High speed warning: First of all, let me be very clear; purposely riding your bike above, say 10-mph, is inherently dangerous. Doing so above 20 is, as one would guess, more dangerous. Ditto again, 30-mph. When you get to 40-mph, most normal people freak out because 40 is really fast – especially on 23 or 25-mm tires. At 45, you’re geared out on most bikes. Oh, and if some animal runs out in front of you, you hit a sharp rock in the road, or you get speed wobbles and don’t know what to do, you could literally crash and die (long story short, you brace the top tube with both legs whilst coasting – one leg can work, but I find both are more effective). If anything happens at 50, your next of kin will be looking after the rest of your affairs. I hope your insurance is paid up. And that’s the best-case. Worst, you’re wearing a diaper for the rest of your life… and you switch from two wheels, one wheel in front of the other, to four.
Well, if you’ve seen the movie Ford vs. Ferrari, in the scene where Ken Miles explains going fast in a car around corners to his son, it’s a lot like that. You don’t go all tunnel vision, your vision opens and you see everything. And it is fun. Though common sense does add up to “that’s a lot of risk for a little fun”. Sitting in a chair, 50 or 60-mph on a pedal bike seems frightening. It does to me and I’ve been over 40 too many times to count, and 50 more than a handful of times. It never gets old.
Let’s get into the technical aspects. First, I’ve got two bikes I trust with that kind of speed, both with 50/34 cranksets. I’ve got a standard 11/28 cassette on the climbing bike and 11/25 on the racer. This means my top speed whilst pedaling is 45-mph. If I’m going to crack 50, I need a hill. I prefer something fairly straight so I can sit up and grab a handful of breaks long before they’re needed should conditions not be perfect as I’m going down the hill. Winding descents at breakneck speeds are for the pros, in my opinion. Winding descents are great fun but I don’t want to find out the hard way I’ve misjudged a corner at speed. That would be unfortunate and costly. Then there’s one final piece to this puzzle: my bikes are meticulously cared for. I spend an abundant amount of time making sure my bikes are right. Mechanical deterioration can cause a lot of havoc at high speeds. Finally, for the climber, I’ve changed a bunch of things on that bike so I tested it out at increasing speeds over a two-day period before really giving it everything I had. I don’t know how a new part will change the bike’s handling, so better to find out the easy way that everything works as it should. If you’ve ever seen a stuntman perform, there’s an inordinate amount of prior planning that goes into a stunt. I figure I’m worth that, too.
With all of that out of the way, it’s time to hit it. I start at the top of the hill, building speed. I don’t want to hammer too hard, too early and run out of gas before the last hundred yards. On the other hand, it’s the first few hundred yards that set up the last stretch when I’ve hit “escape velocity”, the speed at which you cannot pedal to make the bike go faster (again, 45-mph with a 50/11 combo front to back). I like to descend in the drops and if I’m planning on greater than 45-mph, I won’t do the “hover above the top tube”, so-called supertuck… I’m not paid to do crazy things on a bike, so I like to give myself the best chance of smiling about the memory of breaking 50. The supertuck, contrary to preposterous notion that the supertuck may not be so super, is greatly, bigly, fantastically faster. I’ve used it a lot and I’m typically coasting next to people pedaling their asses off in the normal position – hands in the drops, butt on the saddle. Hugely faster, and you don’t need a wind tunnel to test it. Find a hill and test it with a speedometer. On the other hand, carbon fiber top tubes aren’t meant for sitting on.
I let the hill dictate how I’ll build speed. If it’s steep at the start, I’ll be hammering a big gear. If it’s shallow at the beginning, I’ll build speed slowly… shifting through the gears as my speed ratchets up and I approach escape velocity. Hands on the hoods, fingers stretched out for the brake levers, I get as low as I can and hammer the pedals. With inadequate glasses, your eyes will water as you pass 35-40-mph. At escape velocity, the magic happens. It’s time to just settle in and coast and let the world rush by. The wind noise drowns out the pounding of my heart, but it’s not loud enough to keep the smile from stretching across my face. I can see little rocks in the road that I don’t want to hit, which is always surprising at that speed. It’s small moves, just paying attention to the line I want rather than concentrating on where I don’t want to be (you concentrate on the line you want rather than the one you don’t… do this backwards and you’ll ride directly for the one you don’t – it’s odd and cool how this works at the same time). I lean into the corner at the bottom of the hill and let the bike work it’s way around the corner. At top speed, I don’t bother looking at my computer. Better to keep my eyes up on the road (better for enjoyment purposes as well).
As I bottom out and start back up the next hill, I can feel my heart pounding again… and my teeth can’t be contained by my lips anymore. The smile is way too big. Halfway up the hill and my cassette, it’s down into the little ring again and out of the saddle to climb my way up to the next try.
Sitting at my desk, it’s easy to wonder why I’m so nuts about going fast on my race bikes while I’m talking about it with my boss. When I’m on the way down the hill, I know exactly why I do it. I’ve only felt out of control above 40-mph one time. I got the speed wobbles on my Trek because the headset bearings were rusted and needed replacing. It was scary as hell, but I stopped them by clamping my legs to the top tube. Once replacing that headset, I’ve found a surprising amount of control in going fast… and thankfully, nothing’s ever sauntered out into the road while I’m bombing down a big descent.
I like to go fast because fast is fun. And I’m a little bit nutty. My top speed? On my Venge. 56.8-mph. What is the one word? Awesome.
Just remember, what goes down…