Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Am I Average?

This is a question that has plagued mankind since the beginning of time! 

Am I average and what does that mean?

Great news, at least for cyclists who have been confused when they show up for a ride that advertises and average speed of 18 mph and find themselves pedaling at 25 mph in places just to hang on to the back of the group.

Here is something that I can certainly guarantee you.  18 mph average, never means top speed.  So if this is your maximum comfortable top speed on the flat, you are likely looking for a group that rides more on the order of 14 mph average.

Then you also need to take into consideration the type of terrain that you will be riding on.  If elevation gain is on the order of 1600' for a 32 mile ride then, 14 mph average takes on a whole new meaning.

Your speed may vary
If you are one of those cyclists who has shown up to a ride that lists and average speed that seems to be quite manageable, only to find yourself dropped and left for dead surrounded by native people who produce offspring with their close relatives, today is the day that I help you sort out this mystery!
First of all - average speed on a bicycle is not like average speed in a car on the interstate. 
Most of us are familiar with this average, because we live with it day in and day out most of our lives, but when joining your first group rides on a bicycle, the idea that a 55 mph average means you are pretty much driving at 55 mph does not translate to a 14 mph average on a bike.
  1. The first difference is that it is rare to find the place where your pace will not vary as a result of the terrain (small to large hills) or necessary stops (for stop signs, traffic and depending on the length of the ride, food and water/fuel)
  2.  The second difference is that the accelerations can actually hurt physically, unlike stepping on the gas in your car when you leave a stop sign or go up a hill, there can be pain involved to match the group as they accelerate. 
  3. The difference in speed to arrive average speed will vary a lot more as a result.
For a couple of examples
  • I did a ride 32.5 mile ride with an average speed of 15.1 mph - there was 1600 feet of elevation gain and I had a top speed of 42.6 but I also had time where I was under 5 mph.  So elevation gain played a factor in my average. 
  • By comparison, I had a 21 mile ride with an average of 21.7 mph - but there was only 250 feet of Elevation gain.  My top speed was only 31.6 and I spent a significant portion of that ride in the neighborhood of 18 mph.
Training Ride in the flatlands of Indiana
Average speed 16 mph - pretty steady stuff
So if a ride says that the average is 18 mph average, it is not unreasonable to assume that speeds will in fact approach 25 - 30 mph even on a relatively flat course.  So don't get mad and accuse the training ride organizers of false advertising. (poor way of communicating ride difficulty, but a totally accurate description of what that ride is going to deliver as far as how long it takes to do the course)

If you have been on one of the hundreds of rides that I have organized over the over the last few years and read the descriptions, either on line or in email, you will notice that in most cases, I do not post and average, but rather a difficulty level, proper bike to ride, along with a distance.  A lot of this has come as a result of hearing people complain for example, "They say that ride is a 20 mph average but when they hit 25 I just had to let them go.  What a bunch of jerks, they should ride the advertised speed."  I hear comments like this all the time still and see that people equate average to "speed limit"
Remember these are not the same.

Also, I tend to grade my rides Beginner, Advancing Intermediate, Intermediate or Advanced.
Beginner - Rides start at 8 miles and last for less than one hour - but can be as long as 17 with an hour and 30 minute duration. Any kind of bike is allowed and we do our best to keep this group together.  As riders get more fit, we will split into 2 groups with myself on the back and an more experienced rider that knows the route with the front. We are teaching the essentials of traffic safety at this level and verbal communication skills for a group.  (i.e. slowing, stopping, on your right, on your left, car up, car back, wave at all passing motorists, etc...) on topic, you can see that average speeds in these groups are 8 - 11 mph - These rides are always done on relatively flat terrain.

Advancing Intermediate - These are people who have decided that they want to kick their fitness, speed and or distance up a notch.  At this point we want to see nice Road Hybrids or Road Bikes as it is essential to have good equipment to keep up with the group.  I encourage close formation riding to take advantage of drafting.  There should be a lot of verbal communication at this level.  We will start extending the distance up to 30 miles and incorporating rollers into the rides. (Rollers are hills to the uninitiated, but to experienced hill climbers, they are not significant climbs.  What makes them rollers is that you can generally take a lot of advantage from momentum as they are straight descents on straight roads that you can see the bottom and up to the top of the next roller.  Hence you can roll through them with some effort) 
A Couple of issues that riders at this level typically need to over come is the fear of straight line speed and fear of following more closely in a group. Typically we will do rides of 1 hour 45 minutes to 2 hour 15 minutes duration so you can see that the Average speeds in this group will approach 14 mph.

Intermediate - At this point your have become a dedicated roadie and understand that road riding really requires a road bike (not a hybrid of any description)  Not that you still don't have other types of bikes as we all know by this time that the formula for the proper amount of bikes to have is N+1 (with N = the amount of bikes that you currently own) and if you are married to a non cyclist the adapted formula of N+1<D (D= the amount of bikes that would result in a divorce)
By this time you are likely much more in tune with what an average speed means on a ride.
You talk to people who have ridden with the group and try to know what the course looks like in advance.
You are also aware that just because you can ride up to 20 mph, that does not mean that you can average that under any circumstances.
Likely you are doing rides in the 50 plus mile range and have your sites set on doing your first Century Ride or Hilly Hundred.
Riders in this group will typically be able to average 16-17 mph on flatter courses (faster in groups, because you have become a dedicated wheel sucker by now) and 12 - 13 on something that is pretty hilly but with a distance of less than 35 miles.

This is me topping  a 7 mile Cat 2 climb
In Death Valley, CA about 1 hour to
Complete - 7 mph average
Advanced - you have started to develop a reputation as being crazy with non-cyclists and the first 2 groups listed here.  Another moniker that you are likely saddled with is "serious cyclist"  or "CIBA rider" (CIBA is often saddled with an undeserved rap of being full of unfriendly racers type, serious cyclists)  I find this to be a result of not understanding Average, but also it often just takes one person to leave you with that idea about any group.  CIBA is a great organization and the leadership is populated with very kind and friendly people dedicated to making the cycling experience better for us all.
Regardless - this advanced group can mean a whole lot of different things from Category racer to someone who does a Century ride every year (not necessarily at break neck speed)
At this point you have an idea what you want to get out of your cycling experience (i.e. just stay fit, meet really great people, do a 500 mile ride in 2 days, etc..) it's all good and  the variety of people that I meet while in the saddle is one of the things that keeps me coming back for more.
Riders in this category, know what average means and are only reading this post to humor me.  But suffice it to say that they will likely do relatively long rides in excess of 15 mph and depending on their mind set may go all the way up to infinity :)

If you are interested in expanding your horizons, are a cyclist at any level, currently live in the Indianapolis area, I would like invite you to join my cycling meetup group at Indianapolis Beginner Cycling Meetup Group If you aren't from Indy, and happen to be in the area we would love to ride with you.

I know the name of the group is technically the Beginner Cycling Meetup, After all our focus is to get people on their bikes, confident in their abilities and hooked on cycling!  We have been very successful and as a result have added all of the above categories to our meetups.


Lots of great informative articles coming up!  Subscribe to my blog today so you don't miss a thing!


  1. Nice and interesting article Coach!!. I consider myself an Intermediate rider because in order for me to average 19+mph on a 32 mile ride I need to be in a pack and paceline and on a fairly flat terrain. I know that it will take me at least 2 more seasons to even think about calling myself an advance rider but I am hoping if I ever get to my ideal weight ( still have about 17 to 20 lbs to go) to be in the Advance group by the end of next season...Hopefully !!!. :)