Speed is relative. Many riders think they are fast, until they are around someone who is fast. Maybe being faster is important to you, but being “fast” is not important to everyone. If speed is something that you would like to enhance, there is one word for you: power. The standard unit of measuring power is watts. Power does not come from having huge Andre’ Greipel thighs (although when you see him in person, he is not as big as you think); meaning that for a cyclist, power is not obtained just by how hard he stomps the pedals. It comes with a combination of things that can be trained and improved with time and much effort. Here are those things, not in a particular order:
The number of pedal revolutions per minute is cadence. In other words, how fast you spin the pedals. When we watch professional cyclists, in something like a grand tour, most of us do not notice their cadence on a flat course, but it is well over 100 rpms. Even on mountain stages, the fastest climbers in the world are spinning the crap out of a smaller/medium gear. You would also be shocked to know that even with the best sprinters in the world, in the final 200 meters of a race, out of the saddle, are not grinding. They are spinning the crap out of a big gear. Why? Put simply, the lower the cadence the more strain it puts on the muscles, while a high cadence targets the cardiovascular system, and with the targeting of the cardiovascular system there is a much quicker recovery time. Now, combine the high rate of spin with gear selection. The faster you can spin a bigger gear the faster you are propelled forward. Whether a little climber or big sprinter, the objective is the same: point A to point B in shortest amount of time.
Cadence has to be trained. If you are use to grinding in the 70s, spinning at a higher cadence will feel strange and can cause you to bounce in the saddle. It take a while for a cadence of even 90 to feel normal and smooth. Yes, professional riders are naturally gifted, but even at very high cadences, notice their heart rate (low) and their form (no bounce). Their cardiovascular system is very efficient and trained to sustain a high cadence over a long period of time for many days straight.
As we watch our professional cyclists, we will notice many times when the color commentator makes the statement of a rider who is in trouble, physically exhausted, and says that he is “pedaling in squares.” Exhaustion causes the rider pedals in squares; it is when he pushes down on the pedal with his right foot, allowing the force of that to bring his left foot over and visa versa, using mostly the quadricep (thigh) muscles. Down is only a tiny part of the pedal stroke. The full stroke is down, across the bottom, up the backside, and over the top. The smooth, circular stroke of the pedal, all the way around the crank, is key to higher power transfer, the whole point to “clipping” into your pedals. To see where you stand with this idea, try pedaling in a parking lot or on a bike path with only one foot, the other unclipped and hanging. You will feel the difference.
Foot position is a very large factor for having the full pedal stroke. Many of us (I did it for years), without even trying, ride on our toes. Riding in the toes-down position is a very common mistake. To fix it, just drop the heel. This flattens the foot through the whole pedal stroke, making it easier to complete with only a slight incline and drop of the heel for the whole revolution. Again, it will feel strange at first. Doing this will incorporate the whole leg, adding calves and buttocks, which in turn produces more power.
Sit up. You have heard your mother or grandmother say it before. Quit slumping. Just remember her when you are riding. One way that I personally remind myself is to think of touching the crown of my head to the clouds. This opens the diaphragm and elongates the spine, allowing more oxygen to enter your body. Remember that you are maintaining your cadence at higher level which demands more from the cardiovascular system which demands more oxygen.
Like smelling a freshly baked pound cake, breath in through the nose. Breath out through the mouth, as if blowing out candles on a birthday cake. Believe it or not, your body needs to get rid of the carbon dioxide as badly as pulling in oxygen. It takes intense focus to slow your breathing down and not pant. Yes, again with professional riders, we will witness many riders cruising along at 25+ mph in a breakaway just nose breathing; that is a peak cardiovascular system at work. It will come with time and effort, maybe not to their level, but it will come with persistence.
All systems go
Tying everything together and training all parts of power will increase your overall performance on a bike. Even professional riders use single leg drills to perfect and train pedal stroke. The beginning of cadence work is a struggle. I found myself, many times, like a drug addict, returning to my first love of big gears and grinding. It is within those times when you say to yourself that you can breath better at a lower cadence, and that is true to a point. Remember it is about the sustainment of power and better recovery, which results in repeatability. You will be able to hit peak watts over a longer period of time, recover for a minute or two and hit it again. The breathing will improve over time, also. Make your pedal stroke become second nature.