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Spinning Vs Grinding | What Is The Best Cadence For Climbing On A Road Bike?


– When it comes to cycling technique, one question seems to
endure above all others. When climbing, should you pedal faster if you want to go faster? I mean, spin to win, right? It’s the secret of the pros. And therefore, if you want to go faster, you need to practice pedaling faster. And, in fact, this style just won on the fearsomely steep Monte Zoncolan at the Giro d’Italia this year. Although in that particular context, we have to use the term
style quite loosely. But is it actually faster? See, I’m not entirely sure that it is, even though the pros do it. So we’re going to explore the issue and just so that it’s not
a load of scientific chat, we’ve also devised a short, extreme and incredibly painful test involving me as the guinea pig. (fast paced techno music) For the purposes of this video, we’re going to call
spinning 90 rpm and above and grinding 80 rpm and below. And we’ll completely gloss
over that a bit in the middle which is kind of just pedaling. And the test that we’re going to do. Well, we’ve got two runs. Firstly, a 34/28 and
then with a quick swap of the crankset to 39/23. A very old school gear, what I used to race on in fact. And our test climb is not an Alp, it’s not a Rocky Mountain, nor is it a Dolomite,
although thank goodness. Monte Zoncolan looked absolutely horrible. But nevertheless, it is a little hill in a quiet corner of England, but it is still particularly nasty. It is super steep. The kind of climb where you can take your functional threshold power, screw it up, and throw it out the window. First up, 34/28 spinning and hopefully winning. (lively rock music) So while I desperately labor
up this horrible climb, what are the reasons for spinning and why does it have such a following? Well, it’s certainly indisputable physics that a high cadence requires less torque, so you push the pedals with
less force for a given power. And one might imagine then that spinning helps to do less muscle damage. For a time, it was also
thought that spinning a faster cadence, paradoxically perhaps, would use a greater proportion of efficient slow twitch muscle fibers compared to slower high force pedaling, which relies on fast twitch. And some studies have shown
that low cadence pedaling sometimes uses more muscle glycogen. So essentially, you might blow
quicker if you pedal slower. However, it is not that simple. That fact would only be relevant anyway when pedaling at close to your maximum. Most research has shown that riders with a greater proportion of
slow twitch muscle fibers are more efficient at lower cadences. (breathes heavily) That was absolutely horrible. (breathes heavily) That’s not my normal style, that. Couldn’t get out of the seat. I was pedaling too fast. (breathes heavily) Yeah, I’m surprised if
that’s quicker for me. Heart rate hit 190 today,
always a good sign. There is a reason why pedaling fast can feel so uncomfortable. Some recent research
demonstrated just how much energy goes in to simply moving
your legs up and down. And energy cost that you could
imagine is only magnified if your ankles are as heavy as mine. Now the faster you pedal, the more energy you
expend on that movement. So at lower power outputs, the majority of your
energy could simply be on lifting your legs up and down. And then the faster you pedal then, the more energy you will need
to spend simply on movement. So at lower power
outputs, you could imagine that actually most of your total energy goes into simply turning your legs around. But then as your power increases, the proportion of that
energy as a relation to your total energy expenditure, therefore decreases. Now initially that research
was not carried out on trained cyclists. But some of it was. In fact, probably some
of the most important research on this subject, it took place in the late ’90s. And that showed that as
your power output increases, the effect of your
cadence on your efficiency does indeed diminish. So more power means that you can, therefore, pedal faster. Perhaps explaining why
pros do what they do. But maybe they pedal fast,
because they go fast. And not the other way around. Anyway, that’s probably
enough procrastinating. I’ve got another run to do. Run number two. If anything I’m kind of
looking forward to this, old school slow pedaling malarkey. Lactate clear from the legs, 100 percent commitment. You ready? Okie-doke. (upbeat music) 80 rpm and out of the saddle, normally. The basic discussion of cadence shows that there is a relationship between power output and pedaling rate. I.e., faster riders are
also likely to pedal faster. But does that change when climbing? Now, research, including some by the legendary coach Fred Grappe, demonstrated a long time ago that the way we pedal changes
when going uphill. Even when you control for cadence. Because we change how
our force is distributed over the pedal stroke. And it’s true, that for the
majority of the pro pelaton, the pedaling rate does
decreases when climbing, despite an increase in power output compared to flat riding. We can also see from
the data, from Velon, at the Giro d’Italia, that
climbing does affect cadence. In a time trial, Tom Dumoulin
will pedal at 100 rpm, on Monte Zonoclan, it was just 80 rpm. So what is going on? (breathes heavily) We’ll do the results from here. So that was five minutes
of fairly extreme pain. Has it demonstrated anything? Well, both hurt. Both have giving me burning
legs and searing lungs. But I think perhaps the only
thing it’s going to demonstrate, to you, is what my prefer cadence is. And that is because I went
quite significantly faster on run number two where
I was pedaling slower, but my power output was also higher. Now my average heart rate was
also two beats a minute lower, but I’m loathe to read
anything too much into that. But as our extremely
scientific experiment, with a data pool of one, successfully proven anything then? Well, no. Clearly not. But what it has done,
is reiterate the fact that everybody has a preferred cadence. Now, we will automatically defer to our most efficient cadence if
we’re left to our own devices and we’ve also got the gearing
options available to us. Now what your preferred cadence is, is going to depend very much
on your muscle fiber type and your leg length proportions,
and your crank length, perhaps, even yes, the weight of your ankles. And, of course, remember that your pedaling cadence
isn’t fixed over time either. You might find that
actually you pedal faster at the beginning of a ride
compared to the end of your ride. And on this particular case, yes, a slower cadence allowed me to try harder, so I got up the hill faster. But that’s not going to be much good when we’re on Monte Zonoclan. Anyway, the picture is
still frustratingly muddy, so I think we need to defer, once again, to our genie-us. – Professor Louis Passfield. Louis, I’m going to get straight in there. Why do riders tend to pedal
slower when they’re climbing? – That’s a great question, Simon. I wish I could give you a
very definite answer to that and it’s something that still always the topic of conversation. Over a cup of tea, after a ride. – [Simon] (laughs) Yeah. – And even over a cup of
tea amongst scientists. So at the University of Kent, we’ve done quite a few studies
looking at riding uphill and trying to figure
this one out ourselves. – Okay. – What I think we can say is that we know as you ride uphill,
the gradient shifts. And actually that changes
how you pedal a bicycle. – [Simon] Okay. – [Louis] So instead
of where you press down normally when you’re riding on the flats, it becomes a different place when you tilt the bicycle uphill. So that’s one thing about
how your technique changes. – [Simon] Okay. – [Louis] And then you’re also fighting gravity when you go uphill. Whereas on the flat, really gravity isn’t having a major effect. – [Simon] Yeah. – So it changes the way that the bike, the forces on the bike, are resisting you. Or what you’re working against. – [Simon] Okay. – So we know from studies now, for a quite a few years,
that the pedaling technique, if you’re to look at
the forces on the pedal, they change as you go uphill. When riders start pedaling uphill, they change the way they pedal. – Okay. – To take advantage of the gradient. And that’s what causes them to slow down and change their pedaling technique. – So, now I don’t know if
this is what you were trying to refer, but does that
mean, therefore, actually that pedaling slower is more
efficient for those riders or does it mean that
it’s only more efficient when gravity is adding that extra force into the equation of making
your bike go forwards. – So I’m thinking specifically about the effect of gravity
as you’re riding uphill as opposed to the
difference between riders. So I’m taking the fact
that there’s a difference between riders as a given, if you like. – Yeah. – And there’s a whole
host of different factors that will determine what the most cadence, what the most comfortable
cadence is for you. But once you go uphill, gravity is working on everybody
in a similar kind of way, and it’s shifting their technique
in a similar kind of way. And that’s part, part of
the equation probably. – Okay. So if a rider does choose
to pedal more quickly, like say Chris Froome or Lance Armstrong, probably the two most famous examples of riders with faster
pedaling rates when climbing. You know, what are they doing differently, other than the obvious, which is just pedaling faster. Is there anything on the
kind of physiological level that you can determine that’s different? – Well, they would definitely
had to have done quite a lot of training in order to be quite comfortable with riding uphill at that kind of cadence. And I suspect that what
that really means is they’re more efficient at that cadence and that’s the consequence
of a lot of training, a lot of practice. It wouldn’t happen overnight. It wouldn’t happen even
just a function of them being super fit cyclists. They probably had to practice
that over considerable length of time in their
training for many years. The other factor to consider as well is because they’re pedaling that quickly, they probably don’t get out
of the saddle very often. – Yeah. – So I haven’t studied that specifically by looking back at old race footage. But anyone out there could. – Yeah. – And I suspect you’ll find that they don’t get out of the saddle very often. Now, if your preferred
style of climbing is to mix sitting in the saddle and
getting out of the saddle, you’re not going to be able to
get out of the saddle easily at those really high cadences. – [Simon] No. – So part of what you’ll
probably see is those people that prefer to pedal a little more slowly, also like to mix it up in terms of how much they get out of the saddle and move between in and out of the saddle. Whereas, people like Froome
and Armstrong previously, probably stay in the
saddle an awful lot more than those other riders. As I said, it’s a consequence
of their training, the practice that they’ve done to do that. – So, so, whoever coached
Lance, whoever coaches Froome, they’ve obviously suggested
that they practice this. Is that part of the reason why they can go uphill as fast as they can? Is it something that
more riders should train? – Um, it could well be
a useful thing to train. But I think it’s probably most beneficial for stage race riders. Because part of what
they may well be doing is benefiting from making that effort somewhat less damaging for them. Not necessarily on one day, but over several days. When you add that effect up, over many, many days during a stage race. And of course, those really
hard climbs are likely to be the crucial race
deciding moments too. So you take those two things into account, pedaling a little bit faster reduces the forces on the muscles, which may, in turn, make the ride that little bit less damaging. Makes it easier to recover the next day and do the same thing
again on the next climb the following day. – [Simon] Yeah. – [Louis] So that is probably
why they’re doing that. If you’re a rider that
wants to go uphill fast, you don’t necessarily need to learn to pedal quickly doing it. – [Simon] Okay. – For example, with James Hopker
at the University of Kent, we did a study with one
of our research students where we compared riding in
the saddle with out of saddle. Sorry, out of the saddle
and in the saddle. And what we found there was that there was a difference in
how efficient you were, in the saddle compared
to out of the saddle. In the saddle, you were more efficient than you were out of the saddle. But only at low intensities. So let’s say the first few climbs of a big mountain stage in the Tour. – Yeah. – Or the Vuelta. Whichever race we’re thinking about. The Giro, at the moment. There, if you’re out of the saddle, and you’re not working particularly hard, because it’s early on in the race, that’s less efficient than
sitting in the saddle. – [Simon] Okay. – Once you start working
harder, the situation changes. And actually getting out of the saddle becomes as efficient as
staying in the saddle. So it’s not an advantage
to get out of the saddle, but you lose the disadvantage
once you start working harder. So the two actually come closer together. – Okay, right. Now, we’ve been talking
about professional cyclists from the draw to this. What about, you and I? The normal rider. You would put out less power, should we be pedaling faster, trying to train ourselves to pedal faster, or should we say, right, lower power, it’s more efficient to pedal more slowly, that’s what you should do. – I think you’ll find for the
average rider like ourselves, as we work harder, going up a climb, assuming we’re actually
fit enough to change tempo. (laughs) Then, I would say your
cadence would naturally rise one or two revs anyway. – [Simon] Okay. – And if you were in training, it wouldn’t do any harm to try to raise it another two or three revs, to just start to tease
your body with the idea of working a little bit harder, at a slightly higher
cadence than your body naturally wants to do. But I wouldn’t spend an
awful lot of time practicing that in the way that someone like Armstrong of Froome would necessary. Because I think the real
benefits that would come over really sustained practice, many, many sessions, many hours, and the benefits of that
would pay off in a stage race, rather than just on the next
climb you happen to go up. – You know I don’t why we
didn’t just interview Loius and then save myself
all of that hard work. But, never mind. It is always good to
experiment with your riding and actually work out how you respond to different pedaling rate. And remember as well, that
even if you choose to ride at a certain cadence naturally, it doesn’t mean that
actually you wouldn’t benefit from training at different cadences. Slow and fast. Now do remember to give
this video a big thumbs up. Say thank you very much to Louis. And if you want to see some
more of his genie-us tips, then click just down there.

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