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RAGBRAI Training: Go for a Spin

  • 6 July, 2011
  • TJ Juskiewicz

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 


  1. Jeff Jenkins

    David, thanks for the explanation. I’m an age 56 recreational rider who’s done RAGBRAI and BAK (Bike Across Kansas). I average 2K miles per year. I always ride alone – in part because I’m slow (about 12.0 mph average). I’m neither weak nor lazy and I do not become winded easily. I will work with your information on cadence. I have a Garmin and my typical cadence today is definitely < 60 rpm. I still find terms like high/large/hard confusing – given that the front and back gears work opposite…but I know intuitively what needs to be done. I like the idea of staying in the small ring up front. I almost never ride in it and consider it the 'hill gear'. I'll turn my thinking upside down and see what happens.

    Jeff Jenkins

  2. Ron Dickinson


    Consider riding with a cadance of 80 to 95. You will have to push a smaller gear, but once your cardo system gets use to it your riding will be much more enjoyable. Besides you can always go back and push the big gears just for fun once in awhile. On hills try to keep a cadance of 55-60 if possible.

  3. Cyfan

    Thanks Coach

    I just wish I had read this article 5 years ago when I road my first RAGBRAI. I have learned this over the last several years and now only use the large chainring in front going down large hills. This does work great and I am riding at a faster pace now. I used this method on a 54 mile ride last week in temperatures that exceeded 100 degrees and still felt like I had another easy 50 miles left in me.

  4. James

    If you have an iPod or MP3 player, create a playlist of songs with a tempo of 80 beats per minute to play while you ride. It’s an easy way to ingrain the rythym (and makes the ride more enjoyable too!) but remember to check your mirror and keep the volume at a safe level!

  5. linda lou

    This would have helped me a lot at the beginning of my training for Ragbrai. I started out my training for two months in my large gears. My knees were aching and a little swelling was occurring because I thought by using my large gears, making my peddling very hard would build my muscles faster. I was complaining to a friend about my knees and he told me to make my peddling easier but no one mentioned the cadence. Having the article early with your training schedule would help a lot of non cyclist like me, older and not to wise with biking. Maybe you did post it earlier and I missed it. Thank you, it is a good article. I never use my middle front gear because I always think of that gear and the smallest front ones as granny gears,*(I do use them for big hills only) I won’t be thinking that way and will start using the front middle gear a lot more. Tired Legs

  6. Brent Laning

    I’ve been advocating higher cadence with lower gearing for years. It’s tough to get through to many people, but once you’ve experienced it you’ll begin to believe.
    Try it at least for a couple of rides.

  7. Coach David Ertl

    Linda Lou,
    Thanks for the positive feedback. I will plan on posting this again early in the season for next year. But at least you read it in time to help you on RAGBRAI this year.

  8. Rich K

    Coach David, thanks for the great tip. I read this when you first posted it and started riding this way. It does take some getting use to but what a difference. This will be my first RAGBRAI and I know you have helped to make it even more enjoyable. I always thought just the opposite, less revolutions meant less peddling per mile=less work. I am 55 and now my knees feel much better after a ride. I no longer watch my mileage, I watch my cadence and shift accordingly. As Linda Lou stated, wish this was one of your first posts. Thanks for your time and giving us all of your great tips.

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