Scientists reveal how pedalling a low gear at a high cadence could waste 60 per cent of a cyclist's energy


Pedalling fast in a low gear wastes your energy, scientists have demonstrated. When you cycle at the wrong cadence most of your effort will go into moving your legs up and down, not moving the bike forward.

“If a recreational cyclist tries to copy the high cadence of a pro but, instead of turning big gears, they ride a low gear, they can waste 60 per cent of their energy,” says Dr Federico Formenti, Senior Research Fellow in physiology at the University of Oxford.

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Regular cyclists tend to save their energy instinctively by choosing the most comfortable gears but some clever experiments by Formenti and his colleagues have now revealed why.

They recruited 10 volunteers and measured their oxygen consumption while pedalling on an exercise bike (a cycle ergometer) to reveal the power they put into the stationary bike.

At the same time the scientists also took a 3D infrared video of the riders, to calculate how much power the lab rats were using to move their legs.

Watch: Three steps to perfect gear changes

At a low exercise intensity of 50W, they found that pedalling in a small gear at 110 rpm put more than 60 per cent of their power into moving parts of their own body, including thighs, knees and feet while only 40 per cent of it actually went into spinning the cranks. It was a massively inefficient way to ride.

“At this low intensity of 50W it really is very gentle riding, say down a slight gradient or on the flat with the wind behind you,” says Dr Formenti, who cycles to work daily.

In contrast, Chris Froome had a cadence of 97rpm on the climb up La Pierre-Saint-Martin in his stage 10 victory of the Tour de France 2015, where he set up his second yellow jersey. He was, though, putting out about 390W through his 52/38 gearing – a far cry from a leisurely roll.

Physiologists know that muscle efficiency all comes down to the speed at which your muscles can contract. If you choose a gear and cadence that allows your muscles to contract at one third of their maximum velocity, you’ll maximise your power output.

The pedalling efficiency evidence from Formenti’s team was actually part of more significant research that could improve how sports scientists estimate energy consumption on stationary cycle ergometers.

Pro cyclists predict their performance with such tests so if they are made more accurate, they could help them ride faster.

But these tests have to rely on a limited set of measurements from a rider and they’re put into an equation to estimate their oxygen uptake (VO2) because it’s an indication of how well their body is performing.

“It’s not feasible to measure directly how much fuel your body uses in exercise so oxygen uptake (VO2) is a good indicator,” says Formenti.

“The conventional equation for doing this is from the American College of Sports Medicine and it includes body mass and external work rate. Perhaps surprisingly for a test done on a bicycle ergometer, the equation ignores pedalling rate.”

Formenti’s team ran its experiments and has shown that, by adding pedalling rate, they can now improve its accuracy of the equation at predicting how well a rider performs when they are working just a little below his or her VO2 maximum.

“We conclude that pedalling rate is an important determinant of human VO2 during cycling exercise and it should be considered when predicting oxygen consumption,” says Dr Formenti.

In some ways it’s yet another case of science explaining what cyclists have learned from experience.

“Cyclists and coaches are well aware of the importance of pedalling rate in cycling,” says Professor Louis Passfield of the University of Kent, who was British Cycling’s lead scientist in preparation for the Barcelona, Atlanta and Beijing Olympics.

>>> Body imbalance: are you pedalling asymmetrically?

“Both riders and coaches and cyclists spend some time manipulating their cadence in order to maximise their training effects,” says Professor Passfield.

Chris Froome on stage eight of the 2017 Tour de France. Photo: Yuzuru Sunada

“As scientists we are struggling to explain the underlying mechanisms for how it makes a difference. It’s all the more challenging as pedalling a bike seems a relatively straightforward task when taken at face value,” Passfield added.

A significant mystery still remains to be solved by science, he says. “Cyclists do not, in practice, choose to pedal at the cadences that scientists find to be the most economical in terms of oxygen cost. Instead they choose to pedal notably faster than this,” says Professor Passfield.

So more studies are needed to find out why cyclists prefer slightly higher cadence than current scientific knowledge says is the most energy efficient. One thing is for sure, though – no pro is going to waste any energy by pedalling quickly in a low gear.

Pedalling rate is an important determinant of human oxygen uptake during exercise on the cycle ergometer, by Federico Formenti, Alberto E. Minetti, Fabio Borrani, was published on September 14 2015 in Physiological Reports: Volume 3, Issue 7, e12500, pp.1-10.

This article was originally published in 2015

  • Doxxes

    50w isn’t low power… 50w is standing still.
    What pointless research, at least test power figures some of us might actually be riding at…

  • Aloisius Ryan Kho

    I believe this has nothing to do with energy consumption but more to do with lactic acid accumulation. Turning a bigger gear produces more lactic acid making your legs more fatigued. It also uses anaerobic respiration utilizing glycogen and glycogen is easily depleted.

  • Craig Pickersgill

    ….Because you will look a fool. Like he does!

  • Tom Sykes

    After years of rugby, running and cycling I have very thin cartilage and tend to go for the higher cadence to ease the pressure in my knee. It makes a big difference. I also climb in the saddle 99% of the time and I live in hills with at least 100ft per mile and lots of 20% – 30% gradients. Whatever feels right I guess. No one-size-fits-all.

  • EVERYONE is born an atheist

    Agreed. And ‘higher’ cadence is relative. If you push a big gear at 65-70 rpm then 85-90 is going to seem like a really a high cadence. Triathlete here as well. You learn quickly that pushing big gears means getting passed on the run most of the time, especially on shorter courses.

  • Paul Glossop

    Credit to CW for linking to the original research though.

  • Paul Glossop

    The paper though covers a full-factorial range of 16 combinations of power (4 settings) and cadence (4 settings). The cw article looks at one corner of this space; not totally helpful, as the point of the experiment is to model the whole surface. The result that you can waste an amount of power by the wrong cadence, and we can estimate how much for a given style, is the interesting part.

  • Allan

    I was always under the impression (from what I have read), that if you pedal at high rev’s with a lower force transmitted through the pedals, then you take the strain from the working muscles and use your cardio-vascular system more. This in turn means you shift your balance of energy usage from the glycogen supply, to the fat supply. This helps save vital energy for the latter stages of any longer ride or race. I have a tendency to cadence around the mid-to-high 80’s (average) over the course of my rides but shift down the gears and ‘spin’ when climbing. I don’t have the power of the elite athletes that this article refers to, so I tend to do what feels right. spinning a lower gear all the time is, in my humble opinion, the cycling worlds’ equivalent of running on the spot. Spinning up a hill keeps me below my threshold power, thus saving me the agony of lactic build up, and the indignity and shame of a long push, but I have met riders who prefer to get out of the saddle and mash their way to the top of a long climb..I guess the experimenting to find what is right for us as individuals is one of the things that makes the sport so interesting.

  • Mister Epic

    Why the F would you pedal 50w at 110 rpm? You would look like a proper dork.

  • DeclanPatrickCoker

    You blow out your knees.

  • Lenny Henderson

    This article does not make sense as many top pros use a fast cadence and many who don’t ruin their knees from too big gears . Records for distance at 24 hours were set using fast cadence (Jim Elliott first man over 502 miles in a day). Some get away with big gears like Bernard Hinault and some with high cadence like Greg Lemond. I was a low level racer who could spin up to 250 cadence per minute. Never had knee problems and saw many fast cadences win races.

  • Michael

    50w? That makes little sense to anyone.

    “Amateurs” 50w, “Elite” 400w? Not really.

    So the article tells us nothing if that’s the professors idea of an amateur. Indeed, I had a fit recently on giant’s wattbike – and I was amazed how easy 200w felt. I think a lot of the time I’m on the road pedalling easy I assumed i was only putting out 100w or so, it was probably much closer to 200w. Of course going to 300w or higher I could only do a few minutes at best – but even then, it’s not really difficult to generate 400w, it doesn’t require great strength.

    The difference with elite endurance cyclists is their ability to sustain these power outputs. (Sprinters output massive kw power, of course that many amateurs won’t generate for any length of time)

    So I imagine most amateur cyclists are much closer to 200w+ than 50w+. Perhaps higher on short climbs.

    I don’t think I really understand “you put energy into moving your body parts not the cranks”, since, if you’re pedalling, you can’t really do one without the other (unless you’re flapping your arms and upper body around or something)

    To me it seems obvious that pedalling a low gear so the bike moves slowly is inefficient – because walking is less efficient than riding a bike.

    Really though the cyclists issue at 50w / 100 cadence isn’t “he should pedal slower” it should be “He needs to change up a gear or two. Maybe 3” and spin that one.

    However I think most people will find for a certain speed, in a certain terrain – let’s say “20mph on the flat” for the sake of an example that they can pick any of a number of gears on their bikes to get this speed. Practising on a trainer with a constant resistance is a good way of trying different gears and cadences. Obviously the difference is the force you need to move the pedals, and the RPM or cadence to get hit 20mph.

    Cadences between about 80-110 seems pretty much a matter of training (i.e what you’re used to – whether you have fast / slow twitch fibres and so on) and personal preference. Over time i.e if you have to hold that 20mph for 20 minutes rather than a few, you may find that preference changes.

    It’s generally the case in my experience that the easier gears spun faster will trade off fatigue of your leg muscles against a bit higher heart rate and breathing. Personally I prefer the latter and I think although doing a turn at 100-110 cadence in a high gear is going to get you sweating and out of breath, I think you recover much better than if you try the same with slower cadence and subsequently higher gear to obtain the same power. Perhaps other people find it different for them – you can often see in the peloton at bike races that different riders are using lower gears and spinning faster than those around them.

    Although this “higher heart rate with faster cadence” can be a bit of a misnomer. e.g on my trainer I do many sessions where I pedal around 100 cadence, starting in a low, easy gear, and just changing up a gear every 5 minutes, until I’m in a gear where I’m at my threshold for the interval, and then I come back down and repeat. In low gears at high cadence I’m not sweating and puffing and panting. It actually feels quite natural for me to spin along in a low gear at high cadence in z1 or z2 still being able to maintain a conversation.

    But, these “low gears” I’m talking about are not as low as 50w.

  • Andrew Bairsto

    Better not to ride or pedal like CF unless you like having accidents.

  • Andrew Bairsto

    What about a drug taking suspect UK rider.

  • Cats eat penguins

    This is silly.

    Nobody pedals at 110rpm and puts out only 50 watts of power. You’d barely be putting any force onto the pedals so its no wonder you put 60% of your effort into just moving your legs. Of course it is an inefficient way to ride which is why no one actually rides like that. Using unrealistic and extreme data like that to suggest that amateurs shouldn’t be using a high cadence is poor science.

    The experiment needed to test how much energy people would be using if they were putting out 150-200 watts at 110rpm versus the same power at 70-80rpm. You know, power cand cadences you vwould find in real world applications. Only then would you have useful data which you could actually draw some conclusions from.

  • Dave2020

    Interesting question Hamish. We may never know. The USOC Biomechanics Lab did some research in 1993:-

    “Lance, Chris Carmichael, and a team of scientists felt there were several areas that could be improved to increase his power production. As he was already the world champion it would have been hard for him to ‘push harder’ and see much improvement. They were able to look at those forces and determine that significant improvements could be had by changing what Lance was doing across the bottom and across the top of the stroke.”

    In my view, Lance never achieved a level of technique that could be described as ‘souplesse’. He had a rigid-ankle style, which is not the most efficient. So, although he did advocate ‘high’ revs, I suspect that he chose EPO as a quicker, easier route to making “significant improvements”!

    I think the ‘proof of the pudding’ lies in the Hour Record. The vast majority of riders use a cadence of around 100-105 rpm. When there’s higher resistance to overcome, climbing, your cadence would be lower, dependent on gradient. For a short burst of full power, sprinting, it may be around 150 rpm.

    As iEndure says – “Pedaling higher cadence may not be most efficient”. The thing is you just have to practice and practice it again to reach that level of technical skill where it does become efficient and it’s second nature.

    As far as the headline is concerned, why shouldn’t “amateurs” aspire to go as fast as humanly possible? It’s great fun, but don’t try to copy Froome’s style. Do what you can to raise your cadence to the point where your input to the pedals is fluid and not jerky.

  • Hamish

    Did Armstrong develop a high cadence to maximize the benefits of EPO?

  • @lukegraysonvelo

    Don’t ride 100+ miles with a broken foot? OK!

  • Stuart

    The article doesn’t answer its own question in the title. So the research shows you shouldn’t pedal at low intensity- high cadence. But that’s not what Froome does. So why shouldn’t we pedal like Froome? CW, make some sense pls!!

  • fed up

    Wow so pedalling really fast in a low gear means you go slow and pedalling really fast in s high gear makes you go faster .. Who would have known eh !

  • Adam Beevers

    Or brainwashed by a drug taking Texan?

  • Adam Beevers

    Does it also cause you to be involved in many needless crashes?

  • I find spinning smaller gears in races preserves the legs for later efforts. This is especially important in stage races. I was a triathlete that switched to road racing. I pushed big gears at the beginning of my racing career and paid for it – my legs were dead near the end of races; and during stages races, my legs were beat up and sore in the later stages. Pedaling higher cadence may not be most efficient (technically), but it may help in what counts most: crossing the line first. 🙂

  • RobTM

    Yes, 50W probably most ppl would use a low easy cadence. Higher cadence can be trained, but what’s best will vary from person to person. Studies, I’ve seen before suggested self-selected cadence was near optimum.

  • Dave2020

    “It’s not feasible to measure directly how much fuel your body uses in exercise so oxygen uptake (VO2) is a good indicator.” But, VO2 obviously can’t be a ‘good indicator’, because at high power outputs the anaerobic metabolism has a big role to play. Why is this a “mystery” to ‘science’?

    In addition, it must be recognised that a low cadence at high power will result in ‘damage’ to the muscle fibres that causes a serious drop-off in the performance of an endurance athlete towards the end of a race, and sometimes for days after, if they over-gear.

    Cyclists usually remark – “I didn’t have the legs.” when they don’t perform, and “I had good legs.” when they’ve done a great ride. Oxygen uptake doesn’t seem to get a mention! No surprise there.

  • Adrian

    As a performance coach, it appears to me that the research was incomplete… Most recreational cyclists change their behavior completely when they climb, and the pedaling efficiency is only one part of the problem. The article uses Froome’s climbing as an example, but doesn’t test subjects on the road, on real climbs.

  • ummm…

    nice article.

  • lees

    And you stare at your stem

  • RichLove

    That was a bit of a pointless article. If you’re pedalling at a ridiculously lower power output that most half decent recreational cyclist hardly will, high cadence is wasteful.

    If you’re a pro with high power it’s not wasteful.

    And the rest of the 99% readers of the article pedalling somewehere inbetween, tells us nothing.

  • Patrick Murphy

    In fairness I think most cyclists are generally told to keep the cadence high to avoid strain on the knees. Apart from extremes either end, cadence is not something to worry about imo, you’ll eventually find what works for you.

  • Derek Biggerstaff

    Maybe cyclists prefer a higher cadence because we’ve been brainwashed by coaches and cycling journalists parroting the assertion that it is more “efficient” even though they had no science to back that up.

  • J1

    You turn into Froome, pointy out elbows and sideways head included.

  • Adam Beevers

    They missed half the story. What happens when you pedel with a high cadence at high power output?

  • Viagro2

    So in conclusion, pedal anyway that feels good for you, if that means riding like Froomdog or Tony Martin then thats all right!!!

  • Bob

    Just think what Chris could achieve if he learned to pedal properly