Cadence is one of the trickiest topics in cycling. Unlike power or speed, cadence is not a straightforward metric. Your cadence can be high, low, or somewhere in between. Track cyclists may pedal twice as fast as mountain bikers. At the same time, a road rider may double their cadence for sprinting compared to pedaling up a climb. We're here to answer the question: What is the best cycling cadence?
In this article, we'll seek an answer to this question, if there is one. (Hint: yes, kind of).
First, we're going to take a quick dive into cadence, discuss what it is, and what it means to pedal at a high or low cadence. Then we'll go through some drills you can do to improve your cycling performance at low or high cadences.
Then, we will get an answer to our main question. But not only that, we'll give you specific cadences for road riding, time trials, sprinting, and climbing.
How to Find the Proper Cycling Cadence
Here is a complete guide to everything that we will cover in this post:
What is the best cycling cadence?
Does the Proper Cycling Cadence Exist?
- A Short History of Cycling Cadence
- High Cadence
- High Cadence Drills
- Low Cadence
- Low Cadence Drills
The Best Cycling Cadence
- Best Cycling Cadence for Road Riding
- Best Cycling Cadence for Time Trials and Triathletes
- Best Cycling Cadence for Sprinting
- Best Cycling Cadence for Climbing
Does the Proper Cycling Cadence Exist?
The short answer is: yes, kind of.
The proper cycling cadence is not a number but a range. For most road cyclists, the best cycling cadence is between 80 rpm and 90 rpm.
However, cycling is such a dynamic sport that this range does not even fit most situations. It's true that on a flat road during a time trial or training ride, a steady cadence of around 85 rpm is optimal for cycling. However, a higher cadence is better for sprinting, most cyclists prefer a lower cadence for climbing, and a moderately low cadence might be best for gravel.
The list goes on.
Most importantly, optimal cycling cadence is a range, not a number, that also depends on the situation. In the rest of this article, we're going to explain the differences between high cadence and low cadence, as well as the physiological differences between them.
But first, we have to rewind.
A Short History of Cycling Cadence
For many decades, cycling cadence was as good as anyone's guess. Without power meters or cadence sensors, you could only count your cadence in your head. Like putting your fingers to your pulse, you could only estimate your cadence back in the day, which was nearly impossible during a race effort.
With the advent of cadence sensors, cadence meters, power meters, and smart trainers, cadence is an integrated metric in almost every piece of modern cycling technology. Thus, it is super easy to monitor and track your cadence throughout every one of your training sessions.
Your cadence data can be saved and stored for months and years, allowing you to track your cadence data and trends over a long period of time.
This makes it easy to identify your tendencies towards high or low cadences, measured in revolutions per minute (rpm). In the rest of this section, we will discuss the differences between high and low cadence.
High cadence can be defined as any cadence above 90 rpm. Sustaining 90+ rpm can be challenging for beginner riders, but it is normal for some experienced riders.
Professional cyclists such as Chris Froome are known for their high cadences. Froome was known for his seated attacks at the Tour de France, where he would be pedaling at 100 rpm or 110 rpm. The most intriguing part was that Froome made these attacks while seated in the saddle, which created an awkward and gangly look for his pedaling style.
Track Cycling and Sprinting
As we'll cover more in detail below, high cadences above 100 rpm are usually reserved for sprinting. It is common to see consistent cadences of more than 100 rpm in track racing on a velodrome. One of the biggest reasons for this is that track bikes are fixed gears, which means they only have one gear and no freehub. You cannot coast or backpedal on a track bike. Slowing the wheel's rotation is how you bring the bike to a stop since track bikes do not have brakes.
Don't worry. It's not as scary as it sounds. Track racing is very fun and easy to learn for beginners. It is a great way to improve your pack riding and bike handling skills while also practicing high cadences.
Physiological Effects of Riding at a Higher Cadence
In general, high cadences work your cardiovascular system more than your legs. This happens because most cyclists are not accustomed to pedaling at more than 90 rpm for extended periods of time. That means their pedaling efficiency is lacking at high cadences, which causes the cardiovascular system to work overtime to keep up with your legs.
The opposite is true for low cadence pedaling, which we will cover below. Your leg muscles are overworked at a low cadence, whereas your cardiovascular system is comfortable with the training load.
High Cadence Drills
Practicing pedaling at a high cadence is essential if you are a competitive bike racer. The only exception is if you are a flatland triathlon or time trial rider. In that case, you will almost always pedal at a consistent gear in the middle of your range. However, you could still get caught on a day with high winds when you are trying to pedal at over 100 rpm to keep up with a 25mph tailwind.
Competitive racers should practice high cadence drills as you frequently need to increase your cadence in races. You may be following an attack, keeping up on a descent, or sprinting for the win. Either way, being comfortable at more than 90 rpm is essential.
High cadence drills are the best way to improve your cadence at high RPMs. Here is an example workout:
- 5mins easy warm-up
- 5x1mins pedaling at a high cadence (90-100 rpm) with 5mins easy spinning in between
- 5mins cool-down
As your ability improves, you can increase your target cadence (e.g., 95-105 rpm or 100-110 rpm) or the time you spend at a high cadence. Week by week, you will make steady improvements, and soon you'll be comfortable holding 100 rpm for five minutes.
Tips for High Cadence Drills
Bouncing in the saddle is one of the biggest mistakes beginners make with high cadence pedaling. You must stay planted in the saddle during high cadence drills and control your body position.
If your bottom begins bouncing up and down on the saddle, you don't have enough control over your body and need to decrease your cadence by 5-10 rpm.
This is okay, and don't get discouraged if your bottom keeps bouncing up and down at 95 rpm. Practice your drills at 85-90 rpm until you gain more control over your body at high cadences. Over time, your core strength and stability will improve, and you can practice pedaling at higher cadences.
Low cadence can be defined as pedaling at less than 80 rpm. If you are doing a low cadence drill, you may target a cadence of around 60 rpm.
These drills are great for climbing, especially steep ones. When you run out of gears on an 8% gradient, you may have no choice but to pedal at 60-70 rpm.
Low cadence pedaling tends to work your leg muscles more than your cardiovascular system. This is because of the high amounts of force that you are putting into each pedal stroke. Maintaining a lower cadence around 60 rpm can be challenging, but the potential benefits are enormous.
Some studies have shown improved cycling efficiency and performance across the board for those who trained at low cadences compared to those who trained at a high cadence.
Other studies have suggested that low cadence training stimulates more neuromuscular connections in the leg muscles. Here's how to incorporate low cadence training into your program.
Tips for Low Cadence Drills
Low cadence drills present a bit of a risk because they can be hard on your knees, lower back, and hips. The most important part of low cadence drills is keeping your core tight and your back flat. Having a flat back means that your spine is straight from your hips to your shoulders. And engaging your core means using your stomach, abs, and oblique muscles to stabilize your body.
It's not as complicated as it sounds, but it may take some practice.
A low cadence drill will look similar to high cadence drills, but obviously at low instead of high cadences. Here is an example low cadence workout:
- 5mins easy warm-up
- 5x1mins pedaling at a low cadence (60-70 rpm) with 5mins easy spinning in between
- 5mins cool-down
As with high cadence drills, you can progress these drills over time. You can either lower your target cadence (e.g., 55 rpm) or increase the amount of time that you spend at a low cadence.
We do not recommend going below 50 rpm as your target cadence; any cadence below that is more likely to harm than good. Plus, you will get all the benefits of low cadence drills by practicing at 50-60 rpm at the lowest.
The Best Cycling Cadence
Now it's time to put it all together in our list of the best cycling cadences. Remember that optimal cycling cadence is not one number. Rather, it is a range that depends on the situation.
As we will see, it is sometimes better to ride at a low cadence versus a high cadence, or vice versa.
But above all, cadence is more individual than science-based. If you feel your perfect cadence is 5 rpm outside of the recommended ranges, and that's where you produce your peak power output, stick with it.
Overall, we recommend trying out these cadence ranges first so that you know with certainty that you're not leaving any watts on the table.
Best Cycling Cadence for Road Riding
For most cyclists, a range of 80-90 rpm is the best for road cycling. This is the optimal range for long-distance road rides, especially endurance riding. This cadence doesn't put too much pressure on your knees or lower back when you ride a bike. It is not so high that it overworks your cardiovascular system.
The ideal cycling cadence may vary slightly for each rider, as one rider may prefer 80 rpm. In contrast, another may even prefer 95 rpm.
As we have seen, cycling cadence comes down to personal preference. However, we know the ideal cycling cadence for maximizing efficiency and power output on the road.
Best Cycling Cadence for Time Trials and Triathletes
The best cycling cadence for time trials is typically lower than the ideal cadence for road riding. Specifically, most cyclists' ideal cadence for time trials is around 80-85 rpm. It is rare to see a time trial rider constantly pedaling at 95-100 rpm, whereas this is much more common in road cycling.
A lower cadence is typically better for time trials and triathlons because of the aero position on time trial (TT) or triathlon bikes. Their positions include long aero bars that stick out over the front wheel and a riding position that is low rather than upright.
In the aero position, the rider's hips are rotated forward, and their back is almost parallel to the ground.
The aero position changes how your lower body and hips flex and extend throughout the pedal stroke. For the vast majority of time trial riders and triathletes, it is more comfortable and efficient to use a slightly lower cadence, such as 80-85 rpm.
Best Cycling Cadence for Sprinting
Sprinting has the largest cadence range, as you can comfortably sprint anywhere from 95 rpm to 130 rpm. For most cyclists, a typical sprint will top out at about 110 rpm.
However, you don't train your sprint cadence like you would train your sustained road riding cadence. In sprinting, you will build up to a high rpm (i.e., 110 rpm), but you will start at a more typical cadence of 80-90 rpm. This is because you need time to get on top of your big sprinting gear before winding it up to maximum speed.
It would be best if you practiced sprints in different gears to find your ideal sprinting cadence. Start with an average cadence of 80-90 rpm and perform an all-out sprint for 10 seconds.
Focus on maximizing your speed and power output during these efforts, and study your cadence in the data after your ride. These sprints will stimulate your fast twitch muscle fibers since you are spinning fast while you produce high power output.
After studying your cadence, power, and speed from each sprint, go into your next sprint session to try one or two new sprinting gears. This will force you to pedal at a higher or lower cadence during your sprint, and you may find that one is more optimal than the other.
Best Cycling Cadence for Climbing
Your ideal climbing cadence will typically be slightly lower than your normal road cycling cadence. Significantly, your cadence will naturally increase on shallower gradients and decrease on steeper gradients. The optimal cadence for climbing is around 75-85 rpm.
For example, your average cadence on a 10% climb may be 75 rpm, while your average cadence on a 4% climb will be 85 rpm.
Climbing intervals will stimulate your slow twitch muscle fibers, which are the fibers that we use for long and sustained efforts if you want to improve your endurance and increase your resistance to fatigue, practice climbing around 85 rpm.