Highest power at low rpm?

I’d very much appreciate your experience and advice on the situation I find myself in.

I turned 60 last year. I’ve been cycling for about 15 years now and training with a power meter and WKO since 2008. My preferred rides are those that involve hard long mountain climbs so my main focus is high w/kg during sustained sweetspot and threshold efforts along with good endurance so I can repeat these several times.

During the course of 2019 three unexpected things happened

  • My comfortable cadence for sweetspot and above efforts dropped from around 70 to the low 60s
  • I’ve changed from spending most time seated with occasional standing efforts to being comfortable standing and pushing a big gear just taking short seated pauses when effort needed decreases
  • My power has gone up beyond my expectations to a lifetime best with mFTP peaking at 4.9w/kg before a bout of sickness (quite possibly covid-19) just over a month ago. My single best ride was quite unexpected, a Zwift race that I only entered to burn off some Xmas food where I just went hard from the start and ended up setting all time best MMP numbers from 20-45 minutes (Strava https://www.strava.com/activities/2967917754/analysis])
  • I’m well into recovery now. Despite making a serious effort to do higher cadence whenever I need more power it just feels much easier to change up and standup. Yesterday I did a 2 hour race on the Zwift Pretzel (won by Romain Bardet!!) and was easily able to step up the power on the climbs. What felt hard was trying to up cadence on the flats https://www.strava.com/activities/3391077163 This ride also addressed on concern that I have that this style may be tiring for long distance. Actually I think it just the opposite.

This is contrary to much if not all of the received wisdom I have received and opposite to the approach of staying seating with high cadence that I have advocated myself.

The only example of similar that I am aware of is Nik Bowdler, who won UK time trials BBAR (best average over 50 100 and 12 hour time trial in a year) on a couple of occasions. He had a 77 tooth chainring and I can remember being passed by him during an event, his legs turning slowly while his bike went very fast. https://www.cyclingweekly.com/news/latest-news/bowdler-makes-his-mark-on-the-bbar-91973

It is not that I cannot sustain long period of hours at 80rpm plus and if needed I can hold 120rpm+ for a short while. It is just that if more power is needed it just feels a lot easier for me to change up a few gears and just mash the pedals.

Since I am training to climb not time trial then standing will have little if any impact on speed.

I can think of various reasons why I am more comfortable with this low cadence such as the bpm of the trance music I train to, the fact that I have always associated more power with pushing down harder rather than spinning faster and starting to lift heavy especially bench press, dumbbell row and deadlift (which means my shoulders are a lot more stable and my posterior chain noticeably stronger).

Both my knees are shot with ligament trouble and early arthritis. (That is one reason for the deadlifts which worked in that I can now at least walk without pain.) While I have heard that the downside of the above approach is knee trouble, it’s not an issue for me at least.

I have a few questions

  • Have you or any of your athletes experienced similar?
  • Any thoughts on what is going on under the hood? If it’s at all relevant my power below 60sec is terrible, I cannot manage above the mid 700s peak. So perhaps over the years I have converted what the few fast twitch muscles I was born with to slow.
  • It seems to be working so does it matter? Are there any benefits or reasons for me trying to work to increase cadence?
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the main 2 things (as far as I know) are:

  • Higher cadance should be more efficient, but maybe in your case it’s not (caused by doing a lot of low cadance work). But that doesn’t mean you couldn’t be faster reverting your muscles to handle the higher cadance… (could take a while again though).
  • low cadance causes more strain on your knees (or joints/tendons in general). If you can handle this at 60, maybe it’s of no concern, but maybe you can ride longer if you put lower stress on your body. (power = force*speed, so lower speed for the same power means more force, means more strain)

I have no idea why this happens to you, but i would not underestimate the aerodynamic disadvantage by climbing standing. At the same time, i guess you are doing quite steep stuff if you are standing for 20mins. When i ride at threshold on my local climbs, i’m above the 15km/h “magic” limit for when you start gaining aerodynamic benefits.

The climbs I’m training for are the HC climbs like Alpe D’Huez

As it happens my approach is ideally suited for these. A 15kph average would be pretty impressive but anyway they consist of sections that alternate flatter grade with steeper.

So the flat sections like hairpins are faster and the natural place to take a seated break. The steeper sections benefit all the more from the increased power when standing and once they get much above 10% actually feel a lot easier off the seat than on it.


Interestingly enough on the subject of knees.

This article https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24532730-100-is-running-or-walking-better-for-you-heres-what-the-science-says/ reported the results below.

My knees are in better shape now than at any time since pre injury 35 years ago. As mentioned in the OP I found a direct correlation between doing heavy deadlifts and reduced pain from arthritis. I would also speculate that, far from harming the joints/tendons doing high resistance efforts like threshold@standing (seated could be an issue especially if bike fit is poor) may actually strengthen them. This would be consistent with the now universal medical consensus that resistance training, at any age but especially as you get older, is just as important as endurance training for long term general health. Use it or lose it is an old adage but just as true as ever.

New Scientist March 11 2020

Together with his colleague Laura Maria Horga and others, he recruited 82 runners taking part in the London marathon, all of whom were over 40 and had never run this distance before. Using MRI, the runners’ knees were scanned in detail six months before the race and again a few weeks after. The scans revealed that the knee’s main weight-bearing compartments – the parts most likely to develop arthritis in the long term – had become stronger as a result of the marathon training. “It was a very big surprise,” says Hart.

The kneecap part of the joint, however, did show damage, but follow-up scans revealed that this had reversed six months later, when the participants had reverted to less intense running regimes. Hart’s take-home message is “distance running can have long-term benefits for your knees”. The team also did a study on hips, which found that 560 kilometres of a marathon training programme, ending in the race, didn’t cause pre-arthritic changes in the hip joint. “Our findings suggest that the high impact forces during marathon running were well tolerated by the hip joint,” says Horga.

Read more: https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24532730-100-is-running-or-walking-better-for-you-heres-what-the-science-says/#ixzz6LeSYJwAP

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