racers. Yet it still applies that an ability to pedal smoothly to a higher cadence limit gives a rider more flexibility in their riding. Everyone can stop pedalling and just coast when it gets too hard to pedal faster. Usually you can shift up to a larger gear and continue to pedal. But for a short time the best option is to just pedal faster.

It is true that cadence opposes efficiency. It takes extra oxygen to move legs faster - more than the increase in power would demand. Thus the efficiency is decreased. Yet most good cyclists will instinctively up the cadence when they up the pace.
The Lance Armstrong years are way behind us now. One thing he changed about competitive cycling was use of cadence. (Oversimplified but essentially true) A low rate puts the demands on the muscles of the legs. They get tired. A high rate, however much more inefficient it might be physiologically, moves at least a portion of the demand to the cardiovascular system. By spreading demands across systems the rider can go faster for longer. If the CV is up to the challenge. And Lance was on the best drugs available, ensuring his CV was up to the challenge.

My cadence strategy for any race is to start out as fast as possible and slow down as you get tired through the event. Use aerobic fitness for as much and as long as possible. Rely on leg strength at the end when necessary. The problem with trying to do the reverse is that tired legs don't respond to the cardiovascular but can continue without it - the order must go that way.

I've seen many clients for years of training. They have all improved their default cadence upwards, expanded their range of possible pedalling speed and therefore gotten faster for longer. By pushing the boundaries of what is possible on any given day to achieve just a couple more rpm. There are numerous muscles in the legs that coordinate to pedal. This requires neurological training. A new bike rider cannot pedal comfortably and with souplesse at a high rate nor for that long because their nerves aren't trained for the motion. That takes hours to develop. And years to perfect.
Pro cyclists mostly make it look easy because their office is their bike and they spend every day at their "desk".

No matter if you are pedalling an e-enduro bike, a light XC hardtail, a touring bike laden with panniers or a sleek time trial bike; they all go better if you are smooth and relaxed in pedalling and better again if you have a wide range of cadence to select from.