Cycling Cadence refers to the speed with which you turn your pedals. As with an engine, your cycling cadence is usually defined by revolutions per minute or RPM. One RPM would be how many times one leg or the other makes a complete revolution. Determining your RPM is fairly simple. You pedal, you count how many revolutions you make in one minute and you arrive at your RPM. No big deal.
It becomes a big deal when you ride your road bike for 300 minutes instead of one. The longer and further one rides, the more one is concerned about power, endurance and exertion. How much exertion does it require to obtain maximum power, and how long can you maintain that level?
If you are technically inclined, there is a tremendous volume of research on this topic. The practical purpose of this article is not to get too technical. Simply put, you need to pay attention to your cadence, you need to establish what your ideal cadence is for various conditions, and you need to understand how this will affect your riding performance.
The type of cadence most people are familiar with is that of a drummer. The drum cadence provides a steady marching pace, and has historically kept up the troops' morale on the battlefield. A cycling cadence serves pretty much the same purpose. Everyone who rides a bike has a cadence, the goal is to discipline that cadence into one that makes you a stronger, more efficient cyclist and, thereby, boosts your morale.
A good benchmark for an endurance cyclist is 85 to 95 RPM. In the cycling world we call this “spinning,” as opposed to “grinding,” which is turning a slower cadence such as 50 to 70 RPM.
This cadence may seem uncomfortably fast for the casual cyclist who is making the transition to higher performance distance riding. But making the effort to learn how to “spin” vs. “grind” has several benefits. A higher cadence requires much less muscle power, reduces lactic acid buildup, increases endurance, and reduces wear and tear on knees as well as the bicycle’s drivetrain. Training at a high cadence also helps eliminate mechanical inefficiencies in your stroke.
To maintain the high cadence, selecting the proper gear is very important. If you are riding a flat stretch of pavement, your shifting will likely be minimal. When you mix in some hills, you will find it's difficult to stay in your sweet spot up this long, steep incline. Slip into an easier gear before you start to climb and continue to down shift as the grade steepens. Standing over your pedals can increase your power for short spells while putting you in an alternative position and stretching your lower back.
Wind is another factor, but it's often ignored until it is staring you in the face. Headwinds create constant drag; therefore, cycling cadence is even more critical when faced with this mortal enemy. Select the appropriate gear, put your head down and try to keep your RPM up.
The Bottom Line
Higher RPM equals: Less knee strain, less lactic acid buildup, better endurance, less chain and sprocket wear.
Lower RPM equals: More knee strain, more lactic acid build up, less endurance, more chain and sprocket wear.