Did you see State Farm commercial about the girl bragging about her French model date? Click on the image to watch; it’s the foundation of this Blog post.
OK, now that you had a good laugh, the point of believing whatever is on the internet is a valid point and one I want to tackle from a cycling perspective. There are countless major cycling websites out there that churn out all kinds of information and not all of it is accurate or safe. Yes, I know that’s shocking but hey,all we got is lycra so we’d better pay very close attention to what we decide to accept as fact or a tip that is being hailed as ‘dead-on‘.
Case in point: Cycling Weekly (CW) has a Facebook page and puts out all kinds of articles. Along with sites like this one, I periodically read articles to see what’s out there. Since I’ll never claim to ‘know it all’, I do make efforts to continually learn as this industry changes. But, what I DO know, I place my reputation, my personal safety and my cycling advocacy on the line, as being truthful, accurate, verifiable and safe. With that said, when I ready CW’s article about 13 things they advocate for cyclists to do to increase their speed, I just could not, not respond. Below are their 13 steps and then you’ll find my response in blue following each one.
1 Bend and tuck elbows
The biggest thing slowing you down when you cycle is wind resistance. Many of these tips concern ways to reduce your frontal area and your drag so you slice more easily through the wind. The simplest of all is to slightly lower your body position on the bike. Instead of sitting up straight in the saddle and catching a lot of wind, try lowering your body closer to the bars by bending and tucking in your elbows. You’ll immediately feel a difference.
Valid point. Do you have the flexibility to tuck down low? If not, it pays dividends!!!
2 Listen to music
This is a tricky one because here at CA we think you need all your senses to cycle safely and that riding with an iPod reduces your ability to hear the traffic around you. However, the National Cycle Training Standards actually recommend trying it so that you become aware of the need to check over your shoulder at frequent intervals — something that is reduced when riders think they can hear cars.
Safety aside, there is plenty of research that shows listening to fast-paced, uplifting music reduces your perceived effort levels. Dr Costas Karageorghis, a researcher in sports psychology, says this is because “music blocks out fatigue-related symptoms such as the burning lungs, the beating heart and the lactic acid in the muscles. It can reduce our perception of effort by as much as 10 per cent.”
You’ll be pedalling harder without even noticing. Using music that has a beat similar to an optimal cycling cadence will help you to pedal faster if you can match your cadence to the rhythm.
I can’t believe anyone would advocate listening to music while riding with earplugs. It’s hard enough to hear other cyclists with the wind noise across our ears, let alone plugging up our ears with noise that dramatically reduces your ability to hear. This is just plain dangerous…period.
3 Ride with others
You might consider this cheating but riding with other people will increase your average speed in several ways. Firstly if you take it in turns to ride in front and share the work of cutting through the wind you will travel faster as a group than on your own. Riding with others will also encourage you to lift your effort level, trying to keep up with someone a bit faster than you will help increase your average not just on that ride but help build your fitness for future rides.
Valid point…to a point. Riding with other cyclists that are stronger certainly does ‘push’ you. I’ve done this on purpose for many years just to try and keep my ability high. The downside to this suggestion is way too many riders jumping in groups over their heads, so to speak, and get dropped right out of the gate. IF you are going to do this, my suggestion is to stay in the back so that when you do get dropped, that you are not riding in the middle of the group, suddenly slowing down and therefore creating a potential for those faster cyclists behind you, to run into you. Hey, I’ve seen this countless times. Just be safe about it.
4 Pump your tyres
Correctly inflated tyres will roll faster. You should check your tyre pressure before every ride as changes in
temperature and slight seeping of air can mean that they go soft without necessarily being punctured. Check the side-wall of your tyre for the recommended pressure. Invest in a track pump so that you can easily get the pressure you need, a mini-pump is best kept only for emergencies out on the road.
With all the emerging studies, it’s about hard to argue with new data that shows riding with lower pressure, actually decreases your rolling resistance…especially when riding with 25mm tires vs. 21mm or 23mm tires. On that note, data now shows that even thinner tires (e.g. 19mm or 21mm) that have very high pressure, causes the tire to bounce (so to speak) up and down off the road…which causes a slightly bumpier ride…which slightly increases the rolling resistance b/c you keep losing traction/connection with the asphalt.
5 Brake less
How’s this for an obvious one. Try braking less. Braking slows you down and requires you to pedal harder to accelerate back up to speed. Unnecessary braking is a waste of energy and momentum. So how do you improve? Firstly try to eliminate ‘comfort’ braking. This occurs when you are rolling along a fast road or downhill and you start to go a little bit quicker than you are used to.
Braking to get your speed down to a level you feel comfortable with is fine but take a good look around first, if the road surface is good, clear of obstructions and relatively straight there is no reason to slow down so let the bike roll and enjoy some free speed. The next place to improve confidence is during cornering. Braking later will help you hold your speed for longer. Remember to always brake in a straight line so you are at a comfortable cornering speed before you start to turn.
The original article had a link on how to brake but it was very long AND it contained several points that I absolutely disagree with, especially from a safety standpoint. That’s another Blog post in itself. That said, if the vast majority of cyclists have really no ‘real’ practice or accurate knowledge about braking, having any of them take #5 and try to do on their own, is like sending me to a bike shop and telling me I can’t buy anything that is yellow. Are you kidding me???
6 Ride on the drops
If you are riding a drop-handled bar sports bike how often do you use the drops? Chances are not that much but getting down lower improves your bike handling, reduces your aerodynamic drag and will help you corner and descend with confidence. Riding on the drops lowers wind resistance by 20 per cent compared with riding on the tops.
Two main things stop people riding in the drops — not being able to reach the brakes and not feeling comfortable. Both of these things can be addressed with bike set-up. If your bike fits you properly you should be able to ride in the drop position for large parts of your ride. You may also need to do some stretching as tight hamstrings and an inflexible lower back makes it harder.
Valid point and they do mention about the need for flexibility, so I give them that. Not only will you need good flexibility but you will also need to be properly fitted on your bike so that the cockpit length is actually long enough for you to stretch out your torso (length-wise), as well as your absolute need for strong core muscles. If your cockpit length is too short (which is the case on about 99% of all cyclists) and your core is weak, then don’t try this until you address these two ‘key’ points. It can be done, though.
7 Track stand
You may have spotted other commuters and bike couriers balancing, seemingly effortlessly, at traffic lights and thought that they were just showing off their superhuman bike skills. However, there’s much more to this little manoeuvre than showboating. While you’re still fumbling for your pedal they’ll have put in three or four good strokes and already be up to speed and away. Track standing does require practice and this is not best done in front of a van driver during the Monday morning rush hour. When you stop for food or are hanging around waiting for your mates, start playing around with the technique.
To learn this find a slight incline, the gradient helps find your balance point. If you normally ride clipped in switch to trainers for confidence. Start by riding really slowly in tight circles. This will help you get a sense of how to balance your weight. Go as slow and tight as you can and try to use smooth movements.
When you are comfortable, come to a slow stop with your wheel pointing uphill. Keep your head up rather than looking at the front hub. Pick a spot and focus your eyes on that spot. Now, with your lead foot — the one that is forward (feet at three and nine o’clock), turn the wheel (about 45°) into the incline keeping enough pressure on your lead food to keep your balance, but not enough to move up the incline.
Using the same ratcheting technique you employed to ride in circles, relax the pressure slightly so the wheel will roll back, apply it again and it will roll forward. With that slight rocking back and forth motion, you can maintain balance. Initially, you can always cheat by grabbing hold of a lamp post or railing when you are stopped. Just remember to start pedalling slightly before you let go so you have momentum, otherwise you might just plop over sideways!
Sorry, but this is about as crazy of a suggestion to increase your average speed as I’ve ever heard. Not only does a high percentage of cyclists have a low confidence level as it pertains to actually controlling their bike vs. just responding to whatever it does, but also its’ just plain absurd. Why in the world would you jeopardize your safety (and the safety of those around you if you fall over and knock them down) by trying to pull off a stunt like this? In 19 years of riding and 200,000 miles in the saddle, I can count on one hand (and have the majority of fingers left over) the number of cyclists I’ve seen who can actually do a track stand AND stay away from others around them…just in case.
8 Ride out into a headwind and home in a tailwind.
Unless you are a sailor as well as a cyclist you might not give wind direction a thought on a daily basis but the wind can be both your friend and your enemy. A headwind can make riding feel like a struggle, making you feel slow regardless of the effort you put in. A tailwind makes you feel like a superhero as you can easily spin along at top speed. Make use of the wind by planning your route so the outward part when you are freshest is into the headwind and the homeward leg when you may be feeling tired has a tailwind.
Hmmm. About the only place I know where this is realistic to any degree is riding the FL panhandle along the beach. Hey, you ride long enough (wherever you are) and it always seems that if you have a headwind and then turn around and expect a tailwind, it just doesn’t seem to work out that way. Bottom line, this is unrealistic. Just stating the obvious…
9 Lose weight
If you want to go a bit faster, losing some weight will make a big difference. Losing weight will allow you to go faster for the same amount of effort put in. Less weight will obviously help uphill as you have less to move against the force of gravity. Similarly, losing weight will help you punch a smaller hole in the air and reduce the drag you cause when cycling on the flat.
You don’t have to become obsessive with diet or training to lose enough weight to feel the difference. Not having a teaspoonful of sugar in your tea three or four times a day would be enough to lose 0.5lb of fat in a month. Riding an extra 30 minutes, three times per week would enable you to drop as much as 1lb a month.
Valid point. Not sure about the numbers above but I personally lost 17 lbs and I was shocked how much faster I could climb. I know, for those who know me you are probably asking yourself where could I afford to lose 17 lbs? Sorry, couldn’t resist that one…
The fastest way to increase your average speed is to train at speeds above it. Obviously you can’t just go out and ride your normal route faster than usual, you’d rapidly start to hurt or run out of energy. Instead coaches recommend interval training. This allows you to cycle for short bursts at speeds above your usual average pace and then slow down and recover before going fast again.
You can try this technique during any ride; it doesn’t have to be saved for strictly set ‘training sessions’. Fartlek training was designed by a Swedish coach and basically means playing with speed. You might choose to ride as fast as you can to the end of the road and then recover until you pass five lampposts before going fast again. Use any markers you like from your environment; parked cars, road signs, gateways. Pick your target and pedal hard till you reach it, then ease off. Make sure the road is safe and that no matter how hard you are trying keep your head up to spot any hazards.
If you want a more structured session try this one. If we assume you usually average 14mph on the flat, ride for 15-20 minutes to warm up before finding a reasonably flat stretch of road. When you get there cycle for two minutes at 16mph. Choose a harder gear, and maintain the same cadence rather than trying to pedal faster.
After pedalling hard for two minutes change back into your easier gear, slow down and take it easy for five minutes — but keep your legs pedalling, this helps the recovery process. Then repeat this whole ‘interval’ process another three or four times. If it feels too easy next time aim to go 3, 4 or 5mph quicker during your interval than you would normally ride.
After a few trips out you will know what works for you. Your average speed for these rides might well be less than your ‘normal’ average speed. No problem at all, since that is not the challenge. The challenge is to slowly get you and your legs used to cycling at 16mph instead of 14mph.
Valid point. Interval training will not only increase how fast you are able to recover, it builds up strength and anaerobic levels. These are key components to help you not have to slow down as much or as often as those who don’t do intervals.
11 Build muscle
Building up your cycling muscles and developing your efficiency as a bike rider takes place over a long period of time, there is no substitute for time on the bike when it comes to improving cycling fitness. If you ride regularly your average speed will gradually increase as will the distance that you feel comfortable riding. However, to speed up your development and to establish good techniques and help build some cycling muscle there are exercises you can practice while on the bike. Fast pedalling has greater dependency on your cardiovascular system than slow pedalling in a heavy gear. Fast pedalling helps you to be more efficient as well. Watch Lance Armstrong and see how fast his legs spin. However, to improve your average you want to be able to turn a big gear fast, twiddling a small gear, no matter how quick your legs turn, won’t get you there any quicker. Therefore you need to do both types of training in your cycling — fast legs and big gears — so that when you put them both together you get the speed you need.
Pushing very big gears at very low speeds works in much the same way as the weight lifter who lifts heavy weights very slowly. Instead of building up one fibre of a muscle and making it stronger, it adds more fibres to the muscle making it far stronger. After a good warm up, find a steady drag with a shallow gradient and pick a gear that requires you to pedal slowly to keep it turning. You should be doing around 50rpm, less and you may strain your knees so be careful. As you pedal you will feel all your leg muscles working. After a minute of this switch to an easier gear and pedal fast, once you feel recovered repeat. Do this up to 10 times in your ride once or twice a week.
Pedalling fast is important to get your muscles firing rapidly and establish the right connections between your brain, nervous system and the muscle fibres. On a flat bit of road find a gear you are comfortable in and make a note of your speed. Change down to an easier gear and see if you can still keep the same speed by pedalling faster. Try turning your legs as fast as you can but stop when you start bouncing on the saddle. If you have a cadence monitor try doing blocks of 20 seconds with 10 seconds’ recovery between spinning at 90rpm, 95rpm, 100rpm, 105rpm, 110rpm and then 20 seconds as fast as you can without bouncing.
Valid point. One ‘super easy’ thing I always suggest is (especially on gradual climbs) to stay in each gear about 10-15 seconds longer than what you usually do; then shift to the next easiest gear. Hey, if you always shift to ‘quick’ to those easier gears, then you rob yourself from ‘pushing’ yourself in small increments…which over time builds up muscle and strength.
12 Aero bike and/or wheels
If you really want to go all out you can buy speed. Aerodynamic tubing on bikes, aero-profile spokes and deep-section rims help reduce your drag, enabling you to go faster. However, the human body causes about 70 per cent of the total drag (the bicycle and wheels about 30 per cent), so improvements to your riding position will be the most important factor.
Before you start shelling out money remember that these improvements will be very small compared with those that could be gained by losing weight, riding more and getting fitter. If you want to spend some money in the bike shop in your bid for speed then your best bet is to get properly bike fitted and make sure you’re wearing slim, Lycra kit.
Valid point. However, what is the realistic chance that the majority of those who ride can go out and drop serious bucks on aero wheels, aero bikes, etc.? And, again, for the majority of cyclists, even having all this aero stuff still means you have to have the engine, so to speak, to pedal your aero machine long enough and fast enough to take advantage of all the ‘aero-ness’ these high dollar extras offer? There is a standing joke amongst the cycling world that I bet very few will admit. Its when cyclists roll up on this high dollar machine, decked out to the hilt but they get dropped like a brick even before the ride really gets ramped up. I can guarantee you there are those who chat it up amongst themselves, laughing and making fun of that person to themselves. Sad, but true…
13 Tighter clothing
There are two reasons to wear tight-fitting cycling clothes. One, the material is designed to wick away heat and sweat, keeping you cool and dry, which makes it far less tiring to ride. Two, loose baggy clothing adds a lot of drag, which will definitely slow you down. Look for slim-fitting garments and do away with any flapping tops. Do zips up if you want to go faster. The really serious even cover their shoes with Lycra booties.
Valid point. I have tried to encourage countless cyclists over the years about wearing baggy apparel. Some folks just won’t change or listen; hey, it’s their choice but this point is still valid. However, like the aero wheels and bikes, you have to ride fast enough and long enough for it to make a ‘noticeable’ difference. For me, I don’t like anything flapping on me or beating my up, so to speak, when I ride. Another positive result is apparel now is designed to wick moisture away from you and as that base layer gets wet, it is like having a continual well towel next to your skin on a super hot day to help keep you cool. I love my base layers and wear them year round. If you don’t, you are missing out!!!
Yes, this was a long article to start (before my comments) but I hope you realize the point of this entire post; don’t believe everything you read OR hear. A BIG mistake that so many cyclists make is taking advice from other cyclists, who from their perspective, can ride faster and longer than themselves. The misnomer is that if someone can ride faster and longer than you, that they ‘must’ know something you don’t and everything they say is gospel; that’s farther for the truth as you can get and don’t you make that same prevalent mistake. This is why my most quoted saying is so true:
“just because you can ride fast, doesn’t make you a great cyclist; it just makes you fast”
I’ve lost count how many fast group rides I’ve ridden where they were among the most dangerous. (Accurate) knowledge has NOTHING to do with speed. It has EVERYTHING to do with doing the right thing for the right reason and doing so to create the highest safety environment for you (and others) as possible. Remember, all we have is lycra…
I know a thing or two about speed; I use to race motorcycles at speeds of 200mph. I know how to go fast on a bicycle, too. Some ways to help you can be like points made in this article. Some ways teaches you to engage the most amount of muscles as possible…which makes you go faster (with the same or LESS effort). I like to call this approach FREE Speed and it’s all based on bio-mechanics. This is my expertise.