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Cadence for MTB Racing

Cadence for MTB Racing

Thomas Schafer doing what he does best on a bike: hammering.  

Since Brett’s (Sutton) initial blog on low cadence there has been a lot of discussions on the right cadence for special events and different athletes here on

One of the questions asked 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 size fit’s all recipe. Every coaching decicion 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 The Great Cadence Debate.

Guy athlete Guy Evans competing in XTERRA.

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 one of the reasons 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 lots 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.

Considering all these aspects is what goes through a coach’s mind. Depending on your kind of racing and race distance, one has to find the right balance of all these 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.

Thomas_MTB_3In off road racing cadence is dictated by course profile.

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 pedals.

Also, 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 those 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 racing 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).

Thomas_MTB_4MTB racing is much closer to road racing than to triathlon.

Mountain biking, especially the short racing, has an even bigger range of power distribution than road riding. A lot of extremely short, extremely high spikes in power. And if you have a closer look, also extremely high spikes 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.

In 2015 Jo Spindler coached over three professional Ironman winners. online triathlon coaches are available to help improve your performance here.

The Great Cadence Debate

The Great Cadence Debate

Team Budget Forklifts in action at the Shimano Super Criterium. Photo: Korupt Vision

In late 2003, my then triathlon coach (Brett Sutton) told me to meet him down at the local track on the Gold Coast where we would do many of our bike sessions. He was wielding a pair of cable cutters this day which I thought was weird.

Today is the beginning of turning you into a decent rider, I can’t stand to see you ride like a pussy any longer.”

He declared in a way only Brett can. Then he bent down and cut my rear derailleur cable in half, and with that turned my 20 geared bike into a 2 speed. 53×12 or 42×12.

I want you to keep it in the big ring, other than the most severe inclines.’

I didn’t question it. Why would I? I was weak and had just spent a season in Europe with Brett taking me to races every weekend showing me first-hand how weak I actually was. With my perfect pedal stroke, spinning away at 95 cadence with all the gear imitating the cycling superstars I watched on TV… Only to see French and Swiss bike-animals blow my doors off turning these massive gears and me helpless as I watched them ride off into the distance.

Brett had decided my way forward – forced strength training on the bike with an extreme method. This is not to be copied blindly, but it fit my situation perfectly as we were looking for extreme improvement. Six months of exclusively riding 53×12 gearing and the improvements were massive. Not long after that, I didn’t have any problem riding with or away from the best in the sport. 2009 being a case in point: In 3 Ironman and 4 Ironman 70.3 events around the world I was first off the bike in all but one.

Was I the best? No way. But I have a pretty decent grasp of the demands of a long course triathlon bike leg.

Cam_Watt_racing1First off the bike: Racing big gear with TeamTBB.

Since that time, I have worked in the world of professional cycling, managing and directing a UCI team (Team Budget Forklifts) which contained numerous World Champions, Olympic Medallists and a current World Record holder. It was very early on in my time in this job after intensely studying and observing this different sport I realised that there were only very few aspects of riding bikes in Road events that we could take and use in Long Course Triathlon. The ones that do, I’ll save for future blogs.

But having spent 5 years within the elite cycling world my old Coach contacted me to say,

‘I’m waiting for you to come back… Are you done with cycling yet?’

I thought well, I’ve achieved all I set out to in cycling. I’ve seen it all and I’m happy to move to next phase. So I’m on my way home to back to triathlon – my sport for over 23 years and with that I have come on board as coach with!

I’m back, yet I see the debate is still raging. What is the most ideal cadence for long course triathlon?

Let’s look a little deeper.

Think of it as a see-saw, on one end is your heart and a lung, the other end is your legs. The higher the cadence the more effort is required by your heart and lungs. The lower the cadence the more effort is required by your legs. Choosing an ideal cadence is about tipping that see-saw so that it will give you the best balance for YOUR chosen event and YOUR specific needs.

The higher the power, the higher the cadence needs to be. Raising your cadence is all about spreading out the load (pedal force – newtons) into more revolutions for a given power output (watts). In long distance triathlon, the force levels are so low that there is no need to break it down into so many revolutions as it comes at a cardiovascular cost and with that an elevated heart rate that will cost you by the end of the bike leg, or most definitely the run leg.

Some examples of varying cadences specific to different events:

The shorter the distance and the more power required for the event, the higher the cadence must be to deal with the enormous peak forces that come with such high watts.

For example, a 1km TT on the velodrome takes roughly 1min for the elite:

60sec @ ~1000w requires ~130rpm.

If we go up in distance to 4km Pursuit on the Velodrome that takes roughly 4:20min for the elite:

4:20min @ ~500w requires ~115rpm.

Let’s go right up to a World Class male Time Trialist over 40km:

50minutes @ 400w sweet spot is around ~95rpm.

Now to Triathlon…

Elite Male Ironman bike leg: 4:20hrs @ 300w the sweet spot is around 80rpm

Age Group Ironman bike leg: 5:20hrs @ 210w the sweet spot is around 72rpm

The reasons to choose a given cadence is very rarely discussed in depth and within triathlon is often like all other techniques taught by so-called triathlon coaches… Through imitation.

They have no understanding of the reasoning behind the techniques they are pushing onto their athletes, other than they saw Chris Froome or Lance Armstrong doing it on TV. Athletes without an extensive background in cycling, a lower cadence helps smooth out the athletes pedal stroke, allowing them to apply force earlier in the stroke (1am to 3am) which is another positive benefit.

For long distance triathlon, the average power output is so low that it is unnecessary to break up the peak forces with a cadence similar to a 50min Professional Time Trialist.

You can make massive gains by bringing your cadence down to 75 and benefit by the reduced heart rate especially for the upcoming run. It is much more trainable at an amateur level with time restraints to get “bike strong” than build the massive aerobic capacity to deal with spinning 100 cadence for literally hours and hours on end, then run off the bike.

‘But won’t the bigger gears destroy my legs for the run?’ I hear many ask. Without the proper adaptation and specific on bike strength training – of course they will! But that’s the point. It is a far more time effective method than trying to spin your way to improvements, which take years and thousands of dedicated high rpm training sessions.

If you are looking for the fastest and most effective way to improve your bike / run performance lowering your cadence is the best bet.

Big gear cadence by 3x Ironman World Champion Daniela Ryf


Trisutto Coach Cam Watt lecturing at age group camp in St Moritz with head coach Brett Sutton.

Coach Cam Watt is the former Manager and Director Sportif of UCI Cycling Team Budget Forklifts. triathlon coaches are available to help improve your performance here.

List of achievements as Director Sportif with Budget Forklifts Team:

Australian National Road Series

  • 14 Overall Tour GC victories
  • 34 Stage victories

UCI International Tours

  • 4 Overall Tour GC victories
  • 9 Stage victories

National Championships

  • 2 National Elite Titles
  • 7 National Elite Podiums
Turbo Charged: Indoor Cycling for Strength, Speed, and Mental Toughness

Turbo Charged: Indoor Cycling for Strength, Speed, and Mental Toughness

Coach Mateo in the turbo room with UCSB Squad.

I’m at my best in warm weather – the hotter the better. I come to life when I arrive in a place like Kona. Just a few breaths of that tropical, humid, salty air, and I’m a new man.

I did my time with winter as a kid on the Jersey Shore. Winter swim season, running on ice, and trainer rides. I moved to California to make winter a thing of the past.

Having lived in Santa Barbara for nearly 15 years, I’ve had the luxury of swimming and cycling outdoors throughout the year without much concern for rain or cold. I put my bike trainer away. Unfortunately, in doing so I put away an incredibly powerful tool for the development of strength, speed, and mental toughness on the bike.

One serious conversation with Brett Sutton this fall changed that. To that point I had simply seen trainer rides as a way to manage during the dead of winter. I’d known the value of the trainer, but because I was in sunny California, I’d always had my athletes riding out on the roads. I had seen the trainer as something that occasionally had to be endured during cold or rain rather than as an indispensable asset to be woven into the year-round program. Humility and a willingness to learn and grow are essential for the coach as well as the athlete.


Applying new found turbo power to the road: Training conditions in Santa Barbara.

Brett and I had a discussion about the fundamental principles that he employs when writing trainer sessions. Since that talk, I’ve done virtually all of my sessions on the trainer, structuring sessions to put those principles into action, experimenting on myself, and getting a good feel for the power and value of this tool. After two months of masochistic research I can tell you that there is a particular quality of pain that can only be administered on the trainer.

The trainer provides constant resistance – momentum doesn’t carry you on the trainer. If you soft-pedal on the trainer your wheel slows down and it takes considerably more watts to get it going again. Cycling uphill is the most comparable parallel on the road.

Trainer sessions are time efficient since there’s no stopping for traffic or lights, no slowing for corners, and no coasting. This means that you can crack out a very high quality session in less than two hours. Riding a trainer is also a heck of a lot safer and less stressful than doing battle with cars.

My sessions emphasize muscular intensity by focusing on cadence and effort. These sessions are strength training on the bike. Legs, core, and body are trained for strength with specificity on the bike. Strength training on the bike helps to maximize time management and efficiency for the time-crunched athlete.

These sessions can also help to build and reinforce mental toughness. Trainer sessions eliminate many external stimuli from cycling – no cars, potholes, or scenery. The sessions come down to you and the efforts. Where your head goes, the quality of your focus, self-talk, and attention are up to you and your coach. These are dimensions of your mental game that you can always bring into your training, however, on the trainer you have a unique opportunity to work on mental focus, self-talk, attention, and self-regulation without the typical distractions encountered on the road.

Trainer sessions also build confidence, and mental toughness. The grit that it takes to crush a session, and the inner strength that’s built as a result of nailing workout after workout, contribute to the self-confidence that will take your training and racing to their highest levels.

Bottom line, trainer sessions are tough. By taking them on with passion and purpose you’ll be tougher too. Now go get your headphones, crank up the music, put your head down, and make it hurt! triathlon coaches are available to help improve your performance here.


UCSB squad in action.

Clarification on Easy Rides

Clarification on Easy Rides

Coach Mathias leading out the squad in Gran Canaria.

To clarify some statements and philosophy behind the recent team letter on spinning:

There are two types of easy rides.

1) An easy low heart rate ride. This is done in the biggest gear.

2) A ‘spin off’ ride. To be done easy.

This second type of easy ride may be asked for after a run session or after two good quality sessions. This is not a bike session. This is a recovery session. It’s a leg loosener or lactate dispersement from other training.

Make sure you are clear on what is wanted by coach.

When we want the second type we will try to use the words ‘spin off’. If we do this universally no one gets mixed up. On this ride using the small chain ring is fine and high cadence is also fine.

Now to finish off. A little ‘gem’ sent to me by the Angry Bird, who has just started back real training a couple of weeks ago as she gets ready for Dubai.

I asked could I use it to help some in the group who were struggling with what real bike riding is.

Here is an unedited copy of her training on this particular session.

Please take note of her last statement:


Turbo was good.

Had some little brekky before, as 3h on empty stomach is a bit too long.

1h easy 137HR

1h mod 141HR

1h med 170HR

Then 5′ easy

Switched one gear harder every hour.

Beginning with the easiest gear possible, but don’t worry, that gave me a cadence of 60 and not 100 ;), as this is not possible on this turbo.

All of 3h was between 55-60

It was quite easy to bring HR up; as still not so fit.

Looking forward to do some work, to get some of the fitness back.

I would think this session for most is absolute kick-ass. Not for her and that’s the point.

When I asked her to print it, she said: ‘you can. But I’m out of shape most of them be training harder than this right now! Give me 2 weeks and ill be back at the real training.’

This should speak volumes to those genuinely wanting to know what it takes to be champions. online triathlon coaches are available to help improve your performance here.

Team Letter – Spinning

Team Letter – Spinning

Bike training in Gran Canaria. Photo: Rob Holden Photography

Hi to all,

Wishing you the best in safety and health in 2016.

I want to emphasise this and for all to realise that this can be a very, very dangerous sport. Bike riding on roads means you have to give full attention at every moment while riding. Please don’t take it for granted as at the first camp of the year I see people taking risks that just shouldn’t be taken.

I don’t care what the road rules say, being in the right while you are laying in a hospital bed is of no use to anyone. Stay vigilant and stay safe.

Now to something that drives me absolutely mad:

Again, first camp of the season after I have been drilling people all off-season on the philosophy on the bike. Stressing how important cranking the big gears are if you are going to a time-trial or longer event. Yet I see this being ignored.

Here I am sitting behind the pack on an easy ride and the person that is spinning the least is the one who actually can spin. Everyone else who is being told to push the big gears are spinning so much I think I’m in an old lady’s gym class.

‘But Coach, on the efforts I push the big gears.’

Well riding around at 100-110 cadence on the easy stuff might be fine for the others, but not for us here. If you have been advised that pushing the big gear will help you then take that as law. For the easy stuff put it in the biggest gear you have and then ride as easy as you like.

I’ll say this just once. With all the swimming we do, we do not need to be like cyclists who can say ‘I need my long slow spinning miles for my cardio.’

This is triathlon. We get our cardio in the pool. We get it on the run. And of course we get it on bike too – but at much lower cadence.

One gains enormous strength from our slow, easy rides when they are done right. When it’s done with no resistance at all, you may as well be sitting on the couch at home and resting your immune system. The ride is doing nothing for you.

I have talked myself hoarse on this subject. Meanwhile you’ve all seen our best ever riders use this while here in the squad. It’s no coincidence that when they leave so does their bike ride. They shrink from bike tigers to kittens as without nasty coach they fall in love with the little chain ring. ‘Ooh. That feels so much better.’ Meanwhile they ride 10 minutes slower with a draft.

So people. If you’re serious about becoming a champion then stop pissing me off.

If you are trying to improve your bike, doing your intervals in the ‘right’ gear and everything else in lounge chair mode guess what?

You will continue to have a bike problem. It won’t get better. You won’t get better. Simple as that.

It’s like the turbo. Those who don’t like it just don’t want to be better strongly enough.

We here have proved year after year, decade after decade, the cyclist’s doctrine doesn’t work for most triathletes. However, all seem to like sitting on a bike looking at the view and having a good chat. Well, that’s fine for others. That’s even encouraged for our age-groupers who train to enjoy themselves and sport.

But if you are here to beat the best, don’t spin like a top and then come race day be confounded as to why I don’t ride well.

I can tell you now. If you sit your backside on a bike, after you warm up that thing doesn’t need a tourist on it. It needs someone bent on serious hurt. Hurting of one’s self so that in the long run you can put some serious hurt on your competitors.

Get real please. online triathlon coaches are available to help improve your performance here.

Bike Shoes & Cleat Positions

Daniela Ryf with the mid-foot cleat position.

Since working with Age Group athletes it is clear that they usually want to know about the specific, technical parts to our training. Unless we’re talking the bike. On the bike questions usually come down to the mechanical side and why we use specific equipment.

The three most commonly asked questions in order ‎of popularity:

1) Shoes & Cleat positions

2) Size of Cranks

3) Seat position on the bike

It doesn’t matter in which country, these are the hot topics.

Let’s address the first today.

With Daniela Ryf’s explosive performances this year and the wearing of the Biomac ‘ballet shoes’ early in the season, it has created the buzz around the fact that the shoes are in fact are custom made for mid-foot cleats. Thus giving a completely different position on the bike.

While this position was new for Daniela, several squad members have been using a compilation of different cleat positions since 1993.

Our Head German Coach, Jo Spindler, used them for 10 years while racing extremely successfully and running off the bike with times equal to the sport’s superstars. I will ask Jo to follow up on this blog with his take on the topic in more technical detail.

Diana Riesler_BikeJo Spindler coached athlete & multiple Ironman Champion, Diana Riesler.

However, for now I will point out why we incorporate them into some of our athletes’ programs:

The number one point is we do not use them primarily to help bike speed.

I am in the business of training triathletes. Not cyclists. We use this set up primarily to enhance the run component of our ‎triathlon.

While remembering our bike set up is a total package. Pedal placement does not take place without crank length and seat angle position being accounted for. We don’t just change the shoe position, we break it down in finite parts just as we do with the swim.

There must be a reason for any change and it must not fit just what is best for the bike, but what will work in harmony with the run.

Mid-foot in my opinion is superior in time-trialling and running off the bike if one pushes bigger gears and does not rely on the spinning motion. There is a view that it can be beneficial to higher cadences ‎also, but I personally use it for the less spin inclined.

We do not advocate it for the drafting races.

While it may be easy to assume it works for Daniela Ryf because of her superior size plus talent – as an example I would prefer to look to Diana Riesler, who had a breakthrough year in 2015 with Ironman 70.3 and Ironman wins. Diana has ridden at least 10 Ironman performance with a sub 5-hour ride. What makes that so impressive? She weighs 52kg. A pocket rocket on the bike who has improved her run greatly with each season.

Diana also rides more forward and deep, just as the Angry Bird. She wears the custom Biomac shoes as explained here. Size and power of the athlete is not the main ingredient to the sub 5-hour club.

Diana_Jo_ShoeDiana’s customised cleat position.


We use the shoes on very few athletes because they must be able to cope with the psychological aspects of using a technique that is not espoused through the triathlon community.

However, if athletes can and are willing to change their position on the bike it is our opinion that it takes away some of the workload off specific calf muscles, that in turn allows the athlete to run faster and further off the bike. online professional coaches are available to help improve your performance here.