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Indoor Cycling: The Difference Between Power and RPMs

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There was a time when indoor bikes didn’t come fully equipped with an array of computerized systems. Back in the day, you could cycle for hours on end and never know what your RPMs were. The only way you could increase power was to manually adjust tension while simultaneously peddling faster.

Things are different today. Modern bikes offer tons of digital readouts at a glance. Push a button and you can instantly see what your RPMs are. Push another button to adjust tension or increase/decrease incline. All of this technology is good, but it may be blurring the line between the fundamentals of indoor cycling and trusting what computer readouts are telling you.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the difference between power and RPMs. Far too many cyclists focus on the RPM number as though it is somehow magical. In reality, RPMs are deceiving when cyclists rely on them as an isolated measurement of performance.

Below is a description of both power and RPMs as they relate to indoor cycling, compliments of Salt Lake City’s Mcycle cycling studio. Hopefully, this clears up any confusion there might be with this issue.

Power in Indoor Cycling

Indoor cycling instructors understand a fairly static definition of power. In the cycling world, power is the amount of effort you have to put forth to keep your bike moving at a constant pace. It stands to reason that more power requires more work on the cyclist’s part. More power also increases the cardio benefits of indoor cycling.

In the days before computerized bikes, cyclists would adjust power by manually adjusting tension and either slowing down or speeding up the rate at which they pedaled. In the absence of computerized readouts telling them what their current power was, they could actually feel it in their legs.

Many of today’s bikes are capable of adjusting tension automatically. Rides can be programmed for a completely automated experience. Conversely, riders can adjust tension on the fly by pushing a button. But computerized systems notwithstanding, power has not changed in terms of its definition.

RPMs in Indoor Cycling

RPM stands for ‘revolutions per minute’. It is a measurement in no way limited to indoor cycling. Mechanics measure engine speed in RPMs. So do airline pilots and machinists. RPMs are irrelevant, as a measurement off indoor cycling productivity, if they are not compared to tension, level of incline, etc.

As an example, you could pedal your indoor bike hard enough to get the RPMs up to 130. How much work it takes to reach that mark would depend on the tension. Little or no tension would make it easy to get there with very little effort. On the other hand, moderate to high tension would require a lot more work. Thus, the number itself is a very little value.

The other thing about RPMs that frustrates indoor cycling instructions is the fact that it can deceive students. More than one instructor is driven crazy by what the industry calls a ‘ghost riding’ – the practice of getting the bike up to a certain RPM level and then laying off the pedals and coasting. The most efficient bikes can coast at a consistent RPM for quite some time.

It should be evident that power and RPMs are two different things to indoor cyclists. If you are new to the sport, do not obsess over RPMs. It is more important to learn how to use your bike’s tension setting in order to increase and decrease power according to your routine. Power is always more important than RPMs.

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