Cadence for MTB Racing

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    Jo Spindler
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    Since Brett’s initial blog on low cadence there has been a lot of discussions on the right cadence for special events and different athletes here on trisutto.

    One of the questions arised was: What would you recommend for mountain biking? Now this could seem to be a little bit off topic for a squad that is highly specialised on triathlon performance. But it’s not. Not only because we have both a bunch of XTERRA athletes and a bunch of pure cyclists among our athletes. This questions goes to the heart of our individual approach. There is no one fit’s all recipe. Every coaching decision consists of weighing different aspects against each other. And this is exactly what the answer to that question shows.

    Cadence is always a compromise of different things: First the energetic demands – where generally a lower cadence is more efficient and burns less energy, and the muscular load, where higher cadences are easier to handle and less tiring. The higher your power, the higher your cadence needs to be. For triathlon, especially ironman racing, power is very low compared to for example a TT stage in road racing., This is why triathletes are better off with a low cadence, but the Cancellaras of this world do their 6,5W/kg efforts at a cadence of well above 100. They couldn’t generate and sustain a power this high with a 50 cadence. Cam Watt layed out this aspect precisely on his latest cadence blog.

    Next you have to consider race situation: Do you have to do sprints, counter surges or attacks, move with a peloton? If in such a race situation you’re stuck at 60 cadence your competitors – will be gone before you even could shift into a smaller gear and speed up. This is on of the reason why road racers have to ride in a relatively high „stand-by“ gear to be able to act or react immediately.

    And finally you have to consider the physical make of the athlete. Is he a „born“ sprinter of nature, who has more fast-twitch fibers and is generally better suited with high cadence (and shorter racing) or has he a built-in diesel engine with lot’s of slow-twitch fibers, an endurance monster with a monster gear.

    Triathletes and XTERRA athletes also have to be able to run off the bike. That also makes for a different riding and cadence compared to a pure cycling race.

    With all this aspects, you’re in a coaches mind now. Depending on your kind of racing and race distance, he has to find the right balance of all this aspects.

    But back to mountain biking: Off-road one cannot chose cadence as freely as in road racing or (even more freely“) in triathlon. On the mountain bike, cadence is to a very high degree dictated by course profile and race situation. The shorter and faster the race, the more difficult the course, the less room to think or even choose cadence. You simply have to react. So it’s very unrhythmic racing, with lot’s of short burst, extremely high spikes, and a lot of out of the saddle action. That’s a very different dynamic to triathlon where you can ride one and the same cadence for literally all courses out there, not being bothered by terrain or competition. You do your thing and nothing should disturb you.

    Not so in MTB racing: Traction and keeping the momentum plays an important role in steep and difficult gravel sections. Riding a very low gear will cause the wheel to lose contact. So a higher cadence is needed to keep the momentum and make it up steep ramps smoothly. On the other hand, you cannot ride a 100+ cadence on rough terrain or standing standing on the predals.

    On the other hand, you are very limited in big gears with the gear ratio in modern MTB – you simply lack big gears when it comes to flat stretches of racing. So quickly, you will end up with quite high cadences for that sections as there simply is no bigger gear available. This was a bit different in the old days, when you had triple rings at the front, but therefore all that shifting hassle as well.

    In terms of raceing needs and race cadence, MTB racing is generally in between triathlon’s low cadence (even power / low, aerobic load) and road racing’s high cadence (big jumps in power, all kind of surges and bursts, lots of VO2max riding).

    Mountainbiking, especially the short racing, has an even bigger range of power distribution than road ricing, a lot of extremely short, extremely high spikes in power. And if you have a closer look, also extremely high spices of force (power = force x distance), not seen in road racing. Theortically those power spikes would need a very high cadence to smooth out the force spikes and make the effort more sustainable – but at the same time, you’re limited by terrain and out of the saddle action in high cadence. In MTB racing, there will be always more intensity than in triathlon and always more muscular load than in road cycling. But, hey that’s also, what it makes different and entertaining!

    So to break down all theat aspects in a simple summary:

    Cadence in triathlon is easy: You chose the most efficient range which is between 60 and 80, depending on athlete and distance.

    Cadence in road racing: You chose on race dynamics and high intensity which gives a cadence between 90 and 110.

    Cadence in MTB: MTB racing is much closer to road racing than to triathlon, as you have also high race dynamics and power loads, but at the same time you’re much more restricted by terrain (which makes for lower than “ideal” cadence) and gear ratio (which makes for higer cadence than „ideal“). So the range is much wider and a bit lower than in road racing. However, the longer and more steady your race is (MTB marathon) the more that range will narrow and shift to the slower side 60 to 80.

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