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How to increase your average cycling speed

Cyclist magazine
13 Dec 2020

Get fast or waste time and money trying. Strategies and upgrades for going quicker on your bike

One of the biggest goals of many cyclists is to ride their bike faster. The reason could be to set a new PB on their favourite Strava segment or simply just beat their mates in a street sign sprint. It's one thing setting as a resolution but it's another thing doing it.

So how do you get fast? Despite the cycling industry being geared towards selling you stuff catering to this desire, there are only a few upgrades that will guarantee to make you go quicker.

Of these the most significant isn’t necessarily the most obvious. Rounded up here are a few pieces of kit that’ll actually boost your speed alongside some well-proven strategies to help make the most of the ability you have.

Things you can buy to make you go faster on a bike

Cycling speedsuits and skinsuits

Your body takes up a lot more space than your bike, meaning around four-fifths of aerodynamic drag is created by the rider.

Therefore, it makes sense to start here before tinkering elsewhere. The single most cost-efficient speed-boosting purchase you can make is a skinsuit, so if you really care about going fast you’ll need to overcome any fashion squeamishness.

Cutting down the number of seams, ripples and zips, skinsuits smooth airflow over the rider and have been consistently shown to yield savings of between 20-30 seconds over the course of an hour riding at race pace.

Now de rigueur at professional events, they start from as little as £80, making them exceedingly good value. 

Bit of a statement of intent, most brands now also produce more relaxed options known as speedsuits. These are easier to get in and out of and feature pockets, all of which make them more convenient to use while more appearing ‘normal’.

Editor's pick - Castelli Sanremo 4.0 Speed Suit

Developed alongside the professional peloton and first released in 2011, the Castelli Sanremo speed suit has been an immensely popular choice for amateurs looking for those 'marginal gains'.

The bibshorts mirror Castelli's excellent Free Aero 4 bibshorts and we particularly like the inclusion of two rear pockets for storage.

Buy now from Evans Cycles for £148

Deep section aero wheels

The heavily marketed upgrade of choice, deep-section aero wheels will make a significant difference, just probably not as much as a skinsuit, while costing much more.

Unless your bike is stupidly heavy, aerodynamics beat weight so look for width and depth over a minimum number of grams.

A depth of around 60mm is easy enough to handle in most conditions, and won’t add so much mass as to make them inefficient on hilly courses.

Carbon fairings are good, but don’t worry if the rim track is aluminium. Just make sure to stock up on long-valve inner tubes.

See related Aero rims vs lightweight rims

Editor's pick - Hunt 48 Limitless aero disc wheelset

We are big fans of what Hunt is doing in the wheelset market at the moment. Wide internal rims, tubeless-ready, affordable prices.

The best pick for an aero upgrade are these 50mm Limitless disc wheels which the brand claims to be the fastest disc-brake wheels in the world. Fancy! 

Buy now from Hunt for £1,289 

Decent tyres and latex inner tubes

Besides the air, another factor limiting speed is rolling resistance. Primarily taking place where the tyre meets the tarmac, this is caused in two ways.

First, energy is lost as the tyre is forced to deform as it contacts the road. A more supple tyre requires less effort to flex and so loses less energy.

The second effect is caused by the tyre bumping across the surface of the road and bouncing the rider around. Again a supple tyre dampens better.

In keeping with both principles, current thinking says wider tyres at lower pressures will roll faster. However whatever setup you use the tubes inside also affect the system’s efficiency.

Lighter and far more flexible, swapping standard butyl rubber tubes for latex will reduce resistance and weight at a cost of about £10 per wheel.

How many watts do latex tubes save? Probably no more than 4-5 between both wheels depending on your weight and conditions - still in the quest for speed that’s excellent value.

Editor's pick - Continental GP5000 tubeless tyres

The much-anticipated update to the much-trusted GP4000 was released by Continental just over a year ago and we are very much loving the GP5000s.

Firstly, they have all the best bits of their predecessors - hearty puncture protection, low rolling resistance and increased comfort. Secondly, they marked Continental's first venture into the tubeless road market.

Buy now from Wiggle for £33.99

A professional bike fit

A well-fitted bike will help get the maximum mechanical efficiency out of your body. After all an alloy crank correctly matched to your physique is going to be faster than a fancy carbon one in the wrong size. It’ll improve comfort too, and if you want, also boost aerodynamic efficiency.

Potentially trumping any other upgrade, lower and narrower riding positions can make a big difference, but need to be carefully researched and are often uncomfortable to maintain.

Requiring a balance between cutting drag yet maintaining power they’re best achieved with the help of an experienced bike fitter.

See related Cyclist guide to bike fitting

Aero helmets

Until recently most helmets were designed purely with ventilation in mind. This meant their multiple vents would snag the air as it passed over the rider’s head.

This has all changed, with makers now giving aerodynamics greater attention. Although the difference is small, if you’re upgrading your helmet choosing one that’s fairly aero will likely be good for a couple of watts saved, and as aero lids are now typically well ventilated there’s little downside.

See related Buyer's guide: best aero helmets

Editor's pick - Lazer Bullet

A versatile helmet for all occasions. There's a detachable visor for when you are taking on the Club 10. Then there's the airslide that allows you to increase ventilation when climbing. 

It also uses Lazer's LifeBeam technology that can measure your heart rate from your head!

Buy the Lazer Bullet from Halfords for £219

Other bits and bobs

Unless it’s an absolute lump, saving weight is only of significant benefit on prolonged climbs. Also once the bike is at a decent level you’re better losing excess weight off your body anyway.

There are tons of other upgrades that could make you a little bit faster. Shoe covers, ceramic bearings, special chain lubes, flat-top handlebars.

However, the return on your investment is small, so don’t get too hung up on them - just ride your bike more, and enjoy it!

Things you can do to go faster on a bike

Drafting

You need to stop thinking of the air as ethereal and start thinking of it as a thick soup. While on a calm day its presence barely registers as you roll along, increase speed and its resistance increases exponentially.

Tucking in behind a dragster on the Bonneville salt flats in 1995 Fred Rompelberg was able to clock a speed of 269kmh by riding in the void it created. That speed has since been beaten by Denise Mueller-Korenek, who clocked 294.5kmh in September 2018.

The broad shoulders of the rider if front might not allow you to go quite as fast, but their effect shouldn’t be discounted. How much energy can you save by drafting? Maybe around 10% of the energy you’d expend riding out front.

In a race, you can instantly feel and hear the difference when you hang yourself out to dry. Pretend you’re a computer game character and every time you’re in the wind your life bar diminishes.

Keep it full all race and you can release that saved energy when you need it. Practise tucking in close to get maximum benefit.

Steady effort

Your body is like an engine with a certain amount of fuel in the tank. If you start revving away you’re going to burn fuel fast, you’ll be inefficient, and worse you could run out early.

In a race or important ride avoid making unnecessary efforts. If you have the choice resist the temptation to stomp every hill or sprint.

Although it makes for boring racing every pro now rides with an eye on their power output. Rather than chase down breaks, the big teams have confidence that steadily crushing the race is the most efficient strategy.

Repeatedly going above the ideal effort level in your event will drain your reserves and lead to a slower overall time. Don’t get carried away.

Perceived effort can work, but a heart rate monitor or a power meter are ideal for keeping yourself in line.

Negative splits

All other factors being equal, in a time-trial or solo event it’s normally better to ride the second half quicker than the first.

The temptation is always to go off fast as any steady effort feels easier in the beginning. Set a target time for the event, divide it in half and don’t let yourself reach the midpoint before then, even if it means slowing down.

The most efficient place to expend any extra energy is towards the end. Just don’t leave it too late. A rider that finishes strong by definition has something left to give.

A point in the second half, but a little before the end, is the most efficient place to really get your head down. Obviously, mountains, headwinds and other riders can throw a spanner in the works, but the principle remains sound, just be prepared to adapt.

Fast and dirty training

If you want to get fast you need to invest energy, but not necessarily time. Assuming a moderate level of fitness you’re better doing short and sharp efforts than racking up potentially pointless base miles.

High-intensity interval sessions or threshold efforts, where you hold the maximum pace you can sustain for an hour, have a disproportionate effect of boosting performance compared to longer rides.

However, these sessions need to be approached fully rested and be completed without shirking. Get yourself a turbo trainer and do a short but horrible session mid-week and you’ll be recovered to ride or race by the weekend.

While this might lead to slightly unbalanced fitness you’ll be more likely to stick to the programme and get results than with a more time-intensive model.

Marginal gains

Also known as getting better at all the little things. As you ride more you’ll dial down your own approach. Keep a spreadsheet and log all the things you want to do better next time.

Selected entries could include: ‘don’t turn up hungover’, ‘bring warm clothes for after’, ‘arrive in plenty of time’, ‘it’s better to be too warm than too cold’, ‘clean bikes are good for morale’, ‘eat properly’, ‘stretch your back before racing’, ‘glue your glasses in place’, and, ‘flapjacks beat energy bars’.

Having everything as you like it and feeling confident in your methods will give you a big mental boost too.

• For information on how the Wattbike Atom can help you achieve your training goals, visit wattbike.com/gb

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