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I commute to work on a Trek 7100e hybrid bike. It's about 15 miles (24km) each way, along flattish suburban roads and a (fairly smooth) canal towpath. It takes me about an hour. Due to the distance (and extra time compared to driving), I only do this about once a week. I'm a medium-height, slightly built guy, reasonable fitness level. What is the best way to improve my speed and reduce my time, without spending much money?

  • Pedals - I don't really want to go clipless due to the expense, but I'd consider it if it's the best way. Are toe clips and straps likely to make much difference?
  • Reducing 'luggage weight'. My standard pack for work is a change of clothes and some basic bike maintenance stuff (tube, pump, tools, and a cable lock). It's currently in a double pannier that's probably overkill. Should I consider going to a rack trunk, a handlebar bag (no rack required), or something else? I don't like cycling that far with a backpack.
  • Tyres - change to slicks? Or narrower tyres? Would that mean I'd need to change the wheels too?
  • I'd assumed (and read somewhere here) that changing to drop handlebars would be more trouble than it's worth.
  • Something I haven't thought of?

EDIT - just a quick update. A work colleague had some spare LOOK clipless pedals and shoes, so I gave them a try. And I'm a convert! I see a definite improvement in performance, especially in acceleration - I can get up to speed a lot quicker than I could before. Thanks to everyone who answered. I'll probably try skinnier tyres too, but not until I actually need to change them.

EDIT three years on. I upgraded to a road bike (Pinnacle Dolomite 4, 2016) and that's been the biggest improvement in speed. I still have a rack on the back (just a rack top bag now, no panniers), clipless pedals, and 25mm tyres inflated to 100psi. I usually try to leave some clothes in work to reduce weight. Record time is now 51 minutes!

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    Slick tires would make a difference, if you're not using them. Maintaining 24 kph on a hybrid that you ride one day a week is pretty good. The next two increments after slick tires would be clipless pedals, riding more frequently, and then a road bike. – andy256 Aug 28 '15 at 11:13
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    Narrower tyres would help, no need to change your wheels. Could you leave a spare bike lock at work, that would reduce weight. As you only ride once a week,maybe bring in change of clothes on the day before. Then you only need a saddle bag for keys, phone, spare tube etc. Try a small frame mounted pump. Drop bars too much trouble for a hybrid. – Kim Ryan Aug 28 '15 at 11:51
  • The change of clothes thing is worth considering. Would be nice to drop the rack entirely and go for a saddle bag. – benshepherd Aug 28 '15 at 11:56
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    Yep, I just used a saddle bag for several years of commuting. I placed spare tube and tools in a canister that slid into one of the drink bottle cages, you can buy them online. Also managed to shorten my trip by finding several short cuts through back lanes and more direct paths that cars couldn't take. – Kim Ryan Aug 28 '15 at 12:15
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    You want reasonably slick tires, inflated to 80psi or higher (assuming reasonably smooth roads). And it wouldn't hurt to go a hair narrower than the 35mm stock tires. You might be able to trim down to a single pannier. Don't use a handlebar bag -- that makes the bike harder to handle and probably slower. Reconsider getting clipless pedals or at least toe clips. – Daniel R Hicks Aug 28 '15 at 12:33
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I posted a comment

Slick tires would make a difference, if you're not using them. Maintaining 24 kph on a hybrid that you ride one day a week is pretty good. The next two increments after slick tires would be clipless pedals, riding more frequently, and then a road bike.

... but decided a full answer was needed.

Given that the trip is 24 km, doing it in 60 minutes is 24 kph. Not bad for a lightly built guy riding a hybrid that is reported to be heavy, one day per week. By my figures, you're putting about 150 watts into the pedals to do that. This assumes you're using wide, non-slick tires.

Switching to thinner, slick road tires would gain you 2 kph for the same effort, possibly 3 kph. That gets you there 5 minutes quicker.

But to put 150 watts into the pedals, you have to produce more, because without your feet being clipped in, they will slide a little, and you have to use energy to keep them in place. Lets guess that's 10% of your effort - 15 watts. So you're really producing 165 watts. That translates to about 1 kph faster if you were clipped in. But as the late night TV ads say, but wait there's more. With your feet clipped in, you can produce more power because you can pull the pedals up as well as push down. How much more? The experts argue. Some claim 15%, others 40%. If it's 15%, that's another 24 watts (15% of 165). So after your aerobic system has adapted to delivering that much extra oxygen, you'll be up to about 29 kph. But I think you'd need to be riding three times a week to develop that sustained pace.

Extra training can take you faster, if you are riding regularly. How much is up to your innate abilities and dedication.

And how to go even faster? A road bike. For the same power that drives you at 29 kph on the hybrid, you'll go at 31 kph on a road bike, getting you there in 47 minutes.

So, you said you didn't want to spend much money. I'm arguing that clipless pedals will give you good return. They also support you as you work to increase your strength and fitness.

  • Yes, also being clipped in engages extra muscles on the up stroke. Consider MTB style clips rather than roadie. Easier to clip out of in traffic, and the shoes are easier to walk in. – Kim Ryan Aug 28 '15 at 13:38
  • @Kim yes; I used to wear my SPD shoes all day when I commuted. – andy256 Aug 28 '15 at 14:07
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    I would argue tire construction (i.e., supple) will be more important than width. I ride some wide slicks (42mm) which barely differ in speed on the long flats from 25mm slicks. Also flat pedals are not necessarily less efficient than clipless pedals. There are other advantages but sustained effort may not be one. – Rider_X Aug 28 '15 at 17:47
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    @Ben Nice to hear you're making progress :-) – andy256 Oct 13 '15 at 9:03
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    The "extra power when clipped in" is true, but its not a lot. If you have clipless pedals, try this: One foot in the air (not on pedal), and the other clipped in. Try and bike off from standing still, only powering on the up-lift with one leg. Its difficult. Compare that with pushing on the downstroke, still with one leg. – Criggie Oct 13 '15 at 22:01
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If you take the clothes in to work when you're driving anyway the tools etc. should fit in one or more of [saddle bag/triangle bag/top-tube bag] (the last of these is nice for a smartphone as well). Removing the panniers and rack will reduce drag as well as weight, and at these speeds drag is important (don't forget the 24km/h is an average including stops and slowing down for bends etc.).

For commuting on "fairly smooth" stuff like most towpaths, slicks may be going too far, but tyres designed for touring may be better than what you've got (the stock tyres on hybrids vary a lot, you could tell us what yours are). If you're buying new tyres anyway, go for anti-puncture -- on most roads the average commute over a few months will be quicker because the loss of time to a puncture is so much more than to the weight/rolling resistance penalty.

Without changing your bars or going for a road bike you may find a slightly more tucked position beneficial (by adjusting the stem or tilting riser bars forwards). Tucked vs. upright on my hybrid makes about 10% difference in downhill peak speed in a test I did recently, so a marginally more aerodynamic position might gain you a few minutes if you're equally efficient.

As for pedals, I recently switched to SPDs for commuting. The benefit is marginal if you have a lot of stops unless you can track-stand or clip in very fast -- clipping in causes a slight delay but then you can accelerate harder. You could consider half-clips -- I wish I had. These will help stop your feet sliding around and may fit cheaply to your existing pedals. They're basically toe-clips without straps, and won't let you pull-up, but the benefit of this is still under debate.

If your commute is an hour by bike and half that by car, you might find that knocking a few minutes off would mean you could happily ride twice a week, then you'd get (bike-)fitter, saving a few more minutes. Once a week is actually hard, 2-3x is good in terms of tiredness and perceived effort.

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    +1 for the benefit of riding more frequently. With practice, the spd's get easier. I don't think about them anymore. An extra thing the OP might consider is riding in each direction on different days. He could certainly push faster then. – andy256 Aug 28 '15 at 14:18
  • My tyres are Bontrager LT2. Drag (of panniers) is a good point. @andy256, I considered it but it's impractical (public transport is rubbish, and my wife wants the car if I'm not using it). – benshepherd Aug 28 '15 at 14:27
  • That tyre's not dreadful but you could probably benefit from a change. I run marathon plus because I really don't want to get a puncture, but they're not the fastest, and you don't need the higher pressure they run at (I'm quite heavy and sometimes carry a toddler in a rear-mounted seat). I also find they're not as grippy as my previous road cruisers (as well as being quite a bit heavier). – Chris H Aug 28 '15 at 14:45
  • @andy256 I stopped thinking about mine and ended up falling into stinging nettles a couple of weeks back (a sudden stop when my cable lock bounced out of the bottle cage it was stuffed into). I reckon anyone doing 24km in an hour isn't saving a lot of effort for the return trip, so the alternating days wouldn't allow much extra speed. – Chris H Aug 28 '15 at 14:47
  • @ChrisH, a change of tyres then. I've not had any punctures since I installed slime tubes anyway, so I wasn't really considering puncture resistant tyres. – benshepherd Aug 28 '15 at 16:34
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The way the human body reacts to training means that fitness will improve most dramatically if you exercise every two or three days. You would improve your times the most by commuting one extra day each week, and also going for a spin each weekend because you'd become a lot fitter. This is free but it will cost you some time.

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Are you too limited in time? If not, consider cycling more often. Take note of your time and put that in a paper - you should clearly see a trend after a couple of months. Three times a week to start with should be a good short/mid term target. Long term target: every day. Not to mention the health benefits.

  • It's a good point, and one that's been raised by others. I'm certainly considering going to twice a week (maybe after this winter). But time is an issue - I want to be home for 5pm, and I have to be at work an average of 8 hours a day. So I lose a bit of time on cycling days that I gain back on driving days. – benshepherd Oct 14 '15 at 11:14
  • Strava's app works really well for tracking your progress and times. Strongly recommended. strava.com – Criggie Oct 14 '15 at 20:50
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You could improve your commute time by carrying less stuff on the bike. I keep spare clothes and a pair of shoes at work for the few times I need to change, rather than carrying them with me.

Depending on your climate, you might get away without a coat/jacket going to work, but require it on the way home so consider keeping a jacket at each end too, ready for a downturn in the weather.

Carrying less stuff makes the ride faster, and more enjoyable too.

  • @jimirings Is this a better way to word the answer? – Criggie Oct 14 '15 at 0:29
  • I'm not jimirings, but I think it does now address the question. – andy256 Oct 14 '15 at 0:41
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    @andy256 thanks for confirming that - I feel that an answer shouldn't be deleted outright, if it could be re-worded or reworked. That's what comments are for. – Criggie Oct 14 '15 at 0:47
  • Given the time of day the OP mentions in another comment, and the weather I'm used to, an extra layer is more likely to be needed in the morning. And out for an hour I'd recommend carrying the coat - in a 2nd bottle cage perhaps. But your suggestion is good for someone who's less likely to forget stuff than me. – Chris H Oct 15 '15 at 7:41
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You're not going to save much time getting fit or buying a new bike. 15 miles will take 45 minutes (20 mph) to an hour (15 mph). If you are a Cat 1 Pro rider, you might be able to make it in 35 minutes, drenched in sweat.

  • Improving from an hour to 45 minutes seems like a significant saving, to me. That's half an hour saved each day. – David Richerby Jun 13 at 15:43

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