During today's 33:33 ride I did something completely opposite to yesterday's. Taking you several posts back for a moment, I'd written about riding at a lower cadence because I worried about pedaling too fast, adding strength, and so forth. Yesterday, I rode in a lower gear than usual because yesterday was a recovery day. Today, I decided to slow down my leg speed by riding in a bigger gear -- 53x14. I reasoned that in a bigger gear I'd encounter more resistance from the roller at any given power level, which would force me to pedal slower. This made sense.
As much sense as that made, it appears I don't work that way. My normal cruising speed is about 26 mph at 95 rpm. In a bigger gear, I started out pedaling 29.5 at 92 rpm. At first this felt moderately difficult, then I became used to it and it felt almost normal. Without meaning to pedal faster, I found myself pedaling faster anyway. Pretty soon, I was cruising at 31 mph without feeling undue stress. This seemed bizarre and it got me thinking sweatily about power rates and training zones.
My training zones are based on the amount of power I produce to pedal the bike in a certain gear. My body's reaction to the stresses depend on the size of the gear I turn and the amount of resistance the trainer's roller places on my bike's wheel. During a RAMP training zone test, I ride in the same gear, while the resistance is gradually increased to the point that my body reacts by raising my heart rate in an effort to pump more oxygen to the muscles, my respiratory rate increases for the same reason, my body goes from burning fat to burning sugar, to inability to clear lactate faster than I produce it leading to muscle burn, to lightheadedness, to surrender. In a bigger gear I ride at a faster speed. If I rode in a lower gear, I would ride slower, but any given resistance would feel easier. The computer may say I am putting out 200 watts, but if I am riding 53x17 instead of 53x14 at the same cadence and, therefore, going slower, I am not working as hard. It would be the same as if I were riding at 200 watts in the same gear, but slowed down from 26 to 22 mph -- obviously, the latter would feel significantly easier. The speed drops, but the test does not measure speed, it measures body's response to stresses. If the stress is lower because the speed is lower I can continue riding with less effort at a higher resistance.
Where I am going with this is self-esteem. We want to put out greater and greater power during tests. I peek at other people's training zone stickers affixed to their stems and am duly impressed with cyclists whose Zone 5 starts at 350+ watts (mine's at over 270), wishing I could be more like Mike. But now I wonder what gears they use for their tests and how gear selection affects their training zones. It probably doesn't on absolute level, zones are zones and our bodies respond to various levels of stresses accordingly, whatever numbers we want to ascribe to them. On the other hand, I am curious what numbers I can produce in a lower-geared test.
Instead, though, I am going to give bigger gear training a shot for a few weeks. My leg speed in the next cog over to the right seems fine. Never mind that I was operating on a quarter tank after just half an hour and probably would have been done in another 15-20 minutes -- riding in a bigger gear at over 31 mph for most of that period was awesomely inspirational. Off-season is the time for experimentation. I'll be my own guinea pig and we'll see how it goes.