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Watts? Power? Cadence? A Guide for New Cyclists

on July 21, 2015

At some point, we're all new to cycling. And with that comes a lot of information and advice from the “ experts” in your life. What's the best way to ride? What do all these numbers mean? Why are they important? We asked 2012 Olympic Team pursuit coach and Stages Power meter expert Ben Sharp to give us the lowdown on power and riding. 

women-marquee-632x421 photo from USA Cycling

Should I stand up or sit down on a climb?

Standing or sitting on a climb is a matter of personal preference, among other factors.  The lighter you are, the more likely it is that you will be comfortable standing for extended periods while climbing.  The shorter (and potentially the more intense) the climb, the more likely it is that you will want your body weight to contribute to power production through standing over the pedals.  However, for a lot of riders, this is not sustainable for long periods as their upper body will fatigue.

What is cadence, and why is one person's slower then another's?

The concept of “ideal cadence” is unique to each individual.  Remember that power is measured by how much force (measured in torque) is being applied to the pedals, multiplied by how rapidly (cadence) that force is being applied.  If you're riding at 20 mph, and the only thing that changes is shifting from 80 rpm to 120 rpm, the measured power will remain the same because the torque will be reduced at 120 rpm.  One cyclist might be more comfortable at 120 rpm, while another might be more comfortable at a lower rpm.  Generally speaking, the riding at a higher rpm relies on the respiratory and cardiovascular systems, while riding at the lower rpm taxes a riders muscular system more.  Gender and weight are irrelevant, though most people tend to ride a lower rpm when climbing than when hammering on the flats. 

Do you have any overall advice for Sprinter vs Endurance Rider on Watopia?

Given the length of one trip around the island, the endurance rider is going to have an advantage when competing for best lap times.  However, a sprinter will be able to produce more power for shorter periods of time and should be able to turn that into an advantage on the shorter sprint segment on Watopia.  

stage-8

What do w/kg numbers say?

The w/kg number is a measurement of how much work you are able to do (in watts) for your body weight (in kilograms).  Considering one of the biggest forces we overcome as cyclists is gravity, the w/kg measurement gives a very good way to estimate and compare performance.  On a flat stretch of road, being able to churn out a lot of power (in watts) will help you go faster, but if you have a lot of mass behind those watts, as soon as the road turns up, that power output is divided by body mass and a heavier rider will slow, compared a lighter rider, at the same power output. 

How can I improve these numbers?

 At the end of the day, you will need to either a) increase the amount of power that can be produced for extended periods of time, b) decrease body mass (i.e. lose weight), or c) a combination of both.

What helps with weight loss?

Fortunately, for those of us that fall in the untrained to moderately trained range, increasing sustainable power output will probably result in a loss of body weight. 

There are so many more aspects to breaking down cycling numbers, but hopefully this helps for those of you new to data. Thank you to Ben for sharing his knowledge. Ride on! 

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