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RAGBRAI Training: Out for a Spin

  • 28 April, 2010
  • TJ Juskiewicz

Well, spring is finally here in all parts of northern hemisphere, so no more excuses.  It is time to get out and ride. Hopefully many of you have already been on your bikes getting your body ready for RAGBRAI.  This blog is focused on your cadence, or how fast your legs go around while pedaling.   I recently read that when we walk, we take about 60 steps per minute.  Therefore, when beginning riders hop on a bike, their natural tendency is to pedal at the same cadence as they walk, about 60 rpm (revolutions with both legs per minute).  I can pick out new riders very easily – they are the ones pedaling along very slowly in a large gear.  While on the surface it may seem like the fastest way to ride a bike is to push a large gear, in actuality, you can go faster for much longer by using an easier gear and spinning it faster. 

Here’s how it works:

When you push the large gear (hard 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.   If you shift to a lower (easier) gear, your legs don’t have to work nearly as hard.  Therefore, you save your leg muscles and they can go for hours before getting tired when you spin an easier gear.  You can go the same speed, but you have to spin your legs around more times per minute.   The recommendation is to aim for 90 rpm with your legs.  Yes, this will seem fast at first but with training this will be second nature to you.

But doesn’t spinning fast make you more tired too?  Actually spinning your legs around takes very little effort; it’s the pressure you exert on the pedals that makes your legs tired.  So even though you move your legs around 50% more often when spinning at 90 rpm vs. 60 rpm, they are doing the same amount of work, but the amount of force you need to apply is less.  Think of it as breaking the work of each pedal stroke up into smaller pieces.   Each pedal stroke requires less force. You do more pedal strokes, but if your legs are trained to go around in circles, you will find you can ride a lot longer before your legs start complaining.

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 it’s below 80, 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, you will do it second nature without thinking about it. You can also do spin-ups, where you accelerate your legs to see how fast you can make them spin before you start bouncing on the saddle.  These are good to try on a gradual downhill.  Do these spinning drills frequently when you are out riding and gradually your leg speed will increase.

Finally, do you think that mashing a big gear slowly makes you look macho?  Remember, riding in a sag vehicle doesn’t look very macho. Spinning up hills past other riders at the end of a long day sounds more macho to me!

Coach David Ertl

David Ertl is a USA Cycling Level 1 (Elite) Coach and owner of Cyclesport Coaching (www.CyclesportCoaching.com). 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. Ken

    Good points, but it takes time to learn to spin faster, and initially it seems to take a lot more exertion. But as David says, it will pay in the end.

  2. Kathlene

    Thanks for the advice! This is my first RAGBRAI and I’m trying to figure out how to last on longer rides. Thanks!

  3. Sandaltan .

    Good advice. Spin a pedal and save a knee. I wish someone had beat that into my head before I learned it the hard way on my first RAGBRAI

  4. Toad

    Great Blog-and just what I needed to hear as I start my spring training. Was just out riding last night and was trying to go the higher gear, opposite what I should be doing

  5. Steve1948

    Spinning helps your circulation a lot as well. Half your circulatory system is in your legs. You need to get the lactic acid out of your legs where it can pool if you are trudging along at 30 prm. A better cadence moves more blood, and the lactic acid can move to your lungs and upper body where it can be processed better.

  6. Bob

    That’s how Lance destroyed Jan Ullrich, esp on the hills, his cadence was a LOT higher.

  7. Ryan

    Wow. I guess I should try pedaling two gears lower on the back eight than I currently do (or pedal in the middle gear in front). I used to pedal in a lower gear, until I started getting “tougher” six years ago.

  8. Mel

    Great advice! Thanks!

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