Does Cadence Really Matter?
By Robert Wilhite
 
If you have been riding long enough around other road cyclists or triathletes, then you probably have noticed the vast difference in cadence speeds from one cyclist to another.  With this ‘one end of the spectrum to another’ variance, is there a target for everyone to shoot for or does it really make a difference at all?  Great question and one that I get asked quite often, especially from those who have ridden with me before and tend to notice my cadence.
 
PERSPECTIVE
First off, there is no ‘cookie-cutter’ approach for every cyclist, as it relates to cadence speed.  There are so many elements that can affect…or at least ‘should’ affect what your cadence should be.  For example, there is the terrain and whether you are riding on flats, rollers, major climbs or big descents.   Because of the approach that I have as a cycling coach, my focus is always about maximum efficiency.  Think of it like the miles per gallon you get in a vehicle; would you rather get 20 mpg or 45 mpg?  Of course, you want th 45 mpg; you wouldn’t?  The problem that most cyclists have is their focus is too narrow-minded on speed and not about how their bodies are working.  Change your focus and you change your gas mileage!!!
 
EFFORT VS. CADENCE
If I had a dollar for every cyclist who has asked me if I ride with a power meter, I think I could finally get those custom designed sunglasses I’ve wanted for a while.  They ask me because (in their own words) they have noticed that my pace (not speed) is the same from parking lot to parking lot, as well as my cadence seeming to be relatively the same, no matter what part I am riding in my local group rides.  The reason for this is that my focus is not what speed I want to maintain or average at the end of the ride, but rather my focus is on what ‘perceived level of exertion’ I have picked to ride at for a given group ride; it has nothing to do with my cadence.  But, as you will read shortly, this approach results in a relatively steady cadence speed.
 
For example, let’s say my next ride I want to ride (or pedal) at 80% of my perceived level of exertion.  That simply means that once I start pedaling, I shift into a gear that allows me to rotate my pedals at this 80% level.  When the terrain changes, I change gears to maintain this same pedaling exertion level.  This means that my focus is the effort at which I am pedaling, not my cadence, my speed or my average.  When you begin to ride like this, you become very in tune with your body and what level you are exerting at any given point.  Therefore, if I approach a slight incline, I’m not going to stay in the same gear and ‘power’ up the incline, but rather I am going to shift down to an easier gear, so that my exertion level stays exactly the same.  Of course, if I am beginning to go down hill, I will shift up to a harder gear, so that my exertion level doesn’t decrease. 
From a cyclist’s perspective, all they see is that my cadence is relatively the same, no matter what the terrain.  And, another incredibly huge benefit is that I am super easy to ride behind, meaning that you will never see me ‘surge’ or blow off the front.  My pace is always the same, which allows as many cyclists as you want to put behind me, to be able to ride in a group the entire time.  
 
Hey, I thought this article was about cadence…you might ask?  Well, it is but laying the groundwork for my approach to riding actually directly results in my cadence.  Skip the groundwork part and you are left with ‘winging it’ with the wrong focus.
 
IMPORTANCE OF SHIFTING
I mentioned above that I shift when I notice my exertion level, either increasing or decreasing, based on the terrain.  Not only do you have to be very in tune with your exertion level but you have to respond appropriately with efficient shifting, to actually maintain that level.  Let’s say you are climbing a hill and you think you have finally reached the top and are about to begin your descent.  If you shift up too early, then you will kill your momentum.  If you wait to shift up to a harder gear, then you also lose momentum and free speed because you are now going down hill.  In either scenario, get the timing of your shift wrong and the guy behind you may have to suddenly grab their brakes.  And, to no surprise, if you get your shifting wrong, it also affects your cadence speed.
 
TOO HIGH OR TOO LOW A CADENCE
I just participated in a big century ride last weekend and there was one guy that was riding in our group that couldn’t have had a cadence speed above 60 rpm and it dropped even more when we hit those long drag-out climbs.  At the same time, my cadence was roughly about 87-92 rpm and we were both riding at the exact speed.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who was working harder…or who was getting better gas mileage.  Needless to say, he eventually was dropped, never to be seen again.  Our average for the century was 22 mph with 8,500 feet of climbing, so it wasn’t a cake walk.  Oh, the wind was blowing about 15-18 mph with gusts up to 20+mph, too.  Tough day in the saddle.  I could tell that this guy was not one that was open to any cycling tips but I wanted so bad to ride up beside him and have him notice his cadence versus mine and then ask, “Who do you think is working harder…me or you?” 
 
Another aspect of his cadence, compared to mine, was that he could not take advantage of outer rotational weight of his feet; they were going too slow.  In contrast, my cadence was much higher, which actually helped create outer rotational weight.   Why is this a big deal?  When the weight of your feet begin to create this outer rotational weight, they actually help to assist your legs in creating power to the pedals; it’s not just your legs that create power.   Think of a train as an example.  It takes a while for the train to get up to speed, but when it does it now has the help of all the cars attached to it to help maintain its speed…and why it is impossible to abruptly stop a train.  You are not just stopping the engine, you are now trying to stop all those cars behind it that is helping to propel that engine forward.  All that to say, you don’t have to rely ‘solely’ on your legs to create forward momentum.  Get your cadence right and you give your legs a little help.     
 
THE END RESULT
I hope you have begun to realize that the focus should never be about cadence speed but rather it is the end result of doing all I’ve described above correctly.  Forget about how fast you are currently riding and begin to change your focus to how much effort you are applying in your pedal stroke, or what I call ‘riding by pace’.  You will find that other cyclists will actually enjoy riding behind you more, making it much easier for others in a group ride to actually ride in a group.  Now there’s a concept…

 
 ‘Coach’ Robert Wilhite, is a full-time cycling coach based out of Atlanta, GA.  He specializes in bio-mechanical cycling technique with an emphasis on fittings, pedaling technique and climbing in/out of the saddle with immediate results.  His clients range from all levels of recreational cyclists, to pro elite cyclists and even those brand new to the sport.  Coach Robert has worked with many cyclists and triathletes in other states via remote coaching, resulting in countless PR’s. 
 
Coach Robert Wilhite has just released his first cycling e-book titled IT’S NOT ABOUT SPEED:  THE LOST ART OF GROUP RIDING.  The e-book dissects group rides and highlights all the dynamics present during group riding and how each cyclist plays a role with embedded video throughout. 

 

 
Learn more about Coach Robert Wilhite athttp://mycyclecoach.com/ or contact him at robert@mycyclecoach.com