How I STAY Fast; A Noob’s Guide to Maintaining a 23-mph Average on a Bicycle and the Mental Edge Needed to Do It.
As the Greg LeMond quote goes, it never gets easier, you just go faster, was ever thus…
The most popular post I’ve ever written is centers on how I trained to get fast enough to hold a 23-mph average in a pack. That’s fast enough some believe we can’t possibly hold that on open roads but I assure you, we do… and I’m not even in the A Group. Our A Group is up to a 25-mph average on Tuesday nights. On open roads.
I’ve been 150 pounds dripping wet and held a 23-mph average (though I was more prone to cramping and bonking). I’ve been 175 pounds and held the same average. Though my wife prefers me at 175 (I’m happier at 165 but she says I’m too skinny). I’ve held 23-mph on a 21-pound carbon road bike with a faulty headset and a triple drivetrain, and on that same road bike three pounds lighter and completely rebuilt from the ground up with a compact double chainset, and then on a 15-pound aero-everything racing steed.
Oh, and I’ll turn 50 in a couple of months.
I’d love to tell you the bike matters a lot, but it doesn’t. The bike helps a lot, of course – a great aero bike makes fast easier but I still have to have the fitness in the first place. The ride, on a 15 pound aero bike is obviously a lot easier that the old triple was, but I still managed. I think more than weight, the keys for the bike are decent, working components, good wheels, and proper setup. Get those right, and that’s most of the battle. This changes as we get above the 21+ pound range for a bike, though.
My first foray into speed in cycling was addictive and that’s really what got me started on the right foot. I only lasted eight miles with the main group – I was dropped like a dirty shirt when they accelerated from a reasonable 23-24-mph to 28 – but I found a small slice of heaven on earth that first ride. Being a part of that kind of speed and group effort ticked a lot of boxes for me – and it’s only gotten better in the last eight years (I had a solo year and change prior).
And I have gotten faster… but it has gotten easier. Ish. Hear me out.
The keys to getting fast were numerous. Proper hydration, proper nutrition (and a lot of it), proper rest (not much) that included mainly active recovery rides… and a whole $#!+-ton of “want to”. Without the “want to” I may as well have bought a beach cruiser.
Most important, I got my cycling legs after a few years, and that’s where the “maintaining” starts.
Cycling legs are acquired, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. Let’s back this bus up just a second, though. First, “cycling legs” are a “thing”, and I’ll get back to that in a minute. Second, the acquisition of cycling legs depends on how hard one is willing to work for them. The typical length of time it takes is three years, though this can shortened or lengthened depending on effort, commitment, and mileage. In the end, cycling legs are the body’s natural reaction to cycling on a regular basis. If there is no “regular basis”, then no cycling legs for you.
Once you’ve been around the block a few hundred times, with the exception of the rare bonk (which still happens, and sometimes even when you’ve done everything right), you can rely on the legs to get you through rides that don’t go quite as expected… and that leads us to the second important factor in maintaining “fast”; the mental end.
I always chuckle when my wife gets the mistaken impression that, in a 20-mph headwind, I’m spinning at 18-mph for 20 miles and she thinks I’m just sitting up there with a smile on my face, cruising down the road without a care in the world. To a certain extent, she isn’t wrong, but for any avid enthusiast, that hurts. The mental end of cycling is knowing down to your baby toes what you can get away with without putting yourself in the pain cave from whence there is no return. What separates the fast from the moderate cyclist is the ability to not think oneself into more pain than what is really there – and the conviction of knowing that even if you’re not feeling too hot for a couple of miles, you will come around if you dial it back just a hair. My wife isn’t much slower than I am but she completely lacks the mental edge I have. If she starts hurting, she immediately wants to dial the pace back. When I start hurting, I start breaking the ride down into chewable segments in my head. “I just have a few miles before we get to this turn and tailwind”. This gets me through the hard times and back to where I’m feeling okay again.
Then there’s the knowledge that everyone else is hurting and the pain of keeping up can’t last forever… I know down to my baby toes, if I’m three bikes back and struggling to hold a wheel in a headwind, the person up front is cooking themselves. They won’t hold that pace for very long or they’ll drop off the back. Without being able to compartmentalize the ride in one’s mind, all you’re left with is how you’re feeling at any given moment, and if you’re there, you’re in pain. We faster types figure out how shut that thinking down. There’s no place for it.
This mental edge is your experience. It’s knowing how to fuel your ride, it’s knowing where to push, where to hide, and just how far you can go before you pop… and it’s knowing down to your baby toes that “how far you can go before you pop” is subjective. You can do better. And it’s knowing that if you’re hurting, others likely are as well. Just stick with it and you’ll come around. Or you’ll blow up spectacularly and fall off the back to spin for a few miles while you recharge. Friends, it happens.
If you really have a desire to be fast, the thing to work on, once you’ve gotten a bike and your cycling legs, is that gray matter betwixt your ears. That’s where the magic happens.