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For all my life I have noticed that I always cycle in the highest gear (most of my bikes had at least 3x7, so it wasn't a lack of options) whilst most serious cyclists cycle on relatively low gears and are spinning like crazy from my perspective. Now, I get that taste definitely plays a role in these kind of things, but what I would love to know is whether serious cyclists learn to cycle in lower gear consciously or whether "it's just me" that loves cycling in a style where I move my legs as little as possible.

I realize this question is fairly broad and I hope the answer is fairly clear cut, but just to be fair it could theoretically be split up in:

  • Is there something bad about a cycling style in relatively higher gears?
  • What causes such a cycling style in the first place?

But I will keep it as a single question as those things are I believe extremely closely related.

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    This is possibly a duplicate of several questions. You should try a search for "cadence". bicycles.stackexchange.com/questions/12518/… bicycles.stackexchange.com/questions/891/… – Deleted User Jul 22 '15 at 17:35
  • @ChrisinAK Oh wow, that first link is amazing. I am so sorry, although my English is quite fluent I had no idea that the gear you cycle in is normally referred to as your cadence. This opens up a whole lot of cool literature and research! – David Mulder Jul 22 '15 at 17:41
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    The gear is not your "cadence". "Cadence" is how rapidly (how many revolutions per minute) you turn the pedals. But cadence is related to gearing: for a given speed, the higher your cadence the lower (easier) the gear you'd use. – Daniel R Hicks Jul 23 '15 at 3:39
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Left to their own devices many will cycle at a cadence (a measure of how fast you spin) that approximates cadence of walking, an RPM of about 50-60. So the fact you prefer a slower leg speed is not unusual. Trained cyclists will often have a cadence between 80-110 and up to 200 for sprints (track).

Is there something bad about a cycling style in relatively higher gears?

Generally, many believe that pedaling at too high of a gear and too low of a cadence can cause more muscular and ligament stress. Whether or not this bears out in terms of experimental evidence I am not sure (does anyone know of some experimental evidence?).

A confounding factor on this is an individuals neuromuscular responses (i.e., how well they fire their muscles for the activity of pedaling in circles). People that are not "good" at pedaling will often pedal more slowly and their inefficient pedaling patterns may also be responsible for higher muscular and ligament stress.

What causes such a cycling style in the first place?

Generally, a faster cadence has been born from performance considerations. Cycling is not a natural activity. It is an activity we invented that co-ops a lot of our mechanical and neurological pathways used for walking (e.g., corrective steering, steering into a fall, is very similar to walking when you step in the direction you are falling). As such we need to train our neuromuscular responses to be more tailored to an activity like cycling. Everyone who spins fast specifically trained to do so. Most who train and cycle lots prefer to spin faster. That said, there are some trained athletes who pedal relatively slower (although likely still faster than a non-cyclist).

In terms of an "optimal" cadence there is still a lot of debate (e.g., Ansley and Cangley 2009) as it depends on what you are optimizing for (energetic costs, muscular stress, perception of effort, peak power).

Most will optimize based on perception of effort. If you have not trained your neuromuscular pathways for the cycling motion it will be less developed and a slower cadence will likely feel more optimal. As you ride more and your neuromuscular pathways become more efficient (i.e., you are better at recruiting muscles for the pedaling action) and a faster cadence will likely feel more "efficient."

Of course this is a somewhat anecdotal assertion. I haven't personally run experiments tracking peoples progression from non-cyclists to cyclists. I have however accumulated years of observations from running cycling clubs. And as always there is lots of individual variation and the possibility of exceptions.

In the end it is best to pay attention to your body and choose a pedaling speed that bio-mechanically work the best for you.

  • I have been reading up a bit this evening on theories considering optimal cadence and I think I also figured out why I developed the style I did. I used to cycle between 20 and 40km's every day for years, but unlike normal cyclist I would often read books or lose myself in deep thoughts for the entire trip and thus cycle relatively slowly. None the less over the course of 6 years of at least 20km's daily I did build up quite some leg strength specifically for this lazy style of cycling and if I was in a rush I was able to cycle quite fast (cont.) – David Mulder Jul 22 '15 at 21:46
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    Reading books on the bike you say? O_O – gaurwraith Jul 22 '15 at 22:15
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    @gaurwraith Yep xD Like small pocket books were quite safe, though I also sometimes studied from big books nearly the size of an A3 xD (though that was rare)... and retrospectively I think that reading those were somewhat irresponsible and dangerous O:) . (For the record, I had butterfly bars and I could rest the entire book if it was big enough on the handlebars between the bars and the gear controls... it was quite a neat set up xD) – David Mulder Jul 23 '15 at 0:18
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    Non scientific evidence (aka anecdote): every time I have sore knees / back / hamstrings it's after pushing a big gear (ie pushing hard and pedaling slowly). +1 – andy256 Jul 23 '15 at 1:58
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    @andy256 - you might want to consider having your biomechanics assessed. You may have alignment issues that are perfectly functional at a lower force, but problematic at a higher absolute force. – Rider_X Jul 23 '15 at 2:49
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This subject is about the performance on a bicycle

Cycling is aerobic exercise in nature.

1) Fast twitch vs. Slow twitch muscle

In high gear (low cadence and higher force per pedal stroke for the same output, in comparison to higher cadence) you recruit more of your fast-twitch muscle, and thus you are doing more anaerobic (not aerobic) exercise. It's OK if you're going to commute half an hour or so.

But if you were to cycling 2 hours upward with some hills, in high gear, I bet all my savings that the next day your body will be in pain because of the built-up lactic acid from anaerobic activity (if you ever finish :D)

2) Blood supply to muscle:

As most of your soleus muscle (calf) is slow-twitch type, rich oxygenated blood supply is a must when you exercise.

However, if the oxygen supply is insufficient, your muscles will begin converting glucose into lactic acid instead of energy, anaerobic exercise takes over, power output drops and fatigue sets in. Unfortunately, anaerobic exercise can only continue for so long before your muscles run out of energy completely and become fatigued.

This is another important reason for pedalling in high-cadence and help the blood supply circulate much more efficiently.

3) The last point I wish to make about high cadence:

You can always have a high enough cadence, beyond which, the increase in your output power is minimal in comparison to the increase in your muscle expenditure in energy.

Or in another word, it becomes inefficient, just as how an old-fashion electric motor works.

  • A couple points: 1) Whether or not you recruit your fast-twitch muscles depends on the total force being exerted. You can cycle at low force at a low cadence (and moving slowly). 2) You cannot exercise anaerobically for more than about a minute. A half-an-hour commute will primarily be powered by slow twitch muscle fibers. – Rider_X Jul 23 '15 at 16:10
  • Answering your question: 1) given the same power ouput, higher cadence require less force per pedal stroke than lower cadence, it's common sense so I just ignore it :D 2) the key here is more or less fast twitch muscle is recruited, especially when you power-stand on your bike. And yes, you really help me remember one more key point: slow twitch muscle requires oxygen and you should pedal in high cadence for better blood supply – Nhân Lê Jul 23 '15 at 19:11
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The power you transfer to the bike is proportional to the force on the pedals multiplied by the cadence.

There's some upper limit to how much force you can apply, but you can spin more quickly.

Sometimes if I'm overtaken by another bike (travelling faster than I am) I've found that I can keep up with that bike, if I change down into a lower gear and then spin more quickly.

Note that it's easier to spin quickly if your shoes are clipped to the pedals. See also stroke.

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In addition to the other great answers, slow cadence encourages, for some riders, standing cycling, particularly when going up hills. This places a great deal of stress on the drivetrain, and in particular the bottom bracket.

Whether you stand or sit, though, a slower cadence is simply trading speed for force - the effort is the same, but the stress on the chain, chainrings, gears, and frame is higher. In addition to the energy lost flexing those components more than a fast cadence rider, the wear and tear is higher.

If you're fine replacing your chain yearly and you buy heavy bikes which can handle the additional stress, then it's no problem - keep on keeping on. If you're not changing your chain yearly, then I expect you'll find you need to replace your chainrings and gears when you do change your chain - a stretched chain will ultimately damage and wear the chainrings and gears so that a new chain won't fit well.

Check out I keep breaking my road frames - why? for one of the consequences of slow, powerful strokes.

Note that if you are a casual rider - fewer than a thousand miles a year - then chances are you won't see any issues and your cadence really is a preference, with no real consequences for you or your equipment. It really only matters if you frequently ride for long distances.

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    Well, back then I definitely was not a casual rider (doing at least 3600 km a year, though a couple of years at least 4700km and that was just the commute)... and yeah, my bikes used to be in a terrible states most of the time. I mean, I cared for them poorly as well, but I always felt like certain parts were even worse of then they should be based just on that... guess my riding style must have had to do with it more than I realized as well. – David Mulder Jul 23 '15 at 14:14
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I also like to cycle in the higher gears, the slower cadence. I have always been told that it is not good for your knees and when I have trouble with sore legs I do switch to lower gears and find that I have less pain.

But I do have an upper limit in how fast I can turn my legs, it is going up over the years but I still like the higher gears and the slower cadence. Hills are not my strong suit, as I can not turn my legs fast enough to keep the speed up enough.

When you watch bike races, like the Tour de France, you will see that even the professional riders have different cadences, some like higher ones.

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