Hilly terrain and wind can kill your speed on the bike. But most cyclists overlook—or are unaware of—the effect rough roads can have on your pace.
Most road cyclists spend a majority of their time on well-paved asphalt. When the roads are in good condition, the riding is easy. In those rare cases when you ride over a pothole or a series of cracks, you may have noticed a temporary drop in speed.
Between these two extremes are forms of pavement that feel okay enough to ride on, but are bumpy enough to suck valuable energy away. It might not be enough for you to notice, but as the miles pile up you'll begin to realize that your power, speed and even heart rate will have to increase to reach a speed close to what you'd normally maintain on good asphalt.
Knowing how the condition of the road affects power and speed can help you prepare for these conditions. Even if you don't ride with a power meter, a little awareness can go a long way.
Make these adjustments to make cycling over rough roads a little smoother and more efficient.
What You Can Learn From Automobiles
Studies show there are significant differences in road surface effects. Older, more used pavement can produce as much as 24 percent more resistance than a newly paved road.
Tests performed by the Department of Transportation show that roads paved with a coarse, gravel asphalt known as chip seal can produce nearly twice as much resistance as the smoothest concrete, resulting in a 10-percent increase in fuel consumption for automobiles at constant speed.
So what does this mean for road cyclists?
Just like the effect that pavement has on cars, the quality of the road can slow you down and make you use more energy to maintain a constant speed. This means you'll need to adjust your expectations and your effort to conserve energy just as you would riding uphill or into a strong headwind. If you ride over rough asphalt often, adjusting your equipment to match the terrain is a good idea.
What You Can Do
Here are a few tips you can apply to your cycling when the roads are a little rougher to get the most out of your effort and make your ride as comfortable as possible:
1. Watch for spikes in your breathing or heart rate. If you don't train with a heart rate monitor, pay attention to your breathing. If your speed is slow but your effort feels labored, it may be better to back off and pace yourself to match the terrain.
2. Pick a good line. Over rougher pavement, you'll often be able to find sections that are smoother or in better condition than the rest. Try to avoid rough patches, cracks and potholes as much as possible.
3. Concentrate on spinning circles. The rough pavement can wreak havoc on your smooth pedal stroke if you don't concentrate. Don't let the quality of the road get you into the habit of only pushing down on the pedals. Pedal in circles even when the road is rough.
4. Decrease the air pressure in your tires. This will make a difference on your overall comfort by dampening road vibration. It can also help to prevent flats.
5. Try riding in a larger gear. High cadences can make you bounce around on the bike more than normal. Maintaining a higher speed, depending on how rough the road is, can help you glide over particularly bumpy sections. Keep your cadence lower and pedal in a higher gear.
6. Try wider tires. Studies show that 25 and 27mm tires are faster on rough roads than narrower tires.
7. Relax. Hold onto the hoods or tops and sit on the rear of the saddle. Loosen your grip on the handlebars. A tight grip will fatigue your shoulders and hands. It can also cause you to oversteer should you come into contact with a pothole.
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