Let’s look at cadence when it comes to mountain biking

Speaking of cadence, which one is efficient in mt biking – maintaining 90 rpm, or high torque and less rpm?

Thanks,
Mountain Matt

Hi Matt,

The short answer is, “it depends.”

As discussed in my proper cadence article, the proper cadence differs between riders, even when road biking. However, it is generally accepted that maintaining a steady cadence of 90rpm is most efficient on the road.

At the other end of the spectrum – mountain biking – there are many situations that call for different cadences. When mountain biking, you can disregard virtually everything I said about proper cadence for road biking!

In general, a slower cadence in a higher gear will offer more stability when negotiated rough, technical terrain. Having that extra resistance will make it much easier to go up, over, and/or around obstacles without losing momentum.

Let’s say you’re on very rutted terrain. You want a real big gear and slow cadence to put your weight on your feet, easing the pain on your butt. (The harder of a gear you’re pushing, the less your butt rests on the saddle.)

For technical hill climbs, you definitely want more torque and a lower cadence. This allows you to push yourself over obstacles and begin pedaling again, without spinning out.

If you’re cruising down dirt roads, go ahead and spin 90 rpm if you want to relax. But even then, I don’t always spin that fast. It’s partly due to the longer crank arms on my mountain bike, but partly because the high cadence just doesn’t feel right on the rough stuff. (Even on a regular dirt road, I like that torque.)

However, one thing I’ve heard from some of the local pros that also ride singlespeeds, is that they have successfully used a “singlespeed-esque strategy” while racing on geared bikes. (If you’ve never been on a singlespeed, it typically works like this: you stand and grind on the hills, then spin real easy on the flats.)

So using this strategy on a geared bike means you get in a fairly big gear and push really hard on the climbs. Then when you’re on the flats, you spin relatively easily to recover. The goal is to save your energy for the tough stuff, while conserving energy where extra effort doesn’t yield that much difference in speed (i.e. going hard on a hill can really put a gap on your competition, while spinning moderately on the flats is almost as fast as pushing really hard on the flats).

What it boils down is that, in most cases, you’ll have a better experience if you push a bigger gear on your mountain bike instead of spinning at 90rpm.

3 Comments
  1. having just read your two articles on cadence road and mountain I have a few questions.

    1)I find when I’m in mt granny gear I generally can climb steep pitches at least steep where I bike (over roots and obstacles ) Lately I have been trying a harder gear not because of I spin out but just to try another approach . I find I have to have the peddles in the correct postion in order to get over roots and rocks.Any suggetions would be appreciated.
    2) In group rides on the road in order to keep up with the hammers in the group I push a big gear and cadence is about 75rpm. On the last I ride I noticed my legs hurting but my heart rate up as well. when we reached a steep hill I was glad to down shift and spin. I actully felt recovered after the spin. How do you train to spin and still maintain a good speed? Does Lance Armstrong spin in a easy gear or hard gear.

  2. @Felix

    1) Using a bigger gear helps me to position the pedals properly because it’s easier to gauge where they will be as you approach an obstacle.

    For example, say you’re passing a big rock on your right. In a bigger gear, you can cover more ground per pedal stroke. So you could do one complete pedal stroke and set it up so your right pedal is in the “up” position when going past the rock.

    In a smaller gear where you’re maybe doing two to three full pedal rotations in that same amount of space, you can’t “time” the pedals to avoid the rock.

    2) It’s all relative. The gear Lance can spin at 90 rpm while climbing is probably a gear that the average person couldn’t spin at 90 rpm on a flat road! But it will be an easier gear than what he’d be in if he was using a 75rpm cadence.

  3. min 90rpm max 110rpm for flat/moderate section. uphill min 70rpm max 90rpm.

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