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.