With the summer sun starting to shine and sportives and cycling events appearing in our calendars, many riders are starting to look for ways to up their speed on the bike.
The obvious way to get faster, for most of us, is to follow the advice of cycling great Eddy Merckx “Ride as much or as little or as long or as short as you feel, but ride" – ideally erring on the side of ‘as much’ and ‘as long’.
Once you’ve reached a stage where just riding isn’t enough, you might start adding in intervals to up your power and speed, or gym work to give each pedal stroke a stronger base. As well as focusing on improving strength, you might also think about watching what you eat, to give you that edge on the power to weight scale.
Riding more, working on intervals and strength, and losing weight are all components of fitness. They work, though generally not when practiced all at once. However, there are a few other little ways you can make gains…
Most people can get through a ninety minute ride without eating, the body will ride off fats and stored carbohydrates and you shouldn’t be in danger of feeling the bonk. However, if you’re aiming to ride fast then you’ll be exercising at a higher intensity, which means you’ll be relying on carbohydrates more than stored fat. If the carb stores start to run low, you’ll feel fatigue. Therefore, it’s a very good idea to keep that carbohydrate level topped up with regular nibbles here and there.
The most efficient way to deliver regular energy to your muscles is via an energy drink. Drinks are more quickly absorbed than bars or gels, and you can keep taking little sips, safe in the knowledge you won’t be depleting the energy stores and that you’re on top of your hydration. Over a longer ride you might want to add in gels or natural foods to give you something solid to munch on too.
Learn to corner faster
If you're riding over a short circuit, and aiming to do it faster, then concentrating on your cornering technique is crucial. If you slow down a lot before every corner, and then have to work harder to power out of it again, you’ll be dropping mph at every turn.
Ideally, you want to gradually slow on the approach, select a good gear that will help you get up to speed after the bend, and ride a smooth line around it before gathering speed again on exit.
There are some great exercises and drills that can help you with this, check out this post for more advice and suggestions.
Work on descents
Sure, working on strength and weight management will help you to get up the climbs – but don’t forget about the gains that can be found on the way down! Races have been won by confident descending and brilliant technique as well as via speedy climbing.
We’re not going to ask you to hover over the top tube or assume the time trial position with your arms resting on the handlebars (can do if you like but please be careful!). However, getting low over the bike in the drops, holding your weight over the back wheel to steady yourself, tucking your elbows and letting your movements over the saddle ease you in and out of corners will all help. Fast descending has a lot to do with confidence – check out this guide for some more advice.
Yes, a lot of the battle of climbing comes down to fitness, but not all. When we spoke to cycling coach Jim Styrin, he told us he saw riders losing precious speed all to often when they didn’t need to.
The British Cycling Level 2 coach told us: “A lot of sportive riders could shave off around 30 minutes from a 50 mile ride just from riding more efficiently. Often you’ll see riders sit up at the start of a hill – they should use the speed they’re carrying from a descent or a flat section to help them on the gradient."
Another important part of efficient climbing is getting your gear selection right – changing into the small ring before you start to put pressure on the pedals, and using the rear cassette to find a resistance level that powers you up the hill without fatiguing your legs. Fast cadence might feel hard at first, but it will leave your muscles fresher in the long run – but finding the ideal cadence for you takes practice.
Finally, you need to be on top of what’s going on in your head, and your lungs. It’s common for riders to panic and start breathing hard on a hill – but expert Josie Perry told us recently: “Particularly if you are newer to cycling, hills can seem really daunting and so our brain is already telling us: ‘Oh no. It’s a hill. I can’t do this. I’ll be really slow. I’ll get dropped.’ So your brain is already expecting those signals and you add to that short sharp breathing and you are gasping for air you are simply confirming to yourself that you can’t perform well…So teaching our body to react well to situations like a climb coming up can be really beneficial."
She gave us lots of helpful tips on mental training and how to control breathing when climbing here.
If you’re riding in a group, and you all have a shared goal of completing your ride at a speedy pace, then you need to help each other. Drafting – riding in the slipstream of another rider – saves huge amounts of energy. A group working effectively will have one or two riders sitting at the front of a line of others, with the front rider(s) constantly rotating. This means those on the front work harder, and those behind recover and prepare themselves for their next rotation.
The golden rules when working in a bunch are not to overlap wheels, to point out hazards to those behind who won’t be able to see them (pot holes, parked cars…) and to watch the body movements of the rider in front to anticipate changes in pace.
Effective and harmonious group riding does take a little practice, but it’s magic when it works – check out this post for the basics. It's best to learn in a group of experienced riders, so check out your local cycling club as a first port of call.
The bike and kit
No, it’s not all about the bike – but a good bike in good condition undoubtedly makes a difference. There are a few ways to make a bike faster: make it lighter, make it more aero, and make it more efficient.
You can drop the weight of your bike by making little changes – lighter saddle, removing mudguards, lightweight skewers – the list is endless. However, the most dramatic gains can be had in upgrading your wheelset. The wheels represent a fairly large percentage of the overall weight of a bike, and since they’re a constantly rotating mass, shedding some excess grams will be a difference you feel.
To make a bike more aero, you could upgrade to aero drop handlebars, change the seat post – all for marginal gains. The simple and noticeably effective addition is a pair of clip on aero bars. However, take care when setting these up – for them to be effective you’ll want to make sure you're putting your body in the right position. To replicate that of a time trial bike, this would usually mean slamming the stem down and the saddle forwards, but this will vary by individual.
Finally – watts are wasted via a dirty transmission. Clean your bike, make sure the gears work, and that the brakes are crisp – knowledge that you can stop when you need to adds up to confidence to go faster.
When it comes to ‘you’ – swap flappy clothing for close fit kit and don’t forget your wind resistance beating overshoes. If you’re getting serious enough about speed to forgo comfort, think about looking our for an aero helmet.
Finally – don’t forget this phrase: ‘rest, to go faster’. If you want to improve, you do need to allow your body to recover between rides, so make sure you put your feet up and give yourself half a chance of riding on good legs once in a while!
You might also like...