Photo Credit: New York Magazine


How fast can you think? Today, we’ll get into how fast we process information, and why a lot of what we do as cyclists needs to become second-nature; reflex, not thought.

We tend to think of the mind as this incredible super-computer, able to do amazing amounts of parallel processing, and performing innumerable calculations that we’re not even aware of. And to be honest, it is. It’s a phenomenal predictive machine, that uses all kinds of data input and previous information to make educated (and sometimes uneducated) guesses about the world and what will happen next.

But fast? Meh.

Everything you think of doing, saying, writing, whatever; it all takes a little bit of time. In fact, the nerve impulses (the speed of neurons) are relatively slow – they travel (on the high-end) 120m/s (or about 275 mph). You might think, “Dude, that’s still blazingly fast!” Well, slow down a minute [see what I did there?]. When we think of something, it takes time for the impulses of multiple neurons generating thoughts to fire and cross gaps from one neuron to another to another, in a balletic cascade, ultimately traveling down the spinal column and through the body to enable whatever action it is you plan to take.

From the time you see the pen and recognize it as a pen, about 0.25s have gone by.

I’ll give you an example. Let’s say you need to write something down. You see a pen. By the time you’ve seen the pen, processed that it’s a pen, and sent the signal to your brain to start moving your arm, about a quarter of a second has already gone by. Now, because we’re creatures of the past, for us, this seems instantaneous. I thought “I need to write something down,” and grabbed a pen. But really, from initiation to action took a quarter of a second.

Now to cycling. What can happen in a quarter of a second? Well, everything. One of the fastest criterium races I’ve done averaged 26 mph. For 35 minutes, we were covering about 38 ft every second, or about 8 bike lengths. So in that quarter second between the time I thought about doing something and the time I actually did it, a couple of bike lengths already went by.

When we look at it this way, we can see that conscious thought is for all intents and purposes, slow.

There’s also a second barrier to information processing. We can work with seven items (+/-2) at any given time.  How many things do you think about when cycling? I’m going to take a snapshot of my mind and list the items I have to think about:

  • Position in the peloton
  • Speed
  • Energy output
  • Body position
  • Breathing
  • Thirst/hunger
  • Muscle fatigue
  • Location relative to the race course
  • Who is in my immediate vicinity

That was just off the cuff. I can go on. I haven’t even gotten beyond myself and thought about tactics, motion of the peloton, and so on. Point is, our conscious mind can be easily overwhelmed with not only the rate at which we’re presented new data, but with the sheer volume of data that needs to be processed.

Given the limited speed of thought, and the limited items we can consciously handle, how can we improve our ability to deal with the frenetic environment of the race peloton, or the unpredictability of a mass start ride?

Within the sea of cyclists, you must sense your way with more than sight. Photo by Jerri Robertson Hines

Turns out, while the conscious mind is limited in the number of things we can processes simultaneously, the subconscious mind has much greater bandwidth. Our mind handles all sorts of autonomic processes – breathing, balance, movement, temperature regulation, digestion, and on and on. Beyond just our own internal workings, we are also subconsciously processing our environment. We are taking in information from all our senses that we’re not consciously aware of.

So, how can we process more info? Move things from the conscious mind to the subconscious. Only way to do that is through practice. Thinking about keeping your cadence high? Ride enough at a high cadence, and you won’t have to think about keeping it high. Trying to remember to drink? Practice drinking at specific intervals, and you’ll start to do it automatically. Thinking about dropping your heart rate just before a sprint? Practice calming your heart rate and jumping to a sprint, and your heart rate will drop just before you initiate. The more you practice, the more your body learns what it needs to do, and the more your subconscious takes over, freeing you up to handle those things you can’t do automatically: when to attack, when to move up/down in the field, what face to make when you ride by the camera man?

Now that we’ve moved what we can to the subconscious, what else can we do? Though processing information tends to be pretty slow for most things we take into our brain, that’s not the case for all information coming in. Some people think sight is the fastest sense, since light is so fast. Others think it’s touch, since you have to be able to recognize you’re touching something once you touch it.

What’s the fastest sense? Turns out, it hearing. Whereas it can take us nearly a quarter of a second to recognize visual or tactile stimuli, it takes our brain only 0.05s to recognize a sound . Turns out, our hearing is hardwired to the brain. We can start to react to a sound even before we’ve fully perceived what that sound is. For some cool reading on how hearing defines the world around us, checkout the book The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind, by Seth Horowitz.

Just like I tell my kids repeatedly when they pretend they can’t hear me, “Open your ears!” Get used to hearing what’s happening around you, behind you, ahead of you. Listen for braking, hear your opponents breathing, understand what it means when you hear gear shifts. Listen to road chatter. There’s a whole language speaking spoken in the peloton without words; just times time to understand what it all means.

When you couple turning your actions and responses into reflex, with what you hear going on around you, you can act/react significantly faster, and without thinking about it. You’ll sense a crash before seeing it. You’ll feel a sprint before it starts. And you’ll find yourself in safer/better positions in all your riding.