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By Alan Ira Fleischmann

Have you ever noticed that the horsepower ratings for your car are stated at a particular RPM, or engine speed? This is because any engine is more efficient at a moderately high RPM. You, as the engine of your bicycle, are too! For cycling, RPM is referred to as "cadence," or the speed at which you spin the pedals. Spin faster, and you--the engine--will be more powerful and efficient.

When you downshift your car to climb a steep hill, you're actually changing the gear ratio to allow the engine to spin faster, thereby providing more horsepower to the wheels. Most cars reach their maximum horsepower at about 5000 RPM. Most cyclists can reach their maximum power output (one quarter to one half horsepower) at a cadence between 85 and 100 RPM.

Maintaining a higher cycling cadence requires practice. A cycle computer also helps, but is not an absolute necessity. The general rule of thumb is that a higher cadence will provide more power while being less tiring, and causes less strain on the knees. A cadence of 90 RPM is generally considered optimal, but yours may vary depending on your own hearing, the terrain, the length of your crank arms, and your level of conditioning. Many riders use the cadence function on their cycle computers to determine when to shift up and down through the gears.

If your cadence is generally in the 60-70 RPM range (that's about one complete pedal rotation every second), try increasing it by 10-20 per minute. Over the course of a few longer rides, you should notice a decrease in fatigue, and an increase in your power.

Another important part of the pedal stroke is the "spin." If you're simply pushing down on the pedals, you're only utilizing about 40 percent of your usable power. If you have two cages or clipless pedals, you should be pulling up in the back stroke as well. Optimally, and with practice, you can train yourself to exert pressure on the pedals throughout the entire circular path of the pedals. Again, comparing the bicycle to the car engine: simply pushing the pedals on the downstroke would be equivalent to a two cylinder engine. Pulling on the upstroke as well increases the efficiency to that of a four cylinder engine. Exerting pedal pressure through the entire circular stroke is the functional equivalent of an eight cylinder engine. With the same engine sizes, an eight cylinder engine works less, but provides more power, than one with only two cylinders.

Train your engine to be a V-8, and spin it fast!

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