Tuesday, August 25, 2009

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Find My Inner Rhythm

Watching re-runs of Lance Armstrong's earlier Tour de France victories, I became mesmerized at his impressive cadence. On one hand there was Lance's legs churning at 105 rpm which effortlessly propelled him up the mountains. On the other was Jan Ullrich who was grinding his way to eternal second place finishes at 70 rpm. That was all the motivation I needed to increase my cadence.

So I set out on my project. I bought my Garmin with cadence sensor, and set out in a low gear. For two months I tried to spin the hell out of my cranks. A funny thing happened. My speed actually dropped, I found myself very tired after rides, and I was now barely able to crawl up hills. At first I chalked this up to the adjustment time needed to increase my cardiovascular endurance. However the symptoms continued. I just couldn't maintain speeds I used to cruise at. Even the mildest of inclines was a challenge. I found myself frustrated and wondering what I was doing wrong.

Last week I rode with a group of experienced riders. I was telling the group leader my goal of increasing my cadence. After a few minutes of warming up, he offered a bit of advice, "Just smooth out your pedal stroke, you don't have to spin out of your shoes to be a good rider. What works for Lance doesn't work for everyone else." What followed was one of the best rides I had in months. After lowering my cadence I felt my heart rate decrease and saw my speed increase. The hills and false flats which were giving me trouble before were easy once again. I was able to have a casual conversation and drink while riding without gasping for air.

In retrospect, it should have been obvious that a high cadence wasn't for me. I've always been more of a sprinter than a marathoner. I should have played to my strengths, namely the strength in my legs. There were other clues as well, but I didn't pay attention to them. I've always had my best success climbing using a lower gear than a higher one and like to stand frequently. Since then I've stuck to my guns and found that a slight drop in cadence, 5 rpm has helped me gain about 1 mph back on my average speed. This isn't to say I've become a complete masher. I try and keep my cadence in the 75-85 rpm range. It might not be the 100+ rpm's I dreamed about, but it's more than enough to strike a balance between my cardiovascular system and leg muscles.

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