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Cycling Speed Tips: A Noobs Guide To Cycling Faster

If I had a dollar for every time the search topic “cycle faster” or some variant led someone to my blog I’d be writing posts about my newest ultra-high-end bike purchase. Alas, that’s just not how things work but I do have some really decent tips on how to squeeze a little more out of your average.

Don’t mash.

Runners especially are guilty of this one, so if you ran first, pay attention. The idea behind cycling takes after weight lifting. If you do curls with heavy weights you’re going to be able to do a few decent sets and you’re going to wipe yourself out and have to take a break and/or change exercises to use a different set of muscles. On the other hand, if you use 5 pound dumbbells you’ll be doing curls all day. Cycling uses the same principle. Mash too hard a gear and you burn out. Now, if you’re wondering why this applies so much to runners, it’s quite simple: The action of propelling yourself forward takes a lot of effort compared to cycling so we end up trying to apply an equal amount of effort to the pedals. This is a no-no. It shouldn’t be that hard even though the cadences for each sport should the same (or close to it). I ride with a guy who typically stays in his big ring (50 – he’s got a compact double*) and his smallest or second smallest cassette cog (11 or 12) and he just mashes along at about a 55-65 cadence. I can buzz by him on a normal day with half the effort in my middle ring (42) and my fourth cassette cog (15) pushing a cadence of 90 rpm – and that’s on the flats… I smoke him on hills.

Know your gears.

I like 20 mph for an average (though I can and do ride faster on occassion, especially in a group setting) so I know what gears I have to be in to maintain that average speed for both the big ring (52) and the middle ring (42). If you’re running a compact double this is even easier because I can’t imagine you could run 20 mph in the small ring and the smallest cassette cog (11 or 12 depending) – nor could I imagine anyone wanting to for strategic reasons. The idea here is that if you want to go faster (say on the way down a hill) you would have to shift to the big ring then down a few gears in back… That’s just too much movement for no good reason. So pick your speed and know the gears that will get you there with a cadence of 85-95.

Lift but don’t separate.

If you’re using clip-less cycling shoes and pedals (the one’s where your feet “lock in”), and you should be, then take advantage of the fact that you can use the upstroke to lift the pedal with one foot as you’re pushing down with the other. This will help you keep that cadence up during the tougher parts of the ride. The idea here is that it’s easier to maintain your cadence than it is to slow down, shift down and then spin back up. If you find cadence slowing a little bit, lift with the back foot while you push with the front and spin it back up and skip the downshift. Do this long enough and it becomes second nature and your average speed will really increase. Now, to get the “feel” for what I’m talking about here, the idea is to pull up quite hard – you should feel your foot pulling on the upper of your shoe and thereby the pedal – not a violent tug, but pull while following the natural arc of the pedal. Also, you’ll want to make sure your feet are flat for this, heel down, level with the toes, not up. It makes a difference. Also, this will take some concentration if you’re not using a cycling computer that monitors your cadence (I don’t). I have to pay attention to a drop in cadence and catch it early or I lose too much momentum and have to downshift to spin back up.

Use your built-in aero-bars.

What’s that you say? You don’t have aero-bars on your bike? Either do I, but if you know where to put your hands and your bike is set up well, you do – they’re built right into your bars. Generally when we grip the hoods we assume the missionary position. Thumb on the inside, fingers wrapping around the hood and one or two on the shifter/brake lever. If you want to get low and relax at the same time, cup the top of the hood with your palm and rest your wrists on the bar top. Your arms will be spread wider than if you had aero-bars but you’ll basically be in the same position with your body, if not a little lower. Now, as a disclaimer, this position is inherently dangerous as you don’t have your thumb locked around any part of the handlebar – you must watch for bumps in the road because if you hit one your hands could very easily slip from the bars and you’ll be ass over tea-cart before you know it. Use this tip with extreme caution and at your own risk (I use this all of the time on appropriate roads and have never once come close to loosing my grip). Now, I have Ultegra shifters which are a little lower profile than 105’s – and I have really big hands so they fit over the shifters nicely – to shift I use my pinkie fingers.

Get your head out of the game…

How many times do we hear, “get your head in the game”? If you watch sports you hear it regularly enough in one context or another. In cycling you want your head out of the game – if “game” = “wind”. Get your head down to a point where you can see at least two car lengths ahead of you… Most people ride quite upright so they can see a mile or two down the road which robs you of aerodynamics. If you get your head out of the wind you will immediately feel the difference and you will ride faster. This tip also comes with a caveat: If your head is down it makes it tough to watch for traffic – I choose my locations very carefully and make sure to follow a very straight line. Every 20 or 30 seconds I’ll lift my head a bit to get the full picture of where everything is at and check for possible problem areas. I DO NOT use this in residential neighborhoods, high traffic areas or places where cars could pull out into my path, it’s just too dangerous.

Get your climb on…

Climbing a hill fast is great way to improve averages. Embrace your inner beast.

* On the advice of a friend and commenter I figured it would be wise to explain all of the numbers in this post for the serious noobs… The big numbers (30-52) refer to the front chain rings, specifically the number of teeth on the rings. I have a triple (52/42/30). Racing cranks have two chain rings, typically 52/42. Finally we have the compact double, these are for regular daily enjoyment riding – typically 50/34. The compact double won’t produce the same high-end torque and speed but they are a perfect option to the triple – you get the most of every gear with the compact double.

The smaller numbers (11 thru 28) represent the the number of teeth on each cassette cog or gear. I have a 12-25 nine speed cassette. Because I have a triple Trek left out the big cassette cogs. Many ten speed cassettes range from 11-28 teeth or even higher. So, when I say my 20 mph gear is 42/15, that’s my middle chain ring and the 15 tooth cog.

UPDATE:  Be sure to check out the comments for more great tips.

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