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Monday, 15 April 2019


No matter how fast I go on my bike, I want to ride faster.  Don’t you?  While recreational cyclists are often happy just to get out and enjoy the fresh air, exercise and scenery, almost every road cycling enthusiast I know is always trying to go faster on their bike.  Whether you are doing a solo training or group ride, riding up a mountain, doing intervals or taking part in a race, club ride or charity event, more often than not it’s about how fast you went, what your average speed was, or how long it took.  It’s just the nature of the enthusiast cyclist.

As focused as we are on the goal of going faster, there are a dizzying number of differing road and lab tests, research models, personal experiences, beliefs, and wives tales on just how best to make fast happen.  They range from practical and essentially free ones, like training more, to others that are quite expensive, like buying aero gear.
With so many tests, views and claims coming at us all the time, one of things that limits some of us from going faster is the uncertainty of what to focus our training and money on.  I don’t know about you, but I hear or read something that sounds good and I’m immediately trying to figure out whether I should do it in addition to or instead of what I’m already doing.  I’m also trying to figure out whether it’s a breakthrough or just a bunch bull sh*t.
Train with a power meter, ride with more aerodynamic wheels, lose a few pounds, shave my legs, do interval training…. All sounds good but what really matters and what matter most and second most, etc., and what should I block out for reasons of time, budget, the kind of riding I do, what I can tolerate, etc.  What’s going to make me a better rider to sustain speed improvements over time vs. things that are short-term improvements that will fade or be wiped out by the next new thing.
As a roadie myself, I’ve been trying to sort through this for years.  Now that I’m blogging, I’ve been working on the research and drafting of this post for months to try to make some sense of it all.
With the season here, almost here or almost over depending on where you live and ride, I believe I’ve now got a pretty good handle on what makes us faster on a ride, over the course of a season, and from season to season.
Bottom line, there are a lot of things that make us go faster.  I’ve organized these into 10 categories and put the categories in the relative order of what can make road cycling enthusiasts go faster and stay faster.  There will undoubtedly be some new product technology, training approach, research study, or secret of the peloton that will come along that can perhaps make us faster still.  If it is sound, I expect it will fit within one of the categories I’ve laid out and you and I can add it in the appropriate place in our how-to-go-faster toolboxes.
If you want to practice this in a controlled environment, I’d highly recommend a 40 minute video co-produced by Sufferfest and CyclingTips called The Elements of Style that also includes drills to get into a good riding position and engage your key muscle groups while pedaling the 4 stroke circles.
Cadence – Holding a steady cadence, typically between 90 and 95rpm on the flats and rollers and 75 to 80 rpm up steep climbs is key to balancing your power output and energy consumption.  Too low a cadence will increase the power output for each crank of the pedals but sap your energy prematurely.  Too high a cadence and you get too little power and leave too much energy in the tank while not improving your fitness or strength.  Too uneven a cadence wrecks your momentum which results in loss of energy, power, and speed.
While these ranges I’ve listed above are good for most, some of you may prefer a little lower cadence on the flats (85-90rpm) or spin a little faster going up mountains (80 to 85 rpm).  That’s fine too.
Learning to maintain your cadence within a range requires being able to select, time and execute your gear shifting precisely so your cadence doesn’t see-saw in and out of these ranges or very much within them.  This takes awareness of what your front rings and rear cogs can do in combination, experimenting with them on the road, anticipating when you’ll need to shift, and good old practice doing all of it.
Purposely riding routes that you aren’t familiar with, doing ones you know have a lot of variation in terrain, and riding sections at higher and lower speeds than you would normally be comfortable are all good ways to practice your shifting to hold your desired cadence.
Handling – Some riders seem to have an innate ability to handle their bike.  They are quick, agile and smooth in their movements, know where to be in the turns and are comfortable bombing down hills and mountain roads.  While some of this may come from pure athleticism and experience (both good and bad) on the bike, a lot of this can be learned and practiced by focusing on a few key things.
The most common techniques to improve your handling include braking before you get to corners (rather than inside of them), looking where you want to go beyond the corner (rather than what’s around you), and getting in the drops to lower your center of gravity.
As a former ski racer, one additional technique really connected with me and should with you if you know how to carve rather than skid a ski.  When you enter a corner, you want your inside pedal up and your outside one down.  By putting most of your weight on the outside pedal, in the same way you do on your outside ski, you’ll have great control of the centrifugal forces to help you control the turn.
There are many other tricks and techniques to cornering.  (And getting wider wheels to give you a bigger contact patch helps to.)  Here’s another video from Cycling Secrets which lays out some handling tips.
Paceline riding – Riding in a group one cyclist behind another in a paceline can be both exhilarating and scary.  Done right, you can go several mph or kph faster from the tremendous drafting benefits you get and the energy you save for when it’s your turn to pull or when you want to accelerate free of the group.  (Save that last part for a race, not with your riding buddies or they will quickly disown you.)
Done wrong or with an inexperienced rider in your line, it can be unnerving and potentially unsafe, which in itself can sap a lot of the energy you hope to save to help the group go faster.
Good paceline technique requires that riders pedal smoothly, at a consistent cadence, with about a foot or two between you and that gaps or overlaps are prevented.  It also helps if you pull or lead for a period of time shorter than you could, that you fall off toward the center (not the outside) of the road when you are done and the next person in line maintains the pace (rather than speeding up) while you get back in the paceline.
If everyone is able to pull their share, and this isn’t always the case, you can roll back to the end of the line not by coasting but by pedaling a little bit less hard than you were when you were pulling, otherwise you run the risk of falling off the back and the line needs to slow down for you to catch up.  If someone is not planning to take their pull, they should open up a small gap in front of them and motion to you to move into that spot.
The best way to practice this if you haven’t done it before or if you are making a group with people who haven’t ridden together before is start off at a slower speed with bigger gaps than normal between riders until you build up the familiarity and confidence of everyone in the group to go faster and ride closer.
Trust is essential in a paceline and if you don’t have it because you or someone else in the group doesn’t demonstrate they know how to do it well, you or that someone else should ask for some coaching or get out before there is an accident.
It’s also good for the paceline or group leader to check on the speed from time to time, either from the front or middle of the line, to see if everyone is comfortable at that speed.  It really doesn’t help for the strong riders to burn out the others, especially if they want help from the others to give them a break from time to time.
No matter where you are in the paceline, you should be keeping an eye on what’s going on at the front of the line and beyond.  If you are just watching for the rider in front of you, you won’t be able to anticipate changes in pace that typically start at the front.  Communicate to the riders behind you what is going on whether it is that you are slowing or coming to a stop or there is something in the road to avoid.
There are any number of written and unwritten rules about riding a paceline depending on who you are riding with and where you are riding.  Here’s a good piece from Cycling University whose title, “How to ride a paceline, and not fall down” hooked me in right away and whose straightforward writing kept me there.  I made my own attempt at pithy writing with this post called Better Paceline Riding Don’ts and Dos.
There are undoubtedly many other cycling techniques to perfect like braking, climbing, and pacing but the ones above will help make you go faster on your bike.  They all take practice and often require changing habits you may have developed over years.
At a minimum you should try these techniques to and see if help you go faster.  For a whole season years ago I tried moving my average cadence up from the low 90s to the 100rpm range to do what was working for Lance and what a college coach told me he had his team doing at the time.  I felt forever fit but never comfortable in the big ring or moving easily in a pace line where the others were pedaling at 10 to 15rpm slower.  So I bagged it.

On the other hand, I continue to practice improving my down/scrape/lift/kick pedaling stroke and find that when I’m doing it right, I can add 10 watts to my power output.  That’s big and I’ll likely continue working on it until it comes naturally.