How To Become a Fast Cyclist; The Tools You’ll Need, Plus the One Single, Most Important Factor That’ll Allow One to Achieve Fast…
I am fortunate enough to be in the upper crust of cyclists (I almost used the word “lucky”, but luck has/had nothing to do with it). Locally, I’m in the second tier of riders, but I’m told by visitors who happen by our group, our B Group is everyone else’s A Group, so I’m also fortunate to have a great pool of exceptional cyclists to ride with who consistently help me improve. I’ve been riding with the same group for seven years and we, as a group, have increased our average pace over our usual 28+ mile course from 20.5-mph to well over 23-mph. The A Group increased from 21.5 to 25-mph over 32 miles (and change). Keep in mind, this is all on open roads… we have to stop for stop signs. If we were to close the course so we didn’t have to worry about traffic, we’d easily be able to maintain 24-ish and 27-ish mph averages.
I detailed, specifically, the workouts I did, from day one on a mountain bike two sizes too small, to get fast in this post if you’re interested.
I love that post. It’s one of my most popular of all-time, but it’s missing a little something. What’s more important than simply going fast, which anyone can do with the right equipment and desire, is being happy on the bike. Some people have to push it to the edge to smile, and for those folks, more power to their pedals. This is why I ride with the B Group rather than the A’s. With a little work, I could ride with the faster group. I’m infinitely happy with the friends I ride with, though. I don’t need to be any faster. So, my point is this: Enjoy cycling first. If you’re still willing to put in the work required to be fast, read on.
Next, on to the important stuff. The equipment you’ll need is important to the discussion. You absolutely can get away with an aluminum bike in a fast group; I have two friends who ride aluminum road bikes – well, only one, now. One guy finally picked up a Venge. The second guy rides a high-end Specialized Allez with Zipp wheels, a Specialized Aerofly carbon handlebar and all the bells and whistles you’d want on a high-end race bike. Basically, he rides the equivalent of an aluminum Venge. He, and four others, hold the World Record for cross-state travel. In other words, you don’t need carbon fiber to succeed (though it certainly doesn’t hurt).
More important is the component set, or groupset. At a minimum, you’ll want Shimano 105 or SRAM Rival. Better, Ultegra or Force. I left Campagnolo out, but that’d be the Potenza or Chorus lines… or Record and another $800 to $1,000… The 105 and Rival levels are the entry-level race sets. Anything below those and you have to deal with inadequacies and inefficiencies that get in the way of maintaining speed. You could get away with Shimano Sora, but the 9-speed drivetrain leaves “cadence holes” – gaps in cadence between cogs, greater than 10 RPM. 11-speed is preferable, though I do fine with 10-speed.
I’ve got one of each component sets; an Ultegra bike and a 105, the only difference between the groupsets is weight. They operate about the same, which would be excellently.
Next, and just as important as the groupset, are the wheels if you want to be fast. Without question or exception, unless you’re freakishly strong, you’ll want a decent set of wheels on that bike. On my good bike, shown above, I’ve got 38 mm carbon fiber wheels. Some prefer 50 mm at a minimum but we deal with a lot of wind during the beginning and end months of a season. I chose a rim that would be compliant in higher winds. Alloy wheels are fine, though we would want to look for something with a decent aero profile, if possible. I also prefer bladed aero spokes. The important point with wheels is that they roll well. The original wheels that came with my Venge are absolutely horrible – I can’t stand them. They’re easily a mile an hour slower than the Velocity/Vuelta set on my Trek (below). While you’ll want a good set of wheels, good doesn’t have to mean expensive. I’ve only got $550 into the Velocity/Vuelta wheels below. My Ican wheelset was less than $500.
I’ve got Velocity Fusion rims with Vuelta Hubs (sealed bearings) with 24 mm tires on my Trek
Now, let me be exceptionally clear here, all of the aero stuff in the world won’t make you faster – that stuff makes fast easier. If you’re thinking you’re going to buy a set of aero wheels and an aero bike with an aero handlebar and you’re going to jump from a 16-mph average to 20, you’re going to be deeply disappointed to find you just blew $5,000, you’ve got no excuses left, and the real problem all along was the engine. Of course, at least you’ll love the new bike!
The final factor in fast is your bike’s weight. This is usually taken care of by choosing a decent wheelset and higher-end components. Even an aluminum bike will be fairly light with a Dura-Ace groupset and decent wheels. Bike weight is behind rider weight, of course, and losing rider weight is free. The important point here, fast will be easier, considerably so, on a 15 pound bike than it will on a 24 pounder.
To put a bow on this post, the last, and without question, most important factor in the quest for speed, the thing that separates the men and women from the boys and girls, was mentioned earlier in this post as “desire”.
Simpler, and the way I like to say it, is “want to”. A light, fast bike with fantastic wheels and a Dollar will get you a cup of coffee without “want to”. In fact, as fast as I am, once I ran out of “want to”, that was it… I only got faster when and because the group got faster. I am just as fast on my 1999 Trek 5200 (right) as I am on the “aero everything” Specialized Venge (left) – even with the alloy wheels on the Trek. In fact, up until just this year, four full seasons after I bought my Venge, my fastest ride ever was on my trusty, old Trek. And the Trek is three pounds heavier.
New, carbon fiber, aero bikes are fantastic. All of that carbon fiber, aluminum, and titanium look awesome and you can bank on the fact that they’re fun to ride.
But without want to, that crap is useless.
Ride hard, my friends.