There’s something sublimely relaxing about pedaling along a quiet country road, passing fresh green meadows and crystal lakes, allowing yourself to be lulled into a meditative state by the regular hum of tires on pavement and the gentle, fluid rhythm of your knees pumping the pedals in an orderly cadence. It can be that simple.
Health & Fitness
The Simple Joys of a Balanced Cycling Cadence
Posted on Friday, May 26th, 2023
Story by: Molly Waldstein | Travel Writer
One of the wonderful things about cycling is how easy it can be. There’s something sublimely relaxing about pedaling along a quiet country road, passing fresh green meadows and crystal lakes, allowing yourself to be lulled into a meditative state by the regular hum of tires on pavement and the gentle, fluid rhythm of your knees pumping the pedals in an orderly cadence. It can be that simple.
Most of us, at one time or another, have felt the temptation to crank up the gears and add resistance to the pedals—pushing harder to make our muscles strain. We think we’re giving ourselves a better workout because we’re pedaling harder—when in fact, we’re really short-changing ourselves on fitness, speed, and cycling efficiency. It’s surprising but true: pedaling faster in a lower gear is actually much better for your health; it saves your knees, preserves muscular integrity, and gives you more of a cardiovascular workout. So why does it feel so counter intuitive to cycle in a lower gear? To learn more, we asked VBT trip leaders and staff to give us the straight story on cycling cadence and its impact on cardiovascular exercise, energy, and fun.
Cadence is King
Veteran VBT trip leader Angelo Preti has been cycling in the Italian Alps near Brescia since he was old enough to push the pedals—and he knows a thing or two about spending time in the saddle. In Angelo’s view, a fluid, smooth cadence makes for an ideal cycling experience. “If you’re in a higher gear, you can be working too hard—making yourself miserable,” says Angelo. “Does that actually achieve anything for your physical condition? No, it produces the opposite effect. When you’re pushing hard on the pedals it stops you from pedaling with a nice, fluid rhythm. It’s the fluid rhythm that gives you a better cardio workout.”
So, what is cycling cadence? Simply put, it’s the number of times your feet revolve the pedal each minute. An experienced cyclist might have a cadence of 80 revolutions per minute (RPM)—meaning they spin the pedals 80 times in one minute. A pro cyclist might have a much higher cadence at around 110 RPMs—while a beginner might push more slowly at 60 RPMs. To increase your cadence, just drop into a lower gear so there’s less resistance on the pedals, then let your legs spin faster—raising your knees with a smooth, regular rhythm. That’s it—simple.
There’s a common misconception that higher gears produce the most speed—but according to VBT Field Operations Manager Matt Lyon, that’s not always the case. “There is a science to cycling, and it’s been proven that keeping your RPMs up will maximize your efficiency,” explains Matt. “You could be going at the exact same speed as someone who is powering through, but you’re saving energy at the same time when you pedal at a higher RPM.” Believe it or not, this applies equally to E-bikes. “A good cycling cadence saves the rider, and the E-bike’s battery, from expending too much energy—plus it increases power efficiency,” says Matt. “If you want to keep that lively, peppy sensation coming from your E-bike, it’s recommended to get into a good, smooth cadence with high RPMs—just like you would on a traditional bike.”
Every cyclist has an ideal cadence that’s uniquely theirs. Finding your perfect cadence involves a combination of factors—including bike size, physical condition, and of course, the terrain. Since there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, we asked Angelo how to determine your perfect cadence. “You feel it with your legs, and adjust according to your legs’ ability,” says Angelo. “Try dropping gears to spin along in a nice way—relaxed, talking to your friends. If you can’t talk, it means you’re huffing and puffing—but why should you? Part of the enjoyment of the ride is being able to talk to your companions.” Cycling at a higher cadence gives you more room to breathe—which means your ride is more fun, you spend more quality time with your friends, and you have more energy reserves to fully enjoy the picnic lunch, cooking class, or castle tour when you arrive at your destination.
Matt takes it one step further. “Don’t wait until you’re on the climb to shift to an easier gear,” suggests Matt. “Downshift before the climb, then you can increase resistance during the climb if needed.” While we all know the experience of getting winded on a hill, dropping into a lower gear earlier makes even the toughest climb more manageable. Don’t be afraid to drop into your lower chain ring when you see that big hill coming!
Save Some Energy for Tomorrow
Among the wonderful highlights of a VBT cycling vacation are days of enjoyment while pedaling past vineyards and ancient medieval villages—pausing to breathe the clean air and snap photos of ocean views. But cycling several days in a row takes physical resources and energy—so if you over-exert yourself, you may wake up the next morning to find yourself tired and stiff—unable to enjoy the next day to the fullest. “If you can do higher RPMs and burn less energy, you’re going to finish stronger and feel better,” says Matt. “Plus, you’ll have more energy left over for the following day than someone who powered through in a higher gear and feels much more depleted.”
Next time you hop on your bike, try increasing your RPMs by spinning faster in a lower gear. It might feel a little awkward at first, but you’ll improve your fitness, replenish your energy more easily, and have more fun along the way. Simple.