An interesting mini article at the bottom of an interview with Dan Martin in the July 2020 issue of Procycling. I have heard it said many times before; high cadence riding is most efficient but requires higher levels of oxygen.
Historically, I was always a “masher” using very big gears, I rode a 88 inch fixed gear around the peak district and my 12 speed had a lowest gear combination of 42 on the front and 19 on the back. I was regularly out of the saddle using brute strength to power the pedals round. Years later I was still riding the 52/42 but had moved away from the time trial block to a 12/21T
In 2008 when I got back to cycling after a break, I managed to bend my frame and the costs of repair were massive compared to the option of buying new. So I bought a cheap Bianchi; this was my first ever aluminium bike and also my first with brake lever shifters. The main difference, apart from the weight, was the gearing. It had a 38T chainring and a 23T sprocket; this seemed a ridiculously small gear to me at first, but I got used to it.
In 2012, I bought a new bike which came with a compact (50/36) and a 12/28. I was going to swap it out to an 11/23, but left it for a few weeks to give it a try. It did seem a little odd again, but I could pedal uphill while seated, very comfortably and only needed the bottom two gears for serious hills like Winnats Pass.
Over time, I started to use the lower gears and spin a little more, but I still used to power uphill, generally out of the saddle.
Then AF hit me. At first I didn’t know what it was, and the effects were relatively mild; I assumed I was ageing and getting less fit. Eventually, I found myself with a 30T sprocket and using it more often, although it didn’t really feel comfortable. Then finally, persistent AF made itself known and my fitness dropped off a cliff.
Three years later and I am back to normal. I still have the 30T and I am using it regularly on the steeper slopes, I rarely climb standing and I spin rather than mash. I don’t think this style is inherently any slower than my previous style.
One interesting point is that spinning is supposed to require a higher level of fitness and more oxygen demand, but I am not sure it is that simple. When I spin up hill, I can keep my HR low, but when I stand, it rises above 160 almost instantly. It seems to me that standing and mashing requires more oxygen than sitting and spinning, possibly due to the fact that I am also supporting my bodyweight.
Overall, I think my current style is more efficient and I am working to refine it.