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All a load of spin?

Written by Fiona February 09 2010

Just a few miles into a cycle ride from Bearsden to Falkirk (to meet with my ex-husband’s father.. you must know by now how I like to slot a run or a cycle into my everyday schedule) I suddenly realise that one of my gear lever cables was on the verge of snapping. I can’t think how I had not noticed this before as it sits right in front of my face while cycling but there it was, a severed cable sleeve and an almost slashed cable. This meant that I dared not force the lever to change the front cogs and so for the rest of the 30-odd mile trip I could use only the smallest front cog.

I reasoned that it was better to be stuck in the smallest cog with access to eight of the easier gears, rather than left only with the eight hardest gears as there was a fair number of hills to tackle. So, I found the going up was just fine but when it came to the downhills I quickly ran out of gears. In this way, I ended up doing a whole lot of pedal spinning.

This got me thinking (you do a lot of thinking when you’re out cycling solo) and I recalled being out with a cycle friend recently and noticing that his cadence was a lot faster than mine. At the time I didn’t have the energy to ask why (I was trying to keep up and so I was out of puff) but with my limited gear span on Saturday it did give me the chance to try out my own form of faster cadence cycling. What I noticed was that there was less requirement to think about changing gear (mainly because there were fewer to choose from!) and that my spinning legs felt a lot smoother in terms of momentum.

The strange thing was that the journey seemed to speed by much quicker than I’d expected and before I knew it I’d come across a sign to the Falkirk Wheel, where I was to meet my father-in-law.

So this had we wondering further. On further investigation I have found out that “spinning” can bring some benefits to cycle training (and, boy, do I need all the advantages I can get). It seems that while casual cyclists have a cadence (ie pedal turn) of around 60rpm (revolutions per minute), the pros are up there at 110 to 120rpm. Apparently, as an aspiring (or perspiring?!) amateur, my cadence should be somewhere in the middle.

It seems that it is a good idea to get used to cycling at a faster cadence because it is less stressful on the leg muscles. If you think about it, cycling in difficult gear at 50rpm is much more work for your legs than cycling in an easier gear at 80rpm, assuming the same overall speed.

Technically, cycling in a low cadence is called “mashing”, while high rotation is called “spinning” (ah, so that’s where the concept for spinning classes came from). Also, cycling at a low cadence uses “fast twitch muscles fibres”, while cycling at a high cadence with less force utilises “slow twitch muscle fibres”. Fast twitch fibres use locally stored energy (glycogen in the muscles) that will tend to run out over a long ride, while slow twitch fibres use fat, which is more readily available in the body and much better at coping with endurance rides.

Of course, there will still be times, like on hills, when slow pedalling is useful (and also over short time trial style events) but it seems that from a longer-distance point of view it’s better to aim for a cadence of 90 to 100rpm.

I guess, if I’d thought about it, this is a similar theory to running. Only I just hadn’t thought about it until my gear cable decided to give up!

The “fat burning” potential offered by my almost snapped cable also meant I was able to scoff a whole lot more tea and cake in the Falkirk Wheel cafe. Ideal!

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