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  • Writer's pictureHoosier Doc

Cadence is Everything

Purple E-Bike on a desolate college campus.

It's debatable when I will get back on my road bike since certain positions still irritate my incisions but, for now, I'm focusing on increasing my fitness and power on my e-bike. I've now ridden more than 1100 miles in 2020. I'm quite proud of myself. Despite a global pandemic, having a toddler who needs a lot of work and with no childcare, finishing my first semester "back" in grad school, and emergency abdominal surgery; I am more than halfway to my goal of 2020 in 2020. My goal is to get 200 miles in this month and today, I will have 154 so far!

I couldn't climb all that well out of the saddle a couple of weeks ago (I can do it now) and was frustrated. So, I tried to focus on cadence rather than grinding away. Historically, I've chosen to grind up hills probably out of a sense of control and having a good core which allows it. However, when your core goes kaput but you still need to climb, you have to adapt. I'm learning (again) when to grind and when to spin. I don't think I knew anything about cadence until I decided to take spin classes in the off-season. I still have a good idea how to put together a good playlist and practice changes in resistance when on my trainer due to those couple years of spin. I really enjoyed spin but not the weird, disordered way it made me feel about my perfectly-servicable body which would no doubt outperform most of these waif-like people around me on the road. I was riding mostly against college students while I was also teaching them. I could get into my history of disordered eating and bad body image but that is another story for another day. Spin wasn't great for these reasons (for me) but it did teach me a ton about interval training, cadence, and power meters.

People who have not ridden competitively or kept up with a peloton of really fit riders don't think about this a lot. Newsflash: I haven't been that cyclist for about 5 years. The reality is when you coast a lot or grind up EVERY hill, you are much harder on your body which does slow you down. Knowing when to grind or spin is a skill like any other. And, during these last few weeks, I realized since I hadn't ridden with anyone in ages, I hadn't focused on cadence, pace, or power enough. I was dissatisfied with my climbs and my average speed seemed tapped. So, I decided to go back to basics on a ride and focus on cadence.

It was game-changing. I began to power up hills by just lowering my gear one. The first ride I tried it, I almost hit my previous average mph. I went from an average of 15 mph up to almost 17. And then, after a few rides targeting where I was coasting too much, I went up to 18 mph on average. I was almost gliding up hills! I was using almost no assist. And then I began to focus on turning off my assist for vast parts of the ride and still remaining in around the 17 mph range. It seemed impossible the first few rides but seeing that wattage used go down even as my mileage increased was remarkably motivating.

I felt tired the first few rides (in my legs) but my undercarriage got less abuse. I also felt like I worked but did not irritate my core. My legs have now adjusted again. I feel like I am getting fitter than ever before. And, my mileage before charge which used to be around 40 miles is now about 60 miles without a trailer or 45-50 with a trailer. And that is *with* hills because lord knows they are not avoidable. I rarely hit my medium or high assist level - even on hills - unless I'm in traffic or expect to stop for a long time. It's a heavy bike, after all, and my climbs out of saddle are still limited.

toddler playing with pedals of a road bike
R inspects her Dad's tuned up Scott.

I hit another milestone, too. I told my husband this weekend that I felt good enough to ride pulling the trailer provided he was there to help get my kid in and out of the trailer. So, now that his bike has been fully-tuned at our local shop, we can ride together. He had a derailleur issue that had drastically reduced his comfort level riding but didn't know how to articulate it (he is not the wrench in the family). I also had no time to fix it because surgery, pandemic, child. It was just what we needed. And boom, we had a great 13-mile ride last night where I went 12 mph pulling a child and used assist only 1/3 of the time. I was pulling 50+ lbs of cargo! It amazed me. And we only went that slow to go easy on dad who was just starting over for the year and whose butt I could kick right now on any bike (despite his feather weight road machine). I'm just in that level of shape. Yes, his <10-lb bike vs. my 50-lb bike pulling 50+ lbs of cargo with NO assist is no match. That's because I've ridden year round - non-competitively - and slowly increased mileage and resistance. The is no secret sauce to this. It's just time and hard work. It's fun work. Not always easy but mostly fun. And if I can do it, you can, too! If you're curious about cadence, check in on your bike computer. Do you have a cadence sensor? If not, I encourage you to invest in one that either just does cadence or one that does both. Bluetooth sensors are often so affordable there is no reason to despair and most of them sync up great with strava. For less than $50.00 you can get cadence and speed sensors on amazon right now. Also, if you want to learn how to zero in on cadence, put your bike on a trainer to do some virtual spin classes. I would highly recommend a 10-week slog through in-person spin (the first couple of sessions will kill you if you don't pace yourself) but with the pandemic, I could not ever justify telling people to risk it. The point is just to be more aware of the things you CAN change to increase your fitness - easy things. Focus on one when you have a training ride and watch your metrics improve! The thing about fitness is we often hit walls when we master one skill. We can either choose to let that get us down or we can choose to find something else to master. It's about the journey to fitness not the miles or speed. And if it hurts, don't power through it. Figure out what is wrong!

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