Tips for beginning cyclists who want to go faster

To be clear, this isn’t a post for fast cyclists who want to go faster. It’s aimed at the beginning rider who wonders how other people are able to go so much faster than she can and offers suggestions for picking up speed.

If you’re an experienced cyclist–look away–chances are these are all things you already know.

First, get more comfortable on your bike.  How is this connected to going faster? Feeling safe and comfortable is a real barrier to speed. Master the basic skills and you’ll pick up speed. Trust me. What skills should you master?

  • How about riding with no hands? Pretend you’re a kid again. Can you ride your bike with no hands? Probably not yet but riding comfortably with one hand should be a goal. My kids used to ride around the provincial park while doing the Macarena on their bikes. Think like them and make it fun. Try one hand first, and then the other. The goal is to be very comfortable taking one hand off the bars to signal, grab food, drink water etc.  Advanced moves below: bicycle ballet!

  • Shoulder checking, for sure. You should be able to look back for traffic and keep the bike moving in a straight line forward. Going fast means passing safely and on a bike, as in a car, that requires shoulder checking. This was drilled into me riding a track bike at a velodrome but it’s been very useful riding in traffic and on the bike path.
  • Braking at speed. I’ve done this drill lots and I’m amazed at how well my bike comes to a stop. Partly this is about finding out about your bike’s abilities and limits. But you hope it’s also about discovering how well you can stop from speed and not come off the bike.
  • Cornering while going fast is something else cyclists who want to go fast practice. You naturally lean into the corner and you want your outside foot, the one furthest away from the pavement, to be in the low spot so you don’t clip your inside pedal. The goal is to gauge your speed so you’re not braking going into the corner and then you want to accelerate out of it. Don’t look at your front wheel. Always look where you want to go. Trust me, that works. (Thanks Lee.) U-turns, or hot dog turns as they say down under, are more tricky and again before you ever want to do one when speed matters, you’ll want to practice. I discovered when riding in Australia and NZ that years of riding on the right side of the road meant I was only good doing u-turns in one direction.

Now you’ve got some of the basics of comfort and safety, here’s a few more things you can do that will help with speed:

  • Stop coasting. You can read the posts of the late Sheldon “Coasting Is Bad For You” Brown and he’ll try to talk you into riding a fixed gear bike. With a fixed gear bike you can’t coast and it certainly breaks the habit. But you could just try coasting less without going that route.
  • Once you’re not coasting, keep your cadence constant and high. Why? Think of your pedalling as the engine revving in a car. Now imagine what happens when you try to shift and the engine is revving too low. Right. The motor bottoms out and maybe even stalls. You want to be pedalling fast before you shift so you can keep that cadence up in the new, harder gear. This is the same reason you downshift at traffic lights so you’re not left trying to start off in a gear that’s too big.
  • Shifting while going uphill is also something you’ll need to practice. Again, your goal is to keep your cadence high and shift as needed. Bikes designed for speed allow you to keep pressure on the pedals while shifting, more cruisy style bikes require that you back off a bit, shift and then start again. This wiki-how on hill climbing basics is pretty good.

If you like speed, you’ll eventually want a road bike, a bike built for going fast. I used to wonder why I couldn’t get in a great biking shape on my hybrid. It was heavy and a lot of work to make go fast. My fast road bike weighs nothing and flies. Why is the latter better for speed training, I wondered. The answer is that it rewards effort. The speed gap between not much effort and all out effort on my hybrid isn’t that big. But my road bike feels amazing.

Tres cool

13 thoughts on “Tips for beginning cyclists who want to go faster

  1. Thanks Sam! All this stuff is way useful, but especially the wiki on climbing. Yesterday I did a 100mile (162km) sportive in Dorset, with a total ascent of 7000 feet (holy crap is right). There were four killer climbs with grades of 10-18% over 1-2 miles each, and I managed to sit the majority of all of them. I’ve just started using the deep breathing and top-of-the-bar gripping technique in preparation for a sportive in the Alps in June, and it’s working: my heart rate climbs more slowly into anaerobic territory, rather than all at once, so I’m still ok in the saddle at the 3/4 mark and can talk myself up the rest of the hill. I only had to get off once, when a bad shift at the wrong moment derailed my chain. Great evidence that proper shifting is a big part of successful climbing.

    Question: when you say breaking at speed, I suspect you also imply that a good speed technique is getting used to letting the bike open up on a downhill, which for me is a problem: I am terrified of going over the handlebars and just cannot let myself race downhill without a lot of braking. (It doesn’t help that the hills in southern England tend to be huge inclines and steep declines.) Yesterday that was a liability; lots of riders who were chancing the downhills got much better momentum on the next incline, and worked less hard to keep their speed through it. They were ultimately a lot faster than me. Any advice on how I can become more bold?

    1. Go fast downhill and then stop. Nothing bad happens. Seeing that helped me. I did a four class session on descending which certainly helped. It was my weak spot too. Follow a skilled rider down. That helps. Are you in the drops? You’re certainly more stable there. And constant braking is dangerous. You heat up your rims and that can lead to brake failure. Also replacing brake pads constantly is costly and annoying….

    2. Avoid going over the bars with the linked braking system described in Calderazzo’s US patent 4102439. When the rear wheel loses traction, the mechanical link reduces braking power on the front wheel. The patent was filed in 1977, so I think the idea of this invention is now (20+ years later) free to use.

  2. I find it scary to think of going faster, especially down hill, though I hear what you’re saying about how hard it is on the brakes to brake on hills like that. I like the idea of running faster but cycling? Yikes. Do you have any advice for the nervous rider? When I go really fast I feel like I’m going to lose control. I had a similar issue when I used to ride my motorcycle — I just never quite relaxed even though I had good skills at slow and fast speeds. Anyway, maybe you can give me a primer and then be the fast and skilled rider that I go down the hill behind. I have no idea what “the drops” are–is that a place or does it have to do with the bike?

    1. I have curved bars. Around town I ride holding on to the top for better visibility, for speed and control it’s better holding onto the bottom of the curve….

      You’re not going to lose control by going fast but better to have good control first and then pick up speed.

  3. It’s great to learn how to bike fast. In my personal opinion, it’s also good to learn how to climb hills, etc. and also to cycle long distances for many hrs. …because as one grows older, it is really the sheer stamina and endurance that makes an older cyclist strong. Not speed. Staying power on the road. Cycling is like travelling on the journey of life. Your cycling style becomes better and more light hearted, because you have survived those valleys and hills.

    I know so many women in their 30’s and well into the 60’s, who returned to cycling and have gained calmer endurance on the bike with a light spirit and attitude. It is cycling with physical and mental wisdom.

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