You know what? Buying the latest, greatest, lightest, fanciest frame/wheelset/drivetrain won’t guarantee you faster times or more powerful sprints, although we appreciate the support when you do purchase the best at Art’s Cyclery. Of course, riding top-level gear does engender a more enjoyable riding experience, but for long-lasting results that cost a lot less, nothing beats good ol’ fashioned training.
Ride More— Yes, it’s really as simple as that. We all know someone who rides clapped-out, creaky, several generations-old gear, and yet is always contesting or winning sprints, dropping you on the climbs, and putting in another circuit when everyone else heads for the coffee shop. How do they do it? They’re on the bike more than you are, that’s all. When you are getting errands done they are riding. When you are pressing the snooze button they are pedaling down the street. And when you finally do get out on the bike, they coast less, stand on the pedals, and hammer up the climbs more than you do. So save your cash while getting fast, just ride more, and ride harder, further, and faster when you do.
Ride With Cyclists Who Are Faster Than You—Another effective way to get faster,
without costing you a dime, is to try to keep up with the fast folks. Yes, it will hurt. Yes, you will be dropped, But, you will get faster and probably pick up some other skills along the way. Ideally, you will be able to tag along on rides with your faster friends, since they will most likely be more forgiving, or at least feel compelled to wait for you once in a while. If you go on a group ride that’s a bit beyond your ability, be prepared to get dropped—don’t let it discourage you, that’s what you are there for—and know how to get home on your own. Give it your all, though, and make yourself hurt. Soon you’ll be staying with the group longer and longer, and eventually riding up at the front, hammering it out for the whole ride.
Set Goals— This is dangerous, because now you are crossing the threshold of actual training. However, it’s still free, and if you really want to keep improving, you’ll need some type of structure to your time on the bike. A simple way to ensure progression is to have a focus for each ride, which can be simply beating a time goal, or even improving your cornering skills. Also, it’s important to work on your weaknesses; dedicate a ride each week to sprint workouts or hill repeats until your weakness ceases to be a liability. Additionally, keep track of your times on a couple of your favorite routes, both overall time and several segments/checkpoints of each. The way to get faster is to ride faster, and paying attention to your ride times will let you know how much harder you need to pedal.
Enter a Race— After you’ve been hammering hard a few times per week, and cut several minutes off of your go-to ride, it’s time to put your money where your lungs are, and enter a race. Not only will racing let you know your true level of fitness and skill, it gives you a tangible reason to push harder and longer on your everyday rides. No matter what your result is, the energy from the race carries over into your routine rides, giving you the impetus for continuing to improve your fitness.
Get a Coach—This is a real commitment, since there is a tangible monetary investment involved, and is probably only appropriate for committed racers. However, an effective coach will be able to pinpoint strengths and weaknesses, optimize your available training time, provide motivation, and establish a complete training regimen, including varied workouts, nutrition guidelines, and effective recovery periods. Coaches also act as mentors, advising on everything from race tactics to bike set-up, and provide objective, realistic feedback on your training progress. When choosing a coach, the first consideration is local versus remote. There are many online coaches who can provide personalized workout, nutrition, and recovery plans, which will absolutely generate results. A local coach offers the same, with the ability to tailor workouts to the roads and trails you ride everyday, and might have more availability for data analysis and general discussion.
Increasing your cycling speed and fitness requires dedication, and if you want noticeable results, will also demand physical suffering and mental fortitude. Depending on your desired outcome, the path to success can be free and simple or costly and intricate. Just remember to keep it fun, and maintain perspective—we’re still just riding bikes after all.