The FOUR Principles of Cycling Cadence

Road Cycling Cadence Rules Guidelines Help

This article was written by Tom Danielson, a 15 year professional cyclist in the World Tour and 8th place finisher in the Tour de France.

pro cycling cadence help advice

Ever watch the riders in the Tour de France and think to yourself, “how do they do it?”  In a high-level race like the Tour, we see the top professionals in the world perform in a way that seems impossible for mere mortals.  They seem to flow effortlessly up incredibly steep grades in the mountains, sustain incredible speeds in the long time-trials, attack with incredible accelerations to create gaps over chasing pelotons, and create vicious snap from already high outputs in the field sprints.  These riders turn the cranks over so well we could just watch their legs pedaling for hours, right? Well, I believe right there, watching, is how you can improve your cycling to ride like these world-class athletes.


When you look carefully at their legs while they are pedaling, you will see how these cyclists use a wide range of cadences for their actions on the different terrains and scenarios.  


Cadence is where secret performance gains are hidden.

pro cycling cadence greg van avermaet

I believe that the functionality of cadence is one of the most overlooked performance opportunities available to cyclists of all abilities. People tend to overlook using cadence for performance simply because the published research and articles are aimed around proving one cadence is more efficient than the other.  


But this way of looking at cadence is too short-sided.  Cadence is not one speed fits all! In fact, it’s exactly the opposite!  Cadence is ALL speeds fits ALL people, BUT, not in all scenarios. Let’s dive deeper into the subject...

cadence functionality meme graphic cycling

First, let’s simplify the functionality of cadence by looking at how you use the RPMs in your car’s engine to do your everyday drives as an example.  RPMs on your bike are used and needed similarly to how RPMs in your car’s engine.  

cadence speed cycling meme graphic

Let’s start with the use of high rpm’s to drive.  You have your high rpm’s for pushing the gas pedal down to increase the speed out of a turn, from a stop, and to pass other cars. 

high cadence cycling meme graphic

Now the use of low rpm’s driving. After you accelerate up to speed, you have the ability to shift down to a gear that allows you to maintain your speed at a lower rpm for prolonged driving at a constant speed on similar terrain.

low cadence cycling meme graphic

Continuing on with this example of how you use RPMs driving, it is clear how important the use of both high and low RPMs is.  It is simply NOT possible to use your car the way you need it at just one RPM.


But in cycling, I see people attempting to do just this.  The outcome is many cyclists limit themselves to riding well only in certain situations.  


This approach becomes problematic.  Trying to do the “one speed of cadence fits all” approach will result in one of two outcomes.


The first potential outcome is the “cadence hamster wheel,” which is when people are focused on riding in a high cadence in all scenarios.  They are incredibly inefficient on the flats and downhills as they are using excess energy spinning without adding any of that effort into moving the bike forward.  Then, in contrast, when they find terrain like steep hills, trying to maintain their high cadence results in them going way above their sustainable zones, forcing them to run out of fuel before they make it to the top.  Riding at high cadence all the time will leave you going nowhere...intensely.

The second potential outcome is the “fouled spark plug,” which is when people are too focused on riding a low cadence in all scenarios.  Riding at a low cadence all the time dulls and clogs up the needed neuromuscular connections needed to increase the speed like accelerations, surges, and or attacks.  Riding at low cadence all the time will leave you bogged down or even stalled out when you need to step on the gas.


So now that you understand the importance of having the ability to ride all cadences, you are probably wondering when to use what cadence.  I am going to simplify it for you in four basic principles to follow to maximize the use of cadence for performance.


I. High cadence and high power to accelerate in an attack, close a gap, or raise the speed up.


II. High cadence and low power to keep legs stimulated when speed (fast downhill) or scenario (high-speed peloton). 


III. Low cadence and high power to control effort on difficult terrains like steep hills or rough roads.


IV. Low cadence and low power to maintain the speed that you have built following an acceleration by you or another rider, a change in terrain giving you speed, or a change in conditions like a tailwind.


But it gets more complicated the further you go down the cadence rabbit hole when you define “high or low” for each scenario.  So let me help you take it a step further and match the right cadence to the right scenario.


I. High cadence and high power to accelerate in an attack, close the gap, or raise speed up.

Climbing, Standing - 80 rpm

Climbing, Seated - 90 rpm

Flats, Standing - 85 rpm

Flats, Seated - 100 rpm


II. High cadence and low power to keep legs stimulated when speed (fast downhill) or scenario (high-speed peloton).

Downhill, Seated - 90 rpm

Flats, Seated - 80 rpm


III. Low cadence and high power to control effort on difficult terrains like steep hills or rough roads.

Climbing, Standing - 50 rpm

Climbing, Seated - 65 rpm

Flats, Standing - 70 rpm

Flats, Seated - 60 rpm


IV. Low cadence and low power to maintain the speed you have built following an acceleration by you or another rider, a change in terrain giving you speed, or a change in conditions like a tailwind.

Climbing, Standing - 60 rpm

Climbing, Seated - 70 rpm

Flats, Standing - 65 rpm

Flats, Seated - 75 rpm



Phew!  That was a ton of awesome information right there!  


The bottom line is that there is a lot of depth in the cadence category for you to improve your cycling performance with.  The knowledge of what and where these opportunities to you is just where the growth begins. You will need to constantly practice all these different executions in the right scenarios, but I promise you will take your cycling to a new higher level that would not be possible without these concepts.


Now get out on your bikes, give this a shot, and crush it!


Coach Tom

Tom Danielson Cinch Cycling Coach

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