Pedaling to get in gear during the Tour

Here’s to making it safely to France. It’s only been a year, but I forgot how restless I can get on long flights. I wish I could have traded the time on the plane for time in the saddle, and put this cadence information that I wrote about in this Versus article into action. Check it out below:

The riders at this year’s Tour de France will ride over 2000 miles and pedal nearly a half-million revolutions in the course of this epic three-week stage race. That is a lot of circles!

One thing a rider needs to dial in is his cadence throughout the Tour. Cadence is the number of revolutions the pedals make in a minute (RPM). The range for most cyclists just cruising on a flat road is between 85 and 105 revolutions per minute. But – and this is a big BUT – that cadence may drop to below 70RPM when climbing hills, depending on how steep the climb is and what the gearing combinations are.

Now, here it gets a bit tricky. As a rider goes uphill and the tension in his legs increases, he shifts to a lower gear to make it easier to pedal. By lower gear, I mean a bigger sprocket in the rear or the smaller chainring in the front. At the Tour, most bikes are set up with two chainrings in the front: a 53 and a 39. The numbers represent the amount of teeth on the chainring.

In the front, the bigger chainring means a bigger gear or harder to push. On the rear wheel, most bikes are set up with 10 gears that range from the bottom being an 11-tooth cog, all the way up in one- to two-teeth increments to the top of the cassette at a 23-tooth cog. The 11-tooth rear cog is the hardest gear to push and the 23-tooth the easiest.

So, what does this all mean? Well, when the riders go up the steepest grades and their speeds are below 12mph in the Tour, they are often in their easiest gears (the 39 in front and the 23 in back). This allows each pedal revolution to be the easiest, but they go the least amount of distance in that revolution. As they go over the top of the hill and reach speeds of over 30mph, they put it in the big ring in front and the smallest gear in back (53 and 11). They need that extra gearing because the speeds are very high and they need something to push against. The other gears are used at all speeds in between.

The best cyclists in the Tour try to maintain the “sweet spot cadence” throughout by shifting gears all the time as their speeds change throughout the stage. Oftentimes riders are forced to pedal a little faster than their sweet spot cadences when the speeds get too high and below their sweet spot cadences when the speeds get too low. The gearing ratios are just not vast enough to handle the speeds at the really high and low ends.

Frequently riders will change their gearing a bit in the rear if the stage has massive climbs. They may give themselves an easier gear or two in back to allow for pedaling at a higher cadence up the really long, steep climbs. So, for instance, instead of 23-tooth rear cassettes, they may use 25- or 27-tooth rear cassettes. This allows them to pedal closer to their sweet spot cadences on the tougher climbs.

The big thing about cadence is that the higher the cadence, the more taxing on the cardio system and less taxing on the muscles. And since recovering from cardio work is a bit easier than recovering from muscular breakdown, most riders during the Tour prefer to tax the heart over the muscles, so spinning up the hills is ideal. The more strength-based riders sometimes prefer to muscle it up the climb because that is the only way they can keep up – they like the lower cadences.

In the end, cadence is somewhat a personal thing. One thing for sure is that riders need to ensure they have the gearing necessary to match their own pedaling preferences, but also be prepared for the terrain of the stage to change those preferences.

Ciao~
Robbie

*Note: italicized text reprinted from versus.com

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