by Don Peddie

Riding a bicycle is fun. It should also be easy. Easy to keep up with others, easy on the body, and easy to cover great distances over the course of a day. Learning how to pedal efficiently is to learn the secret technique of how to have fun on a bicycle.

Cadence, RPMs, leg turnover, spinning. To a cyclist they all mean the same thing – namely, the number of times your pedals go around per minute. A high cadence is the key to cycling — the secret to making cycling easier, faster and more enjoyable.

“A high pedal cadence makes cycling easier.” Remember that.

Years ago at the beginning of the running boom, the great guru of running, Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper, said “Run naturally if it’s correct, otherwise run correctly until it becomes natural.” This truism applies directly to riding a bicycle. Actually it is even more pertinent because cycling is not a “natural” human function.

Bikes have been around for 120 years at best, and we humans did not evolve on a bike saddle. The first thing we had to learn was to balance the bicycle so it stayed upright, and achiev ing that the next step is to learn the skill of propelling the bicycle in the most efficient manner. This technique is called “spinning,” that is, making the pedals go around approximately 90 times per minute.

As in many good things, however, achieving this skill of using a consistently high cadence at all times can be a very difficult skill to learn. Beginning cyclists often pedal at 50 – 70 RPM and continue in this fashion until they are tired and must slow down. This may well be why far too many of those who begin cycling fail to progress onward to become a cyclist. They simply never learn the easy way. Consequently, they always find club trips too hard for them.

To make it even worse, when they are with the club, they have the additional discouragement of watching everybody else disappear over the horizon ahead of them, seemingly with ease.

What is most remarkable is the novice’s resistance to advice.

Fellow cyclists will use encouragement, logic, cajolery, and even threats in their efforts to help these beginners learn to gear down and spin faster, thereby improving their cycling ability. Even if they initially shift down on command, at the first distraction they shift up again to ride at 60 RPM, pushing the pedals painfully against a large resistance, or they slow down and drop from the group.

At the same time, those who are coaching them become exasperated and angry at what they perceive as stupid stubbornness, which only makes the situation worse.

One great theory regarding pedalling cadence exists, and I subscribe to it:

As humans, we have evolved for walking and running with a natural cadence of about 120 steps per minute, or 60 RPM. This rhythm is so natural that beginning cyclists adopt it and tend to stick with it. It’s just “natural.” Intuitive.

But it ISN’T efficient on a bicycle!

The efficient cadence of 90 – 100 RPMs is an “unnatural” action which the brain must learn, then accept, and then believe; and then the body must be taught to perform. Once the brain learns and accepts this to be correct and necessary, the legs will become adept at it and the fitness required to travel long distances using this method will develop. The results shown by those who ride the Tour de France clearly show that a high cadence is the best way to ride a bicycle.

The built-in control system (to move one’s legs at 60 rpm) is so strong, and so unrecognised, that beginning cyclists don’t realise that it needs to be overcome. On the other hand, experienced cyclists who have learned to pedal faster do not realise why this tendency is so difficult to get past. Too often the greatest teacher becomes the “school of hard knocks,” and it’s only after too many painful experiences that the novice finally begins to strive to overcome the built-in evolutionary control system. After a few sessions in which the novice cyclist persists in his or her attempts to ride a reasonable distance at a reasonable speed by using a big gear and low RPM (50 – 70), they sooner or later find that weakness and pain will force them to slow down.

Slowing down and gearing down usually happens simultaneously, and favourable results are quickly noticed as the pedalling immediately becomes easier and more enjoyable. A few episodes of this and most novices are ready to accept instructions to gear down right from the start and to pedal using a higher RPM, or cadence.

Optimum cadence is 90 – 100 RPM for recreational cyclists, higher for racers.

There’s no question that a higher level of fitness is required to run than to walk; to cross-country ski classic technique than to merely walk on skis; and so it is with this pedalling technique. At first, shortness of breath will be a limiting factor, but quickly your body will improve and adapt to getting the needed oxygen to the legs in order to sustain this faster pedalling technique. Maintaining a higher cadence will “naturally” bring about an increase in fitness, an added bonus for any recreational cyclist.

Early in this new season, right from the start, concentrate on speeding up your pedalling cadence.

Cadence counters are built in to some bike computers and I recommend buying this type. Otherwise, count the number of times your right knee comes up for a one minute interval. Strive for 90 RPMs. Keep working at it, it will come, and your cycling will be much more enjoyable during the 2004 season.

Next article I will deal with another aspect of cycling – learning how to get the most out of your multi-geared bicycle by knowing how and when to select the proper gear for the terrain.

Read other Cycling 101 Articles

  1. Cycling 101 Introduction
  2. Heart Rate and Building Fitness
  3. Looking Ahead
  4. Hill Climbing
  5. Quick Release: A Potpourri of Cycling Tips
  6. Tires: Keep the Pressure Up, But Don’t Blow It!
  7. Shopping for a Bike?
  8. Bicycle Gear Ratios
  9. Cycling Made Easy Part 1