What Is A Good Cadence For Cycling – And Why Is Cycling Cadence So Important?

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reviewed by Rory McAllister
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As an ex-professional cyclist with years of experience in competitive cycling, I’ve come to understand that success on the bike isn’t just about raw power and endurance.

It’s also about finesse, strategy, and understanding the intricate details that separate great cyclists from good ones.

One of those crucial details is cycling cadence.

Based on my experience as a professional cyclist, I would recommend targeting an average cadence of between 80-100 rpm. However, cycling cadence is very individual, and there are a wide range of factors to consider.

Whether you’re a novice cyclist looking to improve your efficiency or a seasoned rider aiming to optimize your training, understanding the importance of cycling cadence and its relationship with your cycling performance is essential.

In this article, we’ll be covering:

  • What Is Cycling Cadence?
  • Why Is Cycling Cadence Important, And How Does It Affect Performance?
  • How Has Cycling Cadence Changed Among Professional Cyclists?
  • What is the best cadence for cycling?
  • How To Improve Your Cycling Cadence

Let’s dive in!

Cycling Cadence Explained by a Professional: Title Image

What is Cycling Cadence? 

Cycling cadence refers to the speed at which the pedals turn, measured in revolutions per minute (rpm).

A higher cadence means the cyclist is turning the pedals faster, and a lower cadence means the pedals are turning more slowly.

The relationship between cycling cadence and torque is essential to understand.

Torque is the rotational force applied to the pedals, usually measured in Newton-meters (Nm). If a cyclist pushes harder on the pedals, they are applying more torque, and vice-versa.

For a cyclist maintaining the same total power output (Watts), cadence and torque have an inverse relationship.

Let’s put this into an example. Cyclist A is riding in a high gear, turning the pedals slowly (low cadence) but pushing hard on the pedals (high torque).

Cyclist B is riding in a low gear, turning the pedals quickly (high cadence) but with less force pushing through them (low torque).

Despite their differing cadences, both cyclists could be maintaining the same total power output (Watts), so if all other factors were equal, they would be traveling at the same speed.

What this means in practice is that a cyclist putting out a certain power output can choose between a high or low cadence to achieve it, adjusting their gear ratio and torque accordingly.

A cyclist rides a purple Cannondale road bike at high speed during a race.

Why Is Cycling Cadence Important, And How Does It Affect Performance?

Until the 1990s, most professional cyclists rode at a relatively low cadence, with higher torque.

This is often called “grinding the gears”, and was the style of pedaling adopted by many at the time. 

It was particularly obvious on the climbs, on which their cadence might be in the region of 65 rpm. This would be considered very low for a professional cyclist by modern standards.

The thinking behind this lower cadence was that the longer you pushed a bigger gear, the faster you would go.

Although there is an element of truth to this, it is not the full story. 

Gino Bartali, Hugo Koblet, and Fiorenzo Magni sprint for the finish line on Stage 2 of the 1953 Tour de France.
Gino Bartali, Hugo Koblet, and Fiorenzo Magni sprint for the finish line on Stage 2 of the 1953 Tour de France.
Credit: Noske, J.D./AnefoCC BY-SA 3.0 NL, via Wikimedia Commons. Edited from the original.

With greater investigation of the science behind pedaling efficiency, it has become clear to sports scientists and elite cyclists that a significantly higher cadence of around 80-100 rpm has many advantages. 

Pedaling at a consistent power output of, say, 150 Watts at 60 rpm (with high torque) versus 150 Watts at 90 rpm (with low torque) will have a very different physiological and muscular effect on the body.

This is because you will engage different muscle fibers based on the cadence.

When a cyclist utilizes a higher cadence and lower torque, they engage more of their slow-twitch muscle fibers. When cycling at a lower cadence and higher torque, they utilize more of their fast-twitch muscles.

Fast-twitch muscle is more powerful; however, it tires quickly, placing a greater muscular strain on the body.

In addition, there is greater glycogen depletion within the muscle fibers. In order to maintain a consistent torque, more muscle cells need to be engaged to maintain the same effort. 

Conversely, a higher cadence utilizes more of the slow-twitch muscle fibers, resulting in lower muscular strain and less glycogen depletion.

When pedaling at a higher cadence, the muscles experience less strain and can continue to work for a longer period of time.

Therefore, although there is some debate over the “optimal” cadence (more on that later), it is an accepted position in modern sports science that a higher cadence with a lower torque is preferable for elite cycling performance.

Jacques Anquetil leads the pack up a climb at the 1960 Giro d'Italia.
Jacques Anquetil leads the pack up a climb at the 1960 Giro d’Italia.
Credit: RotoFotoCC BY-SA 3.0 NL, via Wikimedia Commons. Edited from the original.

How Has Cycling Cadence Changed Among Professional Cyclists?

A crude analysis of some of cycling’s greatest names over the past half-century reflects this changing attitude.

Jacques Anquetil, five-time Tour de France champion between 1957 and 1964 (pictured above), typically climbed at a cadence of around 65 rpm, though this varied with the gradient – hardly surprising given the limited gear ratios found on racing bikes from the era.

Fast-forward a decade to the 1970s, and Eddy Merckx usually climbed at a cadence of around 75 rpm during his period of dominance.

Lance Armstrong truly ushered in the era of high-cadence, low-torque pedaling within racing at the pro level, partly as a response to the physiological challenges posed by his recovery from cancer.

While contemporary rivals such as Jan Ullrich climbed at around 85 rpm, Armstrong’s cadence was often as high as 100 rpm. The contrast between the pair’s riding styles can be seen clearly in this short clip taken during a time trial.

Such a rapid cadence remained unusual even as cadences broadly increased through the peloton in the 2000s, but returned to the fore with Chris Froome’s “unique” high-cadence riding style. 

The multiple benefits of a higher cadence are demonstrated with an example offered by Froome at the 2015 Tour de France. Tim Kerrison, Team Sky‘s Head of Performance, released Froome’s power data for Stage 10.

Froome completed the 15.3 km climb to La-Pierre-Saint-Martin in a time of 41 minutes, 30 seconds, at an average cadence of 97 rpm. He was then able to produce a 24-second attack in which he raised his cadence to 102 rpm while utilizing the same gear ratio.

Check out his dizzying pedaling style in his attack against Alberto Contador below for an idea of what such high cadences look like in action!

By developing the ability to produce power at such a high cadence, Froome had trained his body to be more efficient.

This higher cadence riding style lends itself to a decrease in the buildup of fatigue, therefore allowing Froome to remain fresh for attacks throughout a stage – and crucially, to reduce the gradual accumulation of fatigue across a grueling three-week Grand Tour.

From a racing perspective, Froome enjoyed two additional benefits from his increased cadence. Cycling with lower torque reduces the load on the drivetrain, limiting the risk of dropping a chain while changing gears during an ascent.

Furthermore, the ability to suddenly turbo-charge his cadence in the same gear ratio meant he didn’t need to shift gears before an attack, enhancing the critical element of surprise over his GC rivals.

When winning and losing comes down to small gains or losses, advantages need to be found everywhere. 

Froome clearly highlights the “spin-to-win” mentality!

A professional cyclist rides at a high cycling cadence during a criterium race.

What is the best cadence for cycling?

Based on my experience as a professional cyclist, I would recommend targeting an average cadence of between 80-100 rpm.

This is a fairly wide window, which reflects the fact that scientific research has demonstrated that different cadences are beneficial for different racing situations, while also allowing for personal preference to be taken into account.

For professionals, we might hit 100-120 rpm while sprinting, 90-100 rpm during a time trial, and sustain 80-90 rpm while riding in the peloton during races or stages lasting several hours.

The benefits of a high cadence are not infinite. At very high cadences (above 100 rpm) the metabolic cost of cycling increases, so you should avoid maintaining them for extended periods.

An amateur cyclist attempt to train their cycling cadence while riding a white bike on a gravel road at sunset.

Amateur cyclists typically ride at lower cadences than professionals.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t aim for a similar cadence to the professionals, but you should recognize that you might need some patience and hard work to be comfortable performing at a higher cadence.

If you’re very new to cycling your cadence might be significantly lower, perhaps in the region of 50-70 rpm. This may feel like your “normal” cadence. That’s nothing to be ashamed of! Like all things to do with cycling technique, it can be worked on and improved.

When going uphill, it’s normal for your cadence to drop a little. However, if you find your cadence is dropping significantly, search for a smaller gear and keep those slow-twitch muscle fibers firing more efficiently.

However, if the gradient is severe and you don’t have the gears you may just have to go Jan Ullrich mode and grind it out!

A cyclist on a blue road bike leads the peloton up a steep climb during a race.

How To Improve Your Cycling Cadence

When looking to improve your cadence there are two important elements: your experience level, and a small element of personal preference.

Always remember when you are trying to improve a skill it’s important to compare yourself to yesterday’s version of yourself, rather than professionals who have spent years dedicated to the sport. 

When following the cycling cadence workouts below, ensure you maintain proper pedaling form or there could be an increased risk of injury. 

To maintain good form, engage your core and keep your upper body relatively motionless. Ensure you remain fully seated on the saddle, don´t bounce in the seat, and ensure your hips remain straight.

Focus on quick leg movement, rather than applying heavy force.

A cyclist rides a black road bike fitted with a cadence sensor.

“what gets measured gets improved”

The first step towards improvement of any cycling skill is to measure where you currently are.

You may find you naturally have a high cadence, or it may be something you need to spend some time focusing on in order to improve. 

Many manufacturers offer a simple cadence sensor with an inbuilt accelerometer which can easily be attached to the inside of the non-drive side crank arm. 

Older versions require the attachment of a magnet on the non-drive side crank arm, with a corresponding sensor, attached at a specifically positioned on the non-drive side chain stay. The magnet on the crank arm must be in line with the sensor attached to the crank arm.

Alternatively, some cadence sensors are built into crank and pedal-based power meter systems. These systems will typically connect either via a Bluetooth or ANT+ connection to a cycling computer or your phone where you can view the cadence information.

A cyclist on a white road bike climbs a steep hill at a high cycling cadence.

The 2 Best Workouts to Improve Cycling Cadence

Firstly, before starting any cadence efforts, do a normal ride on a flat road, without focusing on your cadence. Afterward, look at the data to establish your normal cadence. You can use this as your base. 

These suggested workouts should be done on a flat, quiet road, ideally with low traffic volume. Remember the focus is cadence not force. You will feel an increase of respiration, however it is important to select an easy gear as the efforts should be completed in the Z2 power and heat-rate range. 

Cycling Cadence Workout #1

Start with a 15-minute warm-up at your normal cadence and “Zone 1” effort (see Cycling Training Zones Guide: Heart Rate and Power Zones Explained).

Next, increase your normal cadence by 10 rpm for a period of 5 minutes in Zone 2. Return to your normal cadence for 5 minutes, remaining in Zone 2.

Repeat this effort 3 more times, followed by 10 minutes of recovery at your normal cadence and Zone 1 power.

The total workout time is 1 hour.

A road cyclist dressed in black climbs in a forested valley.

Cycling Cadence Workout #2

Warm up at your normal cadence in Zone 1 for 10-15 minutes.

After the warm-up, increase your training intensity to Zone 2. Every five minutes, increase your cadence by 20-30 rpm for 45 seconds, followed by 5 minutes of easy recovery.

Repeat this effort 6 more times, including the recovery periods, followed by a cool-down of approximately 10 minutes.

The workout time is roughly 1 hour.

How To Incorporate These Cycling Cadence Workouts in Your Training

These workouts can be incorporated into a normal endurance ride or can be used as a recovery ride, as they should not be physiologically or muscularly taxing. 

After several weeks of these cadence workouts, when you have noticed improvement, you can make them more challenging. 

Once you feel comfortable operating at a certain cadence, you should aim to increase the baseline cadence you are treating as your “normal” cadence in increments of 5 rpm.

You can also reduce the amount of rest time between the efforts and/or increase the length of the effort to boost the intensity of the workouts.

A peloton of professional cyclists ride along a closed road.

Now You Know All About Cycling Cadence…

Improving your cycling cadence will lead to improved efficiency, a smoothing of the pedal stroke, and an increase in the range of cadences at which you can comfortably lay down power. 

A major benefit of improving your cadence is reduced soreness during a ride, which can allow you to enjoy longer cycles. This improvement will be more apparent if you cycle multiple days in a row, as you will experience reduced soreness from the previous day. 

In a racing situation, you will arrive near the finish line with your legs feeling “fresher” increasing your chances of going full gas with more power at the sprint!

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During her cycling career, Lydia represented her country at the highest level. On the track, she won medals at UCI World Cups and European Championships, and made history in helping Team Ireland qualify for the Madison and Omnium at the Tokyo Olympics for the first time. In road cycling, she achieved multiple medals in the Irish National Championships in both the Road Race and Individual Time Trial. Lydia's cycling journey was never straightforward. She initially took up mountain biking while living in Canada aged 25, but after a close encounter with a bear on the trail she traded in the mountain bike for the road and later the track, and never looked back. After retiring from elite competition, Lydia's passion for the bike remains as strong as ever. She loves a bikepacking adventure and has undertaken multiple trips including a ride from Canada to Mexico and many throughout Europe. She has also worked extensively as a cycling guide in bucket-list biking destinations such as Mallorca and Tuscany. While cycling for Lydia now is all about camaraderie, coffee, and adventure, she's still competitive at heart - and likely to race others up hills on group rides!

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