Riding The Bike Fast
Here’s a short collection of ideas on ‘Riding The Bike Fast’. For my remaining races this year – 70.3 Worlds Chattanooga (September 10) and Ironman Worlds Kona (October 14) I’ll be trying to ride the bike fast. Really fast. These are non-drafting races, so aerodynamics are critical. Everything matters when you are going for top end speeds – equipment, techniques, tactics. Even at moderate speeds these considerations are worthwhile to increase speed or decrease required effort. Here are some of the considerations:
There are a variety of variables that affect how fast you ride a bike. These variables all directly or indirectly affect 3 primary factors – power (how hard you are pushing on the pedals), aerodynamic force (how much air resistance is slowing you down) and gravitational force (how much gravity is trying to keep you at the bottom of a hill). You can’t directly change primary factors (gravitational and aerodynamic laws are, well, laws). The variables, however, are mostly under your own control. They include:
Your mind is a component of fitness. How hard are you willing to push your body? It’s your brain that is in control. Training may be as much about stimulating and strengthening your brain as it is about your body. You build unconscious endurance in your brain and neural pathways, and you build conscious coping/pushing strategies.
This one is exceptionally broad. For our purposes here, let’s just say that fitness is the number of cells in your body, of various types, and the power of those cells to perform their various functions. Training stimulates the creation of additional and stronger cells. Your nervous, respiratory, GI and circulatory system are all involved. Additional and stronger neural pathways, more power and endurance of your diaphragm, faster GI transit time, more red blood cells, greater mitochondrial density… The list of training adaptions is long, and they all contribute to fitness. The greater your fitness, the faster you ride a bike.
Cyclists are exceptionally slight of body. Less body mass, less gravitational force to overcome. Riding up a steep hill, aerodynamic resistance is negligible – you are not going fast enough for the air to create significant drag. The primary force you need to overcome is gravity. Less weight = less gravitational force = ride up hills faster.
Distribution of weight.
Cyclists have huge legs and skinny arms. Big legs can help generate more power, overcoming, to a point, the additional mass necessary to have big legs. Big arms do not help you generate more power on the bike. Big arms are anchors that pull you towards the bottom of hills.
Skinny bike frames, pointy helmets, deep profile wheels. These all reduce aerodynamic resistance and help you ride faster. Stuff like water bottle shape and placement, brake caliper shape and placement, shoe covers - these matter too, but to a lesser degree.
They say skin is slow, fabric (some fabric types, anyway) is fast. Riding a triathlon in nothing but a speedo is questionable style and is unquestionably slower than riding in a knee length and elbow length triathlon kit.
Aerodynamic Body Position.
This is the most important aerodynamic factor. This is not about generating more power. It’s about making your body small and aerodynamic. So it’s more like an equipment consideration than a body/fitness consideration.
Sitting up like you’re riding a beach cruiser is not fast. Putting your hands on the tops (hoods) of your handlebars on a road bike is better. Putting your hands on the bottoms (drops) of your handlebars is better. Getting bent over on a time trial/triathlon bike, chest parallel to the ground, head down, shoulders in – that’s best. Make your frontal area smaller, and you ride faster.
Certain bike components add friction that must be overcome to go faster. These components include the chain, rear derailleur, bottom bracket bearings, wheel bearings, tubes, tires. Of these, the most important is tires. Good tires, of the proper width and pumped to the proper pressure, all decrease rolling resistance.
Techniques, Strategies and Tactics
Pedal all the time.
To achieve the highest average speed (fastest riding time) you should be pedaling all the time. Simple. It’s the ABCs of cycling – Always Be Pedaling.
Pedal harder up hills.
Because of the way aerodynamics works (the power needed to overcome drag is proportional to the cube of speed), increasing your power on uphills has a greater effect on average speed than increasing your power on downhills.
Get most aero when you’re going fast.
The faster you’re going, the more aerodynamics matter. The whole drag is proportional to v3 thing. So focus on being small and pointy when you’re going downhill or into the wind. When going uphill or with the wind, your airspeed is lower and aerodynamics matter less, so this is when you can sit up, stand up, stretch, drink water, eat food.
Remember that your going for fastest average speed.
This is most important at the tops of hills. You just pedaled hard to get up a hill, so now you’re going to rest and coast down.. Right? Nope. You’re going to keep pedaling hard until you’re up and over the hill and going fast down the other side. You want to get up to speed quickly – you can rest a bit once you’re going fast again. This helps you significantly increase your average speed.
Put your head down.
Your neck should be somewhere between neutral and tilted forward. This puts your head in a lower, more aerodynamic position. If you’re touring around, go ahead and crank your neck back to look further up the road. But it’s going to make your neck sore and make you slower.
Pull your shoulders in.
Just like putting your head down, pulling your shoulders in (shrugging) decreases your frontal area. Less frontal area = lower drag coefficient = faster riding. Shrugging your shoulders in is uncomfortable and prone to do more harm than good by jacking up your neck and back. It’s still worth considering when going really fast, such as when riding down hills.
This is huge. When available, get right on somebody’s wheel. The aerodynamic advantage of riding behind somebody makes a hard speed feel moderate, and a moderate speed feel easy. Be careful. If you’re right behind somebody, you can’t see up the road for rocks, glass, potholes, etc. And that person better be riding very steady if you’re going to ride 3 inches from their wheel.
Drafting is illegal in triathlon. Well, it’s illegal to be closer than 10 meters from the cyclist in front of you. You still get some draft at 10 meters. Enough to make it worthwhile in many situations.
There ya be. Ride often, ride safe, ride with a smile, push on the pedals hard, ride fast.