Sticking up for the little guy – watt production and speed in cycling

Sticking up for the little guy – watt production and speed in cycling

sarah bio square feb 2015by Coach Sarah

There are a lot of ways to skin a cat… or so I’ve heard.  Just like there are lots of ways to produce a watt on the bike.

A watt is the unit we use to measure the power we produce on the bike.  And the more power we can produce, the faster we can ultimately go.  Which, at the end of the day, is the goal most of us probably have when we gut through tough rides!

Cycling in triathlon requires us to produce watts one way.  Ideally, this is done in a manner where we save our muscles to still be able to go another taxing round in Leg 3 of our race – The Run.

Cycling in non-triathlon events allows us some leniency to produce watts in a way where we don’t have to conserve our muscles for another go-around right after hopping off our bikes.

When we find ourselves permanently riding in the big ring (the ring furthest to the right by your pedals, or crankset), we are producing watts at a greater effort than if we find ourselves riding permanently in the small ring (or middle ring, if you have a triple-crankset).   When someone rides in the big ring all the time, the chances are great that it’s going to hurt a lot more when they hop off their bike to do a run.  If someone rides in the small (or middle) ring all of the time, they probably aren’t utilizing all of their potential throughout the course of a ride.

Food for thought in triathlon training & racing:  By switching up our gearing, and utilizing BOTH the big ring and small ring during tougher efforts, we can produce the same amount of average watts over the course of a ride with less taxation & greater utilization of our muscles!!

Here’s one quick anecdote that might help explain what I’m talking about.

I helped lead the long group at this past Sunday’s group ride in Yorkville, where we faced a very persistent headwind on the entire first half of our ride.  (No surprise, right?!!)  It is not unusual for small fragments of riders to form within the long group, as people find their tempo pace, and group together and draft off of one another accordingly.  At one point, I dropped back to check in with the riders towards the middle of the long group.  In doing so, I lost contact with the front riders, whom I was supposed to be helping lead.  So I surged ahead to catch them, since they were already clipping along at a quick pace.  I was in my big ring, hoping to cover as much distance as possible, as quickly as possible.  But my legs yielded in protest, and my cadence started to drop.  My muscles – already tired from the headwind I had been leading the group into – screamed to remind me that I was producing watts in a way that was NOT sustainable for a long period of time!  (Rats!)

So now what?!   (Okay, here’s where I’m getting to my anecdotal point!)

I know from riding with a power meter on my bike trainer at home that it’s possible to produce as many watts, with a less taxing effort, in my small ring as I can in my big ring (in certain gears).  And it hurts a lot less to do so!  So I switched to my small ring, felt my cadence get a nice boost, and my speed picked up a bit.  Ahhhh, now I was in a sustainable gear, producing enough watts and speed to catch up to the group up front.  And I did.  It took time, but by using my small ring with a higher gear to make it happen, my legs weren’t burnt out when I caught the front group.  My lungs hurt, for sure!  But my legs weren’t totally spent.

The point to that anecdote is that often times we find ourselves in a “ring-rut,” where we don’t utilize all the gearing possibility our bike gives us!  The small ring (a.k.a. the little guy) can be our best friend in tough riding conditions (i.e. headwind or hills), helping us maintain a nice smooth, quick, sustainable cadence.  Speed in the small ring is produced because it allows us to hold a higher cadence in a less taxing way.

And when conditions allow us, the big ring becomes our “go-to” ring to take us further, faster.

***The caveat here for triathletes is that we MUST be able to continue producing a high cadence of at least 85-90 rpm’s when we are in our big ring.  When we find that conditions don’t allow us to maintain that cadence, it is time to look to the little guy for help.  This is because we are now resorting to producing watts in a way that WILL hurt us in the long run of the ride/race.

Here’s an exercise you can try for experimentation purposes:

–Warm up for 15 minutes on your bike or trainer, spinning in your SMALL RING at 90-95+ rpms.  Insert 3 x 1-min fast-cadence intervals, where your cadence is 110+ rpm’s.  Keep your pedal force low on these 110+ intervals, so that you don’t bounce your hips too much!  Recover with easy spinning for 1-min between each interval.

–For the MAIN SET, do 6×10 minute intervals at an endurance-oriented pace (i.e. zone 2 if using a 5-zone training module.)  Keep your cadence between 85-95 rpm’s for the duration of the exercise.

  • On intervals 1, 3 & 5, ride in your BIG RING, and an easier gear in back (i.e. one of the bigger-sized gears in back.  Just avoid using the largest-sized gear in back, as it’ll put your chain at a stretched-out angle.  This is bad practice over time.)
  • On intervals 2, 4 & 6, ride in your SMALL RING (or middle ring), and a harder gear in back (i.e. one of the smaller-sized gears in back.  Avoid using the very smallest-sized gear in back, as it’ll again cause “crosschaining”.)

What to watch for during the exercise:

–If you train with a power meter, try to keep your watts as close as possible during ALL of the intervals, regardless of which ring you are using.

–If you train with a speedometer, try to keep your speed about the same during ALL the intervals, regardless of which ring you are using.

–**Pay careful attention to how your muscles feel as you switch from interval to interval.  Notice how they may feel odd at first when you switch from the big ring to the small ring, and vice versa.  It may feel like different muscles are being recruited to produce the speed & power.  But then notice how eventually they even out, and your pedal stroke begins to feel similar in both rings.

–Take a mental snapshot of how it feels, and use it to your advantage next time you are out on a tough ride, trying to save your legs for a brick run afterwards!   Use this knowledge & mental snapshot to avoid falling into “ring rut.”

The more versatile we are as riders, the better we can be!

Happy pedaling!

Sarah Wangerin is a USA Cycling Level III certified coach and Licensed Massage Therapist with Experience Triathlon.   Learn more about Coach Sarah, Experience Triathlon and Experience Massage at

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