When you sit on a new bike for the first time you may be surprised just how fast you can ride it. It’s quite easy to reach 20-25mph (30-40km/h), but unfortunately high speeds cannot be sustained on longer distances. Don’t be deceived by the highest speed you can reach or else you’ll be in for a surprise. Your average commuting speed is very different from the highest speed you’re capable of reaching when you’re fresh.
In general, the average bike riding speed of commuters is 11-18 mph (18-29 km/h). If your commute is 8 miles (13 km) each way, the estimated time spent on the bike will be roughly 25-45 minutes each way. If you feel you’re too slow on your bike, here are my best tips to ride faster in the city.
Your fitness level
This is by far the number one factor. The fitter you are the faster you can ride, the faster your average bike riding speed will be. You are the engine, you propel yourself on the bike. A fit rider on a crappy bike is faster than an unfit rider on a superbike. If you want to understand the math behind losing weight as a bike commuter, I suggest to read this other article on Bike Commuter Hero.
If you’re starting out with zero prior experience and with a low fitness level your speed will improve along your fitness level, but it doesn’t come overnight. In fact, initially you may have some setbacks a few days after you start riding to work. You can expect muscle fatigue to set in after 2-3 days, and it will not completely go away for about 1-2 weeks. This adaptation period is where most beginners give up, but it is a crucial time to be consistent and to push through. After this initial hump riding the bike will be enjoyable and faster too.
Stretching your quads a few times throughout the day and eating protein-rich foods can reduce this adaptation period.
Type of bike
The type of bike you ride will also have a great influence on your commuting speed. The different types of bikes are built for different terrain, riding styles and speeds. Their weight, riding position, accessories etc. determine how comfortable and how fast they are. You can commute on any type of bike, just like you can get from A to B on any type of vehicle, but if you are serious about bike commuting then you should do it on a bike that best fits your commute.
Dutch style bikes are upright, they come with fenders, lights, rack and usually a hub gear. They are comfortable, low maintenance, sturdy, durable, heavy bikes best used in flat cities and on shorter distances. This is why they are so popular in Holland. The tradeoff for comfort and practicality of Dutch bikes is that they are slower than most other bikes because of their weight and comfy riding position. Dutch style bikes’ intended commuting speed is 8-14 mph (13-22 km/h).
Mountain bikes are used for commuting at times. They have a wide selection of gears, but usually they have lower gear ratios. This means that you have to pedal more to reach the same speed as on road bikes, but they are excellent for climbing really steep hills and wrestling tough terrains. Their rolling resistance is also greater than any other type of bike. Even if they get the job done, they aren’t great as dedicated commuters. You can expect to cruise with a mountain bike at an average speed of 10-15 mph (16-24 km/h).
Road bikes are the fastest bikes. The speed, however, comes at a cost: they are less comfortable than any other type of bike. The discomfort doesn’t (only) come from the riding position, but from its other characteristics. They rarely come with fenders and it’s really hard to find any with mounting brackets for racks, which means that you’re limited to carrying your stuff in a backpack unless you use a seatpost mounted bike rack. Because of your riding position maneuverability is not as good as with flat handlebars. This can become uncomfortable if you’re cruising through heavy traffic. They are great fun to ride, especially if the roads are clear and there isn’t much maneuvering involved. You can get up to really high speeds on them on long straight stretches, which increases your average commuting speed. You can expect to ride them at an average of 12-18 mph (19-30 km/h).
Hybrid bikes are a very popular choice among bike commuters. They are a crossover between a MTB, a Dutch style bike and a road bike, but they come in different shapes and with different features: some have front suspension, racks, fenders while others don’t, depending on the dominant characteristics from the main bike types borrowed. Hybrid bikes are a very broad category. From first time riders to seasoned cyclists can find a hybrid that suits their needs and riding style. Most hybrid bikes can come close to the speed of a road bike, but they also have the comfort of a MTB or Dutch style bike with their upright riding position. They are also easily maneuverable. You can expect to ride hybrid bikes at an average commuting speed of 11-17 mph or (18-27 km/h).
There are other bike types too which are good commuters, such as cyclocross, gravel bikes just to name two. In terms of average speed they are usually between hybrids and road bikes.
Terrain and road conditions
The type of road you ride on also impacts your average speed. The highest speeds can be reached and sustained on straight flat paved roads. In cities you will constantly slow down and stop at traffic lights, road signs, traffic, pedestrians. Even if you reach higher speeds during a part of your bike commute, your average speed is greatly affected by this.
My commute is in the city of Budapest. In my experience the difference between good and bad days in terms of traffic translates into average speed loss of 2-3 mph (3-5 km/h).
In cities with particularly bad traffic and in rush hour your average commuting speed may drop to 5 mph (8 km/h) or even less.
Between the ideal conditions on country roads and busy city extreme there are a lot of variations. The road surface, elevation, road conditions all play role in just how quick you can be on your bike.
Unfortunately there isn’t too much you can do about the weather except complain about it, but if you live in a particularly windy or rainy area (hello Ireland!), it’s good to at least take this into consideration.
Wind is very hard to beat. Even without wind aerodynamic drag accounts for over half of your energy spent on the bike. The faster you go the more this becomes evident and the higher the percentage. This is why at higher speeds, especially above 20 mph (30-32 km/h) you really need to work exponentially hard to gain any extra speed.
If you’re going against a 12 mph (20 km/h) headwind at a 15 mph (24 km/h) speed, your aerodynamic drag will be the equivalent to a 27 mph (44 km/h) speed. On the other hand, having the wind at your back helps you reduce aerodynamic drag and helps you reach a higher average speed on your bike, which is really enjoyable.
While rain doesn’t affect your commuting speed as much as wind does, it still plays an important role, especially in terms of visibility and safe braking distance.
The worst thing about rain is that it gets into your face, and the raindrops can irritate your eyes. It makes visibility even worse. Glasses can keep the water out of your eyes, but you have to deal with the drops on the glasses as a trade-off.
If you’re thinking of getting into bike commuting and you’re wondering how fast you will to your workplace and home, you can probably calculate an average speed of 11-18 mph (18-29 km/h) depending on the factors described above. To find out what this means in terms of time it’s best to do a test ride to work on a weekend day so you can get to know the route and shortcuts when time doesn’t matter.
If you want to be faster at cycling in the city, I go into some tips and tactics that work, and some others that you shouldn’t waste your time on in this post.
As a bike commuter, you will quickly find out that riding your bike to work is actually the most enjoyable part of your work day regardless of speed.