When looked at over a period of months, your average speed can tell you a great deal about how you’re improving as a cyclist. Here’s some top tips to get your mean looking meaner
Photos by Rupert Fowler, Grant Robinson, Andy Jones
It’s a natural urge as soon as you start pedalling a bike to wonder how fast you are going. A simple speedo will allow you to see your max, current and average speed for each ride. Once you have that information the questions start to roll — how do I compare to other riders? How much faster can I go? Keeping an eye on your average is a good indicator of your fitness and development.
We’ve come up with a few ways that you can instantly go faster and a few that need a bit more practice and patience. Whatever your starting speed, follow these tips to see your average increase.
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.
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.
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.
4 Pump up 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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Does your average speed really matter?
It’s natural to wonder how your average speed compares to other riders. Scanning the forums there are plenty of people wondering if their average speed is enough to allow them to ride with a club or enter a race.
It’s a tough question to answer as so much can influence your average speed on any ride. While keeping a mental note of your average speed from rides can help you see how your fitness progress is shaping up, it’s dangerous to become a slave to it.
Many things influence your average speed on a ride; wind direction and strength, terrain, road surface, humidity and heat and traffic volume. If you become too obsessed with minor changes you can feel demoralised on the slow days, even though a slower speed might not represent your effort or fitness levels but be due to changes in conditions.
Chasing ever faster averages on a daily basis will leave you strung out and tired. Plus it might encourage you to take more risks as the speed becomes more important than the ride. Other than as a way of monitoring your progress, average speed doesn’t matter that much. We’d recommend that you pick a safe, flattish route that you know reasonably well and ride it hard once a month with a view to watching your average speed rise.