How do I get faster on the bike? Part 1: Beginner tips

One Sunday morning, I had arranged to meet my colleague Jayson at the SM Mall of Asia area, that urban mecca of cycling along Manila Bay. It had been a while since he last pedaled his hardtail mountain bike, and was keen on putting in some kilometers in his quads and hip flexors.

Cruising along Seaside Boulevard

He wasn’t that familiar with riding on the road; he preferred to ride trails and trail parks. The initial plan was to visit the makeshift trail park in the area; unfortunately it had already closed down. Instead we spent the morning doing laps of Seaside Boulevard.

Eventually we began to talk about his aim of steadily increasing his performance on the bike. I offered a few pointers, primarily from a road cycling point of view, and I decided I should share them here.

LEARN HOW TO SPIN THOSE CRANKS

Most beginner cyclists make the mistake of pushing too hard of a gear and grunting away slowly, thinking that this will build up their leg muscles faster, or that this will maximize effort. In reality, that will do nothing but tire you out early, and discourage you from cycling for long periods at a time.

Mashing pedals out of the saddle? This is more the exception than the norm, reserved for short bursts. Better to sit down and spin.

Instead, I suggest starting from the easiest gear you can use, then pedaling to a sustainable effort. The easiest gear will usually end up with you spinning the cranks too fast, so shift one cog harder. Then repeat until you find a comfortable balance between the tension in your muscles and pedaling speed. This will naturally help you find your natural pedaling cadence. It’s self-selected, but it’s also usually within the range of 70 to 90 revolutions per minute (RPM).

At your natural pedaling cadence, you are as efficient as you’re going to get. You will be able to keep turning the cranks in comfort over extended periods of time – indeed, this is a large part of how I survived my first randonnee. Armed with this knowledge, you can progress to the next step.

LEARN TO USE YOUR GEARS SMARTLY

So, you’ve found your natural pedaling cadence by following the instructions above. On the flats, one good way of gaining speed is basically a matter of maintaining that same pedaling cadence, while gradually increasing the load your muscles have to pedal.

You do this by making use of your gears again.

The teeth on a cassette’s cogs, and the gaps between them, are an indicator of how hard or how easy it will be to pedal. For this Shimano Tiagra CS-4600 unit, the cog teeth are 12-13-14-15-17-19-21-24-30.

On the next harder cog, there will be a tendency for your cadence to drop slightly, because your leg muscles now have to push a little more weight on the pedals. One way of putting this is there will be a “jump” in effort as you shift between cogs. Aim to reattain your pedaling cadence with each shift to a harder gear.

Going the other way, as you shift towards easier gears, the logic remains the same. This is mainly applicable when the road becomes inclined and more vertical. When shifting to easier gears, aim to keep your cadence.

That’s the whole point of why modern bike drivetrains have so many gears. Human legs don’t create a lot of torque and are most efficient at a certain range of cadence, so it’s up to the gearing to either multiply torque for climbing, or to multiply cadence into higher road speeds.

GET USED TO FRONT SHIFTING

Many people are either mystified by front shifting, or just don’t bother with it at all. Take the time to learn it, because it widens your speed range.

The main thing to remember is to maintain the straightness of a chain as it goes between the front chainrings and rear cogs. As much as possible, you want to avoid cross-chaining, which is when you force the chain into extreme diagonal angles, such as pairing smallest cog with smallest chainring, and biggest cog with biggest chainring. Pedaling your bike in a cross-chained state puts huge stress on your drivetrain and accelerates its wear.

Cross-chain situation: Biggest cog, big chainring

Cross-chain situation: Smallest cog, small chainring

On a typical road bike with two chainrings, I use the small chainring for spinning the cranks in an easy gear – usually one of the larger cogs. The small chainring is also used for climbing hills. When you’re going fast enough to make use of the smaller cogs on the cassette, that’s when you should shift to the large chainring.

A shift between chainrings usually results in a far larger change in cadence compared to shifting between individual cogs at the back. One tip to maintain comfortable cadence is to perform front shifts with corresponding rear shifts. If I were to shift to the big ring, I usually also shift two cogs easier at the same time. Conversely, shifting to the small ring, I shift two cogs harder. This minimizes the shock of the shift to your legs.

ON THE ROAD, STOP COASTING OR FREEWHEELING

The reason why folding bikes and other small-wheeled bikes are so effective as training tools, in my opinion, is their small wheels and their higher rolling resistance. What that means is, with a small-wheeled bike, more of the total amount of rubber material in a tire gets deformed on the contact patch than on a larger-wheeled bike, and more energy is lost there as rolling resistance. This is why a folding bike with small 406 mm wheels loses speed much faster when coasting after a 42-km/h sprint, compared to a road bike with 622 mm wheels.

Seeking small-wheeled speed? Spin those cranks.

In order to keep a high average speed (around 21 km/h+) on a small-wheeled bike, and avoid rolling resistance eating away at your momentum, you will need to keep spinning the cranks. Due to rolling resistance and the greater amount of drag from an upright riding position, any time spent coasting or freewheeling is effectively deceleration without braking, so unless you’re going downhill or entering a turn, don’t stop pedaling!

The active avoidance of coasting will also force you to adopt a smooth, high-cadence pedaling style naturally. Road cyclists call it souplesse.

Once you transition over to a bike with larger wheels, this souplesse training will improve your endurance, acceleration, and speed control.

RIDE MORE

Of course, none of this is going to make much sense unless you apply it as often as you can. With more saddle time, you will become more familiar with your body, your cycling biomechanics, and your equipment. The more in-tune you are with all three, the better equipped you will become to unleash more speed as a cyclist.

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I intend to follow this up with tips for more advanced riders. Let me know what you think. Did these tips help? Leave a comment and let me know what else I should be writing about.

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