An upgraded aerodynamic frame and an expensive set of wheels are sure to make your ride a lot faster, but they aren’t the only way. Instead of spending thousands of dollars, there are other ways to get your current bike in as good as shape as possible to go fast. While some of these tips below can fall into the marginal gains category, the good news is all the small stuff adds up to significant aerodynamic and weight savings.
If you’re looking for ways to make your bike just a little bit faster without shelling out any money, we’ve got a few ideas.
Of all the tips on this list, tire pressure probably makes the biggest difference. An underinflated tire increases rolling resistance, which forces you to work harder to maintain a similar speed compared to when it’s properly inflated. Under-inflation also increases your chances of a pinch flat.
While higher tire pressure (around 120psi) is generally faster on smooth roads, there are drawbacks, such as decreased grip around corners and a harsher ride. For this reason, it’s best to match your tire pressure to the ride. A higher tire pressure might be used for a short time trial on flat, smooth roads or a road race, but you might want to go to a lower tire pressure within a 90–120psi range for longer rides when you’ll be doing a lot of climbing and descending.
The key here is to make sure you don’t ride below or above the recommended ranges, as this can force you to work much harder than needed. For this reason, it’s best to check the psi of your tires before each ride.
Long, flappy brake and shifting cables create more aerodynamic drag, making your bike slower over long distances. While gains you’ll receive are marginal, it’s also one of the easiest fixes that doesn’t take much time. While many newer bikes have hidden the cables completely inside the frame and handlebars for this reason, if you do have exposed cables, you can cut the cable you don’t need to make it shorter and less exposed to the wind. Just keep in mind that you’ll want to leave enough cable to enable your handlebars to turn properly. Ideally, this will be done when you install new cables (which should be done about every 5,000 miles), but if you want to make your current bike look more tidy, you can tape your current cables together so there is less cable housing flapping around on your front end.
A heavy bike makes you slower, particularly going uphill. While we aren’t advising you to seek the lightest frame possible (because that isn’t free!), you should take all the stuff off your bike that you don’t really need. For example, if you’re commuting, you might want to attach a full size hand pump or bike lights to your frame for safety reasons. But if you’re riding an event or a weekend group ride with that bike, remove those things and replace them with CO2 cartridges, and skip the lights if it’s a daytime ride. If there are spots where you’ll be able to refill your water, opt for a standard 500ml bottle instead of a 750ml or larger option. Do an inventory before your ride and remove anything you won’t need from your bike — this goes for your jersey pockets, too. The decrease in overall weight could end up making a bigger difference than you realize.
A clean bike is a fast bike, especially as it relates to your drivetrain. By keeping your chain, derailleurs and crank free from grease and grime buildup, your bike pedals smoother and shifts easier due to increased mechanical efficiency and less overall friction between these moving parts. This also keeps your drivetrain components in better working condition, making them last longer and perform as they should. Aside from degreasing your chain and cassette and applying lubricant, here are a few pro tips to keep in mind:
Use the correct chain lubricant: Wet chain lubes work in wet or damp conditions common in the winter; dry chain lubes are best for drier summer conditions.
Don’t apply too much chain lube: Excessively applying chain lube attracts more dirt and grime to your chain when you ride. For this reason, it’s best to wipe any excess chain lube from the chain after you apply it. After you ride, you can also wipe the chain down with an old rag to get rid of an accumulation of road grime you’ve picked up.
Clean more than just the chain: Cleaning the chain rings, the jockey wheels on the rear derailleur, and removing the rear cassette to clean dirt and grime is necessary for maintaining a perfectly functioning drivetrain. While you don’t have to go overboard here, a deep cleaning once a month (depending on how much you ride) should be the goal.
If you have the flexibility and are interested in improving your speed, changing your bike’s position can help you become more aerodynamic and faster. One of the easiest ways to do this is to adopt a more aerodynamic body position by lowering the height of your handlebars. Most bikes have several spacers under the stem that allow you to customize the height of your handlebar by cutting the steer tube. But before you commit to this (once you cut the steer tube, you won’t be able to put it back), you can always remove the spacers under the stem, lower your handlebar on the steer tube, and place the spacers on top of the stem. This allows you to see if the new lower position is comfortable and doesn’t place too much stress on your lower back or neck.
One of the least talked about elements of cycling that can have a significant impact on your pedaling efficiency is pedal tension. On most clipless pedal systems, there will be a tension spring that holds the cleat on your shoe in place. Adjusting this spring so your cleat is held firmly in place while allowing a small amount of float (side to side movement that helps prevent injury) allows you to pedal smoothly without a loss of energy. This is particularly important when standing out of the saddle, as unnecessary side-to-side movement results in a loss of power and less efficiency, causing you to slow down. Experiment to find the most efficient amount of tension for your liking.
Utilizing all the handlebar positions on your bike is necessary to find comfort in a riding position that allows you to produce the most power. One handlebar position that isn’t utilized as much as it should be is the drops, or the curved bend that allows for a lower riding position. Riding in the drops improves handling and balance on long descents while also allowing for a lower, more aerodynamic position when you want to go fast on the flats.
Unfortunately because of poor bike fit, a lot of cyclists find this position uncomfortable. To gain more speed and adopt a lower position that allows your chest and head to be less exposed to the wind, experiment with your bike fit to find a position that is comfortable not only for riding on the hoods and handlebar tops, but also in the drops. While a professional bike fit isn’t free, if you are having trouble adjusting your fit on the bike, it is recommended, and it’s a cost that eventually saves you money and time from not having to deal with unnecessary overuse injuries caused by a poor position on the bike.