Choosing Appropriate Gearing for Cycling

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09/23/2005| 0 comments
by Travis Woodruff

Choosing Appropriate Gearing for Cycling

We?ve all seen Lance Armstrong spin his trademark high cadence up the mountains while his counterparts turn bigger gears.

We've all seen Lance Armstrong spin his trademark high cadence up the mountains while his counterparts turn bigger gears. Because of his great success and specific riding style, more and more cyclists are paying increased attention to pedaling cadence and proper gear selection. In particular, many riders often ask how they can improve their pedaling cadence on the hills.

Many times a rider's ability to use an appropriate cadence is dependent upon the bike's gearing. Often, traditional gearing forces a rider to use too low of a cadence while climbing. The traditional combination of 53 and 39 tooth chainrings with a 12-23 tooth cassette seems to work well for professionals, but such gearing is not ideal for all riders. Fortunately, bike manufacturers are catching on and making adjustments to component specifications. Whether you are looking for a new bike or simply wanting to upgrade your current bike, it is important to consider the gearing that it offers. However, before making any changes it is important to understand the physiology of pedaling cadence and how your gearing affects it. 

Physiology of Pedaling Cadence

Using a slightly lower gear with a faster cadence can be more efficient than riding a higher gear with a slower cadence. The difference in efficiency is due to the unique physiological demands of each style. A high cadence pedaling style involves frequent, low muscular force productions while a low cadence pedaling style is comprised of less frequent, but more forceful muscular contractions. Since the slower cadence requires more muscular force per each pedal stroke, a greater percentage of fast twitch muscle fibers are recruited. Fast twitch muscles are not as efficient in their use of glycogen, so your body's energy resources are drained more quickly when they are used. This can lead to increased fatigue late into your rides. During a stage race or when training frequency is high this becomes very important since stresses are compounded from one day to the next. On the other hand, the relatively low muscular force used with a high cadence relies more heavily on the slow twitch fibers, which are more aerobically efficient in using the body's energy stores to produce work.

Typically, a cyclist will be most efficient with a cadence of 80 to 90 revolutions per minute (RPM). Cadences lower than 80 RPM require greater muscular forces, while cadences over 100 RPM place a higher demand on the aerobic system. Incorporating low and high cadence workouts into your routine will have you best prepared for your goals, though a majority of your riding should be done with an average cadence of 80 to 90 RPM.

If you ride in a hilly area and are not able to maintain a cadence of 80 to 90 RPM for the majority of your rides, it would be beneficial to modify your bicycle's gearing.

Gearing Options

The first solution to the gearing problem came with the advent of the road triple crankset. Similar to the three chainring combination found on mountain bikes, this option allows riders to use substantially smaller gears when climbing steep


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