As a cyclist the most I’ve been able to accomplish is to avoid getting a ton slower than I was 10 years ago when I started. Some might say that’s a pretty fair accomplishment. It’s not easy to go faster as you get older.
The only exception to that rule is between the ages of 15 and 25. That’s when athletes are supposed to build upon their maturity to reach a speed peak. Some athletes continue well into their 30s competing at the highest level for their native abilities.
Technically I can still run as fast for two miles as I could when I was twelve years old. That’s when I ran my first 12:00 two-mile in gym class, in Red Ball Jets on a cinder track. The feeling of that accomplishment set deeply with me, and running became something of a release.
By contrast in cycling I did not begin trying to race until I reached my late 40s. Entering criteriums as a CAT 5 racer, I learned every sort of lesson on how not to win or go faster.
There was the race where I thought the best way to catch on was gradually. Mistake #1. Then came the race where I caught on every time around a hairpin turn on the course. That was mistake #2 because I had nothing left for the last lap. And so on.
Ultimately the lesson one learns from speed in cycling is that very few people are actually fast all on their own. What you need to learn instead is how to go fast borrowing from the company of others. Then if you’re smart, you’ll have saved enough energy toward the end of the race or for an intelligent breakaway, again usually in the company of others.
By contrast runners often pour on the gas and create their own space in the lead. The wind can be a factor in running races, but it usually isn’t the determining factor in the outcome of a running race. In cycling however, the wind factor and staying protected in the draft is everything. In bike racing, that is.
In time trials and triathlons, no drafting is allowed. So you have to depend on the aero position on your bike to go faster and be competitive. If you can’t do that, you will lose time compared to others. Almost guaranteed.
So the speed question is relative in cycling and direct in running. Of course great cyclists can ride off the front, but the power of the peloton in both criterium and road racing usually pulls back all but the strongest of riders.
By contrast in running it is common for a surge to create panic in the front pack, and runners must weigh their capacity for additional speed to catch up or keep up. It really doesn’t often help to have additional runners chasing down a lead breakaway because the draft effect is minimal.
And since triathlons typically involve a lot of lag time even among the leaders, it is obvious when someone who led out of the swim stage gets caught only if you are in the same wave. More typically in duathlons and triathlons the only way you can tell if you’re beating your age group or category competitors is by sex or by the age marked on their bodies.
Think about that. You manage your own speed as best you can until that moment when competitive awareness sparks and you must face the speed question. Am I going fast enough? Am I going too fast? Can I sustain this pace till the finish? Will this pace leave anything for the next stage in the triathlon?
So for all the training you do to get faster, the speed question ultimately comes down to a test of character and faith in your training, and in yourself.
It’s a fascinating reality that all of us face. All speed is relative to circumstance. There’s very little you can to do change that fact. Except go faster. Which is the best answer to the speed question.