Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Faster or Harder?

I have a question for all you fine cycling folks out there. And for you folks who might not cycle but who understand the fine art of it. Oh, and you folks who don’t cycle, don’t know much about cycling but might just want to hazard a guess for fun.

Here is my question: what will make me go faster on the bike?
And no Erin, the answer is not ‘stop gripping the brakes when you go downhill!’.

See, here’s the thing. I’m working hard to get stronger and faster on the bike and I’m also working hard to understand how exactly one does that. My original thinking was that, in order to get faster, I needed to get stronger. So I always try to put my bike in a fairly hard gear, a gear with lots of resistance. I figured that forcing myself to pedal with increased resistance would build muscle, therefore make me faster.
It seems to have worked for hills, at least a little bit. I’ve noticed in the past few weeks that I’m catching up to and even passing people when we get to a hill. But on the flats, I’m still chasing people from the back of the pack. Nothing much seems to have changed and the gap between them and I doesn’t seem to be closing.  

And no, I am not willing to drop a few thousand dollars to buy a bike that weighs 6 ounces and is as streamlined as a shark. Nor am I willing to wear one of those crazy space helmets that the really fast guys wear in races. 

I mean really, does the seconds this thing shaves off your time really make it worth the looks you're gonna get when you wear it? 

That's when I recalled a conversation I had with Ian probably over a year ago now. Ian cycles with us on Sundays AND he works at the local bike shop so he knows most of the cool kids in town. He was telling me about the fast cyclists he works with. He said that they kept their cadence (ie. the number of times their feet do a complete circle while pedalling) at 90-100 rpm (revolutions per minute). He said that they just keep changing gears in order to maintain that magic 90 rpm number.

So it's not about pedalling as hard as you can but more about pedalling pretty much as fast as you can? 
That would mean that they have their bikes in a lower gear than I do (or they have superhuman leg muscles) because 90 revolutions per minute is pretty damn fast. I typically do 60ish rpm in the second or third hardest gear on the bike. When going up hills, I try to stay on the big ring (unless it’s a really steep escarpment climb) and I promise you that I am doing nowhere near 60 rpm going uphill.

Doug and I had a long chat on the weekend about cycling speed. He agrees with Ian's higher rpm logic and also agrees with my current practice of working in the harder gears. But neither of us are sure if there is some magic number I should be working towards. Do I go down to easier gears and get used to cycling at a higher rpm and then, once I can do that, start trying to do it in the harder gears? That's the part we can't figure out.

So my friends, what should I be working on? Is a higher rpm the secret? Is keeping it in a harder gear to build muscle strength the secret? Do I need to work on both so that I can someday maintain high rpm at a high gear? Are there speed or hill workouts I should be doing?  
I am the young grasshopper looking to poach some wisdom off those who have gone before me.

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