If you’re new to cycling of you’re back in the saddle after a break, and the visions of you soaring down the street with the wind whipping your hair haven’t quite come to fruition, you might wonder why your bike is slower than you thought it’d be. But don’t worry, we can help you identify the reason your bicycle feels sluggish, and then tell you how to fix it so you can ride faster!
If your bicycle usually feels sluggish and slow it can be caused by mechanical issues such as friction in the brakes, the wheel or the drivetrain, extra weight, loss of power or some unusual riding condition.
I’m going to help you identify the issue that may cause you to feel slow on the bike, and I’m going to help you fix it too.
Possible reasons for your sluggish bike
Is your bicycle sluggish? Is your bicycle slow and not working like you think it should be? Don’t worry, it’s probably one of the following 10 reasons:
- Brakes rubbing
- Tire pressure too low
- Drivetrain rusty
- Tire size
- Carrying extra cargo
- Battling a headwind
- Your fitness levels
- You’re riding on a straight incline
- Your clothing choices
Bikes are delicate machines. If something isn’t working the way it ought to be, then it can throw off the entire balance of the bike (pun intended). You won’t get as good a performance out of a bike that has a rusty drivetrain, low tire pressure, and whose brakes are rubbing.
But it isn’t just the bike’s fault. You can do things that harm your performance on a bicycle too, making it feel more sluggish than you expected. The first step is being able to identify the problem though, because only then will you be able to fix it.
Identifying the key problems
Although some of the possible reasons above are self-explanatory, others are more complicated, so it might be good to remind yourself what a specific problem looks, sounds, or feels like as you ride. That way, if you ever come across a bicycle that feels sluggish again, you’ll know what you’re looking out for so you can fix the issue immediately. We’ve left the self-explanatory ones out below, just because you don’t need help to identify them, e.g. if you’re carrying too much cargo. But we will tell you how to fix all problems in the section after this one.
To identify rubbing brakes, you need to look closer at your brake pads. These are the little rubber pads that make contact with your wheel to slow it down. If they are touching without pulling the brake lever, then your brakes are rubbing. That basically means your cycling with the brakes on, making it much more difficult to build up the speed you were expecting, so you won’t be able to cycle faster.
If your brakes are rubbing, the solution is simple. Just take an Allen wrench and loosen the bolt that’s holding the brake pads in place, adjust the pads and tighten the bolt again.
Remember, when you adjust your brakes, you don’t want them to be too loose, or they won’t work effectively. A little trial and error in a safe space will eventually help you find the perfect amount of pressure on the bolts holding your brake pads in place.
If you have hydraulic disc brakes, you need to remove the tire, take the brake pads out of the pistons and push back the pistons with a flat head screwdriver. Once done, put everything back, and you’re off.
Be careful not to pull on the brake lever before the wheel is back, which is what led to the problem in the first place.
Low tire pressure
Testing your bike’s tire pressure can be difficult for beginners if they don’t have a reliable gauge or a pump with a built in pressure gauge like (like the BV Floor Pump available on Amazon).
I won’t cover what the perfect pressure is here, because there are lots of factors that affect it, including the type of bike, weight of the rider, and size of the wheel. It’s always safe to aim for the highest number printed on the tire sidewall.
So, first you need to learn what the tire pressure should be, take a reading from the tire gauge, and then inflate or deflate the tire to fit the correct psi or bar. Simple enough.
If you’re an experienced rider, then you will be able to judge the pressure with a higher level of accuracy. All you need to do is pinch the tire between your index finger and thumb. This comes with practice, and even after years of doing it, you won’t get it 100% right.
You’re going to need one of three things to increase your bike’s tire pressure:
– C02 inflator (like the PRO Bike Tool inflator)
– Floor pump (like the BV floor pump)
– Mini pump (like the Topeak Pocket Rocket)
Whichever one you have, make sure the connection is appropriate for the valve on your tire. If it fits, then you’re ready to pump up your tires to increase the pressure, but if it doesn’t, you’ll need to buy an adaptor for your specific valve. They’re only cheap though, so if you need to make a purchase, it won’t cost you a lot.
Rusty chain and cogs
This is an obvious one. Look at the entire drivetrain; the chain, the cassettes, the chain rings, etc, and look for signs of rust. Any part of your drivetrain being rusty can slow you down, even if other parts are in perfect working order. That’s because the drivetrain makes you go, so any problems, and you’ll unfortunately go slowly.
The first thing you can try is removing the rust. A simple white vinegar spray with equal parts white vinegar and water ought to do the trick. Spray your bike’s drivetrain wherever it’s rusty and leave it to sit for 15 minutes.
Afterwards, make sure you rinse your bike thoroughly with just water to stop the vinegar from corroding your drivetrain. Dry the chain and cogs, and apply some lubricant (like the Finish Line lubricant).
If the rust was the problem, then you should ride faster now.
If it doesn’t fix the problem, then you might need to buy a new chain or even an entirely new drivetrain. Depending on how rusty the drivetrain was to start, it might be damaged beyond repair.
Incorrect Tire Size
Most road bikes are designed with narrow, 23-25 mm tires in mind, but some can accommodate tires up to 32 mm. Ask road racers and they’ll tell you 23’s are their preference.
In recent years there’s been a shift toward wider tires for some added comfort and stability. That’s because they handle a little better in terms of stability, but sometimes this comes at an expense.
If you’ve noticed that your bike is sluggish, check the tire size and if it’s 32 mm, go down a size or two.
This, of course only applies to road bikes, since most other bikes use wider tires to begin with. You need to be careful because running a narrow tire on a gravel or a cyclocross bike may lead to repeated punctures.
Headwinds are winds you fight against. It’s blowing directly at you as you try to cycle faster. Lots of new riders fail to notice the difference between headwinds and tailwinds, so we’ve included this as a reminder.
If your eyes are stinging, the wind is howling in your ears, and it’s whipping at your face, then you’re in a headwind, and no amount of will in the world will make your bicycle slow down less.
While you can’t fix the wind directly, you may be able to find an alternative route to your destination. I find that large open areas in my city are always windier than narrow, shielded ones. Sometimes you just have to accept it and deal with it.
Overtraining / not training enough
This is probably the most difficult problem to identify, because it’s all about you. You have to know your body as a cyclist, and you have to know when you’ve done too much or not nearly enough, because both will take a sluggish bicycle and make it feel even worse.
Get in tune with your body. Are you out of breath after riding up the street? Then you’re probably not as fit as you hoped you were. Are your legs screaming in pain after simply sitting on the bike? Then you probably pushed a little hard last time you were out. Both will slow you down, and both aren’t ideal for your health either.
A straight incline is very misleading. It might look like a flat surface, but it definitely doesn’t feel like one. It works on the same principle as dips and hills. Sometimes you can be driving along in a car, and then come across a hidden dip, and feel the car drop slightly as it moves downwards. It doesn’t look like much, but you can feel it.
If you’ve been cycling along just fine, and then slowly notice your bike feeling more sluggish, it might just be that you’re on a straight incline. Inclines are anything with a 5% or less climb. After that it is classed as a hill.
That means you can ride along a 0.1% incline and it won’t look like much, but over time you’ll feel it and it will slow you down.
A lot of fitness apps, smart watches, and smart phones can track your activity, including telling you about your elevation as you ride. If you think your route is flat, then check some of these apps after you’ve been riding.
You might notice that your usual route actually has a straight incline that’s been deceiving you all this time. The only way to solve this issue is by choosing an alternative route or learning to live with it.
Carrying more than usual cargo can slow you down a great deal, especially if you have a lot of elevation.
If you’re a commuter and you carry a pannier or a backpack, it is a good idea to check and empty your bag every now and then as you may have accumulated coins, keys or even some clothing items that you don’t need for your rides. You may be surprised by how much extra stuff may end up in your bag.
Your clothing choices
There’s a reason keen cyclists wear cycling gear. It’s designed to make them efficient on a bike by increasing their speed. Wearing baggy clothes will slow you down because it’ll increase the drag on you and your bike, making you cycle much slower.
Think about investing in cycling gear, or at the very least, leave your baggy winter jacket at home.
Important points to remember
If you’re having problems with your bike feeling sluggish and you want to cycle faster, look at your bike first.
Check out its drivetrain, brake pads, wheel size, and tire pressure. If any of them are off, then fix it and you ought to fix the problem.
If those are all fine, look at you. Are you over or undertraining? Are you carrying too much gear or wearing inappropriate clothing? If those aren’t the issues, then finally look at the route and conditions your cycling in.
Sometimes a change in route is all you need to feel like you’re flying on a bicycle!