Optimal pedaling cadence: Riding 80?


I was wasting time surfing the internet dreaming about snow/ice free trails when I found one of those 10 Trail Tips You Need To Master type articles on the Mountain Bike Action website (I’m not a huge fan of MBA, but I was killing time). The list was all of the basic stuff you always read (i.e. looking ahead etc.), but they also had one tip of “Riding 80” meaning riding at a 80 rpm cadence. MBA said, “80 is the most efficient cadence you can use to turn the cranks over,” and that “That is the perfect compromise between muscle force and aerobic power.”

I have never really paid attention to the cadence that I average on a ride, I just try to ride what feels best and pushes my limits. Do you think that there really is an optimum cadence for mountain biking, if so is it the same for every rider? Do think that actively setting/monitoring cadence goals during a ride will improve ability?


Hey Dave,

Your question comes at a good time. I just spent 12 weeks on the trainer, and all I did was compare technique, cadence, power and pain. It’s amazing how many subtleties there are to suffering. “That interval slumped under the weight of last night’s dead lifts, yet it bristled with the freneticism of the Sea Otter downhill.”

OK, back to it:

Is there an optimal cadence for mountain biking?
No. There are too many variables. But 80 is indeed a good compromise.

I think: If an average rider can learn to pedal smoothly and powerfully from 60 to 100 rpm, that’ll give him a decent powerband. If he can spend most of his time in the middle of that range, that’ll work pretty well.

The broader your powerband, the better. A top BMXer makes effective power from 0 to 200 rpm.

Is it the same for every rider?
No. We all have different strengths, riding styles and equipment.

According to conventional wisdom:

– Spinning a low gear emphasizes cardiovascular fitness over leg strength.

– Lugging a hard gear emphasizes leg strength over cardiovascular fitness.

Where are you strongest? What works best for you?

Are you out of shape? You’ll pull a low gear slowly.

Are you super fit? You’ll turn a hard gear fast.

Are you a single speeder? You’ll do whatever it takes to turn that gear.

Is it the same in every situation?
No. This is related to the above, but in general:

– Smooth climbs are easiest at high rpm. Find a rhythm and crank it out with minimal strain. Keep your legs fresh so you can pump that DH.

– Technical climbs are easier at lower rpm. Generate oomph to lunge up that ledge. Go farther with each crank. Strike fewer pedals.

It’s all about matching your riding style to your strengths, your equipment and the current situation.

Should you pay attention to cadence while you ride?
Yes. I never count strokes on real terrain, but I do count ’em on the trainer and on some road climbs (what else am I gonna do?).

We all have our habits. They tend to be [somewhat] comfortable and [somewhat] effective. For example: Five+ years of single rings and low seats have made me comfortable pulling a big gear at around 60 rpm. I’m not saying it was the best way to climb; it’s what I was used to. Chances are you plod along at around 60 rpm.

Run some tests: At what rpm can you maintain a certain power or speed the longest? At what rpm can you bust out the highest peak power? What rpm just feels best?

After my 12 weeks of hell, I know I’m most efficient at 90-100 rpm. I also know I can accelerate a hard gear from a stop to 1,000+ watts in just five strokes. That tells me I should spin easy gears most of the time, and that I have the oomph to pull harder gears up technical sections.

Play around and learn what your optimal cadences feel like. That way, when you hit the trail, you can ditch the counting and just rip it.

It snowed AGAIN
Enough already. Last night I alternated weight circuits with three 10-minute trainer intervals. Rocking running shoes on SPD pedals, I spun at 100-120 rpm and 250-300 watts. “My hopes were as crushed as my prostate, but my feet flew like sweat droplets in a spring breeze.”

Or whatever. Get some!

— Lee

Know more. Have more fun!

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