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?
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.
ADDENDUM 4 (and the final addendum to this post): Things changed for me after I broke the Five Hour mark for 100 miles. Rather than continue to get faster, a few friends of mine and I formed what we call “The B Group”. I stopped pushing to improve and get faster and opted to enjoy my time on the bike a little more. I am infinitely happier for this decision. We still throw down a sub-five hour century, but we’re not so concerned with pounding each other into the ground to get beyond the 22 mph average. My need for speed, it seems, has a “maximum” and I have gone far enough. Enjoying my time on the bike is much better than getting to the end of the ride faster. The only limit to your speed is your “want to”. I reached my limit.