Free cycling speed: nine ways to make yourself and your bike more aero without spending money

Here are our top tips for free speed: all you need are a few simple adjustments

cyclist riding towards camera stress on shoulders
(Image credit: Future)

Free speed comes in many forms. Whether it’s a downhill, a tailwind, or a fast bunch ride… Just kidding. We’re talking about making you faster, and it’s not by spending six months’ salary on a new pair of carbon wheels. 

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

The most significant speed upgrade that you can make is simple aerodynamics. No amount of weight savings can match the speed boost you get from improving your aerodynamics 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. You don’t need to contort yourself into the lotus position or anything like that - instead, 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:

cyclist in aero position in saddle

A tucked position with elbows bent will make you a lot more aero

(Image credit: Future)

Adjusting your saddle height is super simple, and it can be done in the garage in a matter of minutes. There are a few different schools of thought when it comes to adjusting your saddle height, but my favourite (simple) version is to use your inseam measurement minus 10cm. 

For example, if your inseam is 85cm, try setting your saddle height at 75cm.

Lower the bike’s front end

Slammed stem

A lower front end will be more aerodynamic, but may not work for you if you're not comfortable and efficient

Most bikes are sold with around 2.5cm of spacers underneath the stem, which itself is often pointing upwards, forcing you into a pretty upright position on the bike. To solve this, try flipping the stem so it is flat and remove a spacer or two from underneath the stem.

There is always a debate among cyclists, whether a slammed stem is best for everyone. In my opinion, if (and, this is a big 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. 

A slammed stem - meaning, the removal of excess spacers between the stem and headset - 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 fo 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 

Image shows a cyclist doing core exercises.

(Image credit: Future)

If you're struggling to maintain a lower position with a flat back on longer rides, then there's plenty of work that you can do off the bike to improve your comfort in such a position.

The first thing you should do is work on your flexibility, focusing on stretching your hamstrings, glutes and lower back. Off the bike interests such as yoga and pilates can help with this.

You should also try to improve your core strength which will not only help you stay comfortable in a low aerodynamic position, but will also improve your pedalling efficiency and 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

A clean bike is a happy bike, say mechanics everywhere, but it is also a fast one. With every bit of grit, grime, and dirt your bike collects, you are losing speed and wasting 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.

Bike cleaning

Keep it clean for faster riding

(Image credit: Future)

A clean bike will make you faster, both physically and mentally. 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. To get the most out of your cleaning, make sure to scrub the drivetrain and components, and especially the ones that spin. The most important part of bike cleaning is to make sure you have a…

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, make sure you clean and lube your chain at least once every couple of rides. Many experts and chain lube manufacturers say you should lube your chain before every single ride. 

Chain lube

A well-lubed chain is an easy way to ride faster - just don't go overdoing it
(Image credit: Future)

Lubing your chain is simple, and the entire process can be done in just a few minutes. Make sure to lube the inside of the chain without completely smothering it, and wipe off the excess lube when you’re done.

Adjust your tyre pressure

There has been a lot said - and argued about - concerning tyre pressure in the last decade. Once was a time when cyclists raced on 23mm wide tyres pumped up to 120psi. It’s amazing that there weren’t more crashes, really. 

Nowadays, cyclists typically race on 25 to 28mm wide tyres at 80-90psi, going around 10-20psi lower if they’re riding tubeless. The ideal tyre pressure for you depends on what kind of tyre you’re running, the weather conditions and your weight.

Tyre pressure

Get your tyre pressure set up right for a fast - and comfortable - ride

(Image credit: Future)

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.

nsw

Zipp wheels are now designed for wide tyres at lower pressures

(Image credit: Future)

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, cogs, 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 the necessary fixing is a turn or two of the barrel adjuster.

Check brake adjustment

How many times have you been getting dropped on a climb and you look down to see if your brakes are rubbing? We’ve all been there, usually with crap legs and brakes that are fine. But every once in a while, those brakes are actually rubbing, and that completely kills your speed.

Vitus Vitesse Evo Disc

Make sure your brakes are properly adjusted to avoid rubbing

(Image credit: Future)

It is obvious enough when your calliper brakes are rubbing, as you can see them in contact with the rim. But nowadays, there is a new style of brakes whose rubbing is a lot harder to spot: disc brakes. 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. For more significant disc brakes adjustments, it’s probably best to go to your local bike mechanic.

Remove excess weight

This one is for the hill-climbing specialists, those that will go to extreme lengths to shave a few extra grams. 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.

Hill Climb bars

Chop the ends off your bars to save some weight

(Image credit: Andy Jones)

If you are racing an uphill TT or going for a steep Strava KOM/QOM, you will have a much 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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