Cycling: Thoughts on pedal cadence, from observing the Tour

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If you are an avid cyclist, I am guessing you religiously watched the Tour de France on television, like I did.

I thought I would make a few comments on some of the things I noticed at this years race. (Even if it is just an attempt to justify all the time I spent in front of the TV in July!)

The talk of the last few years has been about Lances pedaling style and cadence. Lets examine this a bit.

Lance has perfected a style of riding with a very high cadence on both the flats and the climbs, but that is not all. His heel position is, or was, quite different than most of the other riders in the peloton. Lances high cadence, while certainly not a new idea, has been somewhat revolutionary (no pun intended.)

The concept is simple: pedal at a higher cadence in order to exert less force on each pedal stroke. His coach calls this peak pedal force. By doing this, some of the stress is shifted from the muscles in the legs and core to the cardio-respiratory system and thus increases efficiency.

Should you apply this to your own riding? Well, yes and no. Lance has literally spent years of training to perfect this technique. If you were to go out on the local club ride and do your best Lance imitation it would probably send your heart rate skyrocketing and you would be off the back before you could say "Joseba Beloki." However, we should all aspire to gradually increase our comfortable riding cadence.

Comfortable riding cadence is the cadence you pedal when you are not thinking about it, and you are riding at a moderate to easy pace. This is the kind of skill that is usually worked on during the Preparation and Base phases. With all of the different abilities that we need to improve in order to ride and race our bikes faster and faster, this skill seems to get put on the shelf during the race season.

What I suggest doing is to simply pay more attention to your cadence, all year. Consciously try to elevate it a few revolutions per minute (rpm) during your easy rides. For the same reason a pianist practices scales or a drummer practices rudiments, every time you turn over the pedals with a high cadence you are improving your neuromuscular abilities. The more you do it, the easier and faster you will turn the pedals over at high rpm.

What kind of rpm should you look for? How about 100rpm for a nice, easy, effortless ride. Remember you may need to work up to this.

Now lets talk about pedaling style. There are several different types of pedaling styles prevalent in the peloton, and what better time to examine them than during The Tour! The three most common styles I see are (and these are my own names for them):

French Style: I suppose it could be called the Romance Style since most of the French, Italians and Spanish use it. In this style the saddle height is high to allow for near full extension of the leg. The ankling motion is very pretty, even elegant. The French call this souplesse. The heel never drops below the pedal spindle, but many riders get the bottom of their feet nearly parallel to the ground at the top of the stroke. Check out any of the Spanish ONCE riders for this one.

Belgian Style: In this style the saddle is lower causing less leg extension. Most riders using this type of style tend to drop their heels below the pedal spindle during the stroke. This style is not as elegant as the French Style but it is certainly powerful. Riders like Andrei Tchmil, Johan Museeuw, and notably in the Tour, Santiago Botero, use this style.

Lance Style: Yes, Lance gets a category all his own. Notice how high his heel is at all times. If you dig out a tape of the Tour from last year and compare Lances pedal stroke between last year and this year, you will notice he is using much more ankling this year. Last year his heel was always in a fixed position above the pedal spindle with a constant angle between the bottom of his foot and the road. This year he is activating his calf muscles to a much greater extent with his ankling. During the time trials Lance increases his ankling even further.

I have mentioned these styles to give you something to look for and to think about. I dont believe anyone can say that only one of these correct. I believe we all need to find the style that suits us best.

Body type, muscle composition and flexibility are all contributing factors to the style that is best for you. Do you think Santiago Botero would benefit from Lances style instead of his caveman-like wrestling with his bike up the mountains? Maybe, but then again, maybe not.

Andy Applegate is an elite-level road, cyclocross, and mountain bike racer. He is also a USA Cycling- and Ultrafit-certified coach. He may be reached at

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