Marching Forward. Big Gears. Big Gainz.

March was all about cadence, though the highlight was really getting to spend a morning at the track with Coach Greg, who was in town for the annual Zwift company-wide weekly meeting. It was nice to spend time with him both to confirm the things that we’re doing right and what we need to work on. In the past, we’d largely de-coupled cadence from intensity, especially at for longer durations (anything longer than a minute). But in March, Greg merged the focus – so it was race-specific power for race-specific durations at race-specific cadence.

Going into all of this, I’d considered anything over 100 to be “high cadence.” There wasn’t much difference in my mind between 110 and 115 and 120 and 125rpm. They were all “fast.” But as I’d gotten more comfortable at higher cadences, I’d started to perceive a real difference. 110rpm was no longer fast. It was quite comfortable. But the fall-off above that was quite dramatic.

As we did longer sessions, it became clear that I just really struggled at anything over 112rpm when I was also trying to pedal hard. 110 was fine. But 115? I just couldn’t do it for anything sustained. In one particularly unpleasant – but important – session, we did 5x3min max with full recovery (about 10min+). The goal was to hit maximal power with a goal cadence of 115rpm. My power across the 5 was quite good – 525, 500, 480×3. But for cadence, they were all at 111rpm. And I rarely – if ever – rode much faster than 113rpm. My “comfort” is a pretty narrow band of 110-113 when I’m actually applying power to the pedals.

This seemed like it might explain the disconnect between the power I could generate in sustained efforts on the road/trainer and on the track. On the track, my power just kept falling off. And Greg was starting to think it was because of cadence. I just couldn’t sustain the power because I couldn’t sustain the cadence. Power, cadence, and speed are all directly related on the track because you have only one gear and because that gear dictates your cadence as much as vice versa.

So we put on some big gearing – 116″ (56×13) – and did some efforts. And they went way better than either of us expected. 116″ should have felt strange. But it felt pretty comfortable. It was a bit on the big side, but didn’t feel overly so. In this case, learning some patience and pacing and the other work that I’ve done on the track allowed me to actually pace a big gear like this. In the past, it would have just blown me out. But now I have some idea of how to manage it. As good as it felt, though, it was obviously too big. But it wasn’t as big as it now seemed the other gears – more “typical” pursuit gears (104″ – 54×14 – or 106″ – 55×14) – had seemed small. Greg thought based on my power and preferred cadence that for our target speed – roughly 16.5sec laps – that 112″ gearing (58x 14 or 54×13) was the right choice. I started with 54×13 because that’s what I had at the time, which felt really nice, though it didn’t roll nearly as smoothly as the 58×14 that I’m running now. (Bigger gears – both chainring and cog – roll more smoothly because there’s less chain deflection.)

The hard part with a big gear is that you can really, really easily blow your legs out by going too hard at the start. Greg’s preferred method for teaching you how not to do this is to ride an even bigger gear for really high starting efforts to both teach you what not to do and to increase your body’s ability to recover. If you’ve never done standing 1km maximal effort starts on 120″ (58×13″), it’s an experience… Sure teaches you what it feels like to go over the red line.

112″ is still a bit on the big side since the fitness isn’t quite there yet, but it’s getting closer; if I was to race right now, I’d do it on 110″ (57×14). I’m a bit on the low side for cadence because the speed isn’t there yet, but as my top end fitness improves, the cadence – and speed – will come. But knowing the gearing that we’re targeting really makes a big difference and has helped me make a lot of progress in a couple short weeks after a couple of weeks where I’d been plateauing on the track.

One other change I made was to stop doing my non-track training on my TT bike. Especially when doing high power work in the aero position at high cadence, the TT bike – which is, of course, not a fixed gear meaning it’s even harder to generate high cadence – really seemed to be blowing out my hip flexors. Specificity is important, but in this case, we were doing too much. I now ride my track bike on my rollers or on the track and otherwise am on my road bike, and I feel like that’s helped – along with the bigger gears – to keep my hip flexors from giving out before the rest of my legs. I think that the time focused on strength training has helped here as well since I just have more pure power.

I’ve also opened up my position a bit – though more for aerodynamic reasons – and am running 20mm less armrest drop than I was as a triathlete. I’d say only about half of this was for reasons of comfort and power and the rest was just trying to bring the top of my head up in line with the top of my back.

With great consistency and track-specific fitness, I’ve also been able to refine my head and hand position, and, after what had been a frustrating period where nothing I was doing seemed to make a meaningful difference aerodynamically, I now seem to be making good headway here as well.

Sport is often like that, where nothing you do seems to help and then, almost as suddenly, it seems like everything has helped. It does seem like I’ve had a bunch of “a-ha!” moments this past month on the track, the best part of which has been reflected in the lap times.

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