Bike races are won and lost in the last split second of a sprint, which is why pro cycling teams invest in the best bikes and components they possibly can. Every little bit faster they can make their bike might mean the difference between winning and losing. The marginal gains might not be worth the investment for the beginning rider, but there are some practical reasons that your buddy’s bike might be faster than yours.
A number of factors make one bike faster than another, including bike geometry, wheels, tires and tire pressure, weight, aerodynamics, drivetrain, bike maintenance, frame stiffness, rider position, and clutter on the bike.
In this article, we’ll take a look at the reasons your buddy’s bike might feel faster than yours. Some things are easy to change, such as tire pressure and bike clutter, while others come down to the way the bike was designed, such as the bike’s weight and aerodynamics. After you read this article, you’ll have a better understanding of why some bikes seem to roll faster than others.
Bike geometry and rider position
Some bikes are built for speed, while others are built for comfort. Every single component on a road bike is geared towards speed, but the first, most obvious difference between a road bike and a mountain bike or hybrid bike, for example, is the geometry.
Hybrid bikes and mountain bikes typically have a more upright bike position, and they trade speed for comfort. On the other hand, road bikes usually have a more aggressive, lower rider position. This lower position might feel awkward to some, but it creates less wind drag on the rider. As a result, the rider will catch less wind and therefore be a little faster!
Wheel and tire choice
If you’re looking to make your bike go faster, a wheel change can give you a lot of bang for your buck, improving both speed and ride quality.
For example, road bike tires are skinnier, typically 23mm to 28mm wide. So they’ll roll a whole lot faster than a wider tire, such as a gravel or mountain bike tire, which might run more like 38 to 45mm. The extra rolling resistance of wider tires comes from the fact that they have a larger contact area with the ground as well as from the additional weight.
Additionally, lighter wheels will accelerate more quickly while a more aerodynamic wheel shape (think deeper rims) will slice through the wind more smoothly.
If you’re on a tight budget, look into replacing your tires first, as a new set of wheels is very expensive.
Bigger tires are heavier and have more rolling resistance, which will slow you down on the road. On the other hand, if your friend’s bike has skinnier tires than yours, it might feel a whole lot faster.
Don’t underestimate the power of tire pressure to get your bike rolling more quickly. Traditional thought is that pumping up your tires to the max tire pressure is better, but that just isn’t true if you aren’t riding on a nice, smooth track.
For a typical road surface, slightly lower tire pressure will absorb a little more of the uneven ground and actually allow you to roll faster and more smoothly.
The rule of thumb is that you should only run your tires at the maximum recommended pressure when riding on perfectly smooth paved roads, and drop the pressure to about 80-90% on lower quality roads. You also need to factor in the rider’s weight.
This, of course, is a trial and error process, and if you lower the pressure too much, you run the risk of getting a puncture, but you can check out this example of a tire pressure calculator for an idea of how high to make your tire pressure.
A lighter-weight bike will roll a bit faster, especially when riding up a steep hill where weight makes a more significant difference. A lighter bike will accelerate a little bit more quickly too, which is why your buddy’s bike might feel a whole lot faster than yours.
On the other hand, a heavier bike has a little more gravitational pull on the descents, allowing it to pick up speed more quickly when you are heading down.
Aero is everything, or so they say. A bike that is more aerodynamically efficient will be faster.
Wind resistance is the most significant force that slows riders down, and the faster you ride, the more of an effect it has on you. So by riding a bike that reduces the impact of wind resistance, you’ll get a faster ride.
For example, the shape of the frame, the width of the handlebars, and internal cable routing will make the bike more streamlined, and therefore, faster. In addition, the air will flow over the bike rather than fight against it, like the design of a racecar compared to a minivan.
Don’t be fooled though. The average rider doesn’t feel a huge difference between an aero bike and an entry-level road bike in terms of speed. The noticeable aerodynamic drag that you can save on the frame is pretty marginal. The largest source of aerodynamic drag is the rider’s body.
Old or damaged components are going to slow your bike down. For example, if your chain is rusty, it won’t pull through the drivetrain efficiently, making it difficult to pedal and slowing you down. Likewise, if your gears aren’t adjusted properly, they won’t shift well, either, which could slow you down because you just can’t find the right gear for your cadence.
On the other hand, a clean and well-maintained drivetrain will work efficiently and make the bike ride faster. In addition, cleaning and lubing your chain will prevent you from losing precious watts to dirt and grime.
Road bike drivetrains are designed for speed, while other types of drivetrains might not be.
For example, a mountain bike has a wide range of gears for spinning up hills easily, but they don’t typically need to ride at top speed.
Hybrid bikes and cruisers are also meant for more leisurely rides so that you won’t find speedy gearing on those bikes. On the other hand, if you are riding a versatile hybrid bike or a rough and rugged mountain bike, your friend’s road bike might feel super fast in comparison.
Flat Pedals Versus Clipless
Clipless pedals help you pedal more evenly, keep your foot firmly in the right place, and allow for more efficient power transfer from your leg to the pedal. Flat pedals, however, mean you can only apply effort on the downstroke of the pedal, and you’ll also waste a bit of energy trying to keep your foot on the pedal.
You’ll probably feel a big difference switching from flats to clipless pedals.
Your buddy’s stiff frame might feel faster and more responsive than your more flexible frame. A stiff frame means the bike won’t flex as much when steering, while a flexible frame will absorb a little more road chatter. The gains are marginal, but you’ll lose a little power with frame flex over a stiffer frame.
A shorter bike is a faster bike. Gravel bikes and mountain bikes have longer chainstays and wheelbases, giving them more stability over rough terrain. However, this also slows down the bike’s handling. So if you compare a shorter bike to a longer bike, you’ll likely find the shorter bike is more responsive, accelerates more quickly, and rolls faster.
If anyone is guilty of cluttering up a bike, it’s me. I always want to be prepared for anything, but then I end up bringing too much of everything for a bike ride. But bike clutter can slow you down, especially compared to your friend’s bike that is clutter-free.
Too many water bottles, bike bell, computer mount, top tube bag, down tube bag, a heavy, overstuffed saddle bag, lights, and other extras can create aerodynamic drag and weight that slow your bike down. Bring what you need for safety.
Make your bike faster by removing what you don’t actually need. You might be surprised by the difference!
Of course, the biggest reason some bikes are faster than others has to do with the rider. A fast rider will probably still be fast on a slower bike, and a slow rider will still be slow with a faster bike. But you can always work towards improving your fitness, your bike handling skills, and your bike as you work towards cycling faster.