1. Switch to Tires with Lower Rolling Resistance
Knobby mountain bike tires shine on off-road terrain but underperform on the road due to their low air pressure and high rolling resistance. The extra tread results in poor acceleration and increases the energy needed to maintain higher speeds.
Replacing knobby tires with a model designed specifically for the road will dramatically boost the speed of the bicycle by decreasing the weight of the wheel and lowering the rolling resistance.
Another benefit of road tires, besides their smooth tread, is that they can operate at higher air pressure. Or in simpler terms, you can inflate them to the point where they’re very hard.
“Tire hardness” is beneficial to road speed because firmer tires roll better. The speed, however, comes at the expense of one’s comfort – the ride will be harsher because the tires’ suspension effect will be diminished.
Characteristics of Road Tires for Hybrids
The three main types of road tires designed for hybrids are slicks, semi-slicks, and models with a “city pattern” tread.
Slick tires offer the lowest rolling resistance and the greatest grip on dry and wet asphalt roads contrary to popular opinion.
In different, city tires have grooves that expel water and increase traction on off-road terrain such as gravel. However, if you’re riding strictly on the road, the grooves are practically meaningless.
FAQ: Why do slick tires offer the best grip on the road?
Knobby tires are essential for mountain bike riding but offer less grip on the road because only a fraction of the tread is in contact with the ground.
The tread pattern of off-road tires is helpful only when it can dig into the ground and leave a print.
Conversely, slick tires have a larger contact patch when ridden on pavement and thus offer better traction and stability.
Some people may find this information shocking because we tend to associate aggressive treads with extra friction whereas slick tires look slippery.
One of the reasons for that effect are motorized vehicles.
Slick tires are prohibited for road use by cars because the lack of grooves greatly increases the chance of aquaplaning – the formation of a water layer between the tires and the road reducing a vehicle’s traction with the ground.
In consequence, car tires have special grooves acting as channels dispersing water from beneath the tires.
But bicycles aren’t cars. Bike tires cut through the water and push it aside due to their narrow and round shape. Also, bicycles operate at very low speeds. This characteristic reduces the chances of aquaplaning even further.
Slick bicycle tires offer the best grip and the lowest rolling resistance on the road but have poor perfomance on muddy, off-road terrain. For rougher tracks, it will be wiser to invest into a model designed for off-road usage.
The table below contains a list of possible choices:
Note: The recommended air pressure and the weight depend on the size of the tire and its width. The numbers below are guidelines and aren’t definitive for all versions of the particular model.
|Schwalbe Big Ben*||City||745g||2.50 – 5.00 Bar (35 – 70 PSI)|
|Continental Contact Speed||Slick||460g||3.5 – 6 Bar (50-85 PSI)|
|Schwalbe Kojak Slick||Full Slick||295g||3.8 – 6.5 Bar (55-95 PSI)|
|Continental City Ride II Reflex||City||740g||3.5 – 4.5 Bar (50-65 PSI)|
|WTB Byway Road Plus||Semi-slick||535g||2.7-4.8 Bar (40-70 PSI)|
|WTB Thickslick Comp||Slick||260g||7-9 bar (100-130 PSI)|
|Maxxis Re-Volt||Semi-slick||745g||Max. 5 Bar/75PSI|
|Panaracer Pasela ProTite||City||350g||3.1-6.2 Bar (45-90 PSI)|
*I’ve used Schwalbe Big Ben for two years and have over 10, 000km on them. My experience says that they are very durable and roll nicely.
2. Switch to a Rigid Fork
Bicycle suspension is important for off-road riding because it increases traction by keeping the wheel on the ground when facing various obstacles but harms road performance by “eating” the cyclists pedaling effort.
This is also one of the reasons why full-suspension bicycles are so slow on the road.
Standard hybrids do not have rear suspension, but many models come with a suspension fork. Truth be told, the value of most suspension forks found on hybrids is questionable.
They are usually entry-level models with short travel and unsatisfactory performance. Many cycling enthusiasts consider those forks more of a problem than a convenience.
Another downside of suspension forks is that they tend to be heavier than the rigid versions.
To negate the power loss from the fork, we’re left with two options:
- Switch to a suspension corrected rigid fork
Suspension forks are longer than standard rigid forks. To preserve the original geometry of the bicycle, the rigid fork used for the replacement will have to be suspension-corrected.
- Ride with a locked suspension
Some suspension forks can be locked and turned into rigid ones. This option is meant to improve one’s pedaling efficiency mostly when riding uphill and out of the saddle.
If your fork has that function, activating it will minimize the output losses and increase the bike’s speed. The obvious downside is that the fork will become harsher.
3. Use a Bike Computer with a Cadence Sensor
In the world of cycling, the term cadence describes the number of crank rotations per 1 minute. For example, a cadence of 90rpm equals 90 rotations/revolutions per minute.
Maintaining a high cadence (80-100rpm) a.k.a. spinning with the help of the bike’s gearing of course is considered an efficient use of one’s energy.
Meanwhile, grinding in high gears (pedaling hard with low rpm) is inefficient because it tires you out and lowers your overall output.
The visual feedback of a bicycle computer with a cadence sensor will help you develop the habit of riding for cadence rather than speed.
In general, a cadence of about 90rpm is considered optimal for increasing one’s average speed. Of course, the number isn’t set in stone. Some people perform better at a lower cadence.
Another benefit of bike computers is the opportunity to track your progress and monitor your speed in real-time.
4. Lose Excess Body Fat
One of the best ways to make a bike go faster is to become a fitter engine/passenger/driver. If you have a high body fat percentage, lowering it to an average number or even a bit below will have a positive impact on your cycling times.
Extra bodyweight allows you to lift heavier weights because the barbell weighs less in proportion to your body weight, but cycling isn’t weightlifting.
The extra fat makes cycling more difficult by increasing the mass that has to be moved without contributing to a more powerful contraction.
To some extent, cycling is a bodyweight exercise similar to running and push-ups – the fatter you are, the harder the activity becomes because extra fat is practically dead weight.
5. Cut Your Handlebars
Some hybrids come with long MTB bars reaching 700mm. Wide bars are nice for technical mountain bike riding, but they have a negative effect on your aerodynamics. The bar themselves “catch wind” and so do your arms when you spread them apart over such length.
If you have long bars (700mm+), consider cutting them down to 640mm or even 600mm. This will make the bike a bit more aerodynamic. Another benefit is that you will have an easier time passing through traffic.
Back in the day, my hardtail came with 720mm bars that the manufacturer was apparently putting on their cheaper MTBs and hybrids. I cut them down to about 610mm and rode like that for 2 years.
The downsides that I noticed were:
- Insufficient space on the handlebars for accessories. I worked around this by mounting my computer to the stem to free up space.
- A slight loss of comfort on some terrain.
6. Use a Foot Retention System
A foot retention system (e.g., toe straps, clipless pedals…etc.) will increase the efficiency of your pedal stroke by involving more leg musculature.
When the foot is connected to the pedals, the hamstrings receive a bigger market share because they can now exert greater force and essentially pull the pedal up.
The shortcomings of foot retention systems are:
- Falls. If you are new to clipless pedals, falling due to lost balance at a stop is fairly common.
- Limited shoe types. Unlike flat pedals, clipless pedals require you to use cycling shoes. Toe straps give you more flexibility in your shoe choice, but many consider them unaesthetic.
- Knee pain. Clipless pedals “lock you”. If the bike fit is poor, and the pedal model isn’t right for you, knee pain may occur.
7. Add Bar Ends to Your Bike
Bar ends are not fashionable and some consider them a long-forgotten MTB accessory, but they still have a real presence on the market as shown by the high number of available models.
The benefits of bar ends are:
- Extra leverage when climbing out of the saddle and thus more speed;
- Extra hand positions – a good option to have when covering low distances;
8. Use a Rearview Mirror
A bicycle mirror is an underrated tool mainly due to its aesthetics. However, mirrors add undeniable functionality, especially in city traffic. Once you get used to a mirror, you wouldn’t want to ride without one.
Some bike mirrors aren’t very aerodynamic, but the drag is minimal and practically irrelevant.
A mirror makes you faster by giving you a better overview of the road and allowing you to make informed “preemptive” decisions.
9. Clean and Lubricate the Bike’s Drivetrain Regularly
Good performance requires fairly frequent maintenance. A non-lubricated drivetrain results in poor shifting and loss of power.
The frequency of the cleaning and lubricating routine depends on the climate and the bike’s exploitation schedule. In general, serious cyclists do it once a week or even more often.
10. Wear “Aero” Clothing
Cyclists wear tight clothing for function rather than fashion. Baggy clothes increase drag and slow you down.
One of the ways to improve your aerodynamics is to ride with a cycling jersey and shorts.
If you’re using your hybrid strictly for commuting, this “tactic” would be more difficult to apply because you will have to carry an extra set of clothes with you.
11. Use a Saddlebag Instead of Panniers or Handlebar Bags
Panniers and handlebar bags are known to increase drag as they act like sails. Saddlebags are different, however, because they’re behind the rider and do not affect the bike’s aerodynamics as much.
The downside of saddlebags is that they cannot store nearly as much as a pair of panniers.
If your luggage can fit into a single pannier, you could use a saddlebag such as the Carradice SQR Super Slim which is as big as one pannier.
Having said that, panniers are still better than carrying your stuff on you when biking. There’s nothing worse than riding with a large backpack suffocating your back.
When your body feels uncomfortable on the bike, you won’t perform at your best. A backpack might encourage you to ride at a slower cadence to avoid overheating and sweating and thus negatively affect your speed.
FAQ: Should I get a higher gearing by “maxing” out my large chainring?
Hybrids have lower gearing than road bikes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to upgrade your chainrings or cassette.
Many hybrids have a triple crankset (e.g., 48/38/28) combined with a 7-8 speed cassette ranging between 11/14 – 32/34 cogs.
At 90rpm, and with a 28-inch tire, a combination of a 48-tooth chainring and a 14-tooth cog allows the maintenance of 40kph or 25mph which isn’t bad at all.
Truth be told, most people would do just fine with the current gearing of their hybrid.
However, if your hybrid is more of a “hybridized” MTB, then your gearing can indeed be too low. Anything under a 42-tooth chainring will underperform on the road, especially when you have tires with low rolling resistance.
FAQ: Should I make my bike as light as possible?
A lighter bike is a faster bike. However, many people forget that the cyclist is the engine of the machine and therefore a part of it.
When you’re accelerating, you are not moving just the bike, you’re “displacing” your body too. Precisely for that reason, cyclists try to gain maximum efficiency by being as light as possible.
The process of “lightening” a bicycle is very expensive and has arguable benefits for recreational cyclists. For example, it may cost you hundreds or even thousands to drop 1000 grams from a bike. Meanwhile, you can easily lose 800 grams by skipping lunch.
Also, let’s not forget that a man’s bodyweight fluctuates daily. That fluctuation further reduces one’s ability to perceive the effect of a lighter bike.
Conclusion: There’s no need to obsess over the weight of a bike that isn’t used for professional competitions. Let the weight of your hybrid fall where it may after equipping it with the accessories that you need.
The three most effective ways to increase the speed of a hybrid on the road are:
a. Switching to low rolling resistance tires;
b. Riding for optimal cadence rather than speed;
c. Getting fitter by riding more and following a healthy nutritional protocol.