RAGBRAI Training: Go for a Spin
I work with a lot of entry level cyclists, through my work with the JDRF Ride To Cure event which attracts a lot of first-time riders. There are a number of RAGBRAI riders that fall into this same situation and you may be one of them. If so, keep reading.
THE most common mistake I see new riders make is to use too large of a gear and pedal too slowly. This may feel like the right thing to do, but pedaling faster can make you faster and make you less tired. Let me start by clarifying some terms which can make this subject confusing.
Your bike has a series of gears. A ‘high’ or ‘large’ gear is one which feels hard to pedal and your feet go around slowly. A ‘low’ or ‘small’ gear allows your feet to go around fast. This is made even more confusing by the gears on the bike. Multi-gear bikes typically come with two or three chainrings in the front (the big gears attached to the cranks that your pedals are attached to). The larger chainring results in a larger gear ratio.
Then there are anywhere from 8-10 gears in the back attached to your rear wheel. These work the opposite way. The largest gear in the back results in a lower gear, or easier pedaling. So the highest gear on your bike is to use the largest chainring in the front and the smallest gear in the back. The best way to learn this is to play around with your bike and try different gears in the front and back and see what happens. ‘Cadence’ is a term used to describe how fast or slow your feet go around in circles. A high gear results in a low cadence (slow pedaling). A low gear results in a higher cadence.
When people new to cycling begin riding, they almost invariably start out with a cadence that is to slow, in other words, they use a gear that is too large. There may be a couple of explanations for this. First, when we walk, we tend to take about 60 steps per minute. So 60 is pretty ingrained in our mentality. When we get on the bike, 60 rpm feels ‘normal’. But 60 rpm is not the most efficient cadence for long distance riding. Another explanation may be that people believe that by using a larger gear, they will go faster. This may be true for the short term, but trust me, after 70 miles on a day of RAGBRAI; you won’t be going very fast if you have pedaled slowly all day pushing a high gear.
When you push the large gear, you are exerting a lot of force with your legs on the pedals every pedal stroke. This requires you to recruit more muscle fibers every time you pedal which tires the leg muscles out fairly quickly. It’s kind of like lifting weights where you use a large amount of force, but you also get tired quickly. The same thing happens on a bike. Push a high gear and your leg muscles will tire quickly. Pedaling 60 RPM compared to 90 RPM means your legs have to work 50% harder per pedal stroke. This adds up over a day and week of riding and you will pay for it with tired legs.
Please try this out for yourself and you will see what I am talking about. So try this on your next ride. Pay attention to your cadence. Some bike computers have a cadence attachment that goes on your bike down by the crank. If you don’t have one of these, you can count the number of pedal strokes you make with one leg for 6 seconds and multiply by 10 to determine your cadence in rpm. If your cadence is below 75, then you should work at speeding up your cadence. Do this by shifting to the next lower (easier) gear and increasing your leg speed. This will feel unnatural at first but over time, but don’t give up. With enough practice it will come second nature.
When riding your bike, you should almost never need to use the large chainring in the front. If you have two chainrings in the front, spend most of the time in your smaller chainring. If you have three chainrings, use the middle one for most of your riding. You should only need your large chainring when going downhill.
So go for spin, literally!
Coach David Ertl
David Ertl is a USA Cycling Level 1 (Elite) Coach and owner of Cyclesport Coaching. He coaches individual cyclists, the Des Moines Cycle Club Race Team and the JDRF Greater Iowa Chapter for the Ride to Cure Diabetes. He can be contacted at Coach@CyclesportCoaching.com