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I'm doing some amateur climbing with a hybrid bike up on a road and I have the following question:

How am I going to save more power - having a lower gear but spinning faster in order to maintain certain speed or getting up to a higher gear but spinning slower to aim for that same speed?

I would love some feedback as I'm experimenting in the mountains but every day is different in regards to moisture, temperature, sun exposure, nutrition in the morning, etc. and at this point it's hard to make a good conclusion so I'm looking for some science to help with this question.

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    The only way to reduce power is to do less work, for example by going slower or carrying less weight. I think you are interested in approaches and techniques that will let you maintain the highest power possible. – Rider_X Sep 3 '16 at 15:08
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    Yes, you can put it this way :) What would be the gear/speed that would keep me going for the longest possible time? – mmvsbg Sep 3 '16 at 15:14
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    For climbing, you want to use a lower gear (bigger cog in back and/or smaller chainring in the front). You basically want to be in your sweet spot of cadence/pedal resistance, just like you are on flat land. – Batman Sep 3 '16 at 15:26
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    When you say "save power" I assume you're talking about efficiency, but you should make it clear if so. – Chris H Sep 3 '16 at 15:49
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    There's not generally a "hard" threshold, and it varies with the individual and how much force is being put out, but pedaling below roughly 75 rpm fatigues muscles more rapidly than pedaling above that rate. This has to do with whether exercise is anaerobic (fatiguing) or aerobic (not so fatiguing). – Daniel R Hicks Sep 4 '16 at 2:02
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Honestly, as an amateur cyclist I would suggest focusing on learning how to pace a climb first over more finer details such as cadence. Many amateur typically go out too fast on a climb, go anaerobic, accumulate a lactate debt, then find themselves suffering terribly the remainder of the climb. This gives most the idea the climbs are harder than they could be. Ideal, you want start easier, settle into a sustainable pace, and only max out your effort at the top of the climb. This can take practice. I would err on the side of going too easy for the whole climb. See how that feels. Next time you do the climb try upping the effort a bit. Keep doing this until you find yourself blowing up on the climb... congratulations you found your aerobic threshold. Next time you will know to back off a bit and this will be pretty much your max sustainable pace.

In terms of cadence, try different gears until you find one that feels good. When left to their own devices people tend to self select a suitable cadence for their training and muscle coordination. (I am sure there are exceptions to this, but once people learn how to change gears many do a good job of self-selecting an appropriate cadence.)

Higher cadence climbing tends to be a technique to "save" your legs for later hard efforts like sprinting (i.e., you are trying to avoid tapping your fast twitch muscle fibres on the climb, these fibres are what drive short hard efforts). This trade-off can be important if you are racing, less so if you are a causal rider. (Unless you are riding with friends and there are fish signs sprints - it can be important to be at your best so you can win all the beer!)

Anyway, I digress... Fast cadence climbing is a technique that has to be trained. If you do all your riding at a slow cadence, you will not have efficient muscle coordination for climbing at a fast cadence. I personally found things like fast paced club rides a natural place to hone the fast cadence riding style. Training it on your own might be a bit tedious and boring, but can be done.

Strangely, enough lower cadence climbing may actually be more efficient in terms of oxygen consumption (i.e., cardio-respiratory system work; see Determinants of “optimal” cadence during cycling). This is consistent with the idea of "saving" your legs, where you are stressing your cardiovascular system a bit more in order to try and reduce some of the stress on the muscular system.

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Every rider has a different optimal cadence. You need to find yours. This will depend to some extent how you are feeling on the day ('Ohh that hurts' vs 'pain, what pain').

Most novice riders pedal too slowly, as they are not trained it feels 'wrong' and are not efficient at high cadence. If this is you, you optimal cadence may be faster than your most efficient, as its best to train yourself to pedal faster for future gains. The individuals balance of Cardio fitness vs Leg strength has to play a part.

Here is a good article that briefly outlines some studies as to why the common recommendation of 80-90 is most efficient, but it does say 60-70 has lower oxygen cost. That would imply (my reasoning and personal experiance), if you are puffing hard up the hill, lower cadence is better, if you legs are hurting, higher cadence is better.

  • Not that huffing and puffing and leg hurt are mutually exclusive ;D – gaurwraith Sep 3 '16 at 22:36
  • The second paragraph is a little confusing, optimal typically implies most efficient, so I am not clear why the optimal cadence will be faster than the most efficient. In the OP case I wouldn't be surprised if a lower cadence is "optimal" at the moment due to lack of training and adaption. – Rider_X Sep 4 '16 at 6:28
  • If he keeps riding at the slower cadence, he will never learn to ride more a the most efficient cadence - over a longer time frame, maintaining a slower cadence, while more efficient today, is less efficient. – mattnz Sep 4 '16 at 6:35
  • One interesting thing in the linked article is higher cadence is related to higher blood flow. Other sources suggest lower heart strain also, suggesting that the major leg muscle contractions help pump the blood. My interpretation is that at low cadences the heart is beating several times per leg muscle contraction, whereas at a cadence of, say, 90, the muscles of one or the other leg are contracting 180 times per minute. Some of those contractions match heart beats, helping the heart do it's job. – andy256 Sep 4 '16 at 11:38
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An untrained rider is more efficient at lower cadence because:

  1. spinning fast has to overcome resistance in muscles - if you are not lean fat embedded in muscles causes more resistance
  2. you need more fast twitch muscles which you can only develop with training

There are other factors in play though. Force may do more damage to soft joint tissue leading to pain or even injury.

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    There are a few technical inaccuracies. 1) muscle recruitment (how you fire your muscles) is what needs to be trained to ride at a higher cadence. Muscle tissue will always have fat stores, even if you have low subcutaneous fat stores. Becoming leaner is just and indication of training. 2) slow twitch (type 1) is what powers most a cycling event. Fast twitch (type 2b) powers sprints, surged and other short duration effort. There is also type 2a (intermediate) fibers can be trained to be more type 1 or more type 2b like. – Rider_X Sep 3 '16 at 19:50

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