So you work your butt off on your favorite route, your computer shows you maintaining between 19 and 20 mph the whole way and you’re stoked – you’ll finally get back and check your STRAVA stats and they show an average of 17 mph and you’re bummed. You worked so hard!
I know, it sucks. Been there. There are a few things you have to consider before you become disheartened though – factors you have to take into account. We amateur enthusiasts don’t have the benefit of closed roads, we must follow traffic laws. We also have climbs to deal with and a bunch of other variables. All of these must be considered when looking at the stats – and the faster you go, the more detrimental these factors will be to your average.
First, having to ride on roads open to traffic and obeying traffic laws will easily knock as many as four miles per hour off of your average. The group I ride with on Tuesday night, we run into this conundrum every week. Just the other day we had perfect conditions – 63 degrees (17 C), sunshine, great roads, and a pittance of a breeze (around 5 mph). We started out fast and stayed fast, between 23 & 28 mph except for climbs (19-23 mph) which were few and far between. The only negative factor was traffic on open roads. We had to wait for traffic to clear so we could get the whole group across several intersections that we can usually breeze through – call it bad timing. At the 20 mile point, when I had a second to check our average, we were at 22 mph. Having to slow for stops took at least 3 mph off of our average. On solo rides, if I want to come in with a 20 mph average, I’d better be between 22 & 24 mph the whole way or there’s no way to make up for the stops at intersections. It’s the nature of the average.
The next average killer is hills. The more hills you have to contend with, the tougher it is to maintain a decent average and you can never make up the loss on the climbs on the descents. It just doesn’t work that way. Here at home, I’m an easy 20 mph average when I give it a decent effort. When I really try, I’m around 21 mph, but you add in some hills in the mountains down in Georgia and I’ll drop to 18.5 – 19 (though I have to admit, I’m on vacation when we head south and there’s no way I’m busting my ass on vacation – I’ll ride hard, but I’m riding more for fun than for a workout or maintain an average).
Wind is another factor that works much the same way as hills, if it’s not more detrimental than hills in terms of not being to make up the drag from the headwind with a tailwind. I can lose as much as 1 mph off of my average on a day when the wind tops 15 mph and I have an exceptionally well set-up bike that’s suited for riding aerodynamically. If you’re a cyclist whose back is bothered by riding low, if you’re riding with an upright position, even in the drops, the wind can have a huge affect on your average.
Then there’s your speed in general. The faster you go, the more detrimental the items mentioned above are to your average. Speed is relative. If I’m riding at 17 mph, hoping for a 15 or 16 mph average, stopping for a stop sign or light won’t take as long if I’m riding at 24 mph hoping for that 21 mph average. Also, getting started from a full stop is going to take longer as well. The higher the average, the harder it you’ll have to work.
Now, if you really want to be humbled, and I don’t, buy a power meter… Once the wattage is normalized, it won’t matter what the stats say because the wattage never lies. Just be prepared… We’ve got a Cat 3 racer who analyzes his stats all of the time. At the toughest points in our Tuesday night ride, we’re hitting a normalized 200-250 watts (normalized means you average out the peaks and valleys). Pros regularly operate at around 350 watts… Your typical 15 mph Sunday cyclist? Maybe 90-130 watts at best. When I say humbling, I mean it.