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No sweat

9 January, 2012

Do you like getting hot and worked up or do you prefer your bike riding to be easy and relaxed? In a fascinating experiment, Simon Vincett  used his daily commute as a testing ground for both types of riding.

Do you get there much faster if you rush to work or do you just get sweaty? Is commuting a race or can it be a stress reliever? Is it possible to arrive at work without needing a shower? Can I sleep in for longer if I rush, or if I skip the shower?

Regular riders debate such things so I sought out some facts. During October I timed my usual 9km commute between home and the CBD ten times – five times rushing and five times cruising – to document the difference. The ride times and details are in the table below and I came up with some general discoveries as well.

An early realisation was that a flowing ride with few stoppages is nothing more than good luck. Stoppage time (for lights, etc) varied from 7.54 minutes to 3.48 for the 9km journey. Whether the stoppage was shorter or longer was randomly distributed across the trips irrespective of average speed. Trips with the least and most stoppage times were at almost identical average riding speeds (20.6km/h and 19.75km/h respectively).

It indicates there is no real value in sprinting to catch lights. The average stoppage time was 5.07 minutes throughout the tests, and the difference between that time and the luckiest run meant the best I could hope to gain is 1.19 minutes, which doesn’t seem worth busting a gut over.

Getting sweaty, I found the top average speed I could achieve on my commute was 26km/h (this average doesn’t include time when the bike was at a complete halt). This average required a concerted effort and I was a bit spent at the end. When I didn’t try quite so hard but was still rushing I averaged between 23 and 25km/h.

My average speed when cruising is about 20km/h. Other riders will have different average cruising speeds. The definition of cruising to my mind is that you don’t feel like you’re rushing or putting in a big effort and you don’t end up too hot and sweaty. Having said that, I find for a commute over 5km I prefer to change clothes when I get to work because I’m too sweaty for comfort. For a ride under 5km I find there’s no need for me to change.

It takes about three minutes for me to change clothes completely from riding clothes to work clothes. Add a shower, and the process takes about seven minutes. That’s not much of a sleep in, but rushing doesn’t deliver much of a time gain either. For me, riding at 20km/h and not needing to shower (but changing clothes) took the same time as riding at 23km/h and having a shower. At my top speed of 26km/h I am ready to work two minutes early after a shower.

Some other significant benefits of not rushing – in addition to not getting so sweaty – are that you are less likely to have an accident and you are less likely to intimidate other riders or drivers with aggressive behaviour. If you yield in situations instead of pushing your way through – which can be a subtle distinction to make, it’s true – you reduce your exposure to risk and don’t contribute to potential road rage.

For a perspective from outside the world of regular riders, in an article called “Slow Cycling” for BRW in October 2011, Kath Walters wrote about trying out riding to work after an experience of riding in Amsterdam. She characterised the attitude predominant in Australian riders that she encountered as “aggressive, speedy and, dare I say, snooty and possibly macho approach to fellow cyclists”. Heard that sentiment before? Me too. Tired of it? Me too.

The best insight into the value of taking it easy came to me not during this experiment but in winter when I developed pneumonia. I couldn’t ride for a week – which nearly drove me crazy – and when I started up again I couldn’t ride at my usual pace. But I didn’t seem to take much longer to get home and it was nice to be a bit chilled about the commute. Of course, as soon as I was healthy again I was fanging it once more because I can’t help myself, but it made me think about what I was gaining from my ride.

Contributors on Australian Cycling Forums offer comments on the subject:

“Every so often I try to do a ‘recovery’ ride, or tell myself I’m going to take it easy today but I haven’t been able to do it yet.” Idrcycles

“The key is to get to work safely, and time and speed is for me not an issue. I do keep an eye on my speedo, and out of interest I look at my average, but this is more to see if my fitness improves. And without fanging it, it does improve.” Damhooligan

“When it comes to life in general I believe that it is FAR FAR more enjoyable and less stressful to leave 15 minutes earlier and not to rush. This applies to walking, driving or cycling.
However, I don’t practice what I preach, therefore much of the time I am rushing. In the evening ride home I’m often still rushing as I am trying to beat the clock. It’s still a lot more enjoyable though because I can choose to go slow.
One thing though on some roads with precarious traffic and or unsafe bike lanes it is often safer to go faster. It reduces the speed differential. For parts of my commute this is a key factor in determining my exertion level.” Human909

Easy or rushed

Journey time
Ride time
Stoppage Notes
Evening   rush





favourable   wind
Morning   rush





strongly   favourable wind
Morning   rush





early   morning on quiet roads
Evening  rush





Morning   easy





Evening   rush





Morning   easy





Evening   easy





Evening   easy





unfavourable   wind
Evening   easy






tired   rider

The commute

  • 8.9km from home to Melbourne CBD and return
  • Usually between 7.45–8.30am and 5.30–6.15pm

The rider

  • Tendency to rushing but a stickler for road rules.
  • Light sweater, rarely showers on arrival but usually changes clothes.

The bike

  • Touring bike with 700C wheels and 28mm city tyres.
  • Fairly regularly maintained, including tyres pumped weekly.
  • Luggage similar weight each day.

The weather

  • Spring in Melbourne: often showery, with wild variation between hot and cold temperatures

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20 Comments leave one →
  1. Kim permalink
    11 January, 2012 5:14 pm

    Since returning from a stint living in Amsterdam, I’m also a convert to the slower ride. It allows me to be much more aware while riding in traffic, also means I don’t have to change clothes or get to sweaty, and it’s generally a lot more enjoyable too.

  2. David permalink
    11 January, 2012 5:30 pm

    What I have found helps to reduce my ‘need for speed’ when commuting is just to take off the speedo (cycle computer).

    It’s a wrench to do it and, initially, I kept looking for it but you get used to not having one and it made my slow down as I wasn’t checking current / average speeds or time.

    It made me de-stress on rides and I haven’t noticed any significant difference in overall commuting time.

    Still have the speedo on the road bike for training – but’s that’s completely different from commuting.


  3. 11 January, 2012 5:48 pm

    Very interesting.
    This same argument applies to riding a bike vs taking the car or public transport, particularly when you take into account parking, walking from the parking station or bus stops to the office, etc. In this case bikes are often door to door.

    Conditions also make a huge difference, if your trip includes a steep hill or regular strong winds, it makes it much harder to actually do a casual, sweat free ride.

    Distance is also another interesting dimension. A1 hour trip at the sweaty speed of 26kph, at 20 it will take an additional 18 minutes on the bike, and that starts to become significant.

    At the aerobic level, of say 70% Max heart rate, you still get pretty warm, you can still talk and have a socialble ride, and you are doing very worthwhile heart and lung exercise; whereas below that, it becomes leisurely transport rather than contributing to your weekly exercise needs. If you get into your anaerobic zone, 90%+ then you are well on your way to some real fitness training, and a big sweat! So if riding is a major aspect of healthy exercise, I recommend, an Aerobic ride to work (less sweaty), and Anaerobic back home.

    I am the type who needs regular sweaty exercise, otherwise I get rattie. At slow speeds, the repetitive nature, becomes soporific I tend to ‘zone out’.

    • nozo permalink
      12 January, 2012 3:07 am

      I agree. A slow ride doesn’t stimulate my mind as much, though I am aware there are many people out there whom would like nothing better.
      I also agree with the distance point. I haven’t performed and accumulated results myself but what I’ve noticed is that I normally commute 21km in around 45-50 minutes on a good day (nice weather, no headwind). And on bad days (strong, awful headwind) it can take me 65 minutes or more. If we consider the headwind scenario as me riding at a slow and steady pace, then the time saved becomes quite noticeable. 15 minutes is more than enough time for me to catch my breath and shower. Also, good exercise = sharper, more focused mind.

    • Roy permalink
      12 January, 2012 9:35 am

      Yep, with a 30km commute each way from the outer suburbs its a lot different to a 9km inner suburbs journey, the good old tyranny of distance. I ride for the enjoyment and the exercise, so tend to push myself quite frequently.

      Besides if i was to ride slower i wouldnt be able to overtake all those fixies.

  4. 12 January, 2012 8:30 am

    I also agree on the distance point. I have a 35km commute (70km round trip) to South Melbourne. I can usually get through the first 15km to 18km without having to stop at all – that is where turning up the pace counts. Once I get to the Southbank Promenade, speed becomes pretty irrelevant

  5. K.Vincent permalink
    12 January, 2012 8:58 am

    Agree strongly with the article, and the conundrum of getting to work / home supposedly relaxed & yet somewhat ‘revved up’ from the speed & anxiety about safety (potential doorings, sideswipes,verbal abuse etc). Perhaps now I can slow down in the knowledge that ‘the more haste ,the less speed’.

  6. ELk permalink
    12 January, 2012 9:43 am

    To me my bike is a mode of transport, rather than an exercise/fitness thing.
    The same as when I’m walking I find the speed at which I travel depends entirely on the day and how I’m feeling.
    My commute is only 6km with quite a few traffic lights, so I really don’t notice much difference between going fast or cruising.

    I do, however, notice a big difference in my uphill skills if I haven’t had breakfast 😦

  7. John Harland permalink
    12 January, 2012 10:49 am

    In Amsterdam it is difficult to ride other than at the pace of everyone else, and you are unlikely to gain more than a few seconds if you do try to ride hard.

    It drove me nuts, although not as badly as the lack of hills did.

    In Melbourne it can be harder to defend one’s roadspace when riding in a leisurely manner, in peak times, at least. When you are riding harder, motorists can understand more quickly what you are aiming to do, so they make allowance more readily.

    It would also be absurd to have everyone trying to ride at the same pace in a place with even gentle hills, like Melbourne. The ways things are done in Amsterdam work, in large part, because it is dead flat.

    The optimal way to ride will differ with time of day, as well. Riding a peak-hour style in the sleepy post-peak morning traffic and you can end up in difficulties as bad as riding in a sleepy, laid-back style in peak traffic.

    When I am in the mood for a quieter ride, I take a quite different route through quiet streets, lanes and paths. I don’t try mixing with traffic when I am not keyed up to it and not as keen to get to my destination as everyone else in the traffic stream.

    Riding hard does not gain you much time, but when was cycling primarily about elapsed times? The best rate to ride will depend on you and on the conditions in which you ride. It is not one size for all.

  8. Richard permalink
    12 January, 2012 2:28 pm

    Being back in Melbourne after 10 years in Perth I have noticed a huge change in the way the traffic moves – it is much faster, less patient and forgiving, and there are so many more roundabouts and traffic lights.
    I very quickly had to change my inbuilt riding habits once back on the roads I was so used to riding on, for example riding hard along Waverley Road is no longer safely feasible.
    It didn’t take long to work out that being defensive and sitting back got me around with few issues, even though it was a frustration needing to change life long riding habits it does make it easier to read the unpredictable traffic.
    There is a second benefit to my being safe, and one I often get the satisfaction of feeling, and it is catching up and sitting in front of all that traffic and individuals who busted a gut to get to the traffic lights ahead of everyone else!!!
    Traffic always reminds me of a great bit of graffitit that used be at Burnley:
    “You may have one the rat race but you are still a rat.”

  9. 12 January, 2012 4:30 pm

    Well, of course I think you’re making a lot of assumptions about the choices we make. Like, that people who cycle quickly are doing so to save time. Not true in my case – I find slow riding really tedious. And you lose most of the fitness benefits if you don’t work up a sweat.

    I also notice that you count the time it takes to shower at work – but are you counting the time if you shower at home? I shower once per day – if anything, I do it faster if it’s at work.

  10. 13 January, 2012 11:21 am

    Traffic lights (and traffic!) suck, I will gladly ride a longer route to avoid them. Your stoppage times confirms that this is largely economical. I ride 26km mostly on Merry Creek – Pascoe Vale to Richmond; I will need a shower anyway, so riding faster = better exercise, quicker commute. 🙂

  11. 13 January, 2012 9:37 pm

    This should be old news that you can ride just fast enough to get somewhere and not need a shower at the end. Get a set of panniers, wear normal clothes and you will see what I mean. I did it for 2 years from about 13kms out. It’s a much more casual way and like what the Dutch etc have been doing for years and we seem to still be stuck in Lycra hell.

    • 16 January, 2012 8:59 am

      For the record I rode Oslo, Norway for years all through the year, winter included, in normal clothes. The short distances didn’t warrant changing.

      My current trip is twice your distance; your “lycra hell” comment is way off base or plain ignorant. For one, the bib shorts feature a comfortable chamois that don’t chafe your private parts – they’re just way better for any serious riding.

    • 16 January, 2012 9:03 am

      Jerome, follow up – my apologies, I got the impression from the email notification I received that you were replying directly to my post; reading it closer I see now that you replied to the O.P. Please ignore the way off base / ignorant part. 🙂

  12. Philip Craig permalink
    17 January, 2012 10:57 pm

    I’m over 60 now, so nature has slowed me up a little bit. I now do an easy 8k in less than 30 minutes without being soaked in sweat (hot northerlys excepted).
    In my 30’s and 40’s I used to do 20k like a bat out of hell and would take an hour and an obscene amount of cold water to cool down. There is nothing worse than perspiration dripping off your nose onto a desk with all your workmates looking on in mute amazement.All to save 5 minutes on the commute.
    Funningly enough, I do the homebound uphill faster than the inbound. Probably a subconscious desire to get as far away as fast as possible from work.

  13. Andrew Smith permalink
    24 January, 2012 11:09 pm

    I commute 15k from Moorabbin to the CBD 3 days a week and to Bentleigh station the rest of the week. I wear bike clothes, ride moderately fast (I’m >50 now) and shower at work when I go all the way in. When I do the short ride to the station I’m slower, and in my work uniform. The way I see it, it won’t matter how slow I ride if I’m doing more than 5k, I’m still going to sweat. And if it rains I’ll be wet, despite my mudguards. I’ll still need to shower and change clothes. So I might as well get some exercise and get there a bit earlier. I’m doing this to save money primarily, get health benefits (as long as a door or what’s attached to it don’t get me), and be greener. So it all depends on the day as to the style I adopt.
    What is annoying is the friction created between cyclists adopting different styles and as a result, getting in each others way, sometimes with dangerous results. I ride to the left and give room for others to pass on the right. That means I am in the “door zone”. Yes tough, we all need to share in that risk. To get that changed will require lots of costly infrastructure change and that can only be motivated by lobbying and cyclists blood (sadly). I get annoyed with slower riders who ignorantly ride slowly on the outer part of the lane, forcing faster riders to pull into the traffic to pass or worse, pass on the left.
    I also get annoyed with faster riders that are inconsistent, starting slowly in high gears at which point I pass them, then climbing all over me 200m down the road, passing me and then slowing down. I just want to get from A to B, not train for competitive games on the weekend.
    So thank you RideOn for a thought and discussion provoking article.

  14. Forth permalink
    13 July, 2012 2:45 pm

    I tend to ride moderately hard just because that’s the pace I seem to settle into naturally. This isn’t inconsistent with backing off and taking it easy when either traffic conditions warrant that or there’s a slower cyclist and it’s not possible to pass without being either unsafe or aggressive. I’ve found that I like the feeling of exerting myself now that I have a reasonable level of fitness. Also, since roller derby ate my brain, my commute has become cross-training as well as transport 🙂 Totally over the type-A personalities who think they’re in a peleton though. Sucking my wheel on St Kilda Rd in peak hour traffic wins you no points at all, especially when I pointedly pull over to let you past and you then slow down. If you can’t push that lovely carbon Cervelo faster than I’m going with 15kg of panniers on the back once you get out of my draft then just back the hell off and give yourself some braking distance so I’m not picking bits of Chorus gruppo out of my backside if I have to hit the brakes hard..

  15. bruce permalink
    13 July, 2012 3:43 pm

    Suspect the stats will be fairly dependent on the number of lights in your commute.
    If you have a good section of bike path, and only a few lights/crossings at each end, there may be more benefit to fanging it 🙂
    I don’t bother including the shower time in the total as I figure I have to have one somewhere, either before it after the journey. Makes more sense to have out after.

  16. Brendon permalink
    13 July, 2012 4:29 pm

    I have a fairly flat, 27km work commute with one set of of traffic lights, so early out of bed and a lot of sweat it is. I used to live in Canberra and my work commute was still long and sweaty however the many little trips I did around the city for shopping and social were much shorter and easy to get away with without dripping in sweat. And on the really hot days when even a short trip would result in your own personal drenching you just chucked the bike on the front of the bus and then rode home in the cool of night. A feature sadly lacking in most other cities in the country…

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