Trying to get faster is a goal for both the professional and amateur cyclist alike. WorldTour teams leave few stones unturned in the pursuit of speed, spending huge sums of money on a series of small details with the hope that it all adds up to victory.
You too can adopt the same marginal gains approach but without breaking the bank on a high-tech skin suit or a new pair of carbon wheels. That’s right. While it might be tempting to throw money at the problem to get more aero, there are plenty of things you can do to go faster that won't cost you a single penny.
From riding position to minor mechanical adjustments, here are nine easy ways to add free speed to your bike.
Get more ‘aero’ by adjusting your position
If you’ve already begun your journey to get faster then it’s likely you’ll have considered aerodynamics. It’s the most significant speed upgrade that you can make and one that doesn’t have to cost the earth.
So how do you get more aero? By adjusting your position on the bike.
Of course, you can buy a more aerodynamic bike frame and aero racing wheels, but those upgrades will cost you thousands of pounds. And, regardless, a large proportion of the aerodynamic drag slowing you down will be caused by your own body.
Start with adjusting your saddle position and overall bike fit, with the goal of being as aerodynamic as possible. This will vary from person to person but as a general rule you’ll want to aim for a position that improves your aerodynamics without being too aggressive so that it sacrifices your ability to put out power. For most people, that means hinging at the hips, having a back that is nearly parallel to the floor, and holding your handlebars with your elbows bent at 90-degree angles. It should look something like this:
Adjusting your saddle height is straightforward, and can be done in a matter of minutes, with a hex key the only tool required.
As for achieving the optimum height, there are a few varying schools of thought on how to best do this. Some of them require a graduate degree in advanced mathematics to figure out but for a quick fix we'd suggest using a far simpler version that takes your inseam measurement and then subtracts 10cm.
For example, if your inseam is 85cm, try setting your saddle height at 75cm.
Lower the bike’s front end
Typically a road bike will be sold with a steerer length that allows for a few spacers, often around 2.5cm in total and usually sitting under the stem. To lower the front end, and subsequently obtain a lower position on the bike, try removing some or all the spacers. If you still feel too upright, flip the stem so it’s flatter. Most stems will be designed to have a +/- position but complete bikes tend to come out of the factory in the positive setting.
Removing the spacers is referred to as ‘slamming the stem’ in cycling parlance. There is always a debate among cyclists whether this is best for everyone. Certainly it requires a degree of flexibility but if you have the time and physiology to get used to it, then a slammed stem is worth it.
Lowering your bike’s front end can (and usually does) leave your body into a lower and more aerodynamic position. As long as you can produce the same amount of power, you will always be faster if you can improve your aerodynamics.
Achieving a slammed stem is a quick and easy adjustment that can be done by almost any at-home bike mechanic. The more spacers you remove, the more extreme the position change will be, which means it will take you a longer time to get used to it. Best practice is to lower the front end in increments, thus allowing your body time to adjust and simultaneously become more aerodynamic and flexible.
Be sure not to make too dramatic a change in one go as this will at best make you uncomfortable and at worst lead to injuries. If you find that you're experiencing any neck, wrist or back pain, or you're struggling to produce the same power in this lower position, back off, and raise the stem and work on your strength and flexibility.
Improve your flexibility and core strength
Watch a little racing on TV and you’ll quickly notice that the riders, to a man and a woman, are able to maintain a long and low position on the bike.
For us mere mortals obtaining the desired ‘flat back’ isn’t always so easy, and staying in it for mile after miles is often even more elusive. But if you’re struggling to achieve, and hold, a lower, more aerodynamic position don’t panic. There’s a plenty of work that you can do off the bike to improve your comfort in such a position.
Improving your flexibility is the first port of call. Focusing on stretching your hamstrings, glutes and lower back should pay dividends - but remember Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Adding some additional focused Off the bike sessions such as yoga and pilates can help improve your flexibility too.
As we mentioned earlier, getting into a lower position on the bike is one thing but being able to hold it, while still putting down the power, is another again. Improving your core strength will aid this significantly. Not only will it help you stay comfortable in a low aerodynamic position, but will also improve your pedalling efficiency and likely help you stay injury free.
If you're not sure how to stretch these areas or improve your core strength, then these four exercises can help build the perfect core routine.
Clean your bike
It won’t come as a surprise that a clean bike is faster than a dirty one. But you might be surprised to find out just how much the collected grit and grime is costing you in the shape of wasted watts.
Studies have shown that a “dirty” chain can cost you 10-20w, which translates to 1-2kph at race speed. But more on that in a minute.
First consider the benefits of a clean bike to your mental approach. There is nothing like the feeling of swinging your leg over a sparkling clean bike, donning a new pair of shoes and fresh kit.
Bike cleans can be as simple as a wipe down or a quick rinse, and as thorough as a full-on power wash - though you’ll need to steer clear of the bearings if you decide upon this approach.
To get the most out of your cleaning, focus on the drivetrain and components, and especially the ones that spin. The most important part of bike cleaning when it comes to speed and pedaling efficiency is to make sure you...
Clean and lube your chain
The chain is where you transfer the power from the pedals to the wheel, which also means it is the place that you can lose the most power through drivetrain efficiency.
To get rid of those lost watts, you’ll want to clean and lube your chain regularly, armed with one of the best chain lubes for bikes. How often you do it remains up for debate, and it’s likely to vary depending on the season, but at least every couple of rides is advisable.
The process is straightforward but remember you’re applying the lube to the chain’s rollers (inside) rather than the plates (outside). Once you’ve applied the lube don’t forget to wipe off any excess with a cloth - left on this just attracts dirt and is quickly the undoing of your good work.
You can also opt for wax over lube. Many chain waxes on the market will talk up their watt-saving properties but they are more time-consuming to prep and apply than a humble lube.
It’s worth pointing out here that you’ll also need to consider the state of your drivechain. If the chain, cassette, chainrings and jockey wheels are covered in gunk then you’ll want to de-grease and clean these first before you lube the chain.
Adjust your tyre pressure
In the last few years tyre widths, and subsequently tyre pressures, have changed. The narrow 23mm racing tyre, typically inflated to 120psi, is largely a thing of the past, replaced by wider tyres, run at lower pressures.
Today, racing cyclists do so on tyres ranging in width from 25 to 28mm, or perhaps even wider for a race such as Paris-Roubaix. Tyre pressures are likely to be around 80-90psi, but lower still if they’re riding tubeless; Alejandro Valverde’s 28mm tyres at the 2022 Strade Bianche race measured just 53.7psi on the front and 55psi on the rear, for example.
Ultimately the ideal tyre pressure for you depends on what kind of tyre you’re running, the weather conditions and your weight.
Tubeless tyres are becoming ever more popular, while tubulars are still a popular racing tyre. Clinchers are most common for training, but mostly because they are the cheapest and easiest to mount and repair. So how do you find the perfect tyre pressure?
It’s highly weight-dependent but for a 70kg rider, you can start around 80psi as a general benchmark. With a narrower 23mm tyre, you can try 90-100psi, whereas a wider 28mm tyre should work well around 60-70psi. There are a number of other factors to take into consideration, but thankfully we’ve compiled them all in our post on what’s the correct road bike tyre pressure?
Lighter riders should use lower tyre pressures, while heavier riders should use higher tyre pressures. Also, make sure to lower your tyre pressure in wet conditions, as this increases the tyre’s contact patch with the floor, giving you better grip in the corners and decreasing your risk of crashing.
Also check out the tyre pressure recommendations from your wheel manufacturer - Zipp for example recommends significantly lower pressures for its rims with hookless beads.
The end result of the best tyre pressure is speed, both on the flats, up the climbs, and ripping around corners.
Check rear derailleur adjustment
There are few things more frustrating to a cyclist than skipping gears, and few moments more sketchy than skipping a gear in a sprint. Adjusting your rear derailleur will not only save your sanity, but it can also make you faster.
Each part of your drivetrain (crank, chain, sprockets, etc.) has a maximum efficiency where you are effectively losing close to zero watts between the pedals and the wheel. But with every bit of dirt on the chain, or wear in your cogs, or skip in your derailleur, you are losing precious watts and speed.
Thankfully, minor rear derailleur adjustments, which are all you’ll need 99% of the time, are easy to do and quick to solve. You don’t even need tools or a bike shop in most situations. Assuming your rear derailleur was originally set up and aligned correctly, all you need is a turn or two of the barrel adjuster. If the gears are slow to shift up to a larger sprocket you’ll need to add some tension to the cable but if its hesitant coming back down the block you’ll want to remove a little.
The same principle applies for electronic shifting in that you’ll want to make small adjustments to the derailleur so it shifts cleanly but here you’ll need to follow the manufacturers guidelines to dial it in.
Check brake adjustment
How many times have you been dropped on a climb and you look down to see if your brakes are rubbing? We’ve all been there, usually with properly functioning brakes and less than ideal legs as the cause.
But every once in a while, those brakes are rubbing, and that completely kills your speed.
It is usually fairly obvious enough when your caliper brakes are rubbing, as you can see them in contact with the rim. Disc brakes are harder to spot by eye, due to their position on the bike. In fact, you will probably hear disc brakes rubbing before you see them rubbing. The faint metal grinding is quite distinguishable, and every bit of rubbing is shaving off speed.
There are many different ways to adjust disc brakes, including the literal hands-on approach of bending the rotor if it’s out of true in one spot, or more fine-tuned adjustments that have to do with the hoses and brake tension.
Before you make any adjustments to either the rotor or to cable tension if you’re using mechanical disc brakes, make sure that the caliper is properly aligned. From this starting point you can confidently diagnose the cause of the rubbing.
Often you can achieve this ‘centering’, especially with hydraulic versions, by simply loosening off the caliper mounting bolts just enough so the unit can move a little, pressing the lever so the pads meet the rotor, then holding the lever down while you re-tightened the bolts. This should alleviate any rubbing caused by a misaligned caliper by centering it around the rotor.
Remove excess weight
Hill-climbing specialists will typically go to some pretty extreme lengths to shave a few extra grams from their bikes. In some instances, that means literally shaving off parts of your bike such as the bar ends. But in other cases, it can be as simple as removing a bottle cage or front derailleur.
If you are racing an uphill TT or going for a steep Strava KOM/QOM, you will have a better chance of success with a little less weight on board. As long as you don’t need the extra bottle cage or derailleur, it is just unnecessary weight.
For those of you wanting to go to the extremes - perhaps you want to attempt a long and prestigious Strava KOM/QOM, or try your hand at Everesting - there are many other areas that you can save or remove weight. One brake (but not both), bar tape, gears, and drop bars can all be partially or completely removed in the name of saving weight.
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Zach is a freelance writer, the owner of ZNehr Coaching, and an elite-level rider in road, track, and Zwift racing. He writes about everything related to bikes, from product reviews and advertorials, to feature articles and pro data analytics in Power Analysis articles. You can find his articles everywhere from Cyclingnews and TrainingPeaks, to Velonews, CyclingTips, and Bicycle Guider.
After earning a Bachelor’s Degree in Exercise Science at Marian University-Indianapolis, Zach discovered a passion for writing that soon turned into a full-fledged career. In between articles, Zach spends his time working with endurance athletes of all levels at ZNehr Coaching. After entering cycling at age 17, Zach went on to have a wonderful road racing career that included a Collegiate National Time Trial Championship and a 9th place finish at the US Pro National Time Trial Championships. Nowadays, Zach spends most of his ride time indoors, where he races for NeXT eSport pb Enshored in the Zwift Racing League – Premier Division.
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