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Improving Your Individual Pursuit: Cadence vs Gearing

I’ve been having conversations with people about higher cadence versus bigger gears in relation to Individual Pursuit performance. This has come from looking at results from our Queensland Masters Championships.

So here’s the background… a rider does laps 2, 3 and 4 at a certain cadence. Let’s say it was 105. Then, and this was a 2km effort, over the next few laps the cadence starts to drop to 102, then 100, then 98 and 96 on the 8th and final lap. 

So what do we do to make this rider faster?

Options are the same as always: 

1.     Have the average cadence at lap 2 replicated for all remaining laps in the same gear. (oh yes, obvious note, but let’s treat lap one as its own entity entirely and chat about that another day). If we look at the rider whose times are described above, if this rider averaged 103 she’d have ridden a quicker time.

2.     Ride at an easier gear for the gearing to take less power to push, at 105-110 for example, and less power is needed per pedal stroke to maintain this. 8% smaller gear, 10% higher cadence is a quicker time, isn’t it?

3.     Bigger gear. Faster laps 2, 3, 4 and slower 5, 6, 7, 8 but if you are already up on schedule and lose only the amount you have gained you’ve done the time you set out to do. Dangerous this one, as it risks completely falling in lactate misery.

So which do you pick?

I have an absolutely definitive answer. I can categorically confirm that I have no idea.

Here’s why from the point of view of the science.

Some people will develop higher lactate at higher cadences from the need to move limbs at a higher velocity. Some people will develop higher lactate from pushing a bigger gear as the power required for each pedal stroke is sequentially higher than that which their aerobic system will allow.

So how do you know which you are? What I would expect to see is that the more endurance type rider, he or she who did well in long-distance running in their teens, likes longer road rides whilst whistling up hills, would have the aerobic capacity to capably cope with the higher cadence. I’d also expect that a rider who is happier on punchy climbs, good at launching attacks (on the track or road) but will fall away on the long, 8km at 7% hills, will suffer more at the higher cadence but tolerate the higher power to match the speed of the high cadence opponent.

But this doesn’t always work, a 1.5m tall rider works their muscles through different ranges to a 1.9m tall rider. I have spent happy hours working with a tall junior rider who is spinning his race-limited gearing to lap our Anna Meares Velodrome in 17 and 18 seconds knowing that he will excel further once his gearing allows him a lower cadence.

OK, what do you do with this blog once you’ve clicked on to wherever you are clicking next? I would, if it were me, want to know what wattage, at what cadence I could maintain for various times, i.e 1 min, 2 min, 4 min, 10 min, 20 min. Maybe pick 85rpm, 100rpm, 115 rpm. Daddy Bear, Mummy Bear and Baby Bear. Too hot, too cold, just right, you get my drift. Pick your own values, obviously, but not 94, 96 and 98 as they are so similar it would render it as pointless as 60, 90 and 120. 

Then, and here’s the harder part, try to work out why you have the results you have. Pop it on a graph. Does the graph tell you the story?

  • Is it the training you have been doing recently? Nurture. We’ll call that nurture.
  • Is it your genetics? We’ll call that nature.
  • Is it the environmental conditions on the day you tested yourself?
  • Would you expect it to be the same next time?

Once you have these results you can decide whether your optimum is that which gave you the best score. Or, and here’s the main message, whether your optimum is not your best current score but gives you insight in to what may be lacking from your current approach. Your best future IP time is in a gear and cadence you’ve not attempted before. The answer could be a surprise and represent a whole new opportunity.

What are your thoughts? Leave us a comment in the box below, we'd love to hear from you!

by Michael Jordan (Physiological Performance Analyst - Track Cycling Academy)
[email protected]