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I've been riding about 300 miles a week for the last 2 years. I'm not riding in races, just riding with friends. I always ride 60+ miles (95+ km), and I'm in excellent shape. I have a low end road bike. When riding up hills or in strong head winds I am very fast. But when I ride on flat surfaces I can't seem to keep up. I'm wondering if it's the bike or my riding style.

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What kind of RPM do you turn? On the flat, on long hauls, you need to ease off on the effort a hair and up the RPM, to operate in your aerobic zone. Muscle becomes less important and stamina is more important. –  Daniel R Hicks Aug 31 '11 at 20:24
    
Do you mostly ride alone or with others? When you say you're "very fast" up hills or in strong head winds but "can't seem to keep up" on the flat, does that mean relative to the same other riders, or do you mean that you're faster than "average" when on hills and in the wind but not so on the flat? –  R. Chung Aug 31 '11 at 20:40
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4 Answers 4

The key to understanding your situation is its unusual nature. Speed on hills is mostly determined by power-to-weight, while speed on the flat is mostly determined by power-to-aerodynamic drag. The problem is that speed in head winds is also mostly determined by power-to-aero drag, so the conundrum is why you're good in head winds but not on the flat under calmer conditions.

If this is truly your problem, the answer is more likely to be the numerator (i.e, power) than the denominator (aero drag). Some riders tend to have more difficulty managing power on the flat than climbing; this is thought to be related to crank inertial load. Crank inertial load (CIL) can be thought of as related to "how much momentum is maintained with each pedal stroke" and varies with the fourth power of gear ratio, so when you're cruising along at high speed on a flat road your CIL is high while when you're climbing a steep hill in a low gear your CIL is relatively low. When you're climbing a steep hill you slow down a lot if you don't keep pedaling pretty steadily while if you're on the flat you can vary cadence or pedal force (within reasonable limits) without much change in speed. The "feedback" you get from the cranks with momentum is the crank inertial load. Many riders appear to modulate their cadence in response to CIL, even at the same power. The last piece of information we need to address the puzzle is that in head winds, people will often gear down lower than they ordinarily would for a given gradient under calm winds.

So, if you appear to do well in climbing and in head winds but not so well on the flat, this indicates that your power production appears to be relatively high under low CIL conditions but not so high under high CIL conditions. If you've ridden much with a power meter you would likely observe that your power is higher and steadier on hillclimbs than on the flat; more than that, you would probably observe that you have difficulty holding high power on modest descents.

There is some evidence that muscle fiber type influences freely chosen cadence so it may be the case that your muscle type is especially canted in one direction that favors power production under low CIL.

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+1 for mentioning muscle fiber type. I suspect that some sort of neuromuscular issue may be at work here. –  Daniel R Hicks Aug 31 '11 at 21:52
    
+1, Never heard of CIL-- really interesting stuff! However, it seems like those articles are using measurements by trained riders at significant power outputs(I saw 250W mentioned!). The problem might very well be much simpler and not so fatalistic(dependent on muscle type). I'd first be concerned if the rider is properly taking advantage of paceline, and secondly whether or not he is able to accelerate and recover for the subsequent acceleration to avoided being gapped. These skills can be picked up easily with a bit of focused training, especially by high-mileage riders with strong fitness. –  Angelo Sep 1 '11 at 1:39
    
I agree that this is more likely a case of poor riding style (especially low/inconsistent cadence), but 250W is not an exceptionally high power output -- it's about what I'd estimate well-trained "casual" riders can do for a 30 minute pace. Competitive riders can probably do 300-350. A healthy male can generally produce 1HP (750W) for a minute or two. –  Daniel R Hicks Sep 1 '11 at 21:54
    
After reading these posts I've gone out on a couple of rides,and paid some attention to the way I ride (for the 1st time ever). I'm thinking more than 2 years of bad habits, is probably the beginning of my problem. I ride virtually the same 63 mile route 5 times a week every time (I have a few variations). –  Dean Ames Sep 2 '11 at 16:00
    
The extent of my training method has been to just ride as fast as I can all the time. Only 20 miles or so is flat. My last two rides I paid some attention to what muscles I use uphills and on flats. Up hills, I feel the burn in my quadriceps. But on flats, the burn is in the back of my leg close to and part of the lower part of my butt (and I feel very weak). –  Dean Ames Sep 2 '11 at 16:01
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300 miles a week is extremely high mileage. Very few people can pull that off. I'm surprised that you feel you need to ask for advice. :-)

That said the way the cyclists increase speed, like runners and swimmers, is to train with intervals. This means increasing your speed until you're at/near/slightly-above lactate threshold, holding it for a minute or two, then resting for short time and repeating this multiple times.

The bottom line is that this is a matter of following a training program. At 300mi/week you definitely have the "base" down (far more than most folks), now you just have to practice intervals/speed-work.

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Note when doing intervals that the lactate threshold will typically feel like a burning sensation (due to some of the related metabolic processes as your muscles work anaerobically.) So increase speed until it burns, keep a slight burn for a minute or two, then slow down for a few minutes. –  freiheit Aug 31 '11 at 19:28
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That's what I thought. Even 300 a month is more than most! –  Unsliced Sep 1 '11 at 18:04
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Before I started riding, I was running 50 miles a week (10 miles a day). But my knee began to get sore, so I jumped on a bike and just rode until it felt like a similar workout. I fell in love with the bike and never looked back. But I have never given any thought to targeting a workout. Thank you for the insight. –  Dean Ames Sep 2 '11 at 17:55
    
@Dean, I think you will see rapid improvement with even moderately structured workouts. –  Angelo Sep 6 '11 at 19:40
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I used to be in the same situation, during the bike split of the triathlon races I participated in, I would pass a lot of people on the climb and could not keep up with them on the flat.

I changed my tires and gained a bit of speed, then I changed my wheels and was now able to ride at the same speed as others. (and I bought low end wheels)

It turns out the bearing in my wheels were dead.

Look at the difference in spinning between your wheels and wheels of others. If it's not the problem then I'll go with the CIL and muscle fiber theory.

Have a nice ride

Tom

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Although I'm sure I have other issues as well, I am going to take my bike in an have my wheel bearings checked. I must admit I'm kind of hoping the're bad. –  Dean Ames Sep 2 '11 at 17:29
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It's obvious, but check to make sure your wheels spin freely. I've been on rides before where I felt like I couldn't keep up, and only later realized that my brake was rubbing the whole way.

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