If you want to go faster, should you pedal more or pedal less? It may seem like a trick question, but really it’s not. Conventional wisdom would say that pedaling more yields more power and that makes you go faster. But pedaling more also burns more energy, which can leave you without the necessary energy for big efforts later in your event or training session. As with many aspects of cycling the answer depends on the conditions, and here is how to determine whether you’ll benefit from pedaling more or less in your next event:
In The Pack
When you’re safely ensconced in the belly of a big pack of riders you want to pedal less. Take advantage of the draft and only add enough power to the pedals to maintain your position. While spinning a light gear at a higher cadence is a good idea in many cycling situations, in this case you should shift into a bigger gear you can roll at about 80rpm. The goal – as you’ll see in most of the scenarios that follow – is to minimize hard or sudden accelerations. You have to pay attention, though, so you can respond quickly – and shift if necessary – to changes in pace.
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When you look at a power file from a criterium it’s a long series of power spikes. You slow down in the corners and accelerate out of them, over and over again. The harder those accelerations the more fatiguing they are and the fewer you’ll be able to execute. To be more successful in criteriums you want to reduce the intensity of these accelerations by carrying more speed through the corners. Sometimes this means pedaling more: many riders stop pedaling too early as they head into a corner, which scrubs speed and necessitates a harder acceleration after the turn. You can also pedal more by starting to pedal sooner on the exit of a corner, just make sure you don’t hit your inside pedal on the ground. On some courses that are wide and have easy turns, riding near the front (where there is less of an accordion effect in corners) can be quite smooth, in which case you can try to go back to pedaling less to conserve energy.
When it comes to mountain biking, the decision whether to pedal more or less comes down to opportunity. Mountain bikers often coast on descents, especially when descending out of the saddle. Some technical challenges on flat ground or descents also encourage coasting, and athletes may coast through short smooth sections between technical challenges. If your goal is to go fast, however, it pays to examine your style of riding and look for opportunities to pedal more. This was one of the things that helped CTS Athlete Rebecca Rusch when she set the solo speed record on the 142-mile Kokopelli Trail. She reduced the amount of time she was coasting so she was able to maintain a steadier effort overall. She minimized the need for high-power efforts and accelerations by not losing speed to coasting.
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To perform well in a time trial it’s important to look for places where your effort can make a significant difference. Going harder on the descent isn’t as helpful as hammering the climb because everyone can go fast on the descent; even with a big effort there you won’t go that much faster. On the other hand, giving a bigger effort on the climb can create a big time gap in your favor. The basic premise is this: Go harder when the going gets harder. Climbs and headwinds are the places where your efforts can gain you big advantages. So, it’s not so much pedal more or pedal less in time trials, because you’re going to be pedaling the whole time. But you want to focus your most powerful pedaling on the hardest parts of the course.
Since I recently got back from riding the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix courses, cobblestones are still on my mind. One of the most important lessons about riding cobblestones is that you have to pedal more, not less. I think this lesson applies well to rock gardens in mountain biking, sand pits in cyclocross, and rough terrain on any bike. Momentum is absolutely crucial in these situations and as soon as you stop pedaling in rough terrain you lose momentum, and once it’s lost it is very difficult to regain.