Cycling to the Sahara: On Speed*

An artist’s impression of me on a bicycle.

After flying cross country – Jerba to Tozeur, three days, 15mph average – I was starting to think that I’d earned that kind of speed. My feet were spinning round like happy hamsters on the wheel, I was fit and strong and I was working hard. I earned that speed, dammit.

But the past two days of grinding, creaking roule has reminded me that for long-distance cyclists speed isn’t earned; it’s given. My muscles haven’t been working any less hard in those two days, I swear, but somehow I’ve only managed to average a paltry 11mph.

In this way, cycling less represents driving or even walking as a mode of transport: it is more like sailing. All I can do is put my ship out on the ocean and make sure the sail is up. Everything else, everything else that dictates the speed I travel at, is out of my hands.

For a cyclist this means the wind speed and direction, it means the quality of the road surface and it means the topography through which you’re cycling. All of these things have a greater impact on the speed of travel than how fast I pump my legs round.

A pleasant sight for sore legs: straight downhill.

For example, if I’m grinding along at 10mph into a headwind (as I have for the last two days), then sure I could pedal faster and sprint my speed up to 13mph, but as soon as I collapse back onto the saddle, I’ll be back at 10mph, exhausted. But if the wind would only drop for a second – all of a sudden I’ll be doing 15mph without even trying.

Same goes for hills. Uphill, sometimes I’m down as low as 6mph. Downhill on a good road can be well over 30mph. But if the road surface is bad, then there’s no point risking a fast descent if the pay-off is a broken front fork – or worse. And so downhill can be slow too. Even a slightly less than perfect road can kill you for 2mph.

So speed isn’t earned; it is given. And I’ll be grateful for whatever I get.

* Please note: I am not actually on speed. I am on levothyroxine. Quite enough.

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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at

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