How to Cycle Fast: A Noob’s Guide to What to Worry About.. and What to Save for Later…
So you’re getting into cycling. You love it but you want to get faster and you’re at a loss for where to start. Fear not, it’ll take a lot of hard work and a little bit of cash, but it’s not impossible (and age, while it matters, isn’t as big a factor as many think). One thing is for certain though, if you don’t have a plan you can get bogged down on some of the less important aspects of speed because there’s a lot one can do to improve their overall pace on a bike. Let’s get right into it…
1. Weight (and we’re not talking about the bike here): Cycling is not like golf, meaning you can’t cycle around your gut – it’s just the nature of the sport. This doesn’t mean you can’t ride, it just means you can’t realize your full potential until you drop the gut. First, being heavy will mean extra weight climbing hills and you won’t be able to make that up on the downhill – the disadvantage is disproportionate to the advantage. Second, having to work around a belly will mean that you can’t ride low on the bars and drops which, in effect, turns you into a big sail on top of a bike. The best way to get fast is to get low, out of the wind. The cyclist’s weight is the single most important factor to cycling, above all else – and it’s also the cheapest to do something about. Ride more and eat less – in fact, fixing the weight can even be said to save money.
This dude has some gut to work on.
2. Bike Setup: The single most important bike related and second most important factor detracting from speed is the bike setup. There are a few things a noob must embrace when it comes to the setup: 1) You don’t know what you’re doing. 2) The setup person at your local shop does. 3) Millimeters matter and by that I mean one or two. Get your bike set up by someone who knows what they’re doing and pay attention while they’re doing it so you can change it on your own as you get improve and lose weight. Important areas: Saddle height (this needs to be within 2 millimeters of dead on). Saddle fore and aft (one millimeter). Stem Length (5-10 millimeters). Things to remember: You don’t change the fore-aft position of the saddle if you have to reach too far for the handlebars – ever. Do NOT do this. You buy a longer/shorter stem. Your feet, and legs and more importantly, knees have to be in a specific position above the axles of the pedals. Saddle height is nothing to trifle with either. 2 millimeters too high and you lose power at the bottom of the pedal stroke, where you need it. 2 millimeters to low and you lose power at the main section of the pedal stroke – where you need it even more.
UPDATE: MJ Ray, in the comments, suggested verifying the bona fides of your “fitter” as some “fake it”. I agree, though thankfully I’m spoiled in this regard – the owner of our local shop has more credentials than could possibly be needed.
3. Diet, both on and off the bike: Now this is a tricky one – if you have any questions, first look to #1. That notwithstanding, you’ve got several camps on this front. The main groups would have to look something like the healthy eaters, the vegetarians, the omnivores and the sweets fanatics. I’m an omnivore who enjoys his occasional treat. Fit into any of the first three and if you want to lose weight while you ride, I might even suggest limiting the meat and bread to an extent, with the understanding that your body will require a substantial amount of protein to build muscle as you work on getting faster. Once the weight is under control though, I would recommend against a vegetarian diet. Veggies are not a great power-food. In fact, at no point in the history of mankind, ever, has someone uttered the phrase, “Yeah, I got a big race tomorrow, I’m gonna veggie load.” If you’re going for speed, even sugar (within another longer burning fuel source, of course) is far better for you than a cucumber. You must, one way or another, learn to love bananas though.
4. Fitness/Legs and Flexibility: Next up would be fitness and flexibility. For the fitness, this only takes time, miles and intensity. Get to it. The flexibility is simple enough but requires a little pain tolerance, at least to do it my way. I’m not big into stretching, yoga and all of that hoo-ha so I worked on my flexibility on the bike. This meant getting used to riding in the drops regularly for long periods of time – the goal at a minimum should be an hour straight riding in the drops. The more you can ride in the drops, the lower you can drop your stem, the faster you’ll be able to ride. Just keep in mind that too much of a good thing is bad. As far as the legs go, here’s the catch phrase (Copyright, of course): “A high-end bike won’t fix low-end legs”. Burn that in.
5. Bike Frame Material: Holding a decent average on a high-end entry-level bike (meaning not your big box special road bike with the twist-grip shifters, those are crap and will slow you down when it comes to shifting into the proper gear as needed – you want Trek, Cannondale, Specialized, Jamis or Scott just to name a few) is possible, often desirable to some racers because the aluminum frame of the entry-level bike is stiff. No power loss when you’re putting the hammer down. On the other hand, that stiffness comes at a price: Comfort. You’ll feel every single little pebble in the road. If you can afford a carbon fiber bike, they’re much more comfortable. How does this translate to speed? Well, rolling over gnarly pavement on an aluminum bike can be quite demoralizing as the miles rack up. You can literally feel the speed bleed over the bumps. On a carbon fiber bike, they absorb chop a lot better so you should be more comfortable and able to hold high speeds for longer. This was a great leap for me, one of the happiest days of cycling, when I brought home my first full carbon bike. Take note though, how low this is on the list.
6. Wheels: In my experience, wheels are one of the most overlooked component to cycling with speed. While the nice carbon aero wheels are great, a decent set of wheels with some high-end hubs will go a long way to making a decent speed maintainable. You can overcome the disadvantage of cheap wheels (I do, mine only cost me $370 or so), but even my cheap wheels were a vast improvement over the wheels that came on the bike originally. When it comes to wheels, the good stuff does matter, but they’re not worth the poor-house either.
7. Aerodynamic Equipment: Notice this is before the overall weight of the bike? The only time aerodynamic equipment takes a back seat to weight is in the mountains. Aero beats weight every day of the week and twice on Sunday otherwise. You’ll be able to get around the equipment with hard work and guts but it’ll take a lot of both to do it. Unfortunately, you’ll be paying top-dollar for anything aero – from helmets to clothing to the wheels and bike itself. Aero is never cheap unless you can get a deal on last year’s stuff – and even then, it only costs an arm… Which is good, you’ll need that leg to ride.
8. Bike weight: Finally we’re down to bike weight. Now, if you’ve got the cash, this is the easiest way to pick up a little bit of speed. All it takes is a month’s salary (on average of course). Having a light bike helps immensely on hills, there’s no doubt about that, but on flat ground it’s really not all that big a deal (see #7).
Just think, for the bargain price of $15,000 (and change), you can have a 10 pound bike too (4.65 kg)!
Now, it could be stated that component choice should be included in this post as well but I can clear that up in one fell swoop: As long as you’re looking at any of the three main manufacturer’s base race lines (Shimano 105 as an example) or better, the components won’t have much of an effect on speed. Obviously, the more you’re willing to spend, the lighter the components are but by the time the noob gets to that point, you’re splitting seconds. Whatever line you choose, save the down tube shifters and the bar end shifters for your leisure bikes. If you want speed, the integrated brake/shifters are the only way to go. Anything less will have you working harder to keep up. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the shifters aren’t that big of a deal, that you can get used to the down tube shifters and everything will work out. You’ll be wrong. I was.