What a difference 10 rpm makes

In this week’s PowerMax indoor training session at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine, we did virtual intervals with a Canadian time trail champion, and I felt the easy sweetness of higher rpm.

Virtual roadies
For this session, we followed two elite Canadians on an interval workout. They did four nine-minute intervals at 100 percent of threshold power. After last week’s two-minute threshold intervals, I predicted we’d be doing longer intervals soon, but I didn’t think it would be this week.

Since we’re not fit enough to pin it at 100 percent 4×9 minutes, Coach Lester Pardoe dialed our thresholds down about 10 percent, so we would be doing the intervals at 90 percent.

While the software controlled our workload, we spun behind these on-screen roadies. When they cruised, we cruised. When they pinned it, we pinned it. I could feel every rise and jump; it was pretty cool.

Above: The work profile. Below: Our virtual riding partners. During the workout, the riders’ window was maximized.

During the intervals, Lester told us to ride at our natural cadence for one minute, match the pros’ cadence for one minute, repeat.

I was buzzing along at 90 rpm (considered a good all-around cadence) and feeling pretty good about it. When it came time to match the TV riders — whoa — it was harder than I expected.

Spin. Spin faster. Spin faster. By the time I matched their cadence, I was turning 100 rpm. The first match felt strained. The second was easy. By the third I was way over 100 rpm and loving how snappy my legs felt.

Dude, it was WAY easier to maintain the same power at higher cadence. At 100 rpm vs. 90 rpm, I was breathing a bit harder, but my legs felt way fresher.

During the last interval I actually bumped my threshold power up, up and up above my normal level. I ended the workout spinning 124 rpm at 250 watts — and it felt awesome.

Thanks to Lester and the Center, I’m learning stuff and getting stronger.

Too bad there’s no way I can spin that fast up these hills with a single front ring. Maybe the small ring should make a comeback?

As for you
Try climbing a hill at the same speed but in a lower gear and higher rpm. How does it feel?


— Lee

Know more. Have more fun!

Join the leelikesbikes mailing list:

13 replies
  1. Ralf says:

    Hi Lee,

    In the last 15 years I spent more time on my road bike than on my MTB. In 1999 I changed my riding style to lower gear, higher rpm because of a cartilage damage in my knee. At the same time Lance started to kick butt at the Tour de France with the same technique.
    At the beginning it felt strange, especially on the MTB, but I got used to it and now it feels absolutely natural to me. I am convinced that higher rpms are better – and I think, the numbers from your workout show the same thing. In my opinion that is also the reason why Lance beat Jan Ullrich (whose style always was high gears, low rpm) year after year.


  2. marz says:

    Welcome to the world of spinning, it’s like getting a second pair of legs. And being able to quickly spin up to a higher cadence and accelerate without changing gears can sometimes give you an edge in a race.

    I used to be a steady masher, turning 50-70rpm only and using the gears to maintain speed and power. Now I’m comfortable to power up at really low rpms (single speed training) or spin up to 130rpm in a sprint (intervals and some velodrome time). You gotta try a few laps at the velodrome, cranking out 30mph on a fixie with no brakes an inch from the guy in front is a ‘fun’ old time.


  3. scott says:

    very cool stuff, I’m glad to see you found your inner spinner! The cool thing about training with power is it allows you to figure stuff like that out. To plant something else in your thinking cap, Matt recently did a round of wattage testing. His muscle fiber composition is probably the opposite of yours, the slower he spun, the better his wattage numbers. It’s easy to forget that when Lance was showing off his high cadence technique, Jan Ullrich was his main rival, and he was doing maybe 78-80 RPM. Different cadence, same power output, all depends upon how you’re put together.

  4. leelikesbikes says:

    Scott, very cool. It’s funny: When I’m lugging the big gear I *feel* like I’m doing more/better work. Like you said, the power meter takes away the guesswork. Sort of like timing sections on a DH course; what feels fast is often sloppy.

  5. Ralf says:

    Hi Lee and Scott,

    I really like “thinking cap” 🙂
    So another thought. The wattage might be the same, but the power output is created in a slightly different way. Lee said in his findings that at higher rpm he breathed harder, but his legs felt fresher. As far as I know, this is because at higher rpm at the same speed your heartrate is higher than at lower rpm (try this when riding with a heart rate monitor). But at the same time the muscles have less tension (thus feel fresher).

  6. Ralf says:

    Forgot something.
    I guess, like always, it is best when you can do both. So that you can get some variation in you training rides and use the one or the other technique when it is useful (cf. Marz’s comment).
    So have fun spinning and mashing!

  7. leelikesbikes says:

    Thanks all.

    Yep, I believe it’s important to:

    1) Constantly work on improving both your low-end torque and your high-end spin. Become both an XR600 and a CR125.

    2) Continually increase both your top leg speed and your sustainable spin speed.

    3) Get good at pedaling in all positions. Sitting, standing, forward, back, up, down and with your bike sideways under you! Remember, this is mountain biking.

    4) Determine which approaches work best *for you* in various situations.

    Always learn. Always improve.

  8. scott says:

    Interesting stuff Ralf, and your points are well taken, but you cannot force yourself to be a predominant fiber type if you’re hardwired in a different fashion. By that, Matt couldn’t even make the same sustained wattage at a higher RPM as he could at a lower one. Doesn’t mean he should forsake higher cadence work, he should definitely work on that (and all other areas of his game, as Lee pointed out).

  9. Ralf says:

    Hi Lee and Scott,

    I find the results of Matt’s wattage testing pretty unusual but very interesting (on a purely academic level. Lee is right when he is saying that we’re talking about mountainbiking, after all.)

    But if you don’t mind, one more question. Scott, I see your point of fiber composition, but I wonder if there could be other factors involved?

    Lee, next time you pin it at the PowerMax session – maybe you could ask Coach Lester what he makes of it? Looking at his quote, he seems like the Yoda of cycling.

    May the watts be with you!

    PS: Lee, I love your image of becoming an XR 600. Next time I’m gonna go low cadence, I’ll probably smile to myself and go Braaap, braaap!

  10. scott says:

    There probably have to be more factors involved (for Matt or any other athlete), and let me state straight up, he’s never had (and probably won’t ever have) a fiber type biopsy.
    His technique is good, pays a lot of attention to spinning, so I can’t see that being the rate limiting step. He is only 14, and that certainly could be a factor, whether physiologically or psychologically. It makes an interesting discussion, Before we hijack Lee completely, you should just have him get my email and we can take it off-line
    Lee, thanks for the forum space to discuss stuff like this.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] base training. Last week we did 4 x 9-minute intervals at 90 percent of threshold power, and some exercises in optimal rpm showed me I’m a lot more comfortable at 100 rpm than […]

Comments are closed.