Cycling at or above 20 miles per hour: What I’ve Learned Over Four Years of Chasing the Speed Dragon.
Let me make one thing very clear… Well, maybe a few things:
- Cycling fast is fun. Not just a little bit, it’s awesome, so if you have fantasies of rocketing down the road at break-neck speeds and feel like you’d like to give it a go, by all means. Do it.
- Cycling fast, no matter whom you see doing it, is hard. Maintaining a decent average, above 20, is not comfortable. I’ve gotten a lot faster over the years, but it doesn’t get any easier.
- Cycling fast is not about the bike. A good bike just makes fast minimally easier. I can ride my beat up old Trek almost as fast as my two year-old Venge, but the new bike is more solid and more comfortable.
With that out of the way, this is not going to be a post about how to get faster. I’ve climbed that mountain. This post will get into how to make happy with the speed you’re capable of attaining or making sacrifices and choices that will get one to the next level – and whether they’re worth it. I will use me as our guinea pig and you can make up your mind about what you’re willing to give up in the elusive hunt for speed. Hopefully, if I explain this well, my experience might help shed some light on what the average noob will be in for if they want to get fast. Unfortunately there’s a little more to it than just pedaling harder.
I started trying to go “faster” about five minutes into my first ride on a mountain bike… I was 41 years old and had absolutely no idea what was involved in modern cycling. Heck, I only ever rode a mountain bike as a kid, and a cheap one at that. I bought my first road bike toward the end of my second season after I started “gearing out” of my mountain bike. To gear out is to run out of gears that you can push to go faster. After my first road bike, I bought another and finally my Venge. In the last four years I’ve put 24,000 miles on my bikes with the sole goal of getting faster.
I’ve tried it all and while many products, like a light bike or water additive like Hammer Perpetuem, make faster easier or more comfortable, in the end it’s all about intensity and duration in training. Good luck trying to cheat either of those, it simply can’t be done. If I had one great point to offer it would be that the biggest mistake I see made pertaining to how fast others ride is that getting fast is easier for them, that it must not hurt as bad for them. Otherwise, who would bother? I banished that thinking completely, and early on. Put another way, I ride with a Cat 4 racer on Tuesday nights, Dave, who can absolutely tear me up. Can’t hold his wheel for more than a few miles. He’s a little heavier than me though I have a nicer bike. I’ve tried to push as hard as I could and he’s just too fast for my current level of fitness. On the other hand, he rides with Greg, a Cat 3 racer who absolutely eats Dave’s lunch… Simple fact is this: Fast gets more comfortable, but if I’m going to catch up to Dave, I must be willing to hurt as bad, or worse, as he did to get where he got. There’s no simple way around that. If I’m not getting faster, I simply have to push harder, longer and/or smarter. My intervals have to get longer and faster, my hill repeats have to repeat more. No amount of bike will fix that because as I’ve always said… A high-end bike won’t fix low-end legs (Copyright).
In the end, if I want to get faster, I have to make a few choices and a sacrifice or two. As fast as I am, to work any harder will take a commitment of time and energy. Can I pull time out of work or with my family? No. So I have to look at getting stronger intelligently. Can I push my workouts harder and make them shorter a couple of days a week (to do more intensive interval training)? Yes I can. Am I willing to do that, because that will take some of the fun out of cycling? No, I most certainly am not. The truth is, I have a really good thing going. I am fast enough to fit in with a group of really great guys who do a lot of fun things on their bikes… Tours, century rides, long rides on the weekends, things like that. If I want to get faster, I have to be willing to do what fast people do… Trade some of my rides for time in the gym, shorten my long rides and trade that for High Intensity Interval Training a couple of days a week, and so forth. These are things I’m not willing to do so I have to accept that I’m about as fast as I’m going to get (to an extent).
My natural way of looking at cycling is to strive to do better, to go faster, to keep up with the next group up. Doing this will wreck the dynamic that I already enjoy though, so the real question I have to ask is am I willing to give up what I love to ride faster?
And therein lies the rub.
I did a four-day, 380 mile tour with my friends last week, and while I had to work to keep up (and contribute), there’s no amount of fast worth giving those experiences up. There’s no amount of speed worth giving up rides with my wife. When I look at everything in perspective, I’m fast enough.
We’re not quite done yet though. Fast isn’t necessarily rocket science either. It’s not like each individual is as fast as they can get and unless they give up “X” and “Y”, they’re doomed to a 16 mph average on their road bike. To an extent, getting fast(er) requires at least two or three hard days a week and two or three easy days a week. On the hard days I push just a little harder and on the easy days I go just a little easier – there should be at least a 5 mph difference between the two but no difference in cadence (just easier gears). To an extent, we can get faster simply by learning to be comfortable with pushing a little harder.
Am I as fast as I can get?
The real question is this: Am I as fast as I need to be?
First, if you want the real answer, continue on. If you want a fake, BS, “you’re good enough if you’re happy” answer, look anywhere else on the internet. I believe in honesty, and being honest with myself, rather than going for those “happy, happy, joy-joy” answers; “I am good enough if I can convince myself that I am” sounds great in a government pamphlet but sucks in the mirror.
First, if you’re stuck at 10 to 12 mph on a road bike, the simple truth is: You’re doing something wrong, you’re old (in which case, dude, once you hit 70, who gives a shit about speed – you should be happy you’re on the right side of the grass, pumping air, for God’s sake. Chill out and enjoy your bike ride and laugh at those foolish young bucks who only worry about who they can pass!), or your bike’s setup is way off.
Other than that, here’s the best answer I can give: Be fast enough that you can keep up with a group of friends, without being a wheel sucker. If you want to lose more weight, get faster. More speed is more calories (though long [40+ mile] distances in “zone two” help immensely as well). I would also recommend getting no faster than is enjoyable. If you’re working too hard, it can suck the fun right out of the ride. No sense in that.
I’ve chased faster for a long time before I finally realized “fast enough” is hanging with friends and enjoying the good times that come with riding them. This:
…beats being the fastest guy in your county and riding alone, every day of the week and twice on Sunday.
On the other hand, if you’re talking about racing, throw everything you just read out the window and pedal harder dammit.