Cycling Speed

I have multiple cycling speeds that I can’t rank ‘better’ and ‘worse’. 10 mph enables me to ride with kids and potter about town. 15 mph feels comfortable for longer rides out in the countryside. 20 mph I’m either going downhill or training. And then there’s 25 mph.

How fast?

25 mph is the speed of performance cycling. Road races typically average around this speed, and time trialling at 25 mph makes you half-decent – that’s something I set out to do this year, to ride 25 miles in under the hour, and 10 miles in under 24 minutes. The other night presented probably this season’s best chance of a sub-24 minute 10 mile ride; a warm, dry and calm evening – perfect conditions, on one of the fastest courses in the country, up and down the A590 near Levens in the south Lakes. My mate Jon also rode, similarly intent on breaking the 24 minute barrier. We make good training partners because we’re about the same level, which creates healthy competition between us and means we push each other to go faster.

Warming up

Time trialling emerged as a clandestine activity at the end of the nineteenth century in response to a ban on road-based bunch-racing. Darkly-dressed riders set off at regular intervals around dawn, to ‘test’ themselves over a secret course. Nowadays it’s almost the opposite – signs are erected around and along the course warning motorists an event is taking place, with riders encouraged to make themselves conspicuous through fitting a powerful rear light to their machine.

It might seem one of cycling’s conservative enclaves – most riders come by car (as a teenager my mates and I would cycle long distances to race, but these days Jon and I are unusual in cycling so far as twenty miles to Levens, and back, to take part) to pedal fast through intensely motorised space, using specific and costly bikes and equipment to enhance performance. Yet there’s politics amidst this personalised search for cycling speed.

Like the more overtly political Critical Mass, road time trialling claims increasingly motorised space for cycling, but instead of collectively claiming urban road space it (alone, I think) maintains cycling’s precarious presence (at one minute intervals) on big, busy and fast roads through the countryside. Only such fast cycling as this has hope of survival here; almost as if technological progress has enabled time trial speeds to keep up with broader accelerations in societal speed.

Perhaps less like Critical Mass, time trialling doesn’t seek to subvert the logic of these speeding corridors of automobility – the draughts produced by big vehicles passing close by help you ride faster! – so much as break the near monopoly which motorised movement imposes on them, by insisting cycling (and play, actually) is possible even here. If that seems a dangerous game, think how cycling’s almost lost its right to these roads – roads hugely important to cycling futures – and how without time trialling they’d become motorways in all but name. (What we really need on roads such as these is high-quality dedicated space for cycling, of whatever speed, along either side.)

Warming up at Levens

I set off one minute after Jon, by which time he’s disappeared into the distance. With five straight miles until the big Meathop roundabout, I concentrate on sustaining maximum power whilst keeping my cadence smooth (the graceful blend of immense effort and relaxed poise, neither of which I have, is what makes a great time triallist.) I know immediately I’m going fast, but more surprisingly, it seems a speed I can sustain.

Riding hard along a road which seems made for speeding cars, trucks, and vans with trailers is a strange experience. I have an abstract awareness of my flimsy and fragile exposure to other vehicles’ bulk and speed, yet my physical effort renders me almost oblivious to the specifics of their presence, unless they get uncomfortably close, in which case I use their proximity to boost my speed, accelerating as they pass; a rare bonus from less courteous driving.

Perched on the front of my saddle, tucked aerodynamically in, I gobble up the road. (I fit aero bars to my road bike ahead of a time trial, enabling a more ‘tucked’, streamlined position.) My fear as I approach the roundabout to return the other way is I’ve had a tail wind out and will hit a head wind back, but the second leg feels harder only because of the effort I’ve so far made. Although I refuse to believe it until my ride is over, it seems increasingly likely I’ll beat my target by a good margin.

Heading home

Jon does too, and we ride home happy, both knowing we’ve ridden 10 miles faster than we’ve ever done before. From a serious cycling perspective our times remain unimpressive (we finish 22nd and 23rd of 44 finishers), but they’ll do for us for now.

(Yes, Jon’s helmet is on backwards; it’s just the kind of thing he does, riding home from a time trial – during which he wears it the right way round.)

Heading home 2

At a personal or cultural level there’s nothing wrong with the search for speed; it’s part of a rich and varied cycling life. But I worry that, although cycling has variable speeds, it seems more generally to be speeding up, just when we need it to be slowing down. Cycling promotion seems often to want to speed cycling up, to make it better fit a fast society; the quicker we can make cycling, the more ‘competitive’ it becomes: inter-modal competitions regularly pit the bicycle against the car to prove cycling’s superiority through urban space; Copenhagen’s ‘Green Wave’ speeds cycling up by giving it priority through junctions; and high-profile British success in cycle sport continues cycling’s acceleration, displaying cycling as something best done fast, not slow. Speed becomes everything.

But making cycling fast makes it less democratic. Cycling is most popular in places where it’s slow, because slow cycling requires less effort. And isn’t life already too fast, and cycling better used to slow it down? A slower life is fairer, greener, and probably more enjoyable. There’s no single cycling speed; all speeds matter if cycling is to play the fullest role in society. But for most people most of the time cycling is best done slowly, and unless we create places where people can ride slowly the British cycling experience will continue to resemble a race amidst speeding traffic – an environment where a few might test themselves but most simply dare not pedal.

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4 Responses to “Cycling Speed”

  1. jonbarry145 Says:

    First, as Dave’s co-“speedster”, I should add that Dave beat me by 14 seconds, though I should hopefully sort him out when i get my helmet the right way round.

    And,secondly, I don’t believe that cycling should always be slow. If cycling is about your way of transporting yourself around, then it should sometimes be fast (if you’re late for your meeting, if you’re desperate for your first tea cake of the day, if you want some proper exercise) and sometimes be slow (if you’re going to the allotment, pootling into town). For me, cycling isn’t an extension of Zen meditation, it’s a way of getting around that is much quicker and uses less of my energy than walking but is much greener than cars, buses or trains. If I have to travel quickly sometimes, then so be it.

  2. scldrgnfly Says:

    I love your site. As my daughter is training for her first Iron Man this October, I started to think back over past dreams and missed opportunities, with an eye to the fact I am still alive.

    I got to thinking how things have changed for girls and how I always wished I could have done some cycle racing, but thought I probably wasn’t good enough. The other night I realized how fast I was going through 8 a.m. traffic trying to make it to my 8 o’clock design class at NCSU. I even had to make it up and down several pretty steep hills on my way. On the other days of the week, I made the same trip, some times twice a day and in the middle of the night, through rain, sleet and snow almost every day for two years. I was 25 when my grandmother died and left me her 1968 Ford Falcon(8 years old)…I still cycled much of the time…until I became pregnant with our first daughter, Jenny, the one who is training for her first Iron Man, now.

    At the time, I knew I could pass cars every once in a while and I tried to do my best on a regular basis, even to the point of always leaving at the last minute and riding so as not to be late for class or my job. I only got hit by a car twice….one of those times feeling the heat of the police car’s wheels and engine as I slid just under the front of the car as they turned left right in front of me. The other one, I can still remember the bewildered looks of the elderly couple as I somersaulted over the hood of their car when they pulled out in front of me. The only time I got hurt was in my forties and our youngest daughter fell on her bicycle right in front of me. I couldn’t stop fast enough and the only thing I could do to avoid running over her and probably killing her was to put my foot down. I felt my ACL tear, but…I was riding again in a month. I LOVE to cycle and my oldest daughter is making me want to race…again.

    So…was I pretty good, back in my heyday? Not on a track, but through relatively heavy rush hour traffic, up and down a couple of very steep hills and through all kinds of weather and sometimes twice a day, I made the 12 mile trip (one way – so twice or more almost every day) in 37 minutes for two whole years…so I averaged almost 19.5 mph on each trip. I am thinking, on a track or a controlled course, I might have been able to really push my limits…I’ll never really know about then…but, I think I really would like to see how I could match up, now.

    Thank you for the inspiration!

    Martha Edwards Smith

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks very much for your feedback, Martha. And for recounting your experiences. Hey, it’s never too late to race! Give it a go! And if you do, good luck! (And let us know how you get on.) Unfortunately my daughter, Flo, is less keen on racing than she was – and for now I’ve backed off trying to ‘encourage’ her to give it a go (I think that only discourages her, actually!). But she knows she’s a good cyclist, and I hope that sense (of herself as capable, able to dig deep and make an effort, strong ..) will stand her in good stead, into the future.
      Thanks for reading and commenting.
      Best wishes

  3. fearlessjwalker Says:

    What a great article. Just hit 25 mph SPRINTING on my bmx bike and was wondering if that was fast. A google search led me here, what a nice surprise, very nicely written.

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