If you're relatively new to cycling, you are probably riding at a cadence that is below your optimum. Most new riders think they are getting a better workout if every pedal stoke is a strain and the quads are burning. Although there's a place for low-cadence workouts, during a normal ride, aim for a smooth spin at between 85-100 rpm (pedal revolutions per minute) which is much more efficient -- and easier on the legs, especially the knees.
Lance Armstrong has popularized high-cadence pedaling. He spins at about 90 rpm on even the steepest climbs, and he's regularly over 100 rpm in time trials. Does this mean you should be pedaling at a high cadence as well? Although your cadence can be increased through training, it may not fit with your personal physiology and biomechanics.
The make-up of your leg muscles (the ratio of fast-twitch to slow-twitch fibers), combined with your fitness, will self-select your cadence. For most experienced riders, ideal cadence is in the range of 80-100 rpm - and most tend to automatically pedal at around 90 rpm in normal condition . Non-cyclists tend to spin a bit lower at around 60-70 rpm.
Try this to see what cadence may be the best target for you.
1. Locate a protected 2-mile stretch of road (without significant cross streets or traffic). Ideally slightly rolling.
2. After you warm up for 15 minutes, ride the route hard in your biggest gear. Note your finish time and your heart rate if you have a monitor.
3. Recover for 15 to 20 minutes with easy spinning.
4. Ride the course again at the same heart rate (or perceived exertion if you don't have a monitor). But this time choose a rear cog that's one or two steps larger and allows you to keep your cadence about 100 rpm. Note your time for the same course.
5. After a day or two of rest, do the test in reverse - larger rear cog (lower gear ratio) first.
6. Compare your times. For most riders, the lower gear and higher cadence will produce faster times for less perceived effort.
Here are two drills that may be helpful in increasing your cadence and maintaining the smooth spin of a veteran.
* Use a down hill to practice. Spin in a small gear on a slight descent, then gradually increase your cadence until your pelvis begins bouncing on the saddle. Back off about 5 rpm so (the bouncing stops). Hold that cadence and concentrate on a smooth pedal stroke for one minute. Cruise back up the hill and do it again. Relaxation is the key to pedaling at a high cadence without bouncing. Keep your elbows, shoulders and hips loose.
* Use a that tailwind that you have stumbled across. Shift into a moderate gear and gradually increase your cadence until you're at 100-110 rpm. Hold it there for 30 seconds, then gradually ease back to 80 rpm. Repeat several times.
How do you estimate your cadence if you don't have a cadence function on your computer? Set your computer display to show seconds. Using your right foot, count how many times it is at the bottom of the stroke during a 15 (or 30) second interval. Then then multiply by 4 (or 2). That will help you develop a sense of what 90-100 rpm feels like.