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How to make your bike faster

A complete guide to going faster: How to squeeze every last bit of speed out of you, your bike, your kit and the road…

If you’ve arrived here to find out how to make your bike faster, the short answer is to check your tyre pressure, dab some oil on the chain and ensure its rider has had a good breakfast.

If you want to understand more about the science behind making bicycle and rider as efficient as possible you’ll find out the answers below, along with some easy tips you can try…

How to make your bike faster

When it comes to bike riding, speed is fun. A few miles an hour extra makes a huge difference to a ride. It shows you’re getting fitter, you can travel further, see more in the same time and experience greater exhilaration. In fact, it’s one of the major reasons people train.

You may have got to a good level of fitness already and have hit a plateau, or you could be looking for the next step up prior to a big event, either way, our guide will help you understand some of the areas where you can concentrate your efforts to get the maximum gain when it comes to making bike and rider faster.

If you paid attention during physics lessons at school, you’ll know that friction is the major reason your speed has topped out. On a bike, you’ve got several places where friction is robbing your effort. From drag in your wheel bearings to your inner tubes and tyres flexing, to the displacement of air molecules around your body as you head down the country lanes, friction seems to be everywhere holding you back.

Three things that are slowing you down

In an attempt to keep things straightforward, we’ve broken this down into three main areas, the first is how to buy speed by investing in better products. The second is training for speed – so getting a coach and making your riding more structured – while the third is shaping speed, by which we mean getting your body into a faster position when you’re on the bike.

While an undeniably large proportion of what holds you back when cycling is actually you – we’re thinking in terms of fitness and aerodynamic drag – it’s also true that you still need to propel your bike along the road. So it’s worth taking every step you can to minimise all the frictional losses you need to overcome to get that mass moving.

Plus, if truth be told, it’s a great deal easier to walk into a shop, place a pile of cash on the counter and walk out with the latest aero road frame, a specific helmet or new set of wheels than it is to train yourself fitter. Buying speed doesn’t just make you faster for the next few days or weeks but every time you use that product, and who doesn’t like that? Allied to this is the draw that it’s fun to buy stuff and feel the benefit immediately.

With this in mind, we asked Jason Fowler, Zipp’s Wheel Category Manager, what different areas are worth in terms of drag reduction and the possible speed benefits.

‘That is very difficult to make a statement on,’ he explains. ‘At less than 20mph the bike and rider make up around 80% of the total drag. Of that 80%, frame and wheels are about 10%. The remaining 20% is made up by rolling resistance and drivetrain.’

And Jason is quick to add that these percentages change depending on the conditions. Even so, it gives us an idea of what’s going on.

Read: Which is faster aero vs lightweight wheels

Cut down rider drag

If we’ve done our maths correctly, that means that around 70% of the total drag is caused by the rider, both the position and clothing. We’ll cover the rider’s position later on but that still leaves clothing as an important factor.

If you’ve ever ridden with a flapping jersey, you’ll have felt the resistance it adds. If you’ve seen someone wearing a half-unzipped waterproof coming the other way, you’ll also have spotted how much larger their profile is as it fills with air – they look like the Michelin man.

Both of these scenarios are commonplace and illustrate the need to use close-fitting clothing when out for a ride. At the most fundamental level, presenting the minimum area possible to the wind gives the best results. Not only does that mean not riding with a billowing jersey but moreover it means getting a position you can comfortably ride in that is low resistance too yet not so crunched up that it compromises your ability to work muscles well.

Italian clothing brand Castelli places a lot of emphasis on the importance of a sleek silhouette and therefore keeping the rider’s wind resistance to a minimum, so we caught up with Steve Smith, Castelli’s Brand Manager to find out what easy wins there might be.

‘The easiest gain is still with a good-fitting jersey, especially an aero jersey. A loose-fitting aero jersey doesn’t really help much, while a tight-fitting normal jersey gets you just partway.’

Which is great in the summer but it’s not always warm enough for short sleeves, so what then?

‘Many people overlook cool-weather riding. The old-style jacket was an aerodynamic disaster. A new style product like our Gabba or Sportful’s Fiandre are developed to remain aerodynamic while they protect.’

But how much could you save by switching from regular kit to product that’s specifically designed to be aerodynamic?

‘If a rider with a 300-watt cruising speed were to move from poorly fitting garments to fitted, aero garments, he can realistically expect to save 30 watts, although it’s important to note he will probably choose to still put out his 300 watts and go faster rather than stay at the same speed at a lower effort level.’

We’d certainly agree that 30 watts just for getting the right kit is ‘low hanging fruit’, easily grabbed.

Just how Castelli or any of the other companies who offer aero helmets and clothing make them faster is somewhat of a trade secret. After all, it takes days of wind-tunnel time to establish what works and what doesn’t.

Those in the know say that there are specific areas on a cyclist where getting airflow correct is the key, such as across the top of your head in helmets and your hips, waist and upper arms in jerseys, so these key zones get specific fabrics or design touches to make sure drag is minimised.

Read: Cyclist investigates how much time can aero kit save?

Increase rider power

Titanium road bike group test sprinting

Daft as it may seem, the one thing you can buy that will help you go faster more than any other is a power meter set up to measure your output in watts. It’s an odd one because on it’s own it will make literally no difference but with the right knowledge the fact that it allows you to see your output in real-time means you’ll be able to tune your riding to match your goals.

This brings us neatly to gaining speed through training, where the potential gains are probably the largest of all the areas we’re considering here, and that’s because so many elements go into the mix when your outcome is targeted on speed. Just about everything you do and have ever done in your life can be a factor that will either give greater potential or hold you back.

Of course, the amount of time you have to train and ride is important, but so is the general stress level of your life. And linked to that is the time you have for recovering from your efforts, particularly if you have a young family or a physically demanding day job.

These stresses can play a major role in how much training you are able to sustain without suffering from sickness, exhaustion or simply reaching the end of your tether. Beyond these lifestyle considerations, there are also the hereditary factors that will help shape your performance and ultimately your potential.

But it’s not all glum news and even the highest level of rider still has gains to make in certain areas if they work specifically on them in training. When it comes to most of us – the avid cycling fan who has a day job, a life and probably some family commitments – there are some very worthwhile gains to be made through a little focussing of our efforts.

We spoke to coach Pav Bryan to see if there are any cheeky gains that an average rider could benefit from. ‘If you are time-crunched, simply stop riding easy and start riding harder – not all-out but at a pace where the conversation becomes more difficult,’ Pav suggests. ‘Give each session a goal that will progress you towards your main event.’

Which seems very sensible advice, as we probably all take it a bit too easy from time to time.

So if we want to get serious, what sort of improvements are actually possible? According to Pav, ‘We have seen gains of over 50% sprint power (maximal), 43% FTP (sustained hour pace) and 36% MMP (short-term burst pace). Which are all pretty astounding increases in power.

Not all riders will see this size of improvement, of course, and there are many factors that go into what’s possible, but you can expect increases in sustained pace ranging from 10-30%.

It’s worth pointing out, however, that just because you might be producing 30% more power, that doesn’t equate to 30% more speed – it’s more like a move from a 16mph average to 18mph, which is not quite as impressive-sounding but still a worthwhile improvement.’

Read: The Cyclist guide to the best power meters

While the actual wattage output increase is a huge benefit, any good coach will also look at other non-fitness factors, too, such as tactics, nutrition and riding technique, all of which can have a big influence in how an event goes and whether you can sustain your peak output for the duration. As you can well imagine, correct hydration and fuelling makes a world of difference to being able to sustain a good riding pace.

For the average weekend rider who wants to take on a first sportive there are a few tips that will help you go faster. ‘Focussing on one long ride a week that replicates keys aspects of the sportive,’ is one says Pav, ‘I’d then do three to four other sessions of around an hour.’

All of which would allow different aspects to be worked upon without wearing you out, and should help you make a significant performance gain.

Read: How to create a cycling training plan

Faster riding through bike fitting

While good coaching and the best equipment will certainly make you faster, there are some companies taking things a stage further and looking for performance gains in the area of rider position and efficiency. Back to that 70% again that we mentioned at the beginning. It sounds like an easy target – small changes can potentially make a big difference – but as with so many things in life, it’s not always quite so simple.

Even if you haven’t ever specifically thought about how slippery your position is when on a bike, you’ll have noticed simple things that make you go faster, like moving your hands from holding your shifters to resting in the drops. This change alone makes a radical difference to the size of the frontal area that you present to the wind. Usually, it’s a twofold gain: giving the wind less of an area to hit, as well as making it easier for it to pass around you.

But hang on a minute, if it were that easy, we’d always ride on the drops, wouldn’t we? Well, there’s also rider comfort to consider. Getting a great position tuned for aerodynamics alone is one thing, but getting a position that is both comfortable and, perhaps more importantly, efficient is another, so that’s where a new crop of companies are starting to fill the gap.

Getting a good bike fit has always been a key to long-term enjoyment of riding and that hasn’t changed – although the tools have become more scientific, there is still a certain ‘art’ to getting a fit.

When it comes to taking that fit and making it more aerodynamic, there are a couple of options with companies using both fit and aerodynamics to help you optimise your position. They use a wind-tunnel or a velodrome to create data and both bring some serious improvements.

Simon Smart started Drag2Zero.co.uk about 10 years ago and has become one of the bike industry’s leading authorities on aerodynamics, having helped a number of brands design both hard and software in the wind tunnel. He has also helped any number of time-triallists achieve a position that allows them to go faster, but it’s not only the fastest riders who benefit. ‘At speeds above as little as 12mph (on the flat) a greater proportion of a rider’s efforts (watts) will be absorbed in overcoming aerodynamic drag than anything else.’

Which means that almost any ride and rider will benefit from at least a degree of aerodynamic consideration. ‘Aero-optimised clothing, frames, wheels and position can transform a riders CdA (Coefficient of drag multiplied by Area) from 0.400 to 0.300. This means that a well-optimised sportive rider could be riding at the same given speed with a power-saving of 10 to 15%. That’s going to make a huge difference.’

Read: The Cyclist guide to modern bike fitting

Making the most of what you have

While getting in a wind tunnel might be out of reach for most riders, understanding the importance of aerodynamics when developing a riding position is something any decent fitter should be able to help with.

Another area where a good fitter should be able to boost your speed is through improving efficiency. They can do this by getting the muscles and joints working optimally and so improve the mechanical efficiency of the rider as they transmit force into the drivetrain. It’s more than just pressing harder on the pedals.

An often overlooked and misunderstood area, the gains from optimising technique are no less significant than we’ve talked about elsewhere with improvements of around 10% often achieved by accessing more of the power created and sometimes recruiting other muscles too.

Optimising pedalling efficiency on the bike and then balancing the results against the need to remain as aerodynamic as possible is how most pros will develop their position.

Read: Souplesse the art of perfect pedalling

Adding it all up

As you’ve probably already noticed, the possible benefits vary as no two riders are the same in any of the critical metrics, so quantifying possible gains aren’t straightforward. Of course, that doesn’t stop us asking.

So we put it to Dr Barney Wainwright of Veloptima to find out what gains could be made through his process. ‘A small increase in function usually results in an increase in power of anywhere from 2 or 3% to 10%.’ Yet another worthwhile improvement.

‘This may mean that a cyclist can now get up a hill they couldn’t before, or stay with the faster group they aspire to ride in. Realistic decreases in drag in a road position may increase speed by two to three kmph.’

While we had the doctor’s ear, we also wanted to ask what easy gains he could suggest. ‘Go to an experienced bike fitter with good knowledge and training in cycling function and biomechanics (some are listed at www.ibfi-certification.com). Your bike fitter needs to use measures of force and power to identify your correct saddle position, not just joint angles, otherwise, the process becomes subjective.’

We’ve covered plenty of ground here, looking at the three areas you should concentrate on to get you going faster. While commercial considerations have driven the product side of things and coaches have been chipping away at training for years, these areas are relatively well understood.

When it comes to positional benefits, the gains are still being explored but are no less worthwhile in the quest to make you a faster rider.

Our takeaway is very much that no matter what a manufacturer or expert states, it needs your own input if you want to see the benefits for yourself with faster times or greater distance travelled for the same effort.

Read: How much better are pro cyclists?

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