Home » Cycling » How I Got Fast – A Noob’s Guide To A 23 mph Average

How I Got Fast – A Noob’s Guide To A 23 mph Average


I had originally planned on scrapping this post, but a blog friend brought up something that made it relevant, so here goes.

First, I think it’s important to define “fast”.  This will vary from person to person, but from everything I’ve read 20 mph is the cutoff.  It’s like running, from what I understand, the cutoff between running and jogging is an 8 minute mile – this isn’t hard and fast, at 8:30 min/miles I always considered myself a runner but that notwithstanding, if there must be a standard, it’s generally accepted that 8 min/mile is running and 20 mph cycling is fast.  Before we get into this, I don’t consider myself all that fast.  There are plenty of guys (and girls) out there who are a hell of a lot stronger and faster than I am on a bike.  When one considers that I’ve only been riding bikes for ten months, and only riding a road bike for five months (not including two inside on a trainer), a 20 mph average on my own, or 23 in a group, over 30 miles is pretty good.  I won’t be winning any races at my current level, but if you’ve followed my site even for a little bit, you know that’s not what I’m about – at all.  I ride bikes to have fun, stay fit and relieve stress.  That said, I’ve run into a lot of people – some a whole lot younger than I am – that have a tough time getting over 15 or 16 on a road bike, which just happens to be slightly under what I average on a 26″ mountain bike with the knobby tires.

So how, specifically did I get to a 20 mph average?  I started out slow and on a mountain bike – 4 miles, 3 days a week at 14 mph – but at the time, that was pushing for all I was worth.  After two weeks I bumped my frequency up to 5  days a week and increased my distance by a couple of miles.  A couple of weeks later I bumped my distance again…  Then I started speeding up after the first three or four weeks.  I went from 14 to 16 where I plateaued…then I put slicks on my bike, then a pair of aero-bars (triathlon/noob/1 month into riding a bike, gimme a break) and made it up to 18 mph – on a hard tail mountain bike.  Frequency has remained at 5-6 days a week since.  In September, I bought my first road bike and my mileage increased from 8-10 to 13 miles. Within a week I was flirting with 20 mph on a regular basis – and that was on my Cannondale (all aluminum).  Within 3 weeks I could hold 20 mph for  10 miles…

Enter winter break, I rode on a trainer and learned what a real 90 rpm cadence felt like.

March 2012, riding season begins.  I quickly bumped up my regular route from 13 to 16 miles because 30 minutes just wasn’t long enough.  I’d hit my 19.5-20.5 mph average (including traffic lights and signs and dealing with traffic itself) at least three days a week and concentrated on recovery rides for two and then a long ride at least once a week at 19 mph, and that’s pretty much where I’m at now.  With the group I ride with, I can hang up till about 23 mph, beyond that I’m only good for a mile or two as I found out two weeks ago.  Of course, that was two days after the longest, hardest effort of my life, so I can cut me some slack.

The previous paragraphs illustrated my progression, or how I built up my mileage and speed to where I’m comfortable at a strong effort most nights of the week – now let’s look at the “how”.

First of all, I read a lot.  I counted my links on my favorites folder just related to speed – there were 12, and those were just the one’s I saved and don’t includes the sites I checked out on my Blackberry either.  I bought cycling magazines, anything I could to learn how to get faster.  Humorously enough, many were the same – breathe, cadence, intervals, so I applied what I learned.

Second, I pushed hard every day that my legs weren’t hurting.  I went from 2 miles at 20 mph to 4, to 6, to 10, to 16 miles…  Now I can comfortably hold 20 mph for 30 miles, 19 mph for 50 and 18 mph for 60 (my longest ride to date is 63).  I believe it is very important at this point to define “push”.  Because I don’t work with power meters, heart rate monitors and the like, the only thing I don’t have to guess at when it comes to my definition of “push” is speed.  Because wind throws everything off, I save my recovery ride days for the windy rides, so we’ll just take that out of the equation.  I know when I’m pushing hard enough.  I can literally feel my energy dropping – it starts with a mild tightening of my leg muscles.  If I keep going, my breathing will speed up considerably, I’ll get hit with a round of sweat dripping from my face, and finally I just have to slow down to recuperate.  Depending how fast I’m going I can last for 2 miles (22-23 mph), or 300 yards (full sprint 30 mph).  My trick to sustaining 20 has been to push till just shy of exhaustion on a harder gear than I should be in to maintain my cadence and then downshift when I need to and get my cadence back up and rest for a minute (I did not do this on my 63 miler – I pushed 20 mph until I bonked – and I bonked hard which is why my average dropped to 18 – from 20 at the 40 mile mark).  I’ve always viewed a bike differently from running – I don’t necessarily have to “save” anything because if I have to, I can wind it down to 13-15 mph and crawl back – I’m not afraid to push myself to the edge on my bike like I am when I’m running.

I wish I could give more, but truth be told, that’s about it – I just push, really, really hard as often as I can.

Now here’s the important part – with my speed increase on my bike, my running speed naturally followed… I didn’t even have to work at it.  All of a sudden, I’m running faster than I ever could have dreamed of.  All I have to do is apply the same cadence to my running that I use with my cycling.

Oh, you may wonder where that 23 mph came from – I only ever really talked about is 20 mph…  So where’s the other three?

Draft.

UPDATE:  There is one intangible that isn’t written about in books and is rarely considered.  Interestingly enough, it’s the one thing that allows me to enjoy pushing myself.  I wrote about that secret here.

Part Two of this post, how to beat a 23 mph average, is here.

ADDENDUM:  As I proofread this, the impression could be gotten that I push to exhaustion and then back off, then push to exhaustion and then back off, repeatedly for 16-30 miles – this is not what I do on a regular basis.  I know what gear I have to be in to maintain 20 mph (in both big and little chain rings).  Into the wind I drop down a gear and pick up the cadence to 100, with the wind, I shift up a gear and mash ‘em till I gotta drop back down a gear and rest…

Of course, this technique could also be the reason that I plateaued at 20 and am having such a hard time getting to 21…  I set 20 as the be all end all…  Now that it’s not anymore, I’m stuck.  ‘Tis what it is.  Never said it was right, but it is how I did it.

ADDENDUM 2  Climbing:  Broke the 21 mph barrier late in the summer 2012.  That plateau was tough to bust through but a trip to the mountains in North Carolina changed everything.  We were down there for a week and a few days and I rode everyday on tougher hills than anything in lower Michigan.  When I got back, I flat-out flew.  Looking forward to heading back down there this summer because climbing, as slow as it is, has been the single greatest way I can easily boost my flat road performance.

ADDENDUM 3  Hill Sprints:  I don’t have good climbing mountains up here in southern Michigan (it’s relatively flat) so I developed another way to work on climbing that’s helped, immensely, to increase my speed:  Instead of downshifting to an easier gear when I come up on an incline (short hills, 1/4 to 3/4 mile, maybe 30 to 100 feet of vertical – you know, hills), I upshift to a harder gear and try to increase my speed going uphill.  I rest on the way back down the back side.  What I’m doing here is combining hill repeats with interval training.  I choose special days to do this, and I use this technique on every incline I come upon.  It works incredibly well if you can’t readily get to a 4 mile long 8% mountain pass to climb.  Summer of 2013 I broke 5 hours on a full century (100 miles) for the first time and finished the season with a 4:36 century (21.7 mph).  If you want the Long Version, I wrote a post about Hill Sprints here.

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55 Comments

  1. gbsmith4 says:

    20mph IS fast. And for anyone that wants to know what kind of power that takes, use this calculator: http://bikecalculator.com/veloUS.html. I use it all the time to figure out the power I’ll need in a certain race. Very handy and pretty accurate.

  2. Sandra says:

    This blog post actually helped me a lot. I’m slow on my road bike in comparison . . My coach told me that in the end, it doesn’t matter what kind of bike you have–either you have power or you do not. Sounds like you do, and hopefully I will some day. It hurts starting out at nearly 50, but at least I am tri-ing!!

    • bgddyjim says:

      I regularly ride with people over 50 who beat the snot out of me, you can do it! And if you can’t, the most important thing in all of this is that you enjoy yourself.

  3. beechcreekproject says:

    I’ve followed your route in biking but only on a lot slower time frame. Started biking on a mountain bike last year on a regular basis and began with 5 mile rides. Few months bumped it up to 8 and so on. Now 2 years later I’m riding sometimes 5 times a week around 18 miles a ride. I still ride the mountain bike because I just like it. I’m just riding for the fun and the exercise. I’m still struggling to get close to a 15 mph pace for a 20 mile ride but I ride fat tires so I just need probably increase my engine performance. :grin: Great post and lots of good pointers. Take care and ride safe.

  4. Very helpful post! I tried to comment on your hybrid post the other day, but I think I deleted the comment before I posted it. Both of these posts were perfectly timed. I just started the cycle part of my triathlon training this week and have been baffled by how slow I am. After reading your post, I bumped into a few guys I didn’t know were cyclists, and they agreed that my hybrid has to go if I want to be competitive. And, this post ties right in with what I was thinking– that it is also just a matter of putting in the miles and knowing the speed will eventually come. Thanks! I always love reading your thoughts!

    • bgddyjim says:

      Thanks Kimberly, the speed will definitely come if we work for it, the tough thing with this, like all sports, it just takes a lot of work. The hybrid, if you want to do well, has to be retired to commuting or light trail riding.

  5. [...] a mystery.  In any event, I downloaded the bicycle calculator that Gary mentioned in the comments section on one of my posts the other day and it had me pegged, for the ride into the wind at 334 Watts average.  I [...]

  6. Enjoyed that post too. That trainer riding this year is one sweat machine !!!

  7. [...] I figured I’d give a go at a decent explanation.  For a detailed look at how I got fast, go here.  That post has everything – miles per day, speed increases – [...]

  8. John says:

    I bought a mountain bike last week, cycled to the shop a couple of times then went on a 19 mile ride and averaged 12 mph. It was painful but it gets to a point where it doesn’t get any worse and i felt shit hot after completing it.So I went and got a road bike today, did the same route( in the most treacherous of wintery conditions) and was 15- 20 mins quicker. My cycle computer didn’t fit bike so have no exact stats. Thing is, I live in a valley, the only roads from my home are up steep hills. I don’t know if I can have a 20mph average where I live and it makes me sad. :'(

    • bgddyjim says:

      This is one thing that I really messed up on in my exuberance – hills/mountains change everything, especially if the roads are winding because you won’t get the full downhill benefit. Even so, what goes up must come down. I averaged 19 mph in the North Carolina mountains – the uphills were slow (8-10 mph) but the downhills were FAST (35-45 mph). Just keep at it, you’ll get stronger (and thereby faster) in a hurry.

  9. yong xue says:

    I am 52. I just broke 1:30 barrier on a hilly half marathon last June and then my abductor muscle got injured. I soon realized that it is ok for me to ride bike. I bought a Trek at the end of last November. After 5 months training, I broke the average 20 mph barrier on a flat bike path of 24.21 miles. It was relatively easy and I probably can do better. But 23 mph still looks like something impossible. How long it will take me to get there?

    • bgddyjim says:

      More saddle time (or less if you’re like me and on it every day). If you haven’t, try intervals (sprint from telephone pole to telephone pole, then rest, repeat). I ride with some absolute animals and I still can’t keep up with them… I finally got to a point where I’m just happy being where I am… Even at 20 we’re in the upper minority. You’re an animal. ;)

  10. BikeWar says:

    You’re right at the sweet spot for roadies and runners – 20 mph and 8 min miles, respectively. I’m 48 and have had younger guys trying to catch me while older guys drop me. It’s less an issue of age and more of fitness. Great post!

  11. […] My first post on this topic dealt mainly with solo cycling and speeds. I detailed specifically how I trained to ride consistently at 20+ miles per hour from a noob’s perspective (because I certainly was one when I wrote the post). This post is more about riding in a pace-line or with a large group and trying to keep up – I’m not quite a noob any more, but I’m still fairly new to cycling and I’m still in the process of trying to get better and faster. This continuation post is from that angle. […]

  12. Lisa says:

    I started cycling 3 months ago and have hit a plateau at 23mph, I can stay here fairly consistently. Because I am new I still have trouble shifting gears at the right time, your tips are very helpful. Looking forward to breaking this plateau!

    • bgddyjim says:

      Thanks man, and on open roads no less… We were cranking at 24-26 to hit that 22.7 average. It sounds harder than it is though, at least from my perspective. With 60 people in the group, in a double pace line, the draft is amazing. .

  13. My average is 15kph and slower BECAUSE im still VERY scared to ride on the roads and its impossible to go hard on the pedestrian pathway :-( ahhhrrrr sry felt like expressing my frustration :-)

    • bgddyjim says:

      Don’t blame you, riding on the roads can be daunting to some. I never had a problem with it but my wife as a very tough time. You should become more comfortable as time goes on. Good luck.

      For what it’s worth, I think they should have a bike lane on every road.

  14. Mark Twain says:

    I like your entry. I go about 22mph on average with some lights and now 21 since I bike less. 26-27mph in a group for an hour in the crits.

    I have been biking almost 2 years.
    I am pretty good in conserving energy and sprinting the last 2 miles.
    I actually won a race on my peak 3 months ago.

    I know guys that have been biking for 6 months and averaging 26 on their own pace.

    Particularly with this one guy. I was faster than him 3 months ago, but not today.

    The technique is to hang around fast people.
    I see him on the Critz where the pro people hang around everyday. Even though he was slow and getting dropped at first, the last time I saw him, he had no trouble of even pulling the group.

    He also told me that he had a coach that asked him to go on the track, and use a track bike to smooth his pedaling.

    The positioning in the bike makes such a difference also. The more you look like your standing up position gives you more power yet its gets just a little uncomfortable.

    But the real secret is… are you ready? its pretty easy concept.
    I heard this from a friend who had been winning a lot of races.

    So are you ready to find out the how to hit 26mph???

    Here it is…

    “The more you can tolerate the pain, the faster you are.”

    That’s it. It is pretty simple isn’t it? but handling the pain is the hard part.

    Ohh.. just to let you know, I never bike on the weekends due to family, school and work.

    I just bike to work, I wish I can ride more mountains.

    Plus you have to train differently on different races. If you want to train climbing, smash it with the hardest gear. If your racing in flats with the crits, spin it with tons of intervals.

    I actually look forward when there is a wind hitting me hard, its a challenge fighting it. I always tell myself when I ride against the wind, you can never slow me down, yet I always loose but without a fight.

    Imagine how long can you hold 30 mph, ten seconds – 2 mins? 5 mins?
    If you can train to increment this everyday, next thing you know you can hold it for 5 miles… your pretty much faster than anybody you see. And…maybe even get an invite from tour de france.

  15. Mark Twain says:

    Omgosh… that is a nice bike you have in the picture. I am always envious of that bike.

  16. This was a really helpful article, it challenged me to get out of my comfort zone! Thanks!

  17. Christopher Cudworth says:

    Interesting post. My experiences over 10 years of cycling are similar. But I’m going to add in some intense weight work with the legs here in March, followed by a 3-4 week session where I ride hills, slow and fast, on every ride. Because that’s where we lose the most speed. My other weakness is long, sustained riding into the wind or cross wind. Of course, isn’t that true for everyone? Yes and no. Some people sustain it better than others, and I think that is the result of knowing the “sweet spot” in your gearing versus pedal cadence. Too light a gear and you lose it in the wind. Too heavy and you crank out. What do you think?

    • bgddyjim says:

      For the hills, starting early spring I sprint every single hill I come across. Instead of downshifting, I upshift one gear. Within a month my climbing legs are rocking. By the time it matters I can crush many of the guys I ride with.

      For the wind, it’s all about how long I can ride in the drops comfortably. I work on my flexibility over the winter so I can ride low when the wind picks up. Other than that, which isn’t much, you’re right. Some guys can hammer in the wind…and I’m not one.

  18. brettday says:

    This is an amazing post, thanks so much for sharing. I am a runner who is making the transition to cycling (I have a Cannondale MTB that I will be using on and off road) What you have explained here will help me a lot as I start out cycling. To be honest I was not sure what fast meant when it came to cycling, so you have cleared that up for me. I cannot wait to start training, and I will keep all of this info in mind when I get on the saddle. Thanks so much for the informative post. Looking forward to reading more.

    All the best,
    Brett Day
    mtbmemoirs.com

  19. Night Rider says:

    This was a great post, I agree with a lot of stuff people have posted. I’m frustrated like some people have said. I’m stuck in the 19 mph. I have not been able to break the 20 mph…. In groups like you said, I did 50 miles with an ave of 19.3 mph for the 2014 MS Bike Run here in Miami Fl. Me and a friend of mine did an extra 30 to finish the event at an ave speed of 17.4 mph. When I’m riding solo I have a hard time braking the 19-20 mph ave. It’s driving me nuts!

    • bgddyjim says:

      I feel your pain my friend. Stick with it though. Florida is tough because it’s so flat but if you can find a decent hill, climbing that hard a few times every ride will do wonders for you. My wife and I head south every year now so I can spend a week riding in the mountains – that alone, as slow as climbing is, has done more for my overall speed than almost anything. Another great trick I’ve picked up is accelerating up smaller inclines. It’s normal to shift down a gear or two to climb. Instead, stay in your 20 mph gear, get out of the saddle and keep your cadence up. I do this for almost every little hill I come upon now and it’s increased my fitness immensely. When I wrote that post I was riding a century in just over five hours. Last year my first if the season was 4:55 and my last was 4:36 – and we did the first sixty miles at just under 23 mph, on open roads. Use inclines, they work.

      • Christopher Cudworth says:

        These are really great suggestions, the first I’ve seen in 10 years of cycling that 1) acknowledge the difficulty of improving beyond 19-20 mph and 2) actually provide concrete suggestions on how to do that. Thanks for your insights everyone. And NOOB, a great topic.

      • bgddyjim says:

        Thanks Christopher, that’s high praise indeed from someone who writes as well as you do… I might frame that comment.

        Jumping from 19 to 20 is an absolute bear.

  20. […] gotten a few comments on my Noob’s Guide to a 23 mph average post that made an addendum a bit of a necessity and considering that I’ve already […]

  21. n84bs says:

    I was just looking up how fast and average mph for a bike should be and I stumbled on this article. I live in Oregon but I recognize that picture. Is that the tridge in Midland?

    • bgddyjim says:

      EXCELLENT! Absolutely, that’s the Tridge in Midland. I ride the rail trail up there at least a couple of times a year. It is my favorite “all by my lonesome” ride – I’ve done a 100 miler, a 75 miler and a 125 miler. If you didn’t know, the trail starts right at the Tridge and goes for 30 miles till you get to Clare, then you hop on Business 10 for a couple of miles and it the trail goes forever after that (I think it’s almost to the west coast of Michigan now).

  22. John G says:

    I broke the 21mph barrier without resorting to hill work. How I did it was to do interval training. I go fast for 6 minutes at around 90 percent effort with a short rest period of 3 minutes, I repeat this about 5 times. I cover about 15 miles plus when my session is over in around 42 minutes and change. The speed average may in fact be higher due to several bridges that get in my way, and traffic on the bike path.

  23. John G says:

    I failed to mention that I had broke the 20 mph average barrier on my 40 pound full suspension mountain bike. Not an easy thing for anyone even professionals to do. I had to lay off the mountain bike as it was working me too hard. Now I have a road bike and the effort is a lot easier to go 20 mph even as I now have begun to average 21 mph on my 15 mile bike ride. I know that I can break the 21 mph barrier on my road bike without resorting to hill work, by eventually getting a lighter bike(mine is about 27 pounds or so) and adding so aero bars. One I make these changes, a 25 mph average is within my reach.

  24. […] hour or less, that makes it all the more appealing. (I should note that I’ll be checking out Fit Recovery’s numerous posts on how to increase cycling speed, which have always sounded doable if you’re […]

  25. Whizz bomb! That’s fast :-)

  26. Rachael says:

    I was stuck at 14 – 15mph 40 milers for a good 18 months. I cycle with a group of men and said I wanted to improve my speeds. They literally flogged me on the hills and pushed on the flats telling me to relax my breathing. I had licorice legs afterwards but managed 17.9 over 40 miles. Within a week and three rides later my speeds were mid 16-18. 40 miles is a big ask for upping overall speeds and I want to go for 18-20 so I may cut the distance. My rides average at 2,500 ft as I live in hilly Devon! Hard work sweat and perseverance pay off eventually I’m told! Happy riding!

  27. […] How I Got Fast – A Noob’s Guide To A 23 mph Average […]

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