Velon Data Explainer: Why cadence is key

Why are values like power, speed and cadence so important in cycling? We spoke to Team Katusha Alpecin's Alex Dowsett, who will ride the 2018 Giro d'Italia, and cycling specialist Dr Dan Dwyer about cadence, and its significance for every rider's performance.

Alex Dowsett celebrates his individual time trial win at the 2013 Giro (Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

Speed and power are familiar values when it comes to cycling and their importance is well known. But is the significance of a rider’s cadence overlooked?

Speed is the most obvious attribute and many cyclists are known for being obsessed by power readings.

Cadence - the rate at which the pedals turn, which is measured in RPM (revolutions per minute) - is an equally important part of the puzzle.

A BMC rider at the 2017 Giro (Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty)

Dr Dan Dwyer, Senior Lecturer in Applied Sport Science at Deakin University in Geelong, has researched cadence in cycling extensively, and how it can impact on performance.

"Cadence can absolutely make a huge difference," says Dr Dwyer. “The advantage of a higher cadence is that for each pedal cycle, you don't have to apply as much force to produce the same power.

"You'll have to rotate the cranks more often, but you won’t have to produce as much force.

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"If you put an untrained rider on a bike they will tap along at about 60 or 70 RPM. For a trained 'roadie', their cadence will be much higher. For them, 85 or 90 RPM will feel like walking pace. An untrained rider would have to concentrate on producing that."

As a time trial specialist, Movistar Team’s Alex Dowsett has spent plenty of time fine-tuning every element of his performance, and agrees with Dr Dwyer that cadence is often overlooked.

Dowsett said: "Cadence needs to be worked on and it's often neglected. Everyone settles in to what they feel is natural, but a bit of specific work on cadence can see massive gains. For me, a low day will be 90 and a high day will be 95, so it’s quite a small bracket.

"There are areas in a time trial where I will use cadence a lot," Dowsett added. "If I get a fast run into a climb I'll click it back a gear or two and get my revs higher, maybe up to 100, 105 … then I find it a lot easier to keep the speed going up the climb. If I'm turning a big gear I'll lose speed quicker."

Dwyer explains the same phenomenon in slightly different terms: "Let's say you and I were riding up a steep climb, we had the same body mass, riding at the same speed and producing the same power. If I was grinding at something like 40 RPM, I wouldn't have to turn my cranks as often, but I'd have to produce a lot of force throughout each crank cycle.

"If you were riding with the same mass, same velocity, same power output at twice my cadence, 80 RPM, you'd be pedaling twice as often, but the amount of force per pedal stroke would be half."

Alex Dowsett competes at the World Championships in Doha, 2016 (Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)

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Dowsett also makes the comparision with lifting weights in a gym: "If you do massive weights and low reps, you do a lot of muscle damage, whereas if you do light weights and high reps you can keep going a lot more, you're more efficient. Low weight / high reps is what you want when you're cycling, because it keeps you going for longer.

"Some people just do turn a big gear and it works for them. Bert Grabsch was world champion at about 60 RPM. But the majority are more efficient at a higher cadence, around 90 RPM.

"Everyone's different. Adam Yates (ORICA-SCOTT) churns a huge gear when he's going uphill. He's sort of a freak of nature. But the majority of us time-triallists hover around the 90 RPM mark."

So a higher cadence equals more efficiency and is more sustainable for any type of rider. If cadence makes a big difference on just one climb, imagine the difference it will make across a three-week Grand Tour.

Cut through the jargon

The professionals will tend to have a much higher cadence than the amateurs, although Dr Dwyer explains that wasn’t necessarily based on science to begin with: "In the history of cycling it became lore that a higher cadence, around 80-90 BPM, was superior from a performance perspective.

"But there wasn't any science behind that. It was just experience. There is not a 'perfect' cadence. Cyclists who use a cadence at the lower end have been using that cadence for years, so their muscles and their physiology have adapted."

It may be more fashionable to focus on power readings but cadence, and its impact on a rider's speed and crucially their endurance, can have just as much impact.

At any level of the sport, but particularly at elite level where the margins are so fine, cadence will make a big difference.

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