Here is What Makes Road Bikes Faster: 7 Tips

As we coast down the road, a lot of us think, “Why can’t I go faster? Am I doing something wrong?” Constantly striving for faster speeds and debating the best way to reach those speeds has become a fun topic for road bike enthusiasts.

What makes your road bike faster?  The type of bike, your physical strength and stamina, and many of the finer nuances of a bike like the gears, wheels, and overall weight or material the bike is made from can all contribute to speed. Increasing your road bike speed requires you adjust one or more of those elements.

Diving into all of these factors will help you determine what will work best for you, as you may discover you are doing some of these things, but still have room for improvement in others. So, let’s not only figure out how to make your road bike faster, but also how to make you faster on it.

7 Ways to Make Your Road Bike Faster

As a beginning cyclist or a moderate user, an average speed of around 14-15 MPH is pretty standard, and a good goal to set for yourself if you are just starting out. But as you get better and make adjustments to your bike, faster speeds are well within your reach. It’s a matter of figuring out the best ways to get there.

One thing to understand right is the difference between a road bike and a hybrid. They look very similar and can sometimes be mistaken for one another. There are slight but key differences that make the road bike a faster option from the start.

Road Bike Hybrid Bike
Made with lighter materials Heavier build and slightly bulkier
Built for speed and endurance Built for comfort, commuting, or touring
Drop bars that place the rider in a more aerodynamic position Structured to place the rider in a more upright position, making it less aerodynamic

So, while the hybrid may seem like a comfortable option that doesn’t appear too dissimilar from the road bike – if you’re looking for speed, leave the hybrid behind for the leisurely Sunday afternoon rides around town. The road bike will be what delivers speed.

When purchasing your road bike and possibly making modifications to it for speed, there are plenty of things to keep in mind. This list should help point you in the right direction and walk you through how these items contribute to overall speed and performance.

1. Weight

Jim Gourley is a triathlete who also has an aerospace engineering degree from the U.S. Airforce Academy who has shared his research and findings on the impacts of owning a lighter bike. In his book, Faster: Demystifying the Science of Triathlon Speed, he covers the areas that influence speed from a scientific and aerodynamic point of view.

When it comes to weight, he is not sold on it as a major factor until you really are able to shed a substantial amount of weight from the bike.

“A lot of equipment manufacturers will tell you that their handlebars are 20 grams lighter than their competitor’s, but you need to be measuring differences in pounds to make any kind of noticeable change. A difference of 20 grams matters to NASA getting to the moon, but it’s not going to make a lick of difference to you trying to make a breakaway.”

Source: Outside Online

That doesn’t mean trying to have a lighter bike is not worth it, though. It just means that you will want to focus on more than one part of your bike.  To have a substantial impact, find several places where you can lessen your bike’s weight.

So with that in mind, what are some of the ways to cut weight out of your road bike?

  • Lightweight tires

Doing some early research on tires, their weight, and capabilities will pay off in the end. Depending on the type of bike you go with, there will be tires that are recommended and specifically fit for your bike and size. But if you want to opt for something lighter, this can help shave some weight off and make for some slightly better speeds.

Just be sure the tire is not only a good fit for the type of bike, but also for the road conditions you ride on. Is a slight increase in speed worth the cost of replacing tires more frequently?  A lighter tire will mean paying more attention to balance—is that increased focus worth the thrill of riding? 

  • Lightweight bar tape

I know what you’re thinking—worrying about bar tape seems extreme.  I get it.  But there are plenty of enthusiasts who will do anything to drop a few ounces or grams wherever they can and bar tape is often overlooked as a way to shave some weight from your bike.

Bicycling.com provides an excellent resource for some of their favorite bar tapes this year.   They explain the options and address weight and performance issues related to bar tapes.  Going with a lightweight option will contribute to your quest for increased speed.

  • Latex inner tubes

There are two different ways that latex inner tubes will help increase your speed: overall weight and rotational weight. This means that there will be a more meaningful impact on your speed because it is not only knocking out weight from the bike as a whole, but it is also taking weight from the rotational equation, which will have an immediate impact on speed.

  • Paint Free

Unfortunately, painting flames on your bike will not make it any faster. But painting nothing on it just might. If you want to be as light as possible, then opt for a paint-free bike. This will most likely need to be a custom request unless you find a bike shop that offers this as an option.

  • Carbon

This is one of the best changes you can make when you are looking to cut pounds for the sake of increasing your speed. When you switch your frame, seat post, handlebars, and stem, it can create a meaningful change in weight and speed. This will also end up being a pricey modification. But if you’re solely focused on the weight, this is a winning option.

  • Velo plugs

Many plugs are made of plastic or cloth tape, which can end up meaning they are heavier. Velo plugs are made of rubber and can save around 15g or so, depending on the weight of the original plugs.

  • Lighter cassette

Swapping out your cassette for a lighter weight one is a bit controversial as it can affect shift quality. There are some concerns over the quality of shifting when you go too light. So check-in with your local bike shop or parts expert when you look into something as specific and crucial to your ride as the cassette.

All of these options will add up to enough weight to make a slight difference in your top speeds. Understanding the aerodynamics and the science that Gourley refers to, will help in your hunt for the fastest and lightest bike.

2.  Ensure Gears Are Properly Adjusted

Understanding how your gears and bike drivetrain work will help ensure your gears are properly adjusted and working towards faster speeds right alongside you…or rather…underneath you.

There are five major components to your drivetrain on a conventional multi-speed bike:

  • Cassette

On the righthand side of your rear wheel, you will find the cassette which is the stack of gears

  • Chain

The chain is the connecting piece between the front chainrings and the gears in the rear. Basically, ensuring when you turn the pedals, the wheels turn with them. Determining how easy it is to pedal is dependent on the number of teeth on the gears (also known as cogs).

  • Shifters

The shifters can be either twist grips, levers, or integrated in with the brake levers. They control the derailleurs via connected cables.

  • Derailleur

This physically guides the chain from gear to gear as you shift. Not all bikes have a front derailleur, but most will have a rear one.

  • Crankset

Within your crankset, you have your chainrings, which is a key component to shifting. Most bikes typically have either one, two, or three front chainrings.

            So how do all of these pieces alter or affect your speed?

Road bikes will tend to have more gears that are higher in order to help with speed. Mountain bikes will stick to more lower gears so that you are able to take on hills and inclines easier. With more gears, you have more choices, as well.  If you are a beginner, more choices mean more complexity.

So when you are going after speed as your priority, make sure your gears are conducive to shifting easily and swiftly when needed during a ride. And do your homework to become a master at shifting and understanding it. This will allow for smoother transitions, which will lead to shaving time off your ride.

A couple tips on shifting:

  • Know the terrain:

If you are riding on flat, even surfaces, this won’t be as important. But if you are going to be biking on hills, curves, or ambitious terrain, you will want to understand when and how to shift in order to not slow yourself down. For example: if you reach an incline, you should shift right before you begin climbing. If you do it once you are already halfway up, it will make for a slower shift and you may even hear some grinding. This is because you are shifting as you apply the maximum amount of pressure to your pedals because you are in the middle of going uphill.

  • Using an easier gear if in doubt:

If you’re unsure what gear is best for you and which will bring you the fastest speeds, it’s always best to go with an easier one while you learn more about your strengths and weaknesses on your bike. The higher gear may seem faster to you because it thrusts you forward at a more powerful rate than a lower one, but it can also exert your energy too quickly.

While you become more comfortable with your bike and your cadence/strength as a cyclist, go with the easier gear if you’re unsure.

3.  Tires and Tire Pressure

While we talked a little about the type of tire and things you can do to limit the weight the tire adds to your bike, there are still facets of your tires that can contribute to overall speed that are isolated from the weight.

You can look at your tires a few different ways. You obviously need them to be durable and agreeable to the terrain you plan to use them on, but you also want them to be the proper type and size for your bike. Within these parameters, there are ways to increase speed while checking all of those other items off the list as well.

A few quick tire tips for top speeds:

  • Stick to a tire size of 700ccx25mm
  • Keep a steady eye on your air pressure to be sure it is accurately filled
  • Stick to narrow tires with wheelsets made of carbon

The tire pressure can really be an important factor. And luckily, it is also an easy one that doesn’t require additional purchases. It just means you have to be diligent in checking your tire pressure and understanding how it can affect your ride.

If the tires are too soft, it will mean the rolling resistance will become greater, meaning you will need to exert more energy to go the same speed as if your tires were properly filled. If they are really far under what they should be, then it also exposes you to a higher risk for pinch flats.

This doesn’t mean you need them to be rock hard and fill them until you think they’re about to burst. While a firm tire will mean you can access your average speeds and excel easier, there are still benefits to a slightly less firm tire. If you fill it to around 90psi, it may not be as fast on a flat, smooth straightaway, but it will result in increased grip if you are taking hard turns. So if you are looking for speed on a windy road, the slightly decreased tire pressure may work to your advantage.

But if you are more concerned about straightaway speed, keep it right around the full 120psi so it is nice and firm and will not require additional effort to go the same speeds you are used to.

Cycling Weekly has a great guide on selecting the best road bike tires for 2019 if you need some help in your purchase process.

4.  Keeping Your Bike Clean and Properly Maintained

As much as we all love seeing a sparkling, clean, beautiful bike out in the sunshine – that cleanliness isn’t purely for the sake of aesthetics. When you wash your bike regularly and wipe away grime, mud, dirt, sand, or any greases that build up; you are ensuring it will work at its fullest capacity

Maintaining the cleanliness will also help the longevity of your bike and make for less trips to the part store for you over the life of your bike. Be especially careful during winter months if you are still out on the roads when the weather provides an opening. Salt and sand from the road can easily get caught in your drivetrain and cause issues that will slow you down and could even be detrimental to the bike.

If you make this into a routine, it will be easier on you as well. Just give yourself a couple minutes at the end of each ride to wipe everything down. This will save you time if there is a lot of build-up and you end up needing to disassemble certain pieces in order to clear anything up.

Not only is cleanliness crucial to upkeep, but making sure you are properly lubing the chain is also a key maintenance concern. Being certain that your chains are properly lubed will make for a more efficient drivetrain, a smoother ride, and ultimately–a faster ride.

5.  Lowering the Front End of The Bike

It all comes down to the aerodynamics of the bike and how you ride it. Forcing the front end of the bike slightly lower will be a big win for speed junkies out there. It’s basic physics and will be an easy way to give speed an assist.

As long as you have spacers between the headset and stem, then this will be fairly simple. You will remove the fork, take out a spacer, and replace the stem. Test it out to see how it feels and you can either remove another one, or if you decide this angle isn’t right for you, just toss it right back in.

While the slight lean forward will help in the science of your aerodynamic ride, it may not feel right to you and your center of gravity. So don’t go overboard with this. Otherwise, you will actually end up going over the handlebars. This should also be heavily considered if you are going down a lot of hills.

Any changes to the structure of the bike will result in a slight shift in the way you ride it. Your posture and body language on the bike will be important to be wary of if you make an adjustment such as this. Making changes in increments will also help you adjust. So start with one spacer and go from there.

6.  Better Physical Fitness

While you can work on your bike all day long to enhance features, create more speed, and find ways to shed a few ounces here and there; none of that will matter if the operator of the bike isn’t giving just as much attention to their physical fitness and how they ride.

It seems like an obvious that if you are not physically fit, you will not go as fast as someone that is. But there are specific facets of your physical fitness to be more aware of when looking at ways to increase your speeds.

Your Body Weight:

Keeping a trim physique is a sure-fire way to help increase speeds on your bike. While the weight of the bike itself is a factor, it’s important to remember that you are a part of the bike. If you knock two pounds off the overall weight of the bike, but you gained 5 pounds over the past few months, those modifications won’t pan out how you were hoping.

So keeping a healthy weight for your height and frame will be a huge asset to you as you chase lower times and higher speeds. But just like anything, balance is key. If you drop too much weight because you think it will help you ride faster, you will lose strength.  You’ll be lighter but not stronger.  

For health reasons, you should never be seeking a weight that is unhealthy to your frame and height. For speed and power reasons on a bike – it will give you no advantages. For max speeds, you need strength and power. If you start skipping meals and allowing yourself to be underweight, you lose both of those.

Leg Strength:

If you’re skipping leg day, you’re missing out on reaching your fullest potential as a cyclist. Powerful legs will help thrust you forward at greatest speeds and allow you to maintain those speeds for longer.

Try to focus on your quads as much as possible if you’re looking for strength and power in your rides. Personally, I love the leg press at the gym for quad workouts. Or if you’re at a desk all day, stick one leg straight out under your desk and do some leg lifts or small circles. It all counts and it all helps build muscle that will improve speeds.

7.  Cadence and How You Ride

When we started this article saying there were many different variables, we weren’t messing around. Small things right down to the way you’re riding your bike and how you pedal will all make a difference in the speed game.

Center of Gravity

If your center of gravity is lower to the ground when you’re standing, the same science applies when you are on a bike. You have an easier time maintaining stability if your center of gravity is closer to the ground, and you find your center and core.

Same will apply for someone taller who may be uncomfortable on a shorter bike because the center of gravity will be off and make for uneasiness. Understanding your core will result in more comfortable, faster, and more enjoyable rides.

Posture

If you end up opting for a much lighter bike or you decide to lower the front end to increase speed, then your posture becomes even more important. Leaning into a ride will help gain traction for speed, but if you lean too hard after making some of those modifications, it can become dangerous to your balance.

Cycling Cadence

Keeping up a steady and solid cadence will be your gateway to smoother, faster rides. When you keep a good cadence over long periods of time, it will help you speed through the entire journey. That consistency of the motion will help propel you forward at faster speeds and it will allow for consistent motion.

When broken down, your cadence in cycling is your pedaling speed (which is measured in RPMs, or revolutions per minute) and how many times the pedals rotate in a full circle each minute.

Just like in music or speech, finding the right cadence and rhythm is important. Balancing cadence means you are also balancing your energy levels and muscular and cardiovascular systems so that you are exerting even energy. This means your ride will find the right rhythm, and your body will be able to keep pace.

For many riders, they will find their sweet spot between 80rpm – 100rpm.  This is where you will be able to pedal at fast speeds but also remain in control. Of course, cadence will drop while going uphill, which is fine. But while you are on flat straightaways, keeping your cadence steady will be a crucial factor in your end times for each ride.

“It never gets easier–you just go faster.”

Greg LeMond, former pro rider, three-time champion of the Tour de France and two time Road Race world champion

View Source: We Love Cycling

Reaching Your Fullest (and Fastest) Potential

By utilizing all of these resources, you will be able to maximize your speeds and your performance on your road bike. Maybe you have already implemented some of these, or maybe you always wanted to make some changes but thought everything would cost too much. As we can see, there are plenty of free or cheaper options that will help in your quest to become faster on your road bike.

So pedal on, and keep working towards a faster ride.

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