Ok, so here’s the thing: we all love speed, we crave to go faster, we are thrill seekers, sensation junkies and risk takers. It’s in our human nature and it’s not just the urge to increase the speed on our bikes – we want faster internet, faster restaurant service, one click ordering. No matter how much you might lament the benefits of taking time to “smell the flowers” we are speed obsessed beings hooked on the adrenaline rush of fastness!
Wanting to increase your average speed on your road bike is a common goal. In many ways it’s the most basic metric by which we measure our performance, the easiest way to quantify our achievement, particularly to non cyclist friends and family who might well be less impressed with power output figures and heart rate statistics. But how do you increase your average cycling speed?
I know that I hit a bit of a speed wall (a relative term as all of my cycling involves a lot of wheezing and avoidance of physical pain and exertion as much as possible whilst attempting an external appearance of effortless progress) after about four months as a beginner cyclist. It took a real effort to increase my average cycling speed but I am managing, over time, to make progress.
So, now we have all come clean admitted to our speed obsession here are ………………tips on how to go faster on our bikes and how to increase our average speed.
1 – Lose some weight.
Yikes that sounds a bit harsh but it stands to reason that the more weight you are hauling round the slower you are going to go. For every KG you lose either from your own body weight or from the bike itself you will be 2 seconds faster per 100m climbed – that means that if you suddenly become 10KG lighter and you do a ride with 1000m of climbing you will be 100 seconds faster which is actually quite a lot!
However, surely the fatter you are the faster you will roll down the hill the other side?? But maybe the extra speed gained by your weight is offset by the greater wind resistance you will create??!
Anyway, you can obviously lose weight on the bike by buying lighter components and spending a fortune on a carbon frame for example but the quickest, cheapest and healthiest way, both for your body and your bank balance is to lose some body weight. The only scenario where it’s really worth shelling out for lighter bike weight is if you are at your optimum body weight yourself. If you are then you deserve it – go flash the cash!
2 – Aero baby
Apparently 80% of the effort we go to on a bike is to overcome drag created by pushing ourselves through the air. For me it’s more like 90% because wherever I cycle I’m always fighting a debilitating headwind (!) – the other 10% of effort for me is spend craving after tea and cake!
We can cut this 80% by 14% by cycling on the drops (100% by cycling in a vacuum!) – cool as we look faster and more professional too!
I’m always surprised by the number of road cyclists I see who seem to have a default position of riding on the hoods, why not just get a hybrid bike and be done with it? For me, it puts less strain on my lower back cycling on the drops and on a longer ride my backside is angled at a more comfortable position as well. I’m also well aware that I need as much help as possible to go faster so the dropped position is where I spend 90% of my time on a ride.
If you fancy spending some money on aero then you can of course spend as much as you like on aero components and frames. As above the gains are minimal and can easily be offset by wearing slightly flapping clothing or having hairy legs which brings me nicely onto clothing!
Obviously, if you wear loose fitting clothing it’s going to behave like the Spinnaker on the Cutty Sark which is great if you have a back wind but 99% of the time flapping around clothing is going to slow you down big time! The only way to go it to have lightweight close fitting kit.
Aero helmets are expensive and make you look like an extra from Alien so, unless you are mega high performing, the gains will be minimal.
The best bang for your buck in this area is to get close fitting cycling clothing and ride on the drops as much as possible.
It’s worth mentioning that if you ride in a group, and you are not at the front, then you will save about 30% on the amount of effort you need to put in to keep up your speed. How crazy is that! In fact the bigger the group the larger the energy saving. This generally equates to a 1 – 2mph increase in average speed. The downside however is that, depending on the group, you may well be so absorbed in conversation (probably about which weight saving/ aero piece of kit to buy next to help you go faster) that you divert the 30% from your legs to your mouth and no speed benefit is felt at all!
3- Check your tyre pressures
This can make a huge difference and, if your pressures are too low, make an instant increase in your overall speed. The lower the pressure the more resistance a tyre creates and so the more effort it takes to keep the bike moving forward.
Check the recommended pressure by looking on the tyre wall. You will need a good quality tyre pump with an accurate dial to read the pressure from and you should inflate the tyres to the pressure specified by the manufacturer.
Sometimes, as a concession to comfort, some cyclists will keep their pressures a little below the given figure to create a little more give in the ride but it’s not a good idea to over inflate the tyres as this could result in a loss of grip and damage.
My tyres are inflated to the recommended 90 lb/psi and I find that they loose a little pressure and need a top up every two weeks or so. It’s always worth checking them before each long ride to make sure that they are at optimum pressure.
4 – Plan your route
Where and when you cycle can make a big difference to your overall average speed and, if at all possible a bit of forethought and planning can make your ride more enjoyable as well.
Firstly it’s always a good idea to have a look at the weather forecast as cycling in rain and/or wind obviously makes a big difference. Now I feel as if I’m a bit of an expert on this as, where I live is geographically pretty flat and famous for it’s whipping winds as there are no hills or barriers to prevent it! Looking at the windspeed and direction can be a great idea. Try to plan a route that’s relatively sheltered when you would be cycling into the wind and more open when the wind will be at your back. If this isn’t possible then cycling out into a headwind and home with a tail wind is the best idea for keeping your average speed up.
In terms of the route itself look carefully at the gradients and, if at all possible, keep the climbs in the first half of the ride when your legs are fresh. Similarly, psychologically you might find that you go faster on a linear route where you arrive at a destination, turn round and head back than you will if you do a circular route. I think it’s to do with knowing how far you have to go and pacing your energy levels. A more familiar route will probably be faster as well just due to confidence in knowing the road and being able to compare your performance to the last time you cycled it.
But, in my experience, the biggest factor that effects my speed is the type of road I cycle on and the traffic on it. It stands to reason that if you choose to cycle in town, going round roundabouts, stopping and starting and avoiding traffic then your average speed will be slower than if you were out on the open road. That’s not to say that this type of cycling isn’t fun or beneficial as I quite like racing cars in slow moving traffic and mentally having to concentrate on the road a bit but my average speed obviously suffers.
If I cycle during rush hour as well there are more cars about and my average speed suffers. Even on relatively open roads I have to wait longer at junctions and I’m more aware of the traffic around me. There’s obviously nothing wrong with this and many cyclists commute on a daily basis but you can’t compare your speed on your commuter route at 8.00 on a weekday morning to 8.00 on a Sunday!
The other thing that I’m also increasingly becoming aware of is the quality of the road surface. There are a number of stretches of road in my area where I know that the road surface is so poor that, for safety and comfort’s sake, I just have to slow down. This is incredibly frustrating, especially if you are training and trying to increase your average speed, and it drives me absolutely nuts as not only am I paying for the roads to be kept in reasonable repair through my taxes but I also believe that my most dangerous hazard on a road bike isn’t other road users but the likelihood of hitting a pothole at speed and being thrown off the bike.
5 – Practice your cornering technique
It stands to reason that our average speed will be higher if we don’t slow down for corners. In fact if we didn’t slow down for corners, stop at traffic lights or give way at roundabouts our speed may well increase considerably but this is hardly practical so it’s a good plan to try to minimise the slowing effects of all of these.
Firstly, many novice cyclists tend to back off and corner too slowly. This is completely natural as the thought of the bike sliding from beneath you at speed isn’t particularly pleasant and those skinny tyres on road bikes look as though they grip as well as a pat of butter on a skating rink. However, over the course of a longer ride excessive caution will have an adverse effect on your average speed.
Firstly it’s better, in terms of overall control, to corner on the drops as your centre of gravity is lower and you can control the steering and the brake more accurately in this position. You need to look at the line you are going to take going in and out of the corner (try to make this as smooth and cut the corner a little but be aware of other traffic around you). Adjust your speed by braking smoothly before you reach the corner and then try not to brake as you are actually cornering as this is more likely to result in a loss of control.
As you start to turn the outer leg should have the pedal down towards the floor which helps with balance as you will naturally lean into the corner a little. Go with the lean on the bike a bit but don’t lean your leg out! You might well naturally start to tense up a little but if you can keep your body relaxed you will maintain control much better.
As you come out of the corner you might well want to stand on the pedals for a few revs to get your speed back up. It’s important to power out of the corner. So, as with driving a car brake first and approach at the right speed, choose a good line and then power out of the the corner.
This will only get better with applied practice and you need to learn where the safe limits of grip are in different types of conditions. You will be able to corner much more quickly on a dry smooth road than you will on a rough road surface or a wet one.
Try to push your limits a little further each time you practice so that you really get a feel for how your bike and tyres and respond in different conditions. However, although the aim is to get faster this shouldn’t be at the expense of taking unreasonable risks so always consider your safety and the safety of other road users first.
6 – Get road shoes and clipless pedals
My road bike arrived with small flat pedals on it and, as a beginner I stuck with these few a few weeks as I practiced on the bike wearing just a pair of trainers.
I clearly remember changing to clipless pedals and road shoes and going out on the bike for the first time – it was a complete revelation! I felt as though my feet were glued to the pedals and every ounce of both downward and upward effort I made in my legs was being transferred to the bike.
Using a clipless system can seem a bit daunting as it looks a bit over complicated both in terms of getting the right shoes, the right pedals and appropriate cleats (the bits that connect the bottom of the shoe to the pedal). There’s also an added layer of learning to be achieved as using them has to become a bit of a habit but it really isn’t that complicated when you get into it and the huge benefits are more than worth it.
If there was one thing that you could do to instantly increase your average speed using clipless pedals would be it. I don’t think you realise how much effort you put into keeping your feet flat on the pedals and keeping them still you use until you “clip in”!
Of course there are disadvantages as well and riding on clipless pedals in traffic when you have to stop and start is a bit of a pain. You have to “unclip” every time you want to put your foot on the floor and “clip in” every time you want to start. This can obviously play havoc with your average speed as, until you are very proficient at it, clipping in and out is very slow. Slower in fact than on a standard bike and it’s also extremely embarrassing to be dressed in full lycra on a road bike struggling to clip back in after some traffic lights and be over taken by people wearing suits on fold up cycles – yes, that’s me!
The key is to try to avoid having to unclip at all and this means looking ahead and planning your approach speed to any hazard. If you can crawl along and stay clipped in or even perfect the “bike stand” whilst waiting for the light to change you will save valuable seconds every time. Of course there is a fine balance to be struck here as crawling along waiting for the lights to change and unclipping only as a last resort at the very last moment takes a little skill and experience. It’s no fun whatsoever grinding to a halt, not being able to unclip quickly enough and then gloriously falling sideways into the road still clipped to the bike. This is particularly embarrassing when it happens right in front of a bus stop of teenagers – yes, that’s me too!
7 – Take the plunge and do interval training
Of all of the ways to increase your average speed on your road bike the one that will have the most impact is also the one that will take the most work and will hurt the most as well!
If you cycle say for four hours a week at a comfortable speed and don’t really get out of breath or go a bit faster each time your body will become excellent at this, it will become more comfortable, your average speed may increase a little but you will not feel a huge change. You will also only feel the benefit after a long period of time, the change will be gradual and slow.
The way to improve quickly, and also to have the time to do other normal things like have a life and eating cake is to do interval training. It sounds serious, somewhat painful and technical but it really is worth the time and effort and, if done consistently over a period of time it will have the desired effect – you will become stronger, fitter, leaner and consequently your average speed will increase.
This all sounds lovely, but at what cost?
I only have my own experience to go on here. After about 3 – 4 months of cycling “seriously” three times a week I had gradually built up my resistance to the relentless bombardment on my bottom of my tiny razor blade saddle, got used to getting off the bike with my middle aged body creakingly rigid fighting to stay in the same crouched position as I tried to walk (stooped over like a 90 year old) and almost got over what a complete nerd I looked like in lycra (my three teenage daughters have never quite come to terms with this but that’s another story!). I was really enjoying my cycling (despite the caveats above!) but I felt as if I had hit a bit of a wall, I wasn’t improving, I was feeling tired after rides and felt as though I was lacking a bit of direction.
I have to say at this point that I love going fast on my bike and that I’m also horrifically competitive (luckily I can channel this these days to just looking for improvements in myself) so just “coasting” in my cycling wasn’t really an option. The problem with all of this is that I am extremely moderately endowed with a very tiny modicum of athletic ability and I’m not great in terms of putting up with physical pain either.
The answer to my problems I found in the promise of following a training plan and entering my first sportive so that I had an end goal. The training plan, of course, included regular interval training.
The theory behind intervals is that, in order to go faster, you need to get your body used to being pushed out of it’s comfort zone and performing more efficiently. The best and most efficient way to do this is to work in short sharp bursts where you push yourself to work harder and then have a recovery period before going into the effort again. As time goes on you can increase the period of time of the effort and decrease the recovery time and, overall your average strength and power output will increase.
Great stuff! The reality is one of gasping for breath, moaning and shouting, ferociously burning legs, dripping with sweat and feeling pukey. Nice! And I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to this sort of thing so goodness knows what it’s like if you are a “serious” cyclist.
Anyway, I still have a long way to go but, unpleasant as it is, it really, really works. My average speed is slowly improving and more importantly I feel noticably stronger. I actually have a vague idea of what it feels like to be a bit athletic and, for the first time in my life my body is actually surprising me in what is can do in a good way! (It frequently surprises me in a not good way!)
So, interval training is definitely the way to go. There are many training plans available and lots of advice on how to do it so just decide on a plan and stick to it!
8 – think carefully about your cadence
Cadence is an extremely important part of riding efficiently and, if you are in the right gear at the right time with your legs turning at the optimum RPM you will transfer more power to the wheels and your average speed will therefore increase!
Beginners particularly tend to pedal too slowly and this means that they are pushing too hard and tiring their muscles out too quickly as well as putting unnecessary strain on their joints.
The optimum cadence, which offers a good balance between pushing too hard and spinning out like a cat in a tumbledryer, is usually said to be between 80-100 RPM and if you can keep roughly in this area at all times then you are giving yourself the best chance of increasing your speed over a longer cycle ride at the same time as giving your muscles and joints a chance!
However, it can also be a good idea to occasionally train at a much lower cadence to build muscle. It stands to reason that the more muscle you are able to utilise the faster you will go and strong slow pedalling whilst concentrating on using a smooth action is a great thing to incorporate in to your regular training schedule.
Overall the main thing is to be aware of your cadence and to be making informed choices about what your cadence is and how you are using it.
9 – maintain your bike
You can, of course, do interval training, wear the tightest lycra, use the optimum cadence at all times and always cycle with a back wind but you will never reach your full speed potential if your bike isn’t correctly maintained and is holding you back!
There are obvious problems like rubbing brake shoes and loose or rattling components that will slow you down and also repeatedly annoying things like gears that aren’t quite correctly adjusted that might cost you a little bit of speed every time the chain doesn’t quite go into the correct cog first time.
However it’s the less obvious things that might make all the difference. When was the last time that your cleaned and oiled your chain for example? This can make a huge difference to the amount of effort needed to move a bike and it doesn’t take that long for a chain to become clogged up with road muck and past it’s optimum condition. Chains also stretch over time and are easily replaced so it’s always worth investing some time to regularly check and clean it.
Worn bearings also create extra resistance and a new bottom bracket or wheel hub can make a big difference to how easily the bike moves. Phsycologically a clean bike also goes much faster than a dirty one!
Hopefully, if you put all, some or even a few of the ideas above into action you will gradually, over time see an increase in your average speed. Try not to get too hung up on it though as, for most of us, it’s a difficult thing to really accurately quantify as road conditions, weather and all sorts of other variable factors make accurate comparisons difficult. In particularly don’t try to compare your spped with the speeds that other cyclists go on about all the time, for all of the reasons above and more there’s little point in comparing yourself to others unless of course you are racing or in a direct competition!
If your thirst for speed isn’t quenched by employing the strategies above there are a still number of other things that you can do if ultimate speed really is your goal. Getting an electric bike, for example is much quicker, a moped even or, for goodness sake just get in the car! You could only cycle down hill or ensure that every ride is just in one direction with a back wind. How about setting your cycle computer incorrectly so that it thinks you are using smaller wheels than you actually are or always going on really short rides so that you can cycle flat out all the time!?