or are they?

Pedaling cadence has been the topic of many research papers and articles over the years.

The big question has (and still is), is there an optimal cadence for cyclists to use to ensure the best performance?

Well, as with most things in life, there is no simple answer to this particular question.

Instead, we should start by looking at what the big fuss is about different cadences.

As a cyclist, you have a number of options when it comes to cycling cadence, but to make things easier, we will look at cadence as being HIGH (<95>95rpm).

RPM stands for Revolutions Per Minute, in case you were wondering.

If you can think back a few years to the battles between Lance an Jan in the Tour de France, one often heard the comparison between Lance's cadence and Jan's. Lance floating along at 100+rpm, while Jan was grinding along at 85 rpm.

Why the huge difference?

There are a number of possible reasons :
  1. Different muscle fiber composition - Jan Ulrich had a greater % Fast Twitch fibers (FTF), which allowed him to generate power using a bigger gear, and a lower cadence. Lance on the other hand, had a greater % Slow Twitch Fibers (STF), which required the pedals to turn more often to generate power.
  2. Different Cardio-Vascular(CV) conditioning - This does not mean that one was well conditioned and the other not, it means that Lance's CV system was better able to handle the elevated heart rates resulting from working at high cadences - a result of the faster muscle contractions due to higher cadence.
  3. Neuro-Muscular characteristics - Neuro-Muscularly, Jan was able to recruit more muscle fibers per contraction, allowing him to push a bigger gear ration than Lance was.
The net result was two distinctive pedaling styles - one no better, nor worse, than other - just different.

The bottom line to cycling cadences is to look at what the the response of your bodies various systems (CV, Muscular, Physiological) systems is, to high cadence riding and low cadence riding.

Low cadence riding:
  1. Does not lead to a large increase in respiration rate (breathing rate)
  2. Does not result in a large increase in heart rate.
  3. Requires riding in a heavy gear ratio.
  4. Recruits more FTF than STF.
  5. FTF consume energy produced anaerobically which in turn leads to an increase in, and accumulation of, Lactic Acid in the body.
  6. Ultimately (pretty quickly for most of us), leads to muscular fatigue and a reduction in performance.
High cadence riding:
  1. Leads to elevated respiratory rate (breathing rate).
  2. Can push the heart rate up fairly quickly.
  3. Has the cyclist working in an easy gearing ratio.
  4. Recruits more STF, which are more fatigue resistant than FTF.
  5. STF consume energy produced aerobically, so the production and accumulation of Lactic Acid is minimal.
  6. Thus, muscle fatigue is fairly limited.
The best way to determine what cadence works best for you, is to try riding at different cadences, and determining what the impact is on your heart rate, your power, and your tolerance to fatigue.

You might be a Jan, or you might be a Lance - or you might just be YOU!

James Greenwood is a competitive tri and multisport athlete currently training for Ironman Canada 2009. A level 1 Triathlon Coach, he holds a post graduate degree in Exercise Science, and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist through the NSCA. James is also currently the resident health and fitness programs expert at MyPypeline.com, and has starred in a number of multisport specific fitness videos.
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