One of the hardest aspects of cycling, especially when you are new to the sport or on unfamiliar routes, is finding a pace that you can maintain over the distance. Set off too fast or over-exert yourself on the first hills and you will be too exhausted to sustain your performance (or keep up with the other riders in a group) for the later part of the ride.
On the other hand, take things too easy and you won't be achieving your best results either...
(Note, see our separate article for cycling speeds - related to cycling pace but not quite the same thing).
Finding your ideal cycling pace is crucial to both performance and enjoyment of cycling - there is nothing worse than overdoing it for the first half of a ride but then feeling too weak to continue for the second half.
So how do you find the 'right' cycling pace for you? The more you cycle the more this will come naturally, and you will 'feel' in your legs what level of constant effort you can make and sustain but meanwhile there are a few steps you can take that might help.
- Learn to pedal efficiently - use a reasonably fast cadence (typically 80-90 pedal turns per minute), and 'pedal in circles' (ie try to lift the leg that is going up at the same time as you push down with the other, and slightly continue the effort on the pedals when they are in the vertical position). This efficient pedalling puts less strain on your legs and makes it easier to maintain a constant pace.
- Ride at quite a low effort for the first few kilometres. Far from reducing your average speed for the ride this warm-up time is crucial if you want to then maintain a faster pace for the rest of the ride.
- Take the first hill of the ride quite easily, but not very easily. You will find that making slightly more effort on the first hill than a constant pace or effort might suggest gets your legs in a 'climbing mood' that helps a lot for subsequent hills.
Your legs should always feel as if they are working, but rarely (very steep sections aside) will you feel that you are straining to continue.
The key is to try to maintain a constant power output at a level that is moderately comfortable for you - typically, a level at which singing is impossible but speaking is OK, at least in short sentences. Be the tortoise not the hare!
Of course, every ride will have sections where you have to increase your effort and sections where you can recover a bit. The trick is to become familiar with how much effort you can make on the harder sections and still recover on the easier sections in time for the next challenge, which is what cycling pace is all about. If you go too fast up one hill and exceed your capabilities then don't have time to recover before the next you will find that your overall cycling speed is reduced - along with your pleasure, as you struggle up the next hill at snail's pace!
The main time that it is easy to get cycling pace wrong is when you cycle a longer route than normal, or on a route that you are not familiar with that turns out to have more challenges than you expected, but as long as you are always maintaining a pace that you know you can recover from reasonably quickly this will be much less of a problem.
Note: cycling with others can make it difficult to follow your usual routine. I have cycled with groups who like to ride along slowly for the first few kilometres (perhaps 12 mph) and others who think that a few kilometres at 20 mph+ is a good warm-up. I find the first too slow to get my legs warmed up and the second fast enough to leave me underperforming at the end of the ride, but there's not much you can do apart from 'going with the crowd' in such situations - these usually turn out to be harder rides than when I'm on my own or with someone who rides at pretty much the same pace and speed as myself.