Efficient Riding: Cadence and Exhaustion

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iStock_000041000650_FullbOne of the many new things you may need to relearn about cycling is where your power comes from. Your thighs pump your legs to turn the pedals; your core acts like a wall for the thighs to push against. So at first glance it seems pushing your muscles to the limit is the best way to move those pedals faster. But the food you’ve eaten powers those muscles. So, pushing them too hard will exhaust your energy which will inevitably slow you down. How do you ride, then, without constantly exhausting yourself?

The answer is cadence. Cadence is the rhythm of your feet as they turn to push the pedals. A good rider will balance cadence power output. Given a flat smooth road and a windless, generally, a very fast cadence (say 120 revolutions per minute) may help to avoid exhaustion, but won’t move your bike very far forward for the effort you’re putting out. A very slow cadence (say 50 rpm) will likely involve pushing hard on the pedals with each downstroke, and pulling up hard on the upstroke — it might move your bike forward faster, but it will definitely exhaust you. (Read my prior article on why higher cadence is better.) The answer is to modulate your cadence based on road conditions and your fitness level. How do you modulate your cadence?

And that answer is effective use of gearing and fitness. The first and easiest step is to learn to use your gears. Assuming you have a road bike with two front cogs (together, “the chainring”) and ten or eleven rear cogs (together “the cassette”) — a very common set —  practice using  your front gear as a macro adjustment and your rear gear as a micro adjustment:

  1. When descending, be sure the front gear is in the large chain ring.
  2. When on flat or rolling hills, use large front chain ring if you have a tailwind (wind aiding you by pushing you in the direction of travel).
  3. When on flat or rolling hills, use the small front chain ring if you have a headwind (wind hindering your by pushing you backwards).
  4. When climbing, be sure the front gear is in the small chain ring.

How you do this is dependent on what kind of components your bike has. (See REI’s article explaining gears.) But the front controls on most road bikes are on the left side. Usually, you have to force the derailleur to push the gear UP onto the large ring, so the “faster” gears are achieved with a bit more effort on the gear lever, while to gear DOWN you are releasing the pressure, so the shift is more like a click.

Once you’re in the correct front cog, use the rear cogs to micro adjust your performance. If you find yourself sweating, huffing, and using too much muscle power, you may want to push the rear gear UP into a larger (higher) cog. If you find your legs spinning like mad while all the world passes you, you may want to RAISE the gear by pushing the rear gear DOWN into a smaller cog.

Gaining a basic understanding of the mechanics is important, but the only way to do it is to try it out. (See this article for an explanation of how to shift.) Don’t be shy to play with your gears. Try riding on flats first in the big chain ring (front gear). Then try the same ride later in the small chain ring. Then micro adjust with the rear to keep your legs spinning.

You may notice a subtle difference in how you ride and the difficulty. This is, in part, because there is a big overlap in the “gearing ratio” (see prior link) — some of the same gears are represented by different combinations of chain ring/cassette gearing.

Here’s a quick list of common gear combinations which may help gel the whole thing in your brain:

  • The “easiest” gear combination for climbing is the chain is all the way TOWARD the bike (small chain ring, largest cassette cog);
  • The “hardest” gear for descending is the chain all the way AWAY FROM the bike (large chain ring, smallest cassette cog).

There are two combinations which you should avoid: largest chain ring and largest cog; smallest chain ring and smallest cog. This is called cross chaining. In these configurations, you put the most stress on the chain. Better components can do this no problem, but if you’re dropping your chain a lot, check to see if you’re doing this.

The takeaways are this:

  1. Big front chain ring: climbing — Small front, descending.
  2. Large rear cassette: easier — Small rear, more power.
  3. Maintain a cadence which does not exhaust you, but moves you forward at the desired pace.
  4. Don’t be afraid to experiment.

Next week, I’m going to write about fitness and cadence and give you some target cadences which should help with your understanding. Also, you can get a good cadence meter for your  bike pretty cheap — apart from your speed, cadence is a good metric to help gauge your cycling (though I’d invest in a heart rate monitor first).

Your Bear


Absolute Beginners: Keeping Pace

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So, the weather is finally perfect. The sun is shining, the birds are frolicking, the Bears are donning tutus and glitter. Perhaps tomorrow will be the longest ride you’ve attempted to date. Or, perhaps, it will be a century ride — 100 miles of cycling bliss. For those of us with two speeds (on and off), this can be a recipe for a hard bonk. But however fiercely the sun shines or however steep the hills get, there are techniques to get you through the day. Of the many techniques I’ve blogged about before, maintaining an even, achievable pace is just as important.

Image Credit, Forsetmann's Facebook Page.
Image Credit, Forsetmann’s Facebook Page.

The question is, how do you do that if you’ve never ridden 100 miles? The answer is to pay attention to the warning signs early and learn from past rides. Yes, learn from your mistakes, that’s how its done. And as we all know, that can be difficult for the best of us. So, rather than relying on our massive intellects, the next best thing to do is follow a few easy steps.


Its important to be ready before you get on your bike. If you skip these, then any amount of pacing yourself is not going to keep you from bonking.

  1. Eat. Yes, your brain and your legs both need proper nutrition. Now’s not the time for dieting. Prepare by eating heartily but healthily the day before then have a healthy breakfast (oatmeal, whole grain toast). (Links in these sections lead to more information on the topic.)
  2. Sleep. Be sure you’re properly rested before you begin.
  3. Know your terrain. Review the route sheet the night before, if possible, and identify problem areas. Climbing, descending, navigating lots of curves, or extended flats can all be difficult for some. Listen to the ride leader when he or she explains the route.
  4. Make sure your bike is well tuned. For longer rides, minor annoyances (squeaks and groans) can become frustration inducing monsters.
  5. Be with the group. Don’t do your first epic ride alone. Be with your mates and do your best to keep up with them.
  6. Stretch. I’m terrible at stretching. I never do it. I’m a bad person. Don’t follow suit. Be sure you’re as limber as you can be.


During the ride, nutrition, hydration, and keeping your demons at bay all contribute to a successful ride.

  1. Find ride mates who are at your level and try to stick with them. Conversation and companionship are great motivators. You’ll find you can keep up a better pace if you’re not alone.
  2. Hydrate. Have sips of water, alternating with hydration fluid (fizzy tabs or gatorade) at least every 15 minutes. Do this throughout the ride without fail.
  3. Eat. Make sure you get about 100 to 150 calories every hour or so that you’re riding. Have a good lunch. Some people can eat a lot (me), while some need to keep some in reserve. Either way, have something and bring your leftovers with you to eat at the next rest stop. Remember to keep up your riding hydration and nutrition despite lunch.
  4. Rest. Stop at every assigned rest stop, but not for long. Your body is still burning calories and you have to use the momentum you’ve gotten to get through the day. If you’re longer than 15 minutes at any given rest stop, you’re there too long.
  5. Climbing. If you need, take short breathers BEFORE or AFTER the hills. Avoid stopping mid-climb. It is dangerous to yourself or others to stop on a steep hill. It can be difficult to take off up hill. Your body is probably not getting a really good rest, since you’re thinking about the climb. That being said, if you do have to stop, do it on the least-steep part of the hill, and do it in the shade.
  6. Cramping. You have muscle cramping, you’re likely not eating or drinking enough. Yes. I know you’ve been eating and drinking…


Finally, to get you through the ride, keep up a moderate pace. Don’t pour your energy out at any particular stage. Instead, know your own strengths and use them to best advantage.

  1. Maintain a high cadence throughout the ride. Higher cadences mean less muscle strain. Less muscle strain means you can ride longer. (Get a cadence meter.)
  2. Expend your effort on climbs. They’re going to be difficult any way. Let the climbs be where you shine.
  3. Don’t slack on the descents. You can maintain your target heart rate on the descents. But even if you use them to “rest,” don’t just coast down the hills. Which leads me to the general rule…
  4. Pedal. Every foot you’re not pedaling is a waste. A single pedal stroke will get you forward more than if you weren’t pedaling and (if you’re in the right gear) for a tiny fraction of effort. And you can still rest while pedaling.
  5. Keep an even pace on flats/rollers. Try to avoid speeding up then slowing down. Find a groove and stick with it. This is another good reason for a riding partner. The two of you can help keep an even pace.
  6. If you’re feeling rested, that doesn’t mean you need to jet off at full speed. Keep that energy for the hills. (Know yourself. Sometimes its better to get a section over with if a rest stop is coming up.)
  7. Catch yourself before you get exhausted, and rest while cycling. Slow your speed, slow your heart rate while cycling. You’ll save time and effort over stopping to rest.
  8. Consider reducing your pace from the get go. Keep your speed or your heart rate at 90% of your typical ride. (Get a heart rate monitor.)

That’s a lot to digest, but it boils down to pacing yourself, eating enough, and knowing your body and the ride. There are lots of topics in need of expansion here. Please feel free to ask me questions in the comments or on Facebook.

Your Bear

Over the next couple months, I’m going to write a few articles with the lead-in title “Absolute Beginners,” explaining some of the basic principles of cycling. Most of the information is stuff I’ve learned from other cyclists, bike shop mechanics, classes I’ve taken, and Google searches. Please help me out and comment with corrections, additions, or supplements which will help my readers learn about how to operate their bikes! Look for a new series for intermediate cyclists in the summer of 2014.

The Thing About Cycling

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Read my host of entries on why I ride in the AIDS/LifeCycle: the people, community, fighting homophobia and HIV/AIDS fears, and the joy of cycling. Here’s a bit of a primer on the joys of cycling for those who cannot fathom spending a day on a bike.

Waking up for a ride can be hard. Its 6 am. Or its 5 am. Or 4; or even 3 am. Riding a long distance is time consuming. The days grow longer, the weather fairer, and the miles and climbing increase. But with all these increases comes greater strength, more camaraderie as we help each other achieve our goals, and a renewed sense of commitment to cycling and to the charities which will bring about an end to AIDS in our lifetimes.

Preparing for the ride can also feel like a lonesome burden. Grumbling, your pets and husband(s) still slumbering peacefully, you have to don a thin layer of spandex which seems a bit insufficient to hide your shame, down as much coffee as possible, and hope you’ve consumed enough carbs for the day’s journey. But you do it anyway because you remember the last time when you reached your goals or you didn’t quite make it up that hill, or you saw a new rider full of pride because she finally got out of the house and made it to the top of a great climb.

[Click for image credit.]
Chris Horner being cheered by cyclists and fans. [Click for image credit.]
Then there’s the unfortunate drive to the meet up point. I try to ride to the meet up point whenever possible. But usually, especially when I’m riding far away or when the miles increase, driving is the only option. But even driving can become a joy when you get to commute with your friends. The secret here is planning and communication. Make sure you’re connected to your mates on Facebook, Twitter, or by text. Asking will doubtless get you a ride. And that’s always more fun.

Finally at the meet up point. It seems too cold to be wearing so little. Everything is a blur because there wasn’t time for enough coffee. But everyone else — though complaining about aches and pains and lack of sleep — is smiling broadly and looks happy to see you. When the Training Ride Leader comes around and asks how you’re training is going, you’ll find you have a lot to talk about and an interested ear. When you start to stretch, you realize that all those days of early mornings are paying off. The pains seem as phantom as the twilight which is rapidly giving way to blue skies (unless your ride starts out in San Francisco, in which case you’ll have to wait an hour or so for the blue to emerge from the grey).

The ride begins and you feel like a little kid again. Can you feel the giddy anticipation? The TRL warned you about the climbing, the warm weather, the bumpy roads, the cow manure, or the wind. But instead of feeling trepidatious, all you can muster is a thrill of anticipation like a kid on Christmas. The knowledge that you will be with your friends, being encouraged, doing something you used to watch others do from your speeding car window. This is the thing about cycling.

Challenges arise, but you face them. The hill was twice as steep as you were warned. The wind made the whole ride feel like a climb. The sun beat down with a furor. But you did it. You watched your Garmin register increasing cumulative miles: 12, 23, 37, 52, 63.4. Somehow, using your muscle power alone. somehow you became the athlete you always knew you could be. No, the ride wasn’t easy. The challenges were difficult. And some of them you might not quite have achieved. But in the end, you rode those miles. Pride swells inside. Something its nearly impossible to make others understand.

Back at the starting point, you start to think about home. All life’s cares were erased for that one instant. From the other side, it seemed like the ride would take forever. But now, the ride seemed all too short. You remember that tomorrow’s Monday, that you have dinner plans with your wife, and that your dog misses you with a passion. You hug your riding mates and promise to see them the following week for the even-harder ride (could it be a century?).

And you know, however hard it is to get up that day, you’re going to do it. Riding has entered your blood. You are the rider.

Your Bear

Playing the Numbers: Heart Rate

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Photo credit: FratmenJonah

I’ve really just begun to look at heart-rate training. I know I keep my body in my target heart rate, described below, but I’ve not begun to maximize my cycling efficiency with heart rate zones. That’s the next step, and this preliminary outline is just the beginning. Use it to gain a general understanding of the topic. For a general discussion of this topic for cyclists, read here.

As a preface: just get out and bike. Any amount of doctor-approved aerobic exercise is more likely than not to be beneficial. That being said, you can maximize your workout and make it more safe by
knowing something about heart rate and its effects on exercise.

I. Simple: Resting and Target Heart Rates

The American Heart Association recommends these steps:

A. Determine your resting heart rate.

This you do in bed when you first wake up. You can follow the American Heart Association’s instructions, or you can strap on your Garmin and use it to determine your heart rate at rest.

Resting heart rate is unique to each person, so you can’t just go by a chart. The average is 60 to 80 beats per minute. Athletes typically have lower resting heart rates, which can be as low as 40. If you’re just starting an exercise routine, your resting heart rate can be as high as 100. Your resting heart rate will also increase as you age, so you may have to repeat this step periodically.

This will establish a baseline and help you to determine if additional medical intervention is required before you start a new exercise program.

B. Know your target heart rate range.

For this step, you can use the age-based chart on the American Heart Association’s website:

This step will be expanded in the intermediate step, below.

C. Monitor your exercise to make sure you’re within your target range.

Then, as you exercise, monitor your heart rate. You can do this for free with a watch and your finger, but a much easier way is with your Garmin (or similar device). The point here is to keep your heart in the range indicated for your age.

I’m between 45 and 50, so my target heart rate is 88 to 149 beats per minute. This represents 50 to 85% of my maximum heart rate (estimated to be 175 beats per minute per this chart).

The point is to slow down if your heart rate goes over the maximum and to increase effort if your heart rate goes below the minimum. Start out slow and increase over time.

During the first few weeks of working out, aim for the lowest part of your target zone (50 percent). Then, gradually build up to the higher part (85 percent). After six months or more, you may be able to exercise comfortably at up to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate. But you don’t have to exercise that hard to stay in shape.

Exercising in your target range will maximize fat burning and aerobic activity. You have to keep your heart rate up in the range from thirty minutes three times per week (for minimal results) up to at least one hour every day to achieve real weight loss.

II. Intermediate: Calculating your Maximum Heart Rate

Once you have a good handle on maintaining exercise in your target zone, you can fine-tune those numbers by calculating your personal maximum heart rate, rather than relying on the averages. There are several methods. I’ll outline the first one here. Ride With GPS points to Sally Edwards’s page on calculating heart rate, which is where I got this information.

The SubMax 1-Mile Walking Test.

Go to any high school or college track (most are 400 meters or 440 yards around) and walk or stride as fast as you can in your current condition. Walk as fast as is comfortable. Walk four continuous laps. 

The last lap is the important one. Take your pulse, or use your heart rate monitor, to determine your average heart rate for only the last lap. The first three laps are just to get you to reach a heart rate plateau and to stay there for the last lap. 

Add to this average last lap heart rate the one of the following that best matches your current fitness level: 

1. Poor Shape: +40 bpm 

2. Average Shape: +50 bpm 

3. Excellent Shape: +60 bpm

This final number (for example, an average 135 bpm last lap plus 60 bpm, because I’m in excellent shape, would equal 195 bpm for me) should be fairly close to your Max HR.

I haven’t tried this yet. Anyone willing to do it with me?

III. Advanced: Training Zones

Since I’ve not even figured out my personal maximum heart rate, I can’t say that I’m ready to talk about training zones with any authority. However, I’ll lay them out here and leave it for future blog posts to discuss the details.

Basically, each “zone” is a subset of your target heart rate range, plus the range from 80 to 100%. A general description from Bike Radar is:

  • Zone 1 (60-65% of maximum heart rate): For long, easy rides, to improve the combustion and storage of fats.
  • Zone 2 (65-75% of MHR): The basic base training zone. Longish rides of medium stress.
  • Zone 3 (75-82% of MHR): For development of aerobic capacity and endurance with moderate volume at very controlled intensity.
  • Zone 4 (82-89% of MHR): For simulating pace when tapering for a race.
  • Zone 5 (89-94% of MHR): For raising anaerobic threshold. Good sessions for 10- and 25-mile time-trials.
  • Zone 6 (94-100% of MHR): For high-intensity interval training to increase maximum power and speed.

If you follow the AMA guidelines, you’ll stay in Zones 1, 2, and 3 for your entire ride. As you can see, generally, this means burning fat and moderately intense exercise. For me, using 180 as my maximum heart rate, these zones are:

  • Zone 1: 108 to 117 bpm
  • Zone 2: 117 to 135 bpm
  • Zone 3: 135 to 147 bpm
  • Zone 4: 147 to 160 bpm
  • Zone 5: 160 to 169 bpm
  • Zone 6: 169 to 180 bpm

Now I know I ride over 147 bpm regularly. For my most recent 78 mile bike ride, I was in Zone 4 for only 11 minutes.

So, what are the advantages of training up to be in higher zones? Without reading more, I can say that training for higher zones increases your capacity to ride in them. This means that you can climb faster and more efficiently. Since climbing is my favorite part of cycling, I’m going to try to increase this number over time.

I’m also going to read more about how to do so, and will report what I learn here. Anyone want to go for a ride?

Your Bear

Cycling for Fitness

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I’ve been avidly cycling about 3 years now. I’ve ridden at least 18,083 miles since 2010 (11,102 on the odometer, and the rest estimated from non-odometer rides) — that’s an average of about 115 miles per week. And that’s nothing. Some of my friends report having ridden over 5,000 miles just in the first half of 2013 (Joseph Collins, you’re my hero)!

I have only one explanation: cycling makes life worth living. It gives me energy; it makes me feel sexy fit and happy; it is good for the environment; and I get to do it with some amazing people. Because of cycling, I have friends all over California who I would otherwise never have met!

Matthew Inman has a 6-part series about why he runs which sums up his reasons in typical pithy Oatmeal fashion: he runs to eat. Though its a bit cynical, I have to say I agree with Matthew. I don’t cycle because it will make me look sexy, but because it makes me feel sexy, which is just as important!

All this is to say, JOIN ME on the AIDS/LifeCycle 2014. If you do, I promise to help you get fit enough to complete all 545 miles!

Here’s a snippet of the 6-part Oatmeal cartoon. Click the links or the image to read the whole thing (then buy something from his store).

Your Bear