Wildly different RPE depending on speed/gradient

Looking for some tips if anyone has them:

Effectively, 240-260 watts going >20 mph feels easily sustainable. Did it for 45 minutes last night and felt fine. Turned around into a headwind/false flat incline on the gravel trail and so speed was reduced by 4-5 mph at least. At one point I was pedaling at 180 watts at 12.5 mph. 220 watts felt about the same as 260.

To pre-empt the question, it is not nutrition. A year or so ago I effectively moved to the other end of the trail and so I previously did the same route starting at the opposite end. I can always go harder with less RPE going east on the trail.

Is it just my gearing? My current set up had me at either 77 rpm or around 88-90 rpm on the way back home. The low RPM starts to feel like a grind and the high RPM at low speeds/low gradient feels unnatural (high RPM at 4%+ gradient feels fine).

I know people say inertia affects RPE as well. If that is the case, is there anything I can do to help mitigate the affects of inertia on RPE?

Could it be fit? I don’t get uncomfortable on long rides, but I hate my handlebars and SRAM hoods so I will typically keep my position constant unless my speed changes drastically. If I am going less than 15 mph, I find myself less comfortable in an aero position, but in order to have a comfortable hand position I adjust my position on the saddle ever so slightly.

tldr: I struggle to maintain power going slow into a head wind. The faster I am going the easier it is for me to sustain a higher power. Is it gearing, fit, or is it just inertia and I need to get used to it?

You’re giving a good reason why we use a power meter when doing a training ride and not relying just on RPE.

RPE includes the very real psychological effect of going SLOWER than expected. Only tip I would make would be to turn off speed from your screen and show ONLY power (3 sec avg or something similar) during a workout.

Edit: Speed also affects airflow / cooling rate, so it’s more than just psychologically harder to hold a certain power at a slower speed.

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Do you expected the second 45 minutes of a relatively high power output to feel the same as the first? (Actually it would be longer time since you are now covering the same distance but with a headwind and incline).

Sounds like problem #1 is your expectation. No matter the intensity, ride long enough and the RPE increases.

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What’s your FTP? I’m guessing this ride was above 0.8 IF

  • Maybe. Unless you used the same cadence range/average for both efforts, that difference becomes a variable.
  • Muscular fatigue (and I venture to link to RPE here) tends to increase faster at lower cadence generally speaking, and it can be worse if you venture into cadence ranges/averages that you don’t normally train at similar power levels.
  • The only direct way to impact inertia is by altering your physical speed. If you are locked at a speed from a basic power to resistance equation (wind, road, etc.), the only real level you have to play with once your speed is set is your cadence to hold that speed.
  • See above, and the basic consideration that using a “different” cadence may be the way to offset a lower inertia (slower speed). Swinging into a higher cadence would be my initial suggestion to try. But that is mainly aimed at addressing the potential lower cadence = higher muscular strain which may or may not be the reason for your higher RPE.
  • Sure could be. What you describe above might relate to my thoughts on hand/arm pressure relative to the “pushback” we get from wind resistance. However, since it sounds like the potential head wind you had may be reasonably close to the faster speed you had in the other case, this may not be relevant.
  • Regardless of the root cause (which is worth digging deeper), I sure can see a position that becomes uncomfortable over time or in different conditions as a clear shift in RPE. So if this is a consistent issue for you, reviewing your fit seems like a good idea to me.

With all you mention, I suspect you are dealing with multiple factors and think more than one might be worth of addressing.

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For me it’s the same. I am not sure why, maybe it’s psychological, that when you pedal faster with a tailwind you go faster unlike with a headwind when the effort doesn’t pay off

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Sounds like this is the same phenomenon as the difference in rpe in Erg when using a high or low gear. Probably an inertia thing.


I haven’t tested it in a while, but based on how I feel at certain powers and previous FTP history, I estimate it at around 300.

This is a fair line of questioning/reasoning. That said, I believe I have done this route while starting at both ends to know even my all day pace feels like more of a grind. Part of the sensation is that it feels like more weight is on my back wheel (90 kg at the moment). This sensation is particularly true on gravel roads with loose pebbles on top. The sensation is less apparent on pavement.

If this were the case, is there a typical change in setup to start with? I think I want to both lower my seat a bit and get a longer stem.

This is also fair - I might be expecting too much from myself and get frustrated as it starts to get difficult.

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Mental. Fast is fun. Slow is not. Last night I pulled for 2 minutes into a headwind, 300W to do 20mph. Monday I did some 3-min vo2 intervals solo, into the wind, and 3-min at 327W only got me 19.5mph. Enough time riding into headwinds and you get over it.


Dropping the saddle may help in a way by decreasing the Saddle to Handlebar Drop distance. You could try that along with a rearward shift of the saddle to see what the combo of dropping and opening the “triangle” between your hands and bottom does for you.

That saddle shift back is a hack method to see if maybe a longer stem might be a good change for you what is super quick and easy.

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Guessing here but, I believe it has a lot to do with the way a rider generates torque.

For example, I make power in a narrow band with higher torque (say from 2 o’clock to 5). When I ride up anything, gravel, shitty slow tires, into wind or all the above it requires a longer power band (over the top to 6-ish). So, while 300W is 300W up down or sideways, for me, rpe is not the same either.

IMO this can be trained to some degree, but, some are just naturally better one way or the other.

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I think the biggest factor here is rider position. For me, it’s more difficult to hold power into a headwind because I’m getting super low and aero at the same time. Vice versa with a tailwind. The vast majority of us have more difficulty holding the same power when we try to get very aero.