No matter what bike you ride or how (un)fit you are, I think that there are three things that can make a big difference to your riding: 1) use clipless pedals and shoes; 2) get a good set of wheels; 3) learn how to pedal at an appropriate cadence. This post is about the third item.
When I raced bikes 25 years ago, the old riders talked about cadence – they said to use low gears and pedal fast; don’t use high gears and pedal slow. I didn’t listen to them; I just rode and enjoyed it.
A couple of years ago, I started running to lose some excess flab. Running is hard work and I spent a lot of time investigating running form to try to improve my running and ability to get a good workout before succumbing to shin splints. The likes of Chi Running and Pose Running techniques advocate a cadence of 90 – I never managed to achieve it over any sort of distance. I did manage to run a half marathon, but I was very slow and certainly did not run at the correct cadence.
After several visits to a running podiatrist and a very expensive set of shoes and orthotics, I finally decided that running was not my thing. It turns out I have a biomechanical misalignment in my ankles, which was continually leading to shin pain.
I purchased a bicycle and my internet research suggest that a cadence of 90 is optimal pedalling too. It is particularly useful if you are doing triathlons (I’m not) where you get off a bike and the run — you want to be functioning at the same cadence for a smooth transition.
I have applied my cadence running experience to my riding with some success. I quite regularly pass guys who are 20 years younger and 20 kilograms lighter on race bikes wearing all the lycra gear. I am on a relatively cheap flat bar road bike, so there must be some level attributable to my abilities – and as I am overweight, some it has to be from technique.
When I was running I purchased a cheap $10 clip-on metronome off eBay. I now ride with it clipped to the back of my wrist behind my watch. This keeps the metronome protected from the weather (they are generally not designed for outdoor use!), but also puts it in a position protected from the wind so that I can hear it.
The start of my ride has some short hills. I generally ride out over these slowly to warm up. Once I reach flat road, I dial in the metronome to 90 beats per minute and change gears until one leg keeps in time with it.
I find it is hard to pedal exactly in time, particularly because I do not have a close ratio cassette on the bike. Curiously, I often find that I am pedalling slightly faster than a cadence of 90, which is just fine. When I find I am getting too much out of sync with the metronome (but do not want to change gears), I just start counting with the other leg, which tends to be moving into time with the metronome.
With running, there was a school of thought that you should set your metronome at 60 beats per minute, but that you take three steps to every beat. This alternates the leg that the beat is occurring on, making for a nice balanced rhythm –a waltz if you like. It still gave a cadence of 90 (counting single leg) and 180 steps per minute (both legs).
I have found setting the metronome on 60 when riding tends to make me too relaxed and I do not keep up the pace. 90 beats per minute gives a certain sense of urgency to the ride and I keep my legs spinning.
I certainly think that this has helped my riding a huge amount. Buy yourself a cheap clip-on metronome and try it sometime.