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.