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Top gear: The great cadence debate continued

Updated: Jul 30, 2021

Daniela Ryf ahead of Challenge Dubai, 2015.

I’m very pleased that our last articles on bike cadence have been able to generate such positive and creative debate. I would also like to thank the Angry Bird (Daniela Ryf) for so helpfully demonstrating the effectiveness of using low cadence training at Challenge Dubai last Friday.

With that, since my original post it is obvious that some have either misunderstood or are confusing my position on low cadence training to undermine what I believe is sound advice, backed up by science and results. So that our followers are able to make clear judgements about my perspective on bike cadence I’d like to clarify some of the myths around ‘big gear’ racing.

Here is the opening line to my original blog:

Since we’ve started selling training plans on I have been asked frequently about bike cadence and why I’m such a proponent for age-group and pro triathletes from non-cycling backgrounds using low cadence training:” (emphasis added)

I most certainly do believe in the e!ectiveness of low cadence training and my reasoning for this is explained here. This however, does not commit me to a ‘big gear, low cadence’ model for ALL athletes racing across ALL distances.

On the contrary, my entire coaching philosophy revolves around a very simple principle – what works for the individual is what is right. Cherry picking individual athletes who have had success as ‘high cadence spinners’ and then using these examples as ‘proof’ that Trisutto is wrong on big gears doesn’t repudiate our coaching philosophy, it vindicates it.

Many similarities between Bianca van Woesik and Chrissie Wellington. Here with an up and coming Michelle Jones.

Belinda Granger, an eventual 15 time Ironman winner came into my squad after years of triathlon. Her cadence, even though one would think it would be low given she was a strong and powerful girl, was not changed. Yes, we did train in the big gear and yes I tried to get her to push a bigger gear at just below her normal race cadence. But as she was tearing everybody apart on race day there was no 66 or even 76 cadence – it more like 90.

Lisbeth Kristensen, one of our coaches, won the 2002 World ITU Long Course Championship with a blistering bike split to devastate the field. Her cadence? 100. In Lisbeth’s first Ironman she broke 5 hours on the bike. Not bad for a spinner.

All those who trained with Nicola Spirig in the lead up to the Games know full well I was barking at her every fast ride to ‘lift your cadence’ if she wanted to win the Olympics.

Same deal for individual men. Craig Walton was a bike monster and a huge guy, but when he was destroying both ITU and Middle Distance races he wasn’t pushing slow cadence. In fact Craig was around 86. Similarly with AJ (Andrew Johns), a former ITU World Number 1 for two years, he rode with a high cadence and will attest that while we trained for specific strength on the bike with low cadences, was never told to push massive gears race day.

So you may ask, why did I train these guys to push higher cadences but at the same time have other pro athletes and most of my age group athletes going down the road in cadences between 66 and 74? Because what works for the individual is what is right.

It was my coaching decision that the above athletes had the ‘feel’ for the pedals in some form or another, so why would I tinker with their technique when the higher cadence was working for them? Instead we would strengthen their pedal stroke in training, while in races they would use that training strength through their own cadence. There is no contradiction here. It’s called coaching.

However, there are subtleties within such an approach. Many people ask ‘so why was Caroline Steffen pushing such a big gear with you when she was an experienced pro cyclist who could ‘feel’ the pedals?’

Yes, Xena can ‘feel’ the pedals and cycles absolutely fantastic at high

cadence. But only for about 120 km before blowing up. We went to work on changing that, just as we did for T-Mac (Teresa Macel), who at the end of her career went from being a ‘good’ biker who faded in the run, into a swim-bike monster that could put 12 minutes into most fields. She took an unbelievable 4th at Kona where again she smashed them on the swim and bike, but this time could hang on to a best ever run to go with it. Forcing her into a lower cadence and not getting out of the saddle gave her the missing piece in her Ironman jigsaw.

Chrissie Wellington? Yes, she is probably the most famous example of pushing the big gears. Chrissie’s cycle technique owes a lot to the similarities (technically and physically) she had with fastest woman bike rider I have ever trained: Bianca van Woesik. Not many of you will know Bianca (multiple Australian Champion) but you only need to ask any Australian pro athlete from the 90s about what kind rider she was. Like Chrissie, who because of a limited cycling background was not great technically, Bianca was able to most effectively harness her raw power by using a low cadence technique (around 60) that didn’t rely on changing gears. I can’t remember more than three sessions where she failed to break 40km for the one hour Time Trial and on a non-technical course was capable of riding her way through an entire field. On a straight, flat course the pro men’s field were all in serious danger of being ‘chicked’.

In conclusion, if you are a coach it is inevitable that you will come across athletes, perhaps a majority, who just can’t and never will be able to ‘feel’ the pedals. Does that mean you shrug your shoulders and say ‘you just don’t have it’ before moving on? No, you have to work with what you’ve got and try everything until you find the breakthrough that makes the individual faster. That is what we drill into our Trisutto coaches each day.

By all means use the coaching manuals to help your athletes, but if at times the coaching manual would be best used under the front wheel of the turbo while your athlete cranks out the big gear sets – then that’s where it should stay.

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