Free Speed

Put your wallet away, this one’s on us… a 10-step guide to becoming a faster rider – for free

Super-lightweight and aerodynamic kit may help you buy speed, but it’s not just your bike that will get lighter – your wallet will slim down too. Fortunately, in these lean times, we’ve found there are lots of way to go fast for free.

Sort your clothing

It’s no good having an aerodynamic steed if your waterproof is billowing about and acting like a parachute. Equally, your jersey could be slowing you down. Kraig Willet is an expert in aerodynamics who has worked with UCI pro tour riders. “A jersey doesn’t need to be oversized or look like a burlap sack to set the stage for an aerodynamic train wreck,” he says. “Wind tunnel research has put the time loss of having an unzipped jersey at almost a minute over 40K.

Don’t slow down!

Braking before you turn in will let you carry the most speed through a corner, with your weight on the outside pedal for clearance and weight distribution. Picking the right line will also mean you can carry more speed. Choose the right gear before the corner so that on the exit you can power away.

Meanwhile, it’s pointless being a great climber if you can’t get down the other side quickly. Practise your descending so that you become smooth, fast, relaxed and safe. If you’re doing hill reps, use a twisty climb and practise your cornering and descending on the way down. Both mountain biking and cyclocross are great ways to improve bike handing without the worry of cars. Nick Craig, multiple mountain bike and cyclocross national champion, says: “I learned how to properly descend while riding in Spain. You can be descending for 20K or more and if you don’t get it right, you’ll lose time by the bucket load. Whether on or off-road, I think about how I can carry as much speed out of the corner as possible and work back from there. Read the road, think about your line and use as much of it as you legally, and safely, can.

Clean your bike

Muck adds unnecessary weight and can easily negate the grams saved by lightweight kit. Also, pay particular attention to your chain, since energy lost as sound or friction is wasted power

Mind your posture

By keeping your upper body still and working on keeping your pedalling stroke efficient, you’ll not only save energy but also create less drag. “Use a full length mirror watch how your body moves as you pedal on a turbo trainer in front of it,” says Willet. “Also watch how your knees track throughout the entire pedal stroke. Flared out knees can lead to higher drag and a slower top-end speed, losing up to 90 seconds over 40K.”


Being dehydrated can severely compromise your performance. Even on cooler days, it’s vital to combat fluid losses through breathing, sweating and urination. Drink one or two cups of water before exercise and then sip throughout. Depending on conditions, you should aim to take in between 500ml to 1,000ml per hour. Although this might seem like a lot, sweating alone can account for it. Fluid loss of only two to three per cent (1.5kg to 2kg in a 70kg rider) will result in performance dropping by three to seven per cent.

Eat fewer pies

Shaving a few hundred grams off your bike weight is pretty futile if you’re holding a few thousand around your waist. This particularly applies on the hills. Coach Chris Carmichael explains using one of his test climbs as an example: “The key is raising your power-to-weight ratio. Cheyenne Canyon averages an eight per cent gradient for 5K. If a 75kg rider with a max sustainable power output of 250 watts loses 2.5kg, that would cut 38 seconds off his or her time. Improving power by 20 watts without weight loss cuts 85 seconds. But if the rider loses 2.5kg and increases power by 20 watts, the gain jumps to two minutes and three seconds.”

Not only will extra bulk slow you down on climbs, but you’ll be having to punch a bigger hole in the air. “It should come as no surprise that as a rider loses fat, their frontal area decreases and their drag is reduced,” says Willet. “Drop by 3kg and you might gain more speed than you would by upgrading to an aero helmet, which can equate to a minute over 40K.”

Learn to slipstream

The energy savings of learning to ride properly in a group are massive. Research by Dr James Hagberg at the University of Florida has shown that a cyclist can use 30 to 40 per cent less energy while drafting than those leading the pace line or pack. To get the most from drafting, you must learn to ride comfortably within six to 10 inches of the wheel in front of you. Practise with riders that you know and trust.

Use your drops

We have drop handlebars because they enable us to go faster, so you should be using them on long, flat roads, when you’re sitting at the front of a pace line and on long descents or riding into stiff headwinds. Wind tunnel testing has shown that a 70kg cyclist putting down 200 watts of power would be travelling at 32.4kph on the brake hoods, but 34.4kph on the drops. Time spent on the drops is often limited by lower back or hamstring flexibility so counter this with stretching or yoga.

Right tyre pressure

An under-inflated tyre increases rolling resistance, is more prone to pinch flats and handles badly. An over-inflated tyre gives a harsh ride and less traction. Remember, your front tyre needs roughly 10 per cent less pressure than the rear. Most road tryes typically require 80-130psi. To find your optimum pressure, start in the middle then factor in your body weight. The more you weigh, the higher the pressure needs to be. For example, if a 75kg rider uses 100psi on his road bike, a 90kg rider should run around 120psi, and a 60kg rider could get away with 80psi.

Breathe better

Most cyclists overuse their rib muscles for inhaling and exhaling. Your abs can do the work more efficiently, extending endurance by using less energy. Also, open up your riding position. Hunched shoulders reduce lung capacity, so your handlebar width should at least equal that of your shoulders.

Finally, flush carbon dioxide from your blood before sprints and hard climbs. How? Just take 15 deep breaths prior to the effort.

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