competition · cycling

How not to get faster

There’s a very well known cycling quote, posted to the Facebook walls, Pinterest boards and tumblrs of cyclists (my own included) that goes like this, “It doesn’t get any easier; you just go faster.”  It’s by Greg LeMond. (Born in 1961, LeMond is, according to Wikipedia, “an American former professional road racing cyclist, entrepreneur, and anti-doping advocate. He was World Champion in 1983 and 1989, and is a three-time winner of the Tour de France.” So he knows what he’s talking about when it comes to getting fast.

But today I want to talk about the other side of the easier-faster coin. It’s much less celebrated and and likely wouldn’t be a fave quote on Facebook walls. It goes like this, “If it is just getting easier, you’re not getting faster.” Let me explain.

I’m often asked by beginning cyclist friends what they need to do to get faster. My glib response is, ride faster. And though that might sound obvious, it’s also true.

The advice I’m about to dish out here goes beyond my tips for beginning riders who want to go faster. And it’s advice that I know to be true and sometimes need to follow myself!

The thing is I’ve known lots of cyclists, me included, who when left to their own devices go out and ride 20-40 km at a speed that feels good to them several times a week. They then wonder why after months of doing this they aren’t getting faster.  The answer is that what you’re training by doing that is your ability to go out and ride 20-40 km at a comfortable speed. You won’t get faster but it will get easier. And easier doesn’t translate into speed gains.

Because really it shouldn’t get easier. You should keep pushing yourself. You need to push yourself. You need subsequent rides to be as hard as the first.

That’s a bit of an overstatement but the basic idea is right. Don’t spend too much time enjoying your new found comfortable speed/distance. Push on.

This is something that puzzled me back when I was a beginning runner. I spent awhile at a plateau where running got easier (my heart rate slowed down, I was less wiped out afterwards) but I wasn’t getting any faster. The thing is I didn’t want to go “back” to that out of breath, exhausted feeling of my early days as a runner.

It was humbling to learn that that was exactly what I needed to do (some of the time at least) if I wanted to make speed gains.

How do you do that? Here’s two ideas:

1. By adding fast intervals. Step out of your “ride for coffee with friends” mode and engage in bike specific speed training. There isn’t anything wrong with riding at a comfortable speed. We all do it lots when we ride socially but it isn’t training.

2. Don’t spend all your time riding with friends who ride at your pace or who are nice to you! Spend some of the time riding with people faster than you. Guest blogger Catherine Womack wrote about conquering her fear of returning to group rides and I’ve written about riding with friends of different speeds as one way to mix it up.

I need to do both of these things and rejoining a bike club with group rides and doing some bike specific speed training are on my agenda for next year.