Before moving on to the next phase of the season now that we (finally?) have a good mileage base, it is time to have a look at a couple of basic concepts and how they relate to what we want to achieve, namely Power and Efficiency.
These days the focus of cycling training is power. Power meters everywhere and power seems to be the new buzzword. But what exactly is power? Very simply it is speed times strength. What does that mean in cycling terms for us? The best way to illustrate is to go back to one of the age old questions in cycling that keeps coming back: Is it better to push a big gear or spin a smaller one? My answer is always the same: Neither. You want to spin a big gear! That is cycling power.
To illustrate: If one cyclist is pushing a fairly big 50x16 gear at a typical mashing cadence they will be going at 31.5 kph. If a cyclist with more finesse spins along at 100 rpm in a 50x20 the result is exactly the same, 31.5 kph. The first rider has good power, the second decent leg speed but neither is really flying. If you can spin the 50x16 at 100 rpm you will sail by at 39.4 kph. That’s power: speed and strength.
If you want to increase your cycling performance, you need to increase your power. You can do it by increasing either speed or strength, but ideally you should work on both. It is also important to work on developing leg speed first since it is easier to get fast legs to turn a bigger gear than it is for strong but slow legs to learn to speed up.
Efficiency is a very important concept for us. Imagine a vehicle with a very powerful motor. It will not perform well if it has a brake dragging, hindering its efficient use of available power. Similarly we must be efficient with what we have. One of the classic examples of the importance of efficiency in cycling is former pro Abraham Olano. His VO2 max was a rather unremarkable at less than 70, comparable to a good amateur athlete but way below the 80 to 90+ expected of champion cyclists. Nonetheless he became World Time Trial Champion. The reason reputedly was his great efficiency compared to his opponents.
No promises about becoming world champ, but at least this teaches us that we can make very large gains by working on efficiency in addition to working on becoming stronger.
What defines efficiency for cyclist? There are several components.
Mechanical: Make sure your bike is in good repair. Nothing dragging, bearings spinning freely and wheels true. It is important to use the proper tires, the optimal width for our roads usually being 23 to 25mm, the former being a minimum as wider tires have been shown to have less rolling resistance as the shape of their contact patch with the road is more efficient. It is further critical to inflate them to the proper pressure. Too hard and the tire resists conforming to the imperfections in the road surface and actually impedes forward progress. Depending on rider weight a good range for the above tires would be 95 to 110 psi. After that the most important thing you can do is keep the chain clean and lubed. This can have a significant impact. Simply add a drop of oil to each link every few rides. After every single ride take 20 seconds to grasp the chain with a rag and pedal backwards to run the chain through the rag a few times. That’s it. If you are really ambitious you can take another 30 seconds to wipe off the chainrings. This will remove excess oil from the outside of the chain so it cannot trap dirt while keeping the lube inside where it is needed. Another point people neglect: their cleats. Even if your present ones do not look completely worn out, you will probably find a new pair has less slop and will transmit power better as well as make it easier to pedal smoothly.
Positional/Bio-mechanical: As mentioned earlier, fit is critical. Since wind resistance is a squared function, the faster you go, the greater the importance of an aerodynamic position. However, this should not come at the expense of the ability to actually produce the power required or the comfort to keep it up for long periods. A delicate balancing act and why a good bike fitter is a must.
Pedaling Fluidity: This is simply having a smooth pedal stroke. This is possibly where we can make the biggest gains. In order to have a smooth stroke quite a bit of neuromuscular adaptation must take place. It is not only a question of the right muscles firing at precisely the right time to get the pedals to go around easily, but also a matter of having muscles shut off at exactly the right time to avoid instability. Some studies seem to show that the best cyclists excel at this precise handing off from one muscle to the next and it makes a big difference to performance.
Cadence: An important component of efficiency. Many studies have tried to find the optimal cadence, but it proved elusive. It seems the problem was that there is no one optimal cadence. Not only will it vary between individuals, but even for the same individual it will vary with power output. That last point is critical as this is a case of reality being counterintuitive. Most cyclists are aware that having a high cadence is good so they will spend a lot of time when speeds are moderate spinning along in an easy gear. When the intensity ramps up many tend to drop their cadence and push big gears. It turns out this is exactly the opposite of what we should do. The human body is like a small displacement engine, it needs high revs to put out a lot of power. Studies now suggest that lower cadences of around 80 to 90 are efficient for low power outputs. Since power output is low the muscles are not stressed and by keeping the rpms down the cardio system is not overly involved. However as intensity rises, so does the ideal cadence. When you are going all out 100 rpm+ should not be unusual. But as I have said, many people do the opposite by habit. This bad habit alone will make it impossible to stay with a group when things heat up even though their average fitness may be no greater than yours. If you gear up and try to accelerate that gear you will be at a huge disadvantage compared to someone who spins up a gear and then shifts up. The higher cadence will be more efficient and either provide more speed or be able to sustain a given speed longer. So even though we cannot be specific about RPM, we can aim for some general ranges. When output is low and the tempo relaxed, aim for 90 RPM. You could get away with as little as 80 from an efficiency point of view, but aiming for the higher number will improve your leg speed which will be helpful later on when it is really needed. When things get more intense, use your cadence meter to help guide shifting so that you can stay between 95 and 100 RPM, some riders having success increasing up to 110 or more when going flat out. When doing hills ideal cadence will drop a bit, but probably not as much as most people let it. On a sustained climb you should aim to keep in the 70 to 80 range, though again some people might be even higher.
On all terrains, a high cadence has several advantages. At a higher cadence the greater of momentum of your legs helps keep the pedals going around. Also, a higher cadence will mean more frequent but smaller muscle contractions, which is beneficial to keeping vital blood and oxygen flowing through the muscles. Pushing a big gear can apparently result in the blood flow being interrupted completely for small periods of time, hindering sustained performance.