Optimal Cadence for Cyclocross Obstacles
Tips for choosing the right cadence within each portion of your cyclocross race
Cyclocross courses demand a variety of pedaling styles because of the highly variable terrain. On a flat road, an ideal pedaling cadence would be between 90-105 rpms. However, since cross bikes have a fairly narrow range of gears relative to mountain bikes but face similar obstacles, a higher or lower cadence can be optimal or necessary to successfully navigate the course. Improve your cyclocross ‘Cross bikes usually come with a double-chainring crankset that has a 46t big chainring and a 38 or 36t small chainring. An 11-28 rear cassette is normal as it provides the widest range of gear options for typical setups. (Some rear derailleurs can accommodate up to a 32t cassette sprocket, but those are less common.) Adequate strength and proper technique are required to be able to ride obstacles successfully. Here are several places on a cross course where cadence and gear selection are critical:
Cross race starts require a transition from a stop to a full sprint. Having a good start is important to establish your place in the race. Select a gear that you can turn over quickly and be ready to shift 2-3 times during the initial acceleration before you are at top speed. This requires pedaling out of the saddle from the start and staying in your starting gear until you hit a high or very high cadence. This would be in the 110-120 rpm range before executing a shift, but can exceed 130+ rpms. Shift just as you begin to feel wound out rather than just when you hit a comfortable cadence. A good starting gear for beginner riders might be the 46-28, while more experienced or more explosive riders might start in a 46-25 or even 46-23. Practice starting from a stand-still on pavement or hard-packed dirt, away from cars, and test which starting gear works best for you.
Riding out of corners or obstacles
Many obstacles will require you to stop pedaling or get off your bike and run. You will slow down while coasting or running. To be in the right gear when you have gotten past the obstacle and are ready to resume pedaling, shift down into a smaller gear immediately before going into a corner or barrier so that you can accelerate out of it. This might be in the last 10-20 feet (1-3 seconds) before actually getting to the obstacle where you are still pedaling but are transitioning to a coast. Similar to the start, the gear you want to shift to on your approach will allow for spinning up a high cadence as you get up to full speed upon exit from the corner/obstacle.
Riding very steep sections
On steep sections of the course, you may need to be in the smallest gear just to get over the obstacle. Depending on the speed of the approach, you will want to shift into your lowest gear prior to arriving at the bottom of the climb. Shifting mid-climb is sometimes possible, but will often occur under very heavy pedaling torque, which can lead to miss-shifts that will kill your momentum. You may have a very high cadence at the base of the climb which will become slower and slower as you lose speed. Being able to turn a very slow cadence smoothly will help maintain traction up the hill. Once over the top, spin back up to speed as soon as you can in the same way as coming out of a corner.
Off-camber sections are where you are riding tangent to the slope of a hill or cornering with the slope going away from you (the opposite of a banked corner). These sections are often best navigated while seated so you don’t clip a pedal on the high side of the corner. Having a smooth slower cadence here will help keep traction and minimize the risk of clipping a pedal.
Sand is perhaps one of the most challenging surfaces to ride, which is why it’s a popular feature in cyclocross courses. Enter with as much speed as possible. Ride in ruts to keep your speed up as much as possible. You won’t want to shift while in the sand. Instead, shift into a gear that will allow you to ride the entire section in one gear. You will start the section at a high cadence (100+ rpm), which will become lower as you lose momentum. Keep a high amount of power placed evenly on the pedals. If you lose too much speed and find your cadence slower than 50 rpm, it may be challenging to keep your momentum, so be ready to dismount if needed.
Heavy “peanut-butter” mud
Very similar to riding through sand, deep thick mud sections require a high amount of power pushed evenly on the pedals. Deep mud will have very high resistance that will zap your momentum. Ruts will form and usually provide the fastest path.
Keep a very smooth seated pedal stroke at a steady cadence (between 90-105+ rpm). Especially on hills and wide corners, where you will need to pedal to get through the obstacle with speed, but will not have much traction. Uneven pedaling can cause you to spin out and lose your momentum.
Having a smooth slower cadence here will help keep traction. Being in the 80-90 rpm range, or even lower can help keep you moving forward rather than up and down. For shorter sections, being out of the saddle can help absorb some of the bumps. In any case, keeping a lower cadence and keeping speed up helps you roll forward rather than up and down.
Smooth straightaways or long steady climbs
Keep a higher cadence, similar to what you might do on a flat road (between 90-105+ rpm) to save your strength for tough sections of the course.
A recurring goal for all conditions is a smooth pedal stroke. This means there are no gaps in the force applied to the pedals around the entire revolution. There are many drills and techniques for attaining this smooth pedal stroke. On your training rides, think about how your are pedaling and learn to feel where you have dead spots (no force applied to the pedals). Working on this during training will help you get comfortable with the proper pedal mechanics. Some other tools that can help you achieve this include a stationary trainer, rollers, or a fixed-gear bicycle. All these make the dead spots more apparent. (If you try for a smooth stroke for a while and don’t seem to be making any progress, talk to your coach about a bike fitting, as a poorly fitting bike will make smooth pedaling impossible.)
To learn more about proper pedaling technique, read Wenzel Head Coach Scott Saifer’s article here>>>
Wenzel Coaching has drills that can be incorporated into your existing training program to begin the adaptation process of efficiently increasing your cadence over time. Talk to your Wenzel coach about including them in your program.Improve your cyclocross
Coach Andrew Coe of Portland, Oregon has raced cyclocross and road in both the Midwest and West. Andrew brings nearly 20 years of endurance sport experience to his work as a coach and is available to work with all levels of riders and racers, specializing in skills in cyclocross and on the road.