If you like the sound of fresh feeling legs, easier hill climbing and quicker cycling speeds (with the same effort) – it’s time to understand pedalling cadence.
Pedalling cadence is the speed at which you spin your cranks. It’s measured in the number of full crank revolutions that occur in one minute. As we all have slightly different body compositions and muscular strength there doesn’t appear to be an ‘optimal’ pedalling cadence for everyone, but a cadence of between 70 and 90 RPM seems to work best for most.
Over the years, I’ve been increasing my cadence naturally which I’ve found not only makes me a bit quicker but more importantly: my legs feel much less fatigued at the end of every day.
Understanding Pedalling Cadence and Power
Like a car or motorbike, our bodies have an optimal power output and rev range (cadence).
Our power output can be measured accurately through power meters that incorporate strain gauges that can be fitted aftermarket to our bikes. While power meters are the most accurate training tool for athletes, there’s not really any reason to use one on a bike tour. A more simple way to measure your effort is based on how heavy you’re breathing. When you’re working harder, your body has to take deeper and faster breaths to absorb more oxygen. By maintaining a consistent rate of breathing you can roughly maintain a consistent effort.
Pedalling cadence can be measured with a basic bike computer. Most long-term cyclists will agree that anywhere between 70 and 90 RPM is good for all-day riding, perhaps a little higher for a harder effort, and maybe a little lower if you’re an ultra-endurance athlete. For reference, I pedal at about 90 RPM on my bike trips, whether I’m riding 50km, 200km, on the flat or up a steep hill.
Cycling Up Hills With Ease
Road gradients, wind resistance, rolling resistance and weight impact your ability to maintain power at a certain cadence. With an increase in any of these variables, your power output also needs to increase to maintain your cadence.
But don’t worry, hills and the wind don’t actually necessitate extra effort!
That’s because we have gears.
The aim of the game is to use your gears to keep your power (effort) and cadence (RPM) the same at all times.
Switching to a lower gear increases the mechanical advantage, reducing the power required to maintain your cadence. The steeper it is, or the windier it is – the more you will need to flick down through your gears until you find a gear that affords you both a 70-90 RPM cadence and an effort you’re comfortable with.
Learning To Maintain Cadence
The easiest way to learn how to maintain your cadence is to get a bike computer with a cadence sensor. They are not particularly expensive and will allow you to keep track of your pedalling habits. If you have a smartphone, you can get Bluetooth cadence sensors that will display your cadence via a smartphone app. The Bluetooth sensors aren’t the best for everyday use (get a dedicated speed/cadence bike computer) but are definitely the cheapest and easiest to fit for learning gears.
My favourite Bluetooth sensor is the Wahoo RPM II for US $39 on Amazon. You’ll need to spend just a bit of time each ride to get comfortable with using your gears to maintain a 70-90 RPM cadence. Try to do it at a location with varying road gradients. In a really short time, your brain will automatically maintain cadence and change gears while you daydream away!
Calculating Your Bike Gears
Now that you’ve been practising maintaining cadence and changing gears, you may find that your gear ratios are not quite adequate in the hills. With no smaller gears left you may be forced to turn an inefficient cadence! And by turning over a gear that’s too big, you quickly fatigue your muscles. That’s why I advocate for really small gears on touring bikes, not just to get up a hill, but to do hills repeatedly, day after day. After all, hills are NOT harder than cycling on the flat with the right gear ratios.
I have been building a resource library over the past few years to help set up gear ratios on touring bikes. A great place to start is by understanding gear ratios, especially how to calculate and compare them.
Cadence + The Right Gear Ratio Is The Secret To Uphill Cycling
If you find hills HARD you have the most to gain through optimising your cadence and gear ratios. That’s because hills aren’t actually harder than cycling on the flat.
Get yourself a cadence sensor to master both gear use and pedalling cadence. It will take you a very short time to learn this skill, and soon your brain will set a great cadence and will even complete the gear changes for you. That’s pretty cool, huh?
You may need to swap out some parts if you find that you’re in your lowest gear and your cadence isn’t high enough. Check through my low gear resources HERE and drop a question below if you need any help.
Once you keep your power (effort) and cadence (RPM) the same at all times, I can promise you that uphill riding will be as delightful as the rest.