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This page last updated on: January 18, 2012
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By David May

How Far Will You Ride? On a bicycle tour you will ride slower and cover less ground than you might think.


On a bike tour you will ride less far than you do at home—slower than you may think you can. You must allow extra time, and plan shorter days, if you wish to have an enjoyable trip.

If you are interested to learn why, read the (somewhat mathematical) material that follows.

To examine the factors that will cause you to ride slower, and therefore less far, we will make an assumption of your riding speed at home. Whatever your actual riding speed—whether it is 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, 18 or 20 miles per hour—the conclusions would be the same.

For argument's sake, let's assume that you are a occasional cyclist, and that you can ride, on a local bike outing at home, with no wind, on flat ground, on an average road, at 12 miles per hour (20 kilometers per hour).

Using the same bike, you might think that you would average 12 miles per hour on your bike tour, but this is unlikely. Here are some of the factors, on a bike tour, that can slow you down considerably:

Fenders and Baggage:

If your tour bicycle fitted with fenders (it should be if you will ride where it may rain), wind resistance will increase.

Are you going to be carrying your own baggage in panniers (saddlebags)? Add your own weight to that of your bicycle. Now, if you add 30 pounds of weight in baggage, your rolling weight will be increased by 15 - 18 %. If you're camping and carrying 40 pounds, you are going to increase your rolling weight by 20 - 22 %. And to handle this, you are going to have to have wider tires.

We can assume that your panniers and handlebar bag will also increase the wind resistance you face by a comparable amount. Thus, your biking speed will be reduced by approximately 15 to 22%, and you will cover one-fifth less ground.

Hilly Terrain: You can't maintain the same average speed over hills, and cover the same distance, as you do on the flat. (Most cyclists ride on the flat. Cyclists from hilly areas already know this!)

Example 1: Assume you ride your loaded bike at 12 miles per hour on the flat. Uphill on some medium grades you might ride at 6 mph. Downhill, on the same grades you might ride at 24 mph. Your average speed is not 15 mph (= (6 +24)/2) but rather 9.6 mph. It takes you 25% more time to cover the same terrain.

To see why, let's take a 48 mile trip, half of which is uphill and half of which is downhill: You rid 24 miles uphill at 6 miles per hour, and that takes 4.0 hours. You ride 24 miles downhill at 24 miles per hour, and that takes 1.0 hours. Your total trip takes 5.0 hours. On the flat, the trip would have taken you 4 hours.

Example 2: The hills are quite steep, your luggage is heavy, and you ride uphill at only 4 miles per hour. Because of wind resistance, curves, traffic, or fear, you can't do better than 30 mph down hill. Your 48 mile trip now takes 6.8 hours instead of 4.0 hours. (It takes 6.0 hours uphill and 0.8 hours downhill). If you want to bike for 6 hours a day, you'll only cover 42 to 43 miles on the steep hills, not the 72 you would cover on the flat.

Thus, the rather obvious "May's Rule 1", Uphills last longer than downhills.

Take the effect of hills into consideration when planing your trip, or your day's ride.

Headwinds and Tailwinds: At home, you may not go out to ride on a very windy day; yet on your tour you may have to cope with stiff winds. The same dour arithmetic that applies to hills applies to winds. Consider a 30 mile flat trip—15 miles out, and by a parallel route, 15 miles back. With no wind, your total travel time, at 12 miles per hour, is 2.5 hours.

Now consider what happens if you have a 20 miles per hour wind blowing behind you on your outbound leg. Outbound, you will average perhaps 25 miles per hour, instead of your usual 12. On the way back, you will average perhaps 5 mph. Your outbound leg takes 0.6 hour, while your return leg requires almost 3.0 hours. Your total trip time is 3.6 hours, an increase of over two-fifths. The inbound leg of your trip takes five times as long as your outbound leg. Overall, you cover 40% less ground.

Thus, the rather obvious "May's Rule 2", which applies to out and back trips, or to trips in general: Headwinds last longer than tailwinds. If only this rule wasn't true! It seems on some trips that you spend the whole time battling the wind. On trips where the wind is behind you, the time in the saddle whizzes by.

Check weather patterns. As much as possible plan your trips to have the prevailing winds at your back. And when you must cycle against the wind, try to pick routes that pass through sheltered areas such as forests or closed valleys.

Road Surfaces: The road surfaces along your tour route may vary considerably from one moment to the next. As it does, if my experience is typical, your cycling speed may change by up to six miles per hour.

Some road surfaces seem to be stickier; some are less flat, either at a micro-scale or over several feet. If you do a lot of touring you will become attuned to highway surfaces, and rejoice when you come upon a non-sticky, vibration-free, undulation-free, bump free, high-speed road. Some trips are almost always on great roads, and others are the opposite. Often the road surfaces change on political boundaries, such as nations or "departments".

The arithmetic for road surfaces is the same as for hills and winds. Your average speed will be slower on a combination of excellent and bad surfaces than it was on that average surface at home. You will cover less ground than expected in a day.

Rain: Are you going to keep up the same speed in the rain? Or stop riding altogether, and seek shelter to wait out that shower?

Cumulative Physical Wear and Tear: Each rider is different, but it is probably fair to say that you can't push your limits several days in a row. Ride conservatively.

Touring with friends: The discussion that follows assumes that your group will not be riding as do trained bicycle racers; that is, you will not be riding in a highly aerodynamic (and therefore rapid) "pack"shifting each-other, , paying constant attention to each other's movements, and taking over the roadway. Rather you will be allowing a certain amount of space between riders for safety purposes, and riding either in line, or if conditions permit, side by side. The discussion also assumes that your group will be sticking together; that is, not riding as individuals, responsible only to themselves for whatever happens.

The larger the group you ride in (or walk in, or bus tour in, for that matter), the longer your trip will take: Some riders may be slower than others going uphill, but may be faster downhill (because of temperament, or ability, or because they are heavier or carrying more weight). Some riders may need to stop to visit the rest room on one occasion, others on another occasion. Some persons may want to, or need to, take longer pauses at meals. Some may need breaks in the morning, and some in the afternoon. Some may wish to spend more time admiring the sights or visiting a museum.

Moreover, the larger the group, the more times you must stop for bike repairs and adjustments, or, dread the thought, for accidents.  For larger groups, supported tours with vans allow much greater freedom to individual riders to proceed at their own pace—or on their own route.

Conclusion: Given all the factors mentioned above, plan your self-organized trips conservatively, allowing much more time than you might think you need. Or, when the availability of accommodation permits, play it by ear, choosing your evening's destination in the midday or afternoon.

On commercial trips, carefully and conservatively consider terrain, winds, and who you will be riding with, before selecting your daily biking distance.

(If you are interested, this page gives a theoretical mathematical analysis of cycling speed as a function of cyclist power under various riding situations.)

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