A slow-feeling bike is endlessly frustrating. You might perceive it as a “mushy” pedaling feel, or your usual gear feeling wrong, or like battling a headwind that isn’t there.
Whatever the case, it’ll drive you nuts. The fix is usually simple enough…but only if you know where to look!
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The reason your bike feels slow
Your bike probably feels slow because something has created new mechanical resistance. Start by checking tire pressure, then look into drivetrain maintenance, brake pad adjustment, bearing damage, and even saddle height.
Sensory changes, like feeling less vibration or seeing more open surroundings, can also trick us into perceiving lower speed.
Let’s look at how to find and fix these common causes of a sluggish bike. And remember, if in doubt, your local shop can always help.
Low tire pressure
Slightly flat tires are the most common reason your bike feels slow. Rolling resistance increases dramatically when pressure is too low for your weight.
Note that even if your tires don’t look flat, they might still be far softer than is ideal.
Why do flat tires feel so slow? The part of tire that’s touching the ground is compressed under your weight. As you roll along, that part leaves the ground and springs back to its original shape. This creates traction and bump absorption, but it also saps a bit of kinetic energy. The softer the tire, the more it will compress and rebound, and the greater the energy loss. In practical terms, this feel sluggish to ride.
If you already know your optimal tire pressure, then it’s as simple as topping up the air. If you’re losing air rapidly—more than a few psi each day—then replace the inner tube.
But what if you’re not sure what pressure it best? It’s not a simple answer, since most tires can handle a wide range. This article will help you figure that out. Dialing in tire pressure does take some upfront effort, but the huge improvement in ride quality makes it well worth it.
Dirty, sticky drivetrain
Your bike’s drivetrain—its chain, gears, and derailleurs—accumulate lots of dirt and debris over time. The grease also rubs off and degrades with use. Over time, your bike feels slower due to increased pedaling resistance. You can minimize this with frequent lubrication and occasional drivetrain cleaning.
As the drivetrain gathers gunk and loses lubrication, three main problems arise:
- The gears’ teeth can’t smoothly slide into and out of the chain links
- The chain links themselves can’t hinge as freely
- The grime wears down all those metal surfaces, which hurts efficiency and makes shifting less precise
Those effects get worse over time, of course, so you have to pedal ever harder to overcome them.
To start with, you need to lubricate the chain frequently. I’ve done it as often as twice a week for daily commuting on wet, grimy, winter streets. Use an all-weather formula like Pedro’s Syn Lub (available here).
A couple times a year, you’ll also want to clean the drivetrain thoroughly. Any shop can do this for you, but it’s cheaper to buy a Park Tools cleaning kit (get it here) and use it as follows:
How I can minimize drivetrain maintenance? It sounds counterintuitive, but regular lubrication and cleaning will actually reduce overall maintenance. Think of it as preventative care versus major intervention. (Besides, keeping it in good shape will keep you bike feeling faster, too.)
It also helps to minimize the chain’s exposure to the elements. Less grime means slower wear, after all. The Hebie Chain Glider is a simple and sleek option, but it’ll only work with a single-speed drivetrain or an internally-geared hub. (Otherwise, the derailleur gets in the way.)
Finally, belt-drive bikes require almost no drivetrain maintenance at all. They do have drawbacks—including, ironically, a slower and less mechanically efficient feel. But they’re still worth considering for foul-weather commutes, so check out these great options to start with.
Does this apply to an internally-geared hub?
An internally-geared hub (IGH) requires chain lubrication and cleaning like any other drivetrain. However, the hub itself may have internal wear or damage that makes it resistant. A tell-tale sign is that the bike feels normal in some gears but drastically slower in others.
IGHs always have more mechanical resistance in some gears than others. They contain several planetary gears. Different speeds use more or fewer of those gears, which means more or less resistance.
Still, it shouldn’t be drastically more resistance on any gear on a modern IGH.
IGHs are complicated and delicate, so this is always best left to a professional…but check with your bike shop first. IGHs aren’t that common in North America, so not all shops are comfortable working on them (especially if they might require full disassembly).
If that’s a problem, then you can mail the entire wheel to a specialist like Aaron’s Bike Repair, an extremely well-regarded Seattle shop. But that’s an expensive proposition. Unless you have an extremely high-end IGH, it’s usually more cost-effective to replace the hub or entire wheel than to ship it.
Wheel and/or brake pad alignment
When bicycle brakes are poorly adjusted or wheels are misaligned, they may drag on the rim or rotor. That’s equivalent to lightly braking all the time, so no wonder it’ll slow you down!
Adjustment methods depend on the style of brake. (You probably know which type your bike has, but if in doubt, then this may help.)
Rim brakes are the easiest to diagnose, since you can often see the pad contact the rim.
If it’s always in contact, then brake adjustment is almost certainly the culprit.
If it only rubs occasionally—when one section of the rim passes—then your wheel is misaligned and needs truing. In extreme examples, the tire might even rub against the frame or fork. That’s most definitely slowing you down, and is a sign of incorrect wheel mounting (extremely dangerous!) or, likelier, a serious need for truing.
Truing wheels isn’t rocket science, but it’s beyond the scope of this article. I’d suggest taking it to a bike shop at first, then practicing later if you’re so inclined.
How to fix brake adjustment
Naturally, any shop can adjust your brakes. If you cycle frequently, however, then it’s worth learning.
To that end, here are some excellent tutorials that cover everything you need to know. They show specialty tools that make life easier but are not necessary. I’ve quickly and properly adjusted dozens of brakes using basic wrenches and needle-nose pliers.
Here’s what to do with linear-pull brakes:
Here’s how to address it for dual-pivot brakes (as on most road bikes):
Disc brakes are a little trickier, since you can’t observe the pads as easily, and there’s less room for error. Note that very subtle drag on disc brakes might make a sound but won’t necessarily slow you down.
For mechanical discs, use this video to get started:
Unlike all the above, hydraulic disc brakes are not spring-loaded. They have a totally different design that self-adjusts based on back-pressure against the brake fluid. However, they may still need manual adjustment, which you can do as follows:
Worn or damage bearings
If your wheels are true and your brakes aren’t dragging, then your bike might feel slow due to bearing damage. This usually happens in the hubs, but can also occur in the freewheel/free hub body, bottom bracket, and pedals.
Bike wheels should always spin freely for several seconds, even with a light push. Test this by lifting your bike or setting it wheels-up on the ground.
If one wheel slows down much faster than the other, then it’s probably time to clean or replace the bearings in its hub.
If both wheels slow down equally quickly, then it’s possible that both have dirty or worn bearings. They may also have cheap, poorly manufactured hubs in the first place, but that’s not very common with brand-name bikes.
If you suspect a bearing issue, then take your bike to the shop to confirm and (if necessary) repair it. Plenty of cyclists do their own bearing maintenance, but it’s not frequent enough for most of us to justify the effort or tools.
Note that some bearings are accessible to clean and repack, whereas others are in cartridges that have to be replaced. Your shop can easily identify which type you have.
What other bearings could it be?
Sometimes, both wheels spin freely, yet there’s a resistant or almost “crunchy” feeling only while pedaling. That’s good sign that bearings in the freewheel/free hub body, bottom bracket, or pedals are to blame.
Again, it’s worth having a shop inspect and fix any of the above, but here’s how you can narrow it down.
Pedals: simply rotate each pedal in both directions without rotating the cranks. Does one feel extremely stiff or inconsistent? It has to be pretty severe before pedals bearings make your bike feel noticeably slower, but it’s certainly possible.
Note that most cheap pedals—including almost all stock pedals—have terrible bearings in the first place. If both sides are equally resistant, then pedals are probably not the problem (but might need an upgrade anyway).
Bearings do eventually wear out on high-end pedals. They’re worth repairing.
But on low-end ones, your best bet is usually a new pair. (Even if cheap ones have accessible bearings, the cost of labor could usually buy a new pair with better bearings and more grip.)
Bottom bracket: pull the chain off of the front chainrings, then turn the cranks slowly. They should rotate freely with practically no force. If they don’t, then you’ve probably found the problem. There are few bottom bracket standards, and several models of each. Some are more repairable than others, so this is another good case for going to your local bike shop.
Freewheel/free hub body: pull the chain off of the rear cassette or cog, and gently rotate just the gears while the wheel remains stationary. Note that this does not apply to fixed-gear bikes, but does apply to other single-speeds plus any geared bike. It should move fairly easily, with a smooth but crisp ratcheting. If it catches or resists turning, then—you guessed it—it’s worth having a mechanic take a closer look. Fortunately, high-quality ones are easy to service and low-quality ones are cheap to replace.
Fenders are easy to knock out of line and push into contact with the tire. This is common with clip-on fenders, and all the more so if you use public bike racks. The clearest sign is a faint buzzing or whirring sound.
It’s usually a quick matter to reposition the fender stays (those long, wiry bits that attach them to your bike). Ensure at least 5 mm of clearance all around each tire.
You might hear that sound only occasionally, during certain parts of the wheel’s rotation. As we discussed earlier, for rim brake drag, that could mean the wheel needs to be trued.
But that’s not always the case. It’s the tire, not the rim, that’s contacting the fender. And unlike rims, many tires were never perfectly even to begin with. They may have bulges or asymmetries, especially if they’re been stored flat for a long period. Severe ones may mean a defective tire, but mild ones aren’t usually a problem.
Saddle height change
Positioning your saddle too low makes you feel less powerful, more fatigued, and generally slower while riding. That’s because your legs are strongest close to full extension. If the saddle is lower, then you lose that powerful range. Even half an inch can make a noticeable difference.
If you sense a difference but have not adjusted your saddle, then make sure the seatpost clamp is very snug. It’s tempting to leave it loose for easy adjustment, especially if it’s a quick-release. However, that lets the seatpost slide down as you hit bumps and sustain the subtle pelvic twist that’s part of pedaling. Even if it only moves a millimeter on each ride, it’ll feel significantly harder to ride after a couple weeks.
Is it all in your head?
Our brains use all sorts of visual and physical cues to guess how fast we’re going. That creates at least two ways that our brains can convince us we’re going slower than we are.
Firstly, we tend to associate vibration with speed. All else being equal, it’s true that road vibration is more intense at higher speeds. But if you’ve installed a new part that decreased vibration, it’s easy to conflate the smoother ride with a slower one.
This is particularly common with tires. When we upgrade to wider tires at appropriately lower pressure, they reduce vibrations we’ve come to associate with familiar terrain and speeds. We automatically interpret that as a slower ride, even though real-world evidence says we may be faster.
Yes, it’s counterintuitive. But it turns out those vibrations we felt represented energy that went into bouncing us up and down, rather than preserving momentum. Smoother more or less equals faster, even though our brain suggests the opposite.
(Incidentally, that’s why I strongly recommend the widest tires your bike can accommodate.)
Secondly, visual cues matter immensely. Driving 30 mph through a dense downtown would feel fast—perhaps too fast. The same 30 mph trip on an empty rural freeway would feel painfully slow. Without many objects passing through our near-field vision, our brains don’t have a good frame of reference for speed.
We can experience the same phenomenon on bicycles, too. For instance, if you’re accustomed to bike commuting on city streets, but one day take a detour along a riverbank path, the change of scenery may make you think you’re inching along, whereas you’re actually making great time.
Our brains are “optimized” for traveling on foot, at walking or running speeds. No wonder they’re easily tricked!
Several mechanical factors can make your bike feel slower or like harder work. There might even be more than one involved, so start with the simplest—tire pressure—before checking brake and wheel adjustment, bearing maintenance, fender rub, or unwitting changes in saddle height.
Besides or beyond mechanics, there are also a couple psychological factors that can make your bike seem slower. But unless you’ve upgraded something (primarily tires) or started riding in different surrounding, a mechanical explanation is likelier.