As a new or aspiring bike commuter you may be wondering how fast you can ride in the city, and how to become as fast as possible. I remember that I was interested in this question when I started, especially because I was determined to complete my 10 mile city commute in under 35 minutes. As it turns out, 35 minutes is very hard to do, but my commute has gotten much shorter than the initial 64 minutes.
So, how to cycle faster in the city? Of all the possible ways of cycling faster, the two most effective ways of becoming faster in the city are by optimizing your route and pedaling harder when it means that you can catch a green light. Cycling faster in the city means reducing the time you spend on the bike between point A and B, thus increasing your overall average speed.
How fast can you ride in the city? The average cycling speed in the city is between 10 and 15 mph (16 – 25 km/h) depending on traffic and weather conditions. If you’re at the top end of that scale, you can’t expect to be much faster, but if your current average speed is only around 8 mph then you can definitely improve.
When it comes to riding faster in the city, the Pareto principle, aka the 20/80 rule applies: 20% of input can result in 80% of the desired outcome. Optimizing 20% of your ride will yield 80% of results.
Two ways of measuring average speed
Before we see the two aspects to focus on to increase your speed, let’s see how we measure average speed in the city.
You can measure your speed when in motion without taking into account the time spent waiting at red lights and stop signs, or you can measure it by taking the time you spend on the bike between point A and B.
If you base your average speed on the amount of time you spend moving, the number is going to be higher. Here’s a screenshot of my 10-mile commute this morning, with an average moving speed of 14.8mpi/h. My moving time was 40 minutes 40 seconds.
The information displayed above doesn’t take into account the time I spent waiting at intersections. In reality, it took me 48 minutes to get to work. If I calculate my average speed including these times, it is around 12.5 mph.
If you want to get faster in the city, you will have much better success if you focus on improving the overall average speed, and not the speed at which you ride when moving.
Tactics that work
The 20% of change that yields most of the results is optimizing your route and pedaling harder when it matters.
This is by far the most effective way of becoming faster in the city. You can be a super-fast cyclist, but if you don’t use the best route to get to your destination, an average joe who knows it can beat you. I have experienced this many times.
You can optimize your route by studying a map and combining it with experience. It takes a few weeks to dial it in, but once you have it, you may be able to reduce your commuting time by 25-30%. It took me 64 minutes to commute to work when I started out. Nowadays 48 minutes is easily attainable thanks to having fine-tuned my route. I also have another, even more efficient route, which allows me to get there in under 42 minutes (I don’t like it too much though).
How to find the most efficient route? Your commute is unique to you, and optimizing your route depends on your particular circumstances. Usually, there are two low hanging fruits.
Find a shorter way
The fastest route by car is often not the fastest one when cycling simply because it’s longer. As a cyclist, your speed is slower than a car’s. By adding an extra mile when you ride doesn’t seem long, it will definitely feel longer when riding. The good news is that often you can find more direct routes when cycling.
In certain cities, there are one-way streets that allow for two way cyclist traffic. These are potential shortcuts for you. It takes some time for this to sink in, but you need to think of yourself not as a car or a motorbike, but as a cyclist. While this doesn’t give you permission to be above the law, there are a few privileges that come with it, and these one-way street scenarios are one of them. In certain countries this might not be the case – check your local regulations.
Dedicated cycle paths are also often more direct than the route that cars take.
If you can save a few hundred yards here and another few hundred yards there, you may end up saving miles over your entire commute, which results in quite a significant time-saving.
Find a road with fewer traffic lights
When choosing between two roads, one may have 5 lights over the course of 2 miles, some of which are at major intersections, while the other may have no traffic lights at all.
Since lights are synchronized for car speeds, they often turn red by the time you get to it when you pedal, forcing you to stop. This dramatically decreases your average speed, as you can spend up to 2 minutes waiting for a light to turn green.
Pedaling hard when it matters
Going flat out all the way in order to get to work faster will make you sweat and will drain your energy, but it doesn’t mean that you will get there sooner. I often catch up with people at red lights who overtook me and nearly disappeared in the distance. Similarly, people I overtake often catch up with me at the next intersection two minutes later.
However, as you get to know your route, you will notice how lights work and where you can push a bit harder to catch a green light. On these segments, an extra effort may mean a 2 minute time-saving. If you have a few of these on your way, you may end up saving 5-10 minutes on waiting for the light to turn green alone. Your average speed will go up a great deal.
Tactics that don’t work
Some tactics that work when you’re a professional or a recreational cyclist on a race don’t work well for a commuter.
Pedaling extra hard beyond a certain point
No doubt that the faster you ride the less time you need to get from A to B, but there are limits as to how fast you can go. Also, pedaling harder isn’t a practical tip for the average city commuter, because you won’t get super strong and extra fast overnight to go at racing speeds.
Not even to mention that you don’t want to arrive at the office covered in sweat from head to toe. You will probably sweat anyway, but there isn’t a huge speed gain between pedaling at 75% or 90% effort, but it makes a huge difference in feeling drained.
If you can sustain 13-15 mph riding on flat then there’s not much room for improvement on this front.
Saving grams (or saving weight altogether)
The less weight you carry the faster you can pedal, especially when going uphill. The impact of extra weight is far smaller when pedaling on a flat piece of road, and it completely disappears as soon as you’re forced to slow down at an intersection or you ride on cobblestones, etc.
Saving grams is completely useless, because you can spend thousands of dollars to shave off a few grams without shaving a single second off your commute. And of course, all those marginal weight savings disappear if you have to carry a laptop, books or anything else with you.
If you want a super-light carbon frame bike with the lightest possible components, and you have the money to buy it, by all means, go for it. But don’t spend time-saving up for something lighter in the hope that it will make you faster in the city.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that a really heavy bike doesn’t slow you down, but the difference only becomes really noticeable beyond the 40 lbs mark.
Getting more aero
Aerodynamic drag only becomes noticeable when you ride faster than 15 mph. Getting more aero can save you effort and increase speed when you’re riding fast on a flat road or when you’re riding down a hill, but it doesn’t make a difference to a city commuter.
Aero helmets, snug-fitting lycra, aero bars, aero wheels… They are all good and serve a purpose, but they best serve that purpose during a race where seconds matter.
When it comes to being faster on your bike in the city, finding the best route and pedaling to catch major green lights will give you the best bang for your buck.
One last thing… Just like with any other means of transportation there is a limit as to how fast you can get to work if you ride. Be realistic in your expectations so you don’t get disappointed. If your average speed is around 15 mph, don’t expect to be much faster.
The main thing about cycling to work is to enjoy the ride anyway.