Just how fast is “normal?”

OK, so discounting the love/hate relationship cycling enthusiasts have for the philosophies of Grant Petersen; and discounting the enormous diversity that exists between commuting, touring, randonneuring, racing, and just plain riding; and even discounting the diversity of ages, cycling abilities, preferences, types of bikes – and so forth – I realize my question will still, nevertheless, irk a great many riders. This caveat stated, let me begin with a short story.

Although most of my riding is solitary, I will from time to time meet up with another rider or group to share the road and a little camaraderie. I have yet, however, to find a group or partner that travels at my pace, so I wind up having to adjust my cadence, either up or down, for that particular ride pairing. The change doesn’t really bother me – after all, my choice for solo riding is driven more by a need for solitary reflection than it is by any desire to train at a particular pace.

For whatever reason, I’ve joined more group rides than usual this summer and I recently found myself huffing and puffing along with a couple of guys with whom I’d never previously ridden. To be quite honest, it was a challenge keeping up and at one point, fearing I was slowing them down, I asked one of the guys how fast they normally rode.

“Oh, this is our normal speed,” he assured me.

Placated, I glanced down at my handy computer to see how fast we were going at the moment. Out of curiosity, I clicked over to see what the moving average was, and quite naturally the “average” was somewhat less than the speed at which we were currently pedaling.

“So,” I hazarded. “What would you say your average speed is, start to finish, on these rides?”

He gave me an odd glance, no doubt assuming I didn’t hear him the first time, and simply stated the speed we were currently traveling.

Slightly flustered, I tried to explain my question: My computer – as I presume most others also do – tracks the average speed from the time you take off to the time you quit, factoring in slow downs, stops, etc. I knew from listening to the guys talk before taking off that most of them diligently track mileage and times; most of them bragged about this ride or that ride, and having averaged XX mph – and man, was I on fire that day!

My ride partner informed me that he only counted the time he was at cruising speed into his average speed. Soon afterwards, he slipped into the front of the group, thus effectively putting to an end any further awkwardly complicated conversation.

I seldom track my average speed – frankly it’s not terribly interesting. I know what my average cadence is – around 80 – and I can tell if I’m feeling not quite top-of-the-world, just by counting my revs. I also know what my favored gear inches are for a particular bike. For instance, 98% of the time I will be at 71.4 gear inches on my Boulder. Similarly, I will usually be in either 70.9 or 75.6 on the Gazelle.  For me, a sometime researcher, these kinds of numbers make sense.

But the other rider’s comments left me wondering. Are riders – even casual riders – so obsessed with speed that they kid themselves? I know a fellow who boasts about his twice weekly ten mile ride on which he claims to blast along at twenty or twenty-five miles per hour. His bike sports no form of computer whatsoever so he’s clearly estimating his speed. I’ve seen him toiling along at no more than a few miles per hour, but I also think that with the wind in his face, he figures he must be going pretty darned fast.

So how fast is “fast?” How fast do you normally ride? How do you figure your average speed – do you factor in start-to-finish, or only after you’ve reached cruising speed?

Or do you simply pedal for as long as any given ride might last?

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