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How I Got Fast… A Noob’s Guide To Beating A 23 MPH Average

June 2013
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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.

The rudest surprise that I’ve run into, in terms of cycling fast, is how much work it is to get it back the following season. Part of this may be plausibly blamed on age, but someone else would have to make the claim – while age is not just a number, when you’re talking about cycling at 23+, I ride with plenty if guys in their late 50’s (even mid 60’s) who have no problem keeping up and actually put a hurt on the group. I doubled my indoor training over the winter and I still had a heck of a time getting ready for this season once I could finally put rubber to road this last spring.

It has been my experience that there are fairly specific levels to cycling: the tourists/beginners (10-14 mph), the slow folks (14-16 mph), the mid-range cyclists (17-18 mph), the fairly quick crowd (19-20 mph), the studs (20-22 mph), the horses (22-24 mph) and the semi-pros (24-26+ mph). As a caveat, these speeds are highly subjective and based on mildly hilly terrain – on flat terrain you can add at least 1 mph to each of those, on very hilly terrain you’d subtract 1-2 mph. I went from the mid-range group to the fairly quick crowd in my first six months. From there I spent a whole year trying to get to the studs group. This season I’m very close to mingling with the horses but the gap has been noticeably difficult to bridge. Once you start riding with the horses, they cease to simply ride in a straight line. They begin to attack, creating a yo-yo effect which makes it even tougher to keep up over a distance and it takes an even greater leap in fitness than going from fairly quick to a stud.

There are things one can do to minimize the difficulties in jumping groups though. First is climbing hills. Most people hate climbing because it’s slow, hard work. Become one of the few who love them because the studs and horses use them as an opportunity to kick everyone else’s butt. To do this, I started by attacking every single hill I encountered on my training rides. Instead of shifting down to an easier gear, I shift up and climb out of the saddle, trying to maintain my speed going uphill, or even pick up the pace. Several weeks of this and I got so good at climbing that I found myself having to slow down going up a hill on a few occasions with the advanced group I ride with.  As a side note, implementing this hurts.  It hurts my legs, it hurts my lungs and it works my heart like nothing I know, especially when I’ve got one hill after another or a false flat.  This is not easy.

Next has to do with cycling in a pack. I have a tendency to lightly tap the brakes if the riders ahead slow down for some reason. For the longest time I would try too hard to keep four to twelve inches between my front tire and the rear tire of the person ahead of me. During a slow down, I’d hit the brakes a bit so I could keep my tidy gap. This bleeds too much speed and I end up having to work too hard when the yo-yo snaps the other way. The fix for this is very technical and takes a good deal of concentration so do approach this cautiously if this is news to you. I learned to better pay attention to what the guys were doing two or three riders ahead rather than the one I was immediately behind and I allowed that gap to get a little bit bigger (maybe 1-1/2 to 2 feet). The extra 6 inches to 1 foot doesn’t hurt all that much in terms of drafting and it allows me to absorb the yo-yo a little bit.

Another tactical leap is learning when and where to jump when people are falling off of the back (or in some cases out of the middle of the pack). This takes a keen eye and you have to be ready to jump as soon as you see a gap forming. If you let that gap get too big and you’re not strong enough to catch the leaders (I’m not), then you’re off the back and there’s nothing you can do about it. With this little tidbit, there’s not a whole lot of useful information I can give. Keeping track of what is happening several riders ahead, at least for me, is a “feel” thing and that just doesn’t translate well to print.

If you’re too weak to put the hurt on the group (I am, at least for now), then you’ll have to learn how to hide and how long to pull at the front. I usually feel like a jerk if I hide and don’t take my pull, unless I’m hanging on for dear life (it’s happened like that twice) so if we’re really cruising (24-25 mph on the flats), I have to be very careful to limit my pulls so I still have enough left to latch back on when I drop back. I have a tendency to push myself too hard because I don’t want anyone thinking I’m not pulling my weight so I can wreck the rest of my ride if I’m not careful. Hiding is a tough one. I’ve done it a couple of times but I really felt guilty when I did. My thinking here is why should everyone else work just to pull my butt around the course. The answer is simple, but complex. They ride too fast for me to pull for any length of time so I have to hang on in the draft. That’s the reality, I just don’t like it.

Finally, and this is important, you must know that riding fast isn’t easy for anyone. It’s doubly hard to jump groups and there is no easy way around it. The only way you get a break is to ride in a group under your current ability. For instance, on the Fourth of July we’ll be riding out of the local bike shop. It’s an invite only ride for which the slow pokes and horses are never invited. It’s a 19-20 mph paced ride and if we get going too fast, one of the pacers in the group will slow it down when they get to the front to keep the group together. I can ride at 19 mph, by myself, for well over 100k. Add the help of 20-30 cyclists and I will enjoy every mile of that ride with a smile on my face (I did last year, 80 miles, i pulled for 18 of the last 20 miles and I tacked on another ten to ride to and from the start/finish). The problem with too much of that is it will eventually slow you down. Greg LeMond is often sited for the quote, “it never gets any easier, you just get faster.” Well, many of us know the inverse is true as well… If you always take it easy, you just get slower. The trick is to embrace the suckiness inherent in busting your own ass. Many will spend hours perusing the net for the easier, softer way – the perfect pedal stroke, the perfect cadence and so forth, when the easiest softest way is to learn how to love pedaling faster and harder. The cadence and pedal stroke do make it mildly easier, but without the heart, you’re stuck where you are. All of the cyclists who ride faster than you, every one, has learned to live with or enjoy the suck more than you. There’s no easy remedy for that.

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17 Comments

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

  2. lee says:

    Yay! I am a stud after all! 🙂 Great tips, BTW!

    Fortunately for me, I ride with a fairly casual weekly group that includes mid-range to horse/semi-pro. I typically start the season sticking with the mid-rangers. By mid-season I start leaving the main group behind to chase after the one or two horse/semi-pro riders. I’m usually able to keep up for only a few minutes, but with every ride I manage to hang on just a little longer. I’d love to be able to kick that half-my-age college kid’s rump and leave him in the dust someday. Until then I’m gonna have fun applying these tips and gradually sneaking up on him.

    • bgddyjim says:

      Our Tuesday ride is loaded with horses – usually about ten of them. I’ve managed to stay with them for 29 of 33 miles a couple of times, but it’s some serious work and I still have a tough time with the yo-yo attacks over the last ten miles or so. Congratulations on being a stud. It does feel good, doesn’t it?

      • lee says:

        It feels awesome!

        Another trick I learned from the faster riders in our group: ride the extra 15 miles from home to ride start instead of driving. The extra 30 miles per ride really helps with distance training.

      • bgddyjim says:

        That’s a great tip right there.

  3. Daniel Weise says:

    One thing I’ve noticed in my relatively slow and limited riding is that distance doesn’t make you that much faster, pushing yourself over the same distance helps to improve the speed. I’ve managed to stick to a 1 mile or so loop and increased from about 12 to upwards of 15 mph over 10 laps. Definitely still in the slow folks but this is on a hybrid and carrying lots of weight! 🙂

    Great tips. Thanks!

    • bgddyjim says:

      Hybrid is a different animal altogether. These are all road bike speeds, you can’t compare the two. By my estimates your a group higher than you think. And you’re right… Riding a lot doesn’t make you fast, riding fast does (though within reason of course).

  4. IowaTriBob says:

    Great post! Being my first year of riding this is excellent info. I’ve been able to work myself into that 19-20 mph category and am working hard to make the jump into the next level of speed. I’ve just started incorporating hills and 4-6 minute tempo intervals into my outdoor rides and both are just killer. I’m curious if you’ve found more benefit on making your rides longer at a slower (but yet still solid) pace or pushing really hard for shorter distances? I know a mix of both is best but what do you find helps make that jump up easier?

    • bgddyjim says:

      Riding slow, even for a long time, helps me to ride slow though it is fun. Looking back on it, long steady distance (and steady being fairly quick) is great, but the best advice I’ve ever listened to had to do with learning to recover quickly. Attacking hills on training rides did more for me than anything else – and when the hills come one after the other, you don’t have minutes to recover, you have seconds… I learned that I don’t need as much time to recover and trained my body to jump when I say jump. It’s like combining intervals and hill repeats…

  5. Learned a lot here. I am working hard on keeping my distance in a pack especially on hills. I tend to power up in a big gear and have to be careful not to run over anyone ahead of me. I have to watch others as they drop gears so that I do the same.

  6. Great post – i love your take on how to ride in a group. When a beginner i remember it being a real surprise just how much concentration is needed not to keep dabbing the brakes and yo-yo-ing back and forth. I agree though – it comes down a bit of experience and ‘feel’; judging whats going on around you and particularly ahead, and reacting quickly.

  7. Bryan says:

    I’d love to hear how your body weight changed from the start until the peak avg speed was reached. That in comparison to the drop in weight of your bikes in the other posts. Would be interesting to see how that all “weighs” in on the increase in speed.

    • bgddyjim says:

      Bryan, I don’t know if you’d believe me. I weigh 28 pounds more than I did at my prime in 2013… and I’m faster today. I’m 6′ on the nose and I weigh 178 pounds. I was once down to 150 before I figured out how to eat for the miles I was putting in. I’m much happier today. The bikes? My Trek weighs five pounds more than the Venge. Speed feels more comfortable on the Venge but I can hang just as well on the Trek.

      • jbspillman says:

        I believe you, no reason to lie to anyone. Yes the strength gain overall probably contributed to your speed gains as well. I’m on the other end of the spectrum. Trying to come down while maintaining muscle mass..

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