Monday, March 23, 2009

54 miles per hour

54 mph is the fastest I've ever gone on a bicycle. This personal record was wind and gravity assisted on St. Vrain Road in Boulder County, Colorado as I zoomed east toward Longmont out of the Rocky Mountain foothills from Highway 36. If I recall correctly, the speed limit on St. Vrain Road is 40 mph.

The U.S. Rocky Mountains stand in the way of the west-to-east weather patterns over North America. When large weather systems move over the high mountains in Colorado, the peaks act just like pebbles in a stream, causing turbulence that can cause 100 mph winds to dip down into the Front Range. I watched one of these Chinook winds rip a storage building to shreds within minutes. These downslope winds cause millions of dollars in damage as they rip roofs from buildings and topple utility poles, but if you catch one as a tailwind while riding a bicycle, they can be a lot of fun.

This stretch of St. Vrain is also where I hit 40 mph on a fixed gear bike. That's a lot more terrifying because I had to disengage from the pedals and just let them fly as I rested my feet on the downtube. I could theoretically have put bigger gears on the bike, but to go downhill I first had to go uphill. My usual lunch ride circuit back then was west on Nelson Road from Longmont, north on U.S. 36, east on St. Vrain, then 75th and/or Airport Road back before winding my way back to work near where the Diagonal and Hover intersect.

I've been wanting to beat this personal record ever since and break through the magic 55 mph barrier. I thought I'd have my chance on Sunday, with strong northwesterly winds gusting to 40 mph in northern California. I should have gone down to the coast to Highway 1, but my time was limited and I thought the hills where I live in the Santa Cruz Mountains would help.

Felton is downhill from Scotts Valley by a couple of hundred feet, but Mount Hermon Road is a rollercoaster with a couple of good downhill segments going toward Scotts Valley. I pushed west against a stiff 20 mph wind and rode to Felton, California.

It turns out, unfortunately, that the hills along Mount Hermon Road effectively block the wind -- as soon as I got out of Scotts Valley, the wind was variable but mostly very light. I thought I'd try my luck on Highway 9 and went up to Ben Lomond, but all of them redwood trees block the wind, too.

My max speed today was 38 mph. Yeah, it was goofy going out for a ride for the sole purpose of going fast like the wind, but I had a good time doing it.

How about you? Do you like going fast? Do you purposely seek out strong winds and steep hills just so you can brag about how fast you went on a bicycle?


  1. 47mph down Sanborne rd in Saratoga. That's the fastest hill I've found so far.

  2. 54 mph down I-5, in Oregon, from the Siskiyou Summit, outside of Ashland. What an awesome ride!!

  3. 47 is my fastest. Wasn't on a good road though. Lots of debris and a big gap in the pavement on the steepest part (~23% down grade) while curving to the left. Fast is fun, but gotta find a better road for it.

  4. 64 MPH on a downhill around Scranton, PA (it was two miles straight down with a tailwind). My goal was to break 100 KPH, but my god, when you are going that fast on tires about two centimeters wide, it scares the bejeebus out of you.

  5. Wow, that's amazing. Mine was near 30 mph...don't know if I even hit it.

    I am a scaredy cat, so if I got up to the miles you are talking about I'd probably just crash and die.

  6. 36mph is my max. Unfortunately in my corner of the Midwest, we don't have any big enough hills to go much faster. :(

  7. ~40 MPH down a hill near Orting, WA on a mountain bike w/ road tires. I kept thinking about what would happen if a tire or rim failed at that moment.

  8. Many moons ago I broke 50 on a hill in South Seattle.

    These days, I usually try to keep it under 12mph.. :-)

  9. 48 mph on the mountain bike with slick tyres and just under 30mph in (quite high) rickshaw. was scared to death.

    nowadays I usually keep it under 30mph no matter which type of bike, just to be safe :)

  10. I think my personal record is around 40mph. Although my cyclecomputer is somewhat suspect, so I might have been going faster.

    There is a difference between being safe and cautious. If you always take it easy going downhill and rely on your brakes, if your brakes start to crap out on a downhill, you will get injured. Much better to expand your descending speeds over time in safe conditions, IMHO.

    I was going down Mt. Eden road yesterday and cursing the person in front of me who was driving too slow. I had to ride my brakes to not run into their rear end. I want a refund on that hill climb. :(

  11. @wirehead: I know the feeling. I've been trapped behind traffic also on steep downhills. My most fun is passing a long line of RVs in Rocky Mountain National Park while descending from 12,000 feet. above sea level. Mind the gap!

    @ark: I was gonna give you a call this week for a ride over the hill.

    @muuqi: I drove that highway once and thought, "This would be awesome on a bike."

    @jayson: Yikes! Smooth, clean roads for me. Every wipeout I've had was on gravel or ice.

    @Michael: 100 km/hr! Whoa!

    @Jessica: Going that fast on a bicycle probably isn't the wisest thing I've done in my life.

    @Tim: Nice looking site. I'll need to browse around a little more. Among my more thrilling bike rides is getting caught in the middle of Illinois prairie in a monstrous lightning storm, and I'm the tallest object around.

    @Keith: I've had similar thoughts. Even a front tire flat at that speed could be dangerous. Hitting potholes is no joy either.

    @Alan: I know a crazy old
    guy in Santa Cruz -- he put a hub motor (ungoverned) on a homebuilt rickshaw and took it up to 30 mph.

    @Johny: Safe is good :-)

  12. wow, im impressed. fast fritz!!
    must be a very cool feeling. Thats why Im getting into road cycling more, (feel the wind in my face, not necessarily hittin 40+mph...)
    I know Im going fast when the 60 yr old guy stays behind me. Id say my faster is around 9mph haaaa.

  13. Just below 60MPH on Hwy 120 east of Mono Lake. Done mid-50's quite a few times, even on relatively small hills, e.g., Wilson Hill up near the Marin-Sonoma county line. Lots of folks get to 50+ on Los Trancos coming down to Alpine Rd. in Portola Valley, and I have done 50+ on Page Mill on the 19%+ grade section just below the Lost Trancos parking lot.

    Being able to do that fast depends on a lot of factors, after taking out the human inhibition component. Grade, road surface, curves, tire type, wind .... A couple years ago I thought we would hit some fast speeds coming down some of the long, steep, straight roads in the Eastern Sierra, but energy sucking chip seal and winds held us to just over 40MPH on roads like Bishop Canyon, Pine Creek, and Horseshoe Meadows. Same problem coming down Hwy 46 to the coast west of Paso Robles; long, steep, and straight but the cross winds are usually so bad you have to moderate to keep control.

    Of course, in my current recovery phase I am taking it a bit easier at the moment; one broken hip is enough to make one take it a bit easier. Yesterday I barely hit 38 coming down Magdalena in Los Altos Hills; should have hit at least 40 in that stretch but took it a bit more cautiously than usual.

  14. I wish I knew my all time top speed on a bike. It was somewhere in the high 50s many years ago. When I was in my early 20s, a friend and I used to paceline down a hill just outside of town to really push for a 55+ max. It was easy to hit the 50 mph mark on that hill, but considerably harder to reach the double nickels.

    These days I play it pretty safe on descents, but I still will push for a milestone increment if I am close. Yesterday, I rode Paris Mountain and was bummed when my cyclocomputer battery gave out mid ride. I always like to check my max speed at the bottom, but I was out of luck this time. OK, so I admit it. I am getting older and I don't take chances, but I still really do like the speed.

  15. 56 mph down 13% grade on the south side of Crawford Notch, NH. 50+ on the 9% side of Kancamagus Highway into Lincoln. A motor bike passed me going into a hairpin and then almost wrecked because they were startled when I stayed right with them. I never plan to lay it over like that, but once you're committed you have to ride it out. The hairpin wasn't at 50...

  16. @meligrosa: Don't feel like you *have* to go fast! Most of my riding these days is slower paced, but occasionally I want to get a little thrill.

    @Rick: Don't forget the bike, too :-) My old steel Centurion had a wicked wobble at anything over 40 mph; heavy aluminum Trek was always rock steady no matter how fast I went on it (and it's the bike I took to 54); the Specialized Roubaix I ride now is also very smooth. All of my fastest rides have been on long straightaways like the road in Colorado -- I've never gone over 50 mph on the curvy roads because I'm too chicken :-) You and Barry breaking your hips over the last year have given me some pause.

    @James: I'm picturing David drafting a semitruck at 60 mph in his small ring. :-)

    @cafiend: I've had idiots on US 36 coming down from Estes Park, CO pull similar moves. They see "bike" and speed up and pull into the oncoming traffic lane to pass me -- even in no passing zones -- and don't realize I don't need to slow down like they do on the curves. So they just move over to nudge me off of the road. When I'm doing the speed limit there's no way I'm riding in the debris laden shoulder.

  17. The best place to go fast is Alpine County. A friend stated his objective for the death ride was "over 50 MPH on all 5 descents". Unfortunately he laid his bike down on descent number 3 - his tights fell out of his saddlebag and got caught in his rear wheel.

    Both sides of Monitor Pass have long straight very fast sections, but the fastest on the DR is probably Woodford's grade from Pickett's Junction back to Woodfords. It isn't necessarily that steep but it's in a canyon where the wind funnels to your back.

    Perhaps the fastest piece of road up there is Emigrant Trail from Woodfords into Nevada. The problem is that the really fast part ends with a 2 way stop. The first time I rode that there were 7 of us flying in formation at 55 MPH plus and then we saw STOP AHEAD painted on the road. Had there been cross traffic it might have been curtains for me.

    The altitude up there is what makes it so fast if you can get any tailwind.

    Local to the Bay Area, the fastest road is probably Guadalupe Canyon Rd from the summit down towards Brisbane. You can often get a very fast tailwind, and the pavement is excellent. The only problem is that when the road curves, you are going 50 MPH and the wind becomes a crosswind!

  18. 42.2 MPH, just about a year ago. Curvy four lane residential road. Yes, there are hills in Kansas.

  19. Riding from Pittsburgh to DC in 2004 before the Great Allegheny Passage was complete. A four mile, 9% grade down Big Savage Mountain, at night fall, with only a headlamp and sharing a no-berm road with cars and pickups doing about 60 miles per hour. When I realized that I was going 40mph, I decided I was very frightened and brought it down to something less death-defying.

  20. @fritz: when I say that curves are part of the equation dictating how fast one can go what I mean is that if the the road is curvy it hampers getting up too much speed. It should hamper how fast you can safely go, too, as you should not exceed the ability to see far enough ahead to stop if there is a problem in the road. I refuse to go fast, too, if there are roadways or driveways entering the road I am on; cars seem to shoot out in front of us without looking often enough that I want to err on the side of caution.

    @murphstahoe: I am not sure I would want to try to bomb those descents on the DR. Need to make sure that you can account for all the critters that might run out in front of you; anything from a coyote to a bull can ruin your day.

  21. Having only installed the cycle computer on my ride a week and a half ago, I have only clocked myself up to 37mph. It was on a nice descent on Steven's Creek Road, oddly enough, coming back from riding Steven's Canyon Road.

    I was just coasting in a half-assed tuck, but looked down at my max speed after the hill and was mildly surprised and pleased.

    Now the real question to test your mettle is find out what your max sprint speed is. :)

  22. I thought it was 62 mph in early 1980s (Vector), held until 79 mph in the 1990s, and 82 mph a few years ago. Makes no practical sense anyway! Go from Santa Cruz County to Nevada... for what????

  23. ...55mph on both marshall wall in west marin & whites hill into fairfax "back in the day" as you kids say...& that kinda speed makes you very "aware"...

    ...i would think i've gone faster coming off of mt rose down towards incline village & lake tahoe, also "back in the day" that thin air in a tuck, the resistance is lower & i recall that as being scary fast... that kinda speed is like a religious experience...

  24. 52mph here in Austin TX headed down 2222 from 620. Actually hit it last weekend. I don't remember much of a tail wind, it's a very steep, long and straight down hill though!

  25. Good roads really helps.

    Motorpaced on the flats I've been to 41.

    Field sprint at Frozen Flatlands one year hit we 42 with a howling tailwind - and it was flat.

    Down the hills on North Cascades I hit 58.

  26. I need an 11 on the back. I spun my compact crank out on Skyline road in Saratoga CA this weekend trying to keep up with a group ride. Probably somewhere under 40 mph.

  27. @kit: 37 mph is nothing to sneeze at, Surlyboy!

  28. I got to 53 mph going down the Wheelerville Mountain Rd section of PA route 154 near Canton PA. I weigh 300 pounds and am 5'5" tall, so I have good aerodynamics.