Legs of German track star Robert Forstemann
One of the great divides in cycling is that between the spinners and the mashers. Or to put it another way, between those who cycle in a high gear, pedalling slowly in a way that requires huge power or those who cycle in an lower gear, which requires faster pedalling but is easier in the long term.
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The difference, it was explained to me, is that by pedalling faster you put the burder on your heart and lungs rather than on your legs.
Meanwhile if you throw it into the highest gear you’re essentially weightlifting, something, as I often tell newbies, you’re not going to be able to do all the way for long distances.
Years ago a friend approached me one day on the bike and said he just couldn’t figure out how I was able to accelerate so quickly.
For the sake of clarity, to be frank, lest anyone think’s I’m blowing my own trumpet, I cannot and do not accelerate quickly.
Instead, his comment was a reflection on his complete inability to acclerate with any great urgency beyond his ability to cruise.
It took me a while to figure out what he meant, or what indeed might be the answer to his question.
Bear with me, the science of it goes like this: There are two kinds of muslces in the legs, slow twitch and fast twitch.
The slow twitch ones are powerful, but slower.
The fast twitch ones are not as powerful but faster.
Everybody is born with a different ratio of each. Time trialers, for instance, are born with lots of slow twitchers, while sprinters have lots of fast twitchers.
And all-rounders have a good chunk of either.
It also translates into the whole masher vs spinner debate. The slow twitchers mash away in a high gear and the fast twitchers spin in a low gear.
Like most people, I’m somewhere in the middle. I don’t like my gears to be either too heavy or too light.
But I can certainly see how not being a big heavy masher (and more to the point, a more efficient use of the gears) allowed me to appear to be able to accelerate faster than my masher friend.
Actually, when you consider that mashers tend not to bother changing their gears with any regularly, and I do, that might go further to explain my apparant ability to accelerate.
And, being a faster spinner you are far more likely to be able to have better bike control.
Case in point, go to YouTube and watch the final moments of Strade Bianchi when Elisa Longho Borgini beat Kasia Niewadoma in it.
It’s quite striking. The pair of women match each other on the steep climb before the finale, and only on the last corner does Longho Borgini pull ahead. Rewind it and watch again. The Italian winner pedals faster than her Polish counterpart.
In fact Niewadoma is a committed masher. In the last corner Longho Borgini turns easier to the right, whereas Niewadoma is overgeared and isn’t nimble enough to change direction.
That’s one for the fast twitchers, and I’m sure there are far more examples out there.
I was interested then to see the response in a technical advice column on the velonews.com website which discusses fast and slow twitch muscles.
They quote a cycling coach and physiologist who say that the “the whole fast- and slow-twitch are a bit of a misnomer”.
Over the years it has been discovered that the more important differentiator is the way in which they use fuel: some fibers have the ability to use aerobic metabolism/burn fat while others rely on glycogen as fuel.
“The second important thing to understand is that in cycling, unless you pedal at a really high cadence, you’re never pedaling fast enough for it to be too fast for “slow-twitch fibers.”
The more important thing to remember is what’s called the “recruitment principle” in physiology which means that the slower you pedal and the higher the torque, the more fibres (both kinds) you use.
At low-cadence, we produce higher torque , so you’ll need to recruit more fibers to turn the pedals, and you will actually recruit more fast-twitch fibers than you would when pedaling at the same wattage but at a higher cadence. This is one of the reasons pros practice riding at a higher cadence, becaue it’s more efficient because you use fewer fibres.
Our slow-twitch fibers don’t really fatigue, so if you pedal at high cadences, you can produce higher wattages without producing a lot of fatigue.
All of the above highlights for me the need to make sure we exercise both our fast and slow twitch muscles, rather than pedalling exclusively with an emphasis on just one.
It makes sense to have both strong and efficient legs!