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I have seen many cyclist pedaling at different gear ratios on the same (flat) terrain and cruising at (roughly) the same speed. They move quite fast, but when I look at how fast they pedal, I realize that the gear ratio is much lower than what I'm used to set for same speed and same inclination. To attain the same speed, I must use a higher gear ratio, but somehow they manage to use a lower one by pedaling very fast.

Is there an advantage in cycling this way? How do the different training gear ranges affect my fitness in the aspect of power vs. speed? (Power - fitness in climbing uphill, Speed - highest speed at no inclination). I have attempted this technique, but I find it quite difficult to balance and have a good grip of the bike.

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    You are referring to ‘cadence’, of the pedals, measured in rpm. You might find some answers searching for high cadence on this site, the accepted answer to this question might be a good starting point – Swifty May 15 at 13:48
  • "Higher" and "Lower" are confusing terms. A lower gearing means higher pedal cadence for the same speed, and the chain is higher (larger cog) at the back AND smaller ring at the front - sometimes called an "easier" gear but that's confusing too. A higher gear is opposite. – Criggie May 16 at 1:49
  • Don't feel you have to emulate others. If your riding style works for you then keep it up. – Criggie May 16 at 1:50
  • @Criggie You're right, I got one of the answers saying that the optimal cadence may vary for each individual. However, this was asking about comparing the benefits of high vs. low cadence. – Christmas Snow May 16 at 4:42
  • @ChristmasSnow FYI ~90 rpm on the cranks is considered a "pro's cadence" But some pros are happier at 70. One infamous texan would spin at 120 rpm. There's no perfect target value. – Criggie May 16 at 8:24
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First, different people have different optimum cadence. So that's one thing that explains different cadence between different cyclists.

Second, to travel at any given speed requires a certain amount of power. You can get more power by pushing harder at the same cadence, or you can pedal faster at the same level of force (or you can pedal harder and faster..).

Ever lift weights? Pick a weight you can do ten times, but no more. You can't lift ten times that much once, can you? You get much better endurance at lower levels of force. It's the same with pedaling a bicycle - for a given power level, most cyclists get better endurance by pedaling faster at lower levels of force, at least up to a point where your muscles start getting less efficient because they can't contract fast enough. There's actually a good bit of research on this, and there are physiological reasons why it's true.

But in general, if you want to go fast for a long period of time, it's better to pedal easy and fast than it is to pedal hard and slow.

It's tough to get used to at first, but after a while it will feel a lot more natural. Just get something that measures cadence and you can start working on riding at higher cadences.

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    I particularly like your comparison of ten times the weight. Very Illustrative! I wish I had it as an answer throughout the years I used to try to make people aware of what cadence actually means... – Pavel May 15 at 16:56
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    @Pavel In my younger days I used to be a competitive powerlifter. Not too many serious cyclists have done that. – Andrew Henle May 15 at 19:54
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    Yeah, not everyone is a powerlifter. But anyone with a tiny bit of imaginative power has the ability to understand the illustration, and immediately realize why you can't lift the 10x weight. I really liked the analogy as well. As to improving cadence, I'd like to add that it gets easier if you have some decent interruption-free parts in your ride. If you only ever ride 500m at a time till the next traffic light stops you, you won't build up cadence naturally. If you can do 10km uninterrupted, that's a whole different story. – cmaster May 16 at 6:36
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    But we are not talking about the difference between pedalling at 1rpm and 10rpm. It's another order of magnitude and typically the differences in pedalling rates between people are much smaller than an order of magnitude. The forces applied in cycling, especially at such aerobically dominant power levels, are quite small and not really analogous with "weightlifting". In the case of cycling the equivalent is a weight you can lift many thousands of times. There really isn't a weightlifting analogy. – alexsimmons May 16 at 20:36
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    @alexsimmons There is no "optimum" cadence. That's a straw man. I never said there was an "optimum". But even so, only John M's answer from your linked question even mentions the source of power, and how much your body stores of that source. At lower levels of force, your muscles burn fat. You have a lot of that. As force levels go up, muscles shift over to burning glycogen, first aerobically then anaerobically. You have a decent amount of that, but when you run out, you bonk/hit the wall. – Andrew Henle May 17 at 10:22
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@Andrew Henle covered it well in his answer, but the way I like to think of it is as follows:

Pedalling a high cadence taxes your engine (if you wear a HRM you can see a higher heart rate at high cadences). But the engine will keep running as long as you keep adding fuel (food).

Pedalling at lower cadences taxes the muscles, and once the muscle fibres are damaged they can take several days to repair/recover.

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    The heart is literally a muscle. I'm not disputing the conclusion, but there's a big hole in your logic. :-\ – Michael May 15 at 16:41
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    @Michael: It’s a different type of muscle which – unlike skeletal muscles – can work 24/7 all your life long. – Michael May 15 at 18:19
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    Michael is right. – Robert Lee May 15 at 19:00
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    Yeah, I've ridden with a guy who literally cannot allow his heart to exceed a certain heartrate, and he has to slow down when his heart starts to get tired. The heart is not a magic power source, it will not keep running simply because you keep eating. It's a muscle, and it can cramp, and it can be strained, and it can be damaged and scarred. Now it's both more difficult to overwork your heart and less obvious when you do it compared to skeletal muscles, but it happens, especially as we get older. – Todd Wilcox May 16 at 15:58
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Why do different people pedal at difference rates (have a different cadence) on the same road at the same speed?

As Andrew says, different people have different optimum cadences.
Also, many people don't understand that there is such a thing as optimum cadence.
Optimum cadence is determined by your exercise goal.

What is the "right" cadence?
It depends....
As Andy P points out, slower and harder stresses skeletal muscles, faster easier stresses heart and lungs.
If your goal is to build skeletal muscle then pedaling slower and harder is better.
If your goal is to build heart and lung endurance for long distance riding then pedaling faster and easier is better.

Low cadence riding in a hard gear taxes your skeletal muscles, specifically your quads. Since you’re using a big gear, you have to apply lots of force to turn it. If your legs are very big and powerful, this may work well for you.
Turning the big gear slowly has less effect on your heart and lungs, so you’re less likely to be gasping for air or have a skyrocketing heart rate.
However, there is an edge towards the higher cadence riding. Your heart and lungs can take repeated punishment for long periods of time (and they recovery quickly after hard efforts,) while your muscles will fatigue relatively quickly.
A high cadence also places less stress and torque on your knees. So if you have bad knees, you’re usually better off spinning faster, in a low gear https://coachlevi.com/cycling/high-vs-low-cadence-pedaling-speed/

Think about it this way. How fast you go on a bicycle is related to how much power you generate.

Power = how hard you pedal x how fast you pedal(cadence)
Here's an article on how to count your cadence

So, on a flat road: (made up numbers here just as an example)
You can go 12 miles per hour pedaling 20 times a minute pedaling hard.
or
You can go 12 miles per hour pedaling 80 times a minute pedaling easy.
How fast you pedal at a set speed is determined by what gear you are in.

Heart and lung focused cadence
Rule of thumb: is to ride in the easiest gear that I'm comfortable with for a specific speed and then pedal at a constant cadence.

Skeletal Muscle focused cadence
Rule of thumb: ride in the hardest gear you are comfortable with for a specific speed and pedal at a constant cadence.

Mixing it up
The way I've described things it may seem like it's either pedaling hard and slow or fast and easy. I'm just trying to make the differences clear. In your riding you may decide optimal is somewhere in the middle, or you may mix fast and slow pedaling on the same ride.

Bottom line, Ride frequently and experiment to find the optimum cadence for your situation.

  • This does not seem entirely correct. If a rider is outputting a given power they need to supply energy and oxygen to their muscles at a certain minimum rate, regardless of cadence (pedalling at anything other than optimum cadence increases that rate). Pedalling hard at a lower cadence does not avoid a higher heart and breathing rate. – Argenti Apparatus May 15 at 18:23
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    @ArgentiApparatus You are right, you will increase your breathing and heart rate pushing a big gear. The key statement from the source is: "Turning the big gear slowly has less effect on your heart and lungs, so you’re less likely to be gasping for air or have a skyrocketing heart rate." At the end of the article the source concludes with "All I can say is that your ideal cadence will fall somewhere between “holy sh*t my legs are on fire!” and “I… can’t… breathe!”". Pushing a big gear will increase your heart rate and breathing but in the extreme case you will lactate out rather than O2 out. – David D May 15 at 19:34
  • @ArgentiApparatus All you have to do to verify that there's a difference is to do drills yourself on your bike. Find a slight incline and ride up it in your highest gear. Then glide back down and ride up it again in your lowest gear. You'll feel the difference between the two very easily and it is not only a helpful workout, it helps you figure out what cadences might work best for you. – Todd Wilcox May 16 at 16:02
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My case: 85 kg cyclist with 12 kg road bike, 52-39 and 11-30 gearing preparing for the hills. A 7% grade at 150W power delivery means some 7 km/h speed (let's say 2 meters a second). Now the wheel has 2m circumference, so it's one wheel turn a second, or 60 wheel turns per minute. However, the "climbiest" gear ratio is 1.3, so that hill climb on my specific bike will be done at 46 rpm. So, I either need a different bike (super compact gearing 50-34 front to 12-34 or so rear for 60 rpm), sustain a higher power on the same bike (200W instead of 150W), or ride somewhere else (5% instead of 7% grade). So, slow cadence training on the flats will help you on the hills.

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    'So, slow cadence training on the flats will help you on the hills.' Whilst that is true in a small number of cases, most riders are far more limited by cardiovascular fitness than muscular strength. Particularly in your example of <2W/Kg, far greater gains would be made by developing the cardio system with long intervals at 80-100% of FTP at 90-100rpm. – Andy P May 16 at 11:20
  • @AndyP: I totally agree, but there is always a harder hill. Some races have segments of 20% grade. – Calin Ceteras May 16 at 11:24

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