Will Turner: This is either madness, or brilliance.
Jack Sparrow: It’s remarkable how often those two traits coincide.
(Pirates of the Caribbean)
In the last chapter we talked about riding practices you needed on your first ride. Now we’ll talk about riding practices you’ll want to start working on as soon as possible after that.
How to Pedal
Of all the things you do on a bike, nothing changes so much when you go from “just riding around” to performance riding as the pedal stroke. Cruisers pedal with their arches and push down on the pedals. Cyclists use the balls of their feet and strive to pedal in circles, applying pressure at all points in the pedal revolution, because it applies force at all times (so you go faster) and because it involves multiple sets of leg muscles (so you don’t get tired as quickly).
An efficient pedal stroke is an unnatural act, and it’s fair to say that no one achieves it without practice. So let’s start thinking about it right away, before you rack up any more years of bad habits.
First, you need the proper gear: clipless pedals and cleats that are correctly positioned on your shoes.
The ideal pedal stroke is a matter of much debate and may be something of a personal matter, so I will give you four things to think about when you pedal—see how well they work for you.
- Keep your heels down. Make sure you aren’t pointing your toes on the down stroke. When you point your toes, you take muscles off-line. You won’t feel it until you ride wrong for a while, then lower your heels. Then you’ll feel three things, all of them good: you’ll pick up speed, your leg muscles will hurt in a new way, and you’ll want to go up a gear. If you’ve been riding with pointed toes, you’ll probably need to lower your saddle when you stop. While you’re at it, check to make sure you aren’t rocking your hips, which usually goes hand in hand with toe pointing.
- Lift the knees. The biggest improvement you can make to your pedaling stroke is to learn to lift your knees forcefully on the upstroke. It will bring a whole new set of muscles on line, which is why it’s so tiring when it’s new. If it doesn’t feel right, move back on the saddle, extend your arms a little, suck in your gut, arch your back slightly, and focus on your knees (see below).
- Do the scissor kick. Your feet move in circles, which is complicated, but your knees pretty much just move up and down in a straight line, which is simple. So it’s easy to concentrate on what they’re doing. Drive the two knees in opposite directions, pushing down with one foot while driving the other knee upward toward the handlebar. I think of it as a scissor opening—hence the name.
The scissor kick is easy to learn and is especially powerful when you’re climbing out of the saddle, so it’s discussed again in the Climbing chapter.
With all three of the pedal strokes we’ve discussed so far—down, up, scissor—focus on your knees, not your legs or your muscles. Don’t think about lifting or pushing the thigh—think about driving the knee(s) up or down. I don’t know why this makes a difference, but it does.
- Flex the ankle. You can get exceptional power from flexing the ankle and unflexing it at the right time. As your foot starts the down stroke, drop the heel; then when the pedal reaches about 4 o’clock, rock your ankle so you’re applying force with the ball of your foot through the backstroke.
Think of the motion at the bottom of the stroke as a sweeping of the toe through a small arc, from pointing slightly up to slightly down, instead of a raising of the heel. You can simulate this action (often called ankling) when you’re walking. Stride forward, land firmly on the heel (with the toe off the ground), then rock forward onto the ball of the foot, and push off hard with the ball and toe. That’s what the pedal stroke should feel like. Imagine you’re trying to dig a hole in the earth with your toes. If you don’t like digging holes, the backstroke motion was famously likened by Greg LeMond to scraping mud off your shoe on a bootscraper.
There is a surprising power boost from this pedal stroke, but you have to do it with authority. Don’t just go through the motions. A new tiredness in your calf will tell you you’re found a new power source. If you can’t feel it, shift up to a bigger gear or move back on the saddle.
Each of these pedal strokes works a different part of the leg, which is why switching from one stroke to another is a good way to vary the workload. The downstroke works mainly the hamstrings, the upstroke the quads, and ankling works the calves.
If you watch pro cyclists, you’ll see that many of them have the heel dramatically raised on the upstroke. If that comes easily to you, do it, but it probably isn’t worth the agony it takes most of us to bring it off.
Ankling works well on the flats and moderate climbs, but it’s ineffective on steep climbs, because it saps some of the power from the upstroke, which you need on the steeps, and it’s impossible when you ride standing. At such times, use the scissor kick.
- Vary your pedaling style. Pedaling any one way tires one set of muscles, and if you only use one set you will tire quickly. You want to use all of them. On every ride I do, whether it’s a training ride or a century, I ride for a while ankling, then for a while stressing the down stroke, then for a while stressing the upstroke, then for a while scissoring, then for a while standing. This is especially useful when climbing, since your muscles fatigue faster then.
Can you pedal in circles? We speak of ideal pedaling as “pedaling in circles,” with pressure applied at all 360 degrees of the rotation. The problem with this idea is, it’s close to a physical impossibility. You can push down. You can pull up. You can sorta pull back. You can maybe sorta push forward. But to do them all, with each foot separately…? I tried to do it for years, and it drove me nuts. I think most riders come to the same conclusion. If you can do it, chapeau. If not, scissoring gets you 95% of the results with 10% of the mental effort.
Stay in the plane. This is a big deal. The most common problem with riding technique that I see in other riders is knees flying outward while pedaling.
Your pedals revolve in a vertical plane. You want your feet and knees to stay in that plane. Anything else saps energy, like trying to lift something that’s off to one side of you instead of directly in front of you. Just look down as you ride—watch your feet and knees and see if they’re in plane. If not, try to correct the problem by will power. Be especially on the lookout for your knees flying outward at the top of the pedal stroke, particularly when you’re standing.
If will power won’t work, it’s probably because your anatomy is getting in the way. A lot of people have natural turn-out (they walk with their toes splayed outward), which encourages your knees to flair outward. If it’s extreme, you’ll notice your heels scraping your crankarms. The inside edge of your shoe should parallel your crankarm. If you have exaggerated turn-out, you may need to change pedals to adjust your float (see the Components chapter on pedals) or get more ergonomic footbeds (see the Insole discussion in the Shoe section of Clothing).
Knees flying outward goes hand in glove with a saddle that’s too low, so if you have one problem suspect you have the other.
What follows is an intro. There is more on bike handling in the chapters on Climbing, Descending, and Riding in Special Conditions.
Steer by Leaning the Bike
When you were a kid, you probably steered by turning the handlebar, thus pointing the front tire where you wanted to go. This sorta works up to about 8 mph. But there is a more efficient steering technique. Bicycles change course by leaning, so you steer by pushing down on one end of the handlebar, lifting up on the other, and thus canting the bike over. But when the bike leans, its center of gravity is no longer directly over your contact patch, so you lose traction. If you lean with the bike, your body weight, which is now inboard of the tire patch, adds to the problem and you lose more traction. So, to minimize the loss of traction, as you lean the bike, come off the seat a little, keep your body as upright and as much over the contact patch as you can, and stand heavily on the outside pedal, thus using your weight to drive the tire into the ground and stick (see much more on this in the Descending chapter).
If you have to make a very tight turn at slow speed, like when you’re turning around on a narrow one-lane road, stick out the inside leg—sometimes called tripoding, it doesn’t look cool, but it works.
Ride in a Straight Line
When you were 5, you learned to ride a bike by serpentining through endless S-curves. As you got better, you rode straighter. Strive to be absolutely straight, for three reasons: 1) it’s safer for everyone around you, especially in a paceline, where the slightest deviation from straight can initiate a crash; 2) it’s a shorter path—a slight weaving can add as much as 20% to your distance traveled; 3) it’s part of the craft, and another way of Joining the Club of Cyclists (see Your First Ride).
The highway department has thoughtfully provided you with the perfect tool for practicing straight-line riding: the fog line, the white line that runs down the outside of the lane and separates it from the shoulder. Practice riding on the fog line (when it’s dry). Don’t try to lock into a position; instead, make constant minute adjustments to one side and the other—an imperceptible serpentine if you will.
One crucial time when steering in a straight line is hard is when you look over your left shoulder. Since the bike follows the eyes, when you look left the bike wants to go that way. This is a matter of life and death—the time you’re most likely to look behind you is when a car is closing on you from behind, and swerving left then will bring you right into its path—so it’s worth some practice. If you wear a mirror (see the Accessories chapter), you won’t have to do this as much, but you’ll still need to be able to turn your head now and then without it affecting your riding—when you grab a water bottle or look at your gearing, for instance.
Pick a Line
Choose a path down the road. Be constantly deciding where you want your front tire to track. For mountain bikers, this is as basic as pedaling, because they’re picking their way through rock gardens. But it’s almost as valuable for roadies. You’re going to need it when you hit rough road surfaces and when you do fast descents, and it’s a benefit at all times because it allows you to ride on the smoothest part of the road. You want it to become unconscious, so practice it before you need it. Make it a game—try to ride between the Bott’s Dots across the road marking an upcoming stop or serpentine your way through potholes.
Always pick a line by choosing where you want the wheel to go, not what you want the wheel to avoid. Mountain bikers say, “If you look at it, you’ll hit it.” The bike goes where the eyes go—if you focus on the obstacle you’re trying to miss, the bike will be pulled to it as if by magnets.
Keep Your Balance
Balance is something that comes with riding, but you can improve it with a few tricks.
1. To be balanced, mentally find your center of gravity and move it up into your chest. It sounds new-agey but it’s pretty intuitive.
2. Keep pedaling to keep balanced, especially on descents. You’re more balanced pedaling than coasting, because you have 5 points of balance instead of 3.
3. Coasting, you’re more balanced with your pedals leveled (at 3 and 6 o’clock) than with one foot down and one up.
4. Don’t freeze. Novice balancers try to stay still, thinking that movement will throw them off, but it’s much easier to balance moving around. Watch circus performers and trials mountain bike riders—they’re always subtly shifting their weight around. So, to keep balanced, let your bike and your body move. Doing a track stand, for instance, is much easier if you rock the bike slightly side to side and wiggle the front wheel.
5. Mentally separate yourself from the bike. We all want to be “one with the bike,” but to be so is bad for balance. Let the bike do what it has to do; you do what your body has to do. The simplest example of this is riding over a sudden swell: if you insist on staying glued to the bike, it will buck you into the air; if you let the bike go its own way, the front wheel will swoop up at you, then dip away from you as you float above the saddle unfazed.
Master the Track Stand
A track stand is you standing up on the pedals and balancing while not moving. It’s an advanced move if done for a long time, and mountain bikers take it very seriously, because they’re always coming to dead stops and surveying the terrain in front of them. For us roadies, we only come to dead stops at stop lights (where you’ll often see hotshots doing track stands and impressing us mortals while waiting for the green), and we can always unclip there, so we don’t need to do a track stand for 30 seconds. What I’m talking about is the 1-2-second pause where something makes you hesitate—for instance, you start up from a stop, you expect to clip in, but your foot slips, and you lose all your momentum. At that moment, you either fall over, you awkwardly try to get a foot down to catch yourself, or you do a track stand for 2 seconds while you clip in. There is always one such moment on every ride, and the track stand will preserve your composure when it happens.
This mini-track stand can be learned just by consciously trying to stay balanced for a moment or two when you come to any stop, just before you put a foot down. It helps to angle the front wheel at about 45 degrees, put the brake on, put pressure on the front pedal, and look ahead about 15 yards (not at your front wheel—looking down impairs your balance). But if you want to master the art (and I encourage you to), here’s a good way to do it, which I learned from the legendary Jacquie Phelan, peerless mountain biker and riding instructor:
1. Remove your cycling shoes and put on tennis shoes, so you can bail out at any time.
2. Find a smooth wall.
3. Angle your bike so it’s facing the wall at a slight angle, with your front wheel touching the wall at a greater angle. If the wall is at 12 o’clock directly ahead of you, have the bike on the line from 1 to 7, and the front wheel 2 to 8.
4. Stare at the imaginary road ahead of the bike, not at the front wheel.
5. Squeeze the brakes hard and stand up on the pedals.
6. Lean the sidewall of the front tire hard into the wall. The secret of this method is, you now have three balance points—the two tires on the ground and the tire pushing into the wall—so you’re much more stable than in an open field. Use the wall’s resistance to stabilize yourself.
7. Once you can keep your balance leaning into the wall, gently center your balance over the bike and stand without using the wall. As you feel your balance going, lean back into the wall. Keep moving back and forth, using the wall as little as necessary, until you don’t need it at all.
8. If you begin to fall, give up and jump down—don’t try to tough it out and end up falling over.
Learn to Ride Over Obstacles
We roadies spend most of our time on pavement, but even here we have to contend with potholes, railroad tracks, fallen limbs, and the occasional curb, the consequences of which range from “Ouch!” to pinch flats to lengthy hospital stays. Here’s how it’s done:
1. Always look down the road. Know what’s coming. This is another way of saying “Pick a line.” The road obstacle that takes you down is not the rough one, it’s the unexpected one. You didn’t fall because there were railroad tracks; you fell because you didn’t see the railroad tracks coming. Break the habit of staring at your front wheel—it isn’t doing anything interesting. The faster you’re going, the further down the road you have to look. Discipline yourself by reminding yourself every time you ride over a pothole or stick that startles you, “I didn’t see that coming—my bad.”
2. Assume the attack position (aka the ready position) as you approach a rough patch:
- Bring your center of gravity up into your chest, so you’re ready to react to the bike moving under you.
- Raise your butt off the saddle an inch, so you’re insulated from the bike’s sudden jumps.
- Level your pedals, which increases your body’s ability to absorb impact.
- Bend your elbows, for the same reason.
- Move your hands to the drops, where you have most control.
- Unweight (half-release) the handlebar so the front wheel can rebound without tossing you, but ready to grab it in an instant in case you get launched.
- If you slow down, first do your slowing, then take your hands off the brakes—a sudden jar will make you squeeze them on impulse and make everything worse.
3. Bunny-hop the obstacle if necessary. A single, large obstacle (one bad pothole, a fallen limb, nasty railroad tracks) can be jumped over via a bunny hop, in which you jump the bike over the obstacle. I will wait here for you while you go watch the instructional videos on YouTube.
Short of a full bunny hop, just loft the front wheel—it’s easy and eliminates the bulk of the risk. Your rear wheel will hit the bogey and you’ll get jarred but you’ll stay in control.
4. Hit the obstacle square on. If you don’t have time for a bunny hop or the obstacle isn’t worth it, hit the obstacle square, not at an angle. This rule comes into play most often with railroad tracks. If you hit something at an angle, your front tire will rebound at the opposite angle (think of a billiard ball caroming off a cushion) or be twisted sideways—in either case you’re thrown out of control. If you hit it straight on, the front tire rebounds directly in your face, which isn’t pleasant but is much safer.
To hit a road obstacle square on, you often have to swerve dramatically, and if you’re swerving to the left you could easily be swerving directly into the car that’s passing you, so be cautious: take a peak behind you, or bunny hop the bogey if you’re unsure.
Notice that controlling a bike is all about the front wheel. The rear wheel is just being dragged along behind you, so it almost never needs attention. If you want to grasp why this is, try pushing a loaded wheelbarrow up over a curb, then try pulling it over the same curb backwards.
5. Speed is your friend. The natural tendency when approaching danger is to slow down, and there are some benefits to slowing: you have more time to react, and the impact is milder when you hit the obstacle so you’re less likely to lose your grip on the handlebar and/or damage your wheel. But in most cases, riding slowly increases the likelihood of crashing.
To see why this is, push your bike by hand over a small obstacle, like a brick, first slowly, then fast. At slow speed, the bike fetches up against the obstacle and lodges there. At speed, the bike hops up and over the obstacle. Welcome to the wonderful world of momentum. The faster you go, the more momentum you have. The more momentum you have, the more the bike wants to stay upright and keep moving forward, so the harder it is to knock you down. Momentum will carry you over and through traps like big potholes and railroad tracks. At a crawl, your front wheel hits such things and sticks, and you go flying. Obviously there is a limit to the benefits of momentum, so this is not an argument for bombing a treacherous descent at top speed.
By the way, crashing at slow speeds is not necessarily less damaging than crashing at high speeds. The damage done to you (with the exception of road rash) is largely done by gravity—the speed at which you fall—and your forward moment doesn’t add to this. Your head hits the pavement at 5 mph about as fast as it does as 25 mph. In fact speed can minimize the damage from falling, because your forward momentum translates downward motion into forward slide. If you don’t believe this, look at videos of pro riders crashing at high speed in the rain: they slide forever, hilariously, unhurt.
Recover Mid-Ride by Riding
It would seem obvious that what you should do when you get tired is stop riding and rest, but in fact you shouldn’t. Muscles don’t recover best by being idle; they recover best by doing light work. So the best way to refresh tired muscles is to keep riding, only at an easy pace. Once you have good fitness, this works even when climbing moderate pitches.
Learn to Ride One- and No-Handed
Riding one-handed is a necessity for roadies. If we can’t take a hand off the handlebar, we can’t eat, drink, wipe our noses, clean our tires (see below), wave to pedestrians, point and say “Deer, 4 o’clock!”, snug up our shoes for the climb, unzip our vest, signal a turn…you get the idea. Riding no-handed is less essential but handy. Without it we can’t put on and take off clothing while riding. Any cyclist worth their salt can take off a windbreaker, roll it up, stuff it in a pocket, take it out, and put it back on while riding in a pack. And of course we couldn’t win a race, because we have to extend our arms over our head crossing the finish line. Here’s how:
- Practice on a windless day—wind makes no-hands riding treacherous.
- Minimize the weight on your hands.
- Get your center of balance up in your chest.
- Sit up straight.
- Move back a bit on the saddle.
- If you feel like you’re falling forward, make sure your saddle is level.
- Take your hands off the handlebar. Grab the bar when you lose balance. Repeat.
One of the hardest tasks on a bike is unzipping a stiff, fully closed jersey zipper when you can’t take both hands off the bar. To do this, grab the collar of the jersey, as close to the zipper as possible, with your teeth and undo the zipper with one hand.
Eat on the Bike
We’ll talk about this in detail in the Nutrition chapter, but for now, for a ride lasting more than one hour, the basics are 1) nibble all the time during a ride and 2) eat immediately after a hard ride. Eat carbs and maybe a little protein during the ride, eat carbs and substantial protein after. Avoid sugar (it produces a sugar spike, then invites a bonk).
Obviously. But even here, there’s an art to it:
It’s hard to know how much water is enough. On a hot day you may easily need a water bottle an hour. On a winter’s one-hour ride you may not drink at all. A truism of the sport is “Drink before you’re thirsty,” and surely most riders don’t drink enough, but it’s hard to tell when enough is enough. Water consumption can be overdone. Don’t drink to the point of bloat. Drink as much as you can drink comfortably, encourage yourself to drink, and force yourself if you catch yourself not drinking at all on a long ride or in warm weather.
If you go through a bottle an hour and do a 7-hour ride, that’s 7 water bottles—more than anyone can carry. You can realistically carry three, two in water bottle cages and one in a pocket. If you need more, you’ll have to do 1 of 4 things:
- 1. Refill at fast food restaurants, small grocery stores, and cafés. Almost always, the staff is understanding and happy to help.
- 2. Wear a hydration pack—a backpack with a water bladder and a tube to your mouth. It’s an every-day item for a mountain biker, but for roadies it’s just for the long haul without roadside resources. See the Accessories chapter for details.
- 3. Cache water along the route on the way out, if it’s an out-and-back route.
- 4. Knock on front doors. It’s a cycling tradition: “Hi, I’m biking through your beautiful country and I’m running low on water. Could I fill up at your tap?” Tell them how far you’re riding that day—they’ll be amazed.
Take electrolyte supplements. Our brains tell us to drink water when we’re thirsty, because it doesn’t know better, but often what we need are electrolytes, the chemicals in the water. They’re discussed at length in the Supplementation section of the Nutrition chapter.
If you find yourself insatiably thirsty hours after a ride, you didn’t supplement with electrolytes enough on the ride. Make a note to up your intake next time.
Clean Your Tires as You Roll
Your tires are always picking up debris from the road surface, and you want to clean them without having to stop to do it. Clean tires get fewer flats, weigh less, and have better traction. Just be sure you’re wearing gloves.
The front tire is easy. Lay one hand on the tread of the wheel as it rotates and leave it there with light pressure for one or two tire rotations.
The back tire is harder. Move back on the seat and put your pedal at 6 o’clock. Reach down to the triangle between the seat tube, the seat stay, and the tire, brace your base of your hand against the seat stay so the tire can’t grab your glove and jam your hand between itself and the seat tube, and rest your glove on the tire tread for one or two rotations—an awkward reach until you’re used to it. Don’t look down—with one leg extended and one arm reaching down, you’re in an unstable and vulnerable position, and any road imperfection can send you flying, so keep your eyes up the road.
Since cleaning the back tire is more technically demanding and more dangerous, you might be tempted to skip it, but unfortunately ¾ of your flats will be in the back tire (because that’s where the bulk of your weight is) so it’s the one that most needs cleaning.
Most riders never clean their tires when they’re riding. Some do it only when they ride through glass. I do it every time I ride through debris or near glass (since I figure where there’s glass I can see, there’s glass more widely spread I can’t see) or notice my tires look dirty. That’s frequently, but once you’re practiced at this it’s as automatic and easy as shifting.
We all breathe wrong (how odd is that?). We breathe too shallowly, breathe through our nose, and, when we try to breathe deeply, expand our upper chest to inhale. This works OK while watching TV, but when we’re riding hard we need to breathe more efficiently:
1. Breathe through your mouth if you’re feeling short on air.
2. Inhale and exhale slowly and deeply. Our brains tell us to do shallow panting when we’re feeling oxygen starved, but our brains are messing with us. Quick breaths don’t give the lungs enough time to extract the oxygen from the air, nor do they give the stale air enough time to be fully exhaled, so we end up rebreathing it. Thus we’re robbing ourselves of oxygen in two ways.
3. Expel the exhalation with a forceful “Huh!” Get all that stale air out of your system.
4. Inhale by expanding your diaphragm, not your chest. It feels like you’re filling your belly instead of your lungs, but the diaphragm is below the lungs and feels to most people like “stomach.” People often liken diaphragm breathing to inflating and deflating an imaginary tire around your belly.
You don’t have to do these things all the time, because you aren’t oxygen-starved all the time. But remember to do them as a recovery technique when you’re feeling tapped out, like on a long, steep climb.
Don’t Ride on the Road Shoulder
On a busy street you have no choice but to ride as far to the right as possible, which usually means on the shoulder, but in light traffic you’ve got choices. All else being equal, you want to ride where the road is smoothest, you’re safest, and the road is cleanest.
Riding on the smoothest part of the road can make as much as a gear’s worth of difference to your workload. It can be any of several places—you just have to look the road over to find it. If the road is newly chip-sealed, there is often smooth pavement under the gravel, and that pavement is often left exposed on the shoulder and under the centerline. If the chip-seal is partially worn down, the smoothest part of the chip-seal will be in the car tire tracks. If the chip-seal is old and the road surface is starting to break up, usually the car tire tracks are the roughest place on the road. The painted road surfaces—the fog line and the center line—are usually a gear’s worth smoother than the surrounding pavement, but avoid them if they’re wet, because they get slick. But the default smoothest location is in the right-hand auto tire track.
Which, surprisingly, turns out to be the safest place on the road as well, for three reasons:
- 1. The cars can see you there. Contrary to popular belief, you aren’t safest on the shoulder, because there you’re invisible to cars, who are watching the center of the lane.
- 2. Since you’re ostentatiously occupying the lane, cars won’t think they can squeeze past you—they’ll have to wait for you to move over. Riding on the shoulder is an invitation to all cars to try to slip past you, and that’s when you’re most in danger.
- 3. When cars come up behind you, you’ll pull to the right and let them pass, and they will notice this, and appreciate you as a courteous sharer of the road instead of a weird, inconsiderate trespasser lurking in their peripheral vision. They will therefore be less inclined to hate you.
And the right-hand car tire track is also where the road is cleanest—the cars are constantly sweeping it clean of debris with their tires—so you’ll have fewer flats.
Obviously, don’t do this in anything but light traffic. But I’ve followed this advice on 80% of my riding for years and it works. Of course, I spend most of my time on lightly-trafficked roads.
Interact with the Cars
We’ll talk about riding in traffic in more detail in the Riding in Special Conditions chapter, but it’s a life-or-death issue, so here’s a short course. Cyclists tend to ride in a bubble, unconscious to anything around them, but you can’t afford that luxury. Cars can kill you. If they kill you, it’s not because they hate you, but because you’re invisible to them. And if they do hate you, it’s because they feel invisible to you. There is nothing worse than being invisible, psychologists will tell you. It’s intolerable. So do your part to break down this invisibility and defuse the mutual hatred by acknowledging drivers. Pretend you’re one of the Navi, whose mantra is “I see you.”
I know you can’t wave at every car on a busy street, but you can
- Wave at drivers on sparsely trafficked country roads—a small “How” sign from the handlebar is plenty.
- Wave and mouth “Thank you” exaggeratedly when a car doesn’t pull out in front of you—even if the car doesn’t know you’re there.
- Ostentatiously pull over to let a car pass you.
- Wave on a car to overtake you when there’s a clear spot on a winding road—even if the driver doesn’t need the information, they’ll feel considered.
- Make hand signals before turns, even at stop signs, even if you know you’re safe.
- Think of other ways to say “I am here; I see you.” And need I add, only positive messages are allowed? No fingers, no curses. It’s not that some drivers don’t “deserve” it; it’s that it makes things worse.
Practice Cyclist-to-Cyclist Etiquette
Like cars, other bikes need to be acknowledged and considered. For every car that is discourteous to me when I’m riding, a dozen cyclists are. I’ve lost count of the number of riders who have left me shaken me by riding up behind me in total silence when I’m working hard and flashing by me wordlessly inches from my left elbow. Don’t be One of Those Guys:
- Wave to bikes going the other way, with the minimal “How” sign.
- Say “On your left” as you overtake a slower rider.
- Don’t pass within inches of a slower rider.
- Slow down and ask any and all riders stopped along the roadside, “Are you OK? You got what you need?”
- Encourage riders who are working hard with a supportive word or two: “Looking good!”; “Almost there!”
- Be prepared to give (not sell) your spare tube or CO2 inflator cartridge, or loan your tire irons, pump, or patch kit, to any rider who needs them. If you’re balking at this, google “karma.”
Cool Down After a Hard Ride
If your muscles feel worked at the end of the ride, it’s good to cool down by riding at an easy pace for a few minutes before climbing off the bike. You won’t do yourself harm if you don’t, but muscles like to recover by light work, not by being idled. An easy benchmark is to ride until your heart rate drops to 110 bpm or so.
Do Some Mountain Biking
Nothing will improve your bike handling skills as much as mountain biking. It will accelerate the rate at which you learn to
- shift constantly and with confidence
- move around on the saddle
- ride in the attack position
- move with the bike
- use body language in bike handling
- separate yourself from the bike in corners
- pick a line
- practice “If you look at it you’ll hit it”
- look down the road
- loft the front wheel, bunny hop, and do track stands
- recover from surprises and maintain control in a crisis
- bail out safely when falling
And it’s the perfect antidote to road boredom—on those days when another lap around the local roads seems unbearable, hitting the trails will re-energize you.
Know How Fast Fast Is
You are welcome to ride at any speed you want. But it’s helpful to know what the norms are, so you can know what to expect when you go on a social ride or go on a bike tour. People are different, so these are the roughest of approximations:
- 7 mph: vigorous climbing pace on an extended moderate pitch
- 12-13 mph: cruising around town
- 14-15 mph: a moderate solo pace on flats
- 17 mph: a brisk solo pace, probably not something you keep up for very long; casual paceline tempo
- 20 mph: very fast solo pace, maintainable with effort for 30 minutes (in a time trial, e.g.); moderate paceline tempo
- 22-25: not maintainable by us commoners for longer than a short sprint; hard paceline tempo
- +25: advanced paceline tempo
- 30 mph: moderately fast descending
- 40 mph: fast descending—possibly worth mentioning to friends
- 50 mph: very fast descending—bragging territory
We tend to think of bike speed as a product of leg power, light weight, or low rolling resistance, but in fact the most crucial element in speed is how aerodynamic you and the bike are as a unit. It doesn’t feel that way, but, unless you’re climbing a steep pitch, most of the work you’re doing when riding is moving the air in front of you out of the way. So it’s worth some effort to minimize your drag and make yourself as aero (aerodynamic) as possible.
An all-out effort would start with buying an aero bike and wheels (which we discussed in the Buying a Bike and Components chapters), where all the exposed surfaces have been wind-tunnel tested and shaped to minimize drag. The gains are extraordinary—a time trial bike, where this thinking has been taken to the max, is stupidly faster than a conventional road bike. The next thing you’d do is get your riding position tested in a wind tunnel. Then you’d buy a skinsuit, a one-piece skin-tight sheath. But achieving maximum aero-tude costs a fortune, and the drawbacks—excessive weight, a rough ride, troublesome handling (especially in wind), an uncomfortable riding position, slower speeds uphill—all combine to make this a route taken only by a few people, usually dedicated racers.
But there are things you can do to get aero-er that won’t break the bank or warp your spine:
- Buy wheels with moderately deep rims
- Buy a moderately aero frame
- Buy an aero cycling helmet
- Remove your gloves
- Wear tight clothing
- Close all zippers
- Slam your stem, and otherwise assume as low as a position as you can stand
- Remove your water bottle cages and carry your water bottle in a jersey pocket
So why aren’t we all out doing those things (none of which I do, by the way)? Because these choices are all trade-offs with serious drawbacks. Aero helmets give you less ventilation, going without gloves means major road rash on your palms if you fall, and so on. Also, aero gains only materialize on descents and when you’re riding at speed (17 mph+) and alone (in a paceline, you’re aero because of the bike in front of you). Still and all, it’s useful to remember that aero is a worthy goal, and that anything that blocks the wind adds to your workload.
Learn the Four Essential On-the-Road Repairs
There are some mid-ride mechanical problems you must be able to cope with. I’ve covered them in the On-the-Road Repairs chapter, but you need to be prepared for them from day 1, so go read up on them now:
- Fixing a flat
- Replacing a dropped chain
- Adjusting a rear derailleur
- Clearing a blocked cleat/pedal
Get a Pro Bike Fit
We talked in Your First Ride about adjusting the bike to fit your body. But there’s only so much of that you can do by yourself, so, eventually, you should get a professional bike fit. There they’ll put your bike in a stand, wire you up with motion-capture sensors, and watch you ride while they, armed with a laser and a computer, record your body measurements and how you ride and then make recommendations.
A bike fit will set up everything on your bike that you can set up, with much more precision than you can, and look at many things you can’t diagnose easily on your own: your handlebar width, your cleat placement, your wattage, the power of one leg vs. the other, your power output from moment to moment throughout the pedaling cycle, how your knees track through the pedaling circle, how much your heels are aligned with your pedals, and on and on. I’ve had three bike fits and learned different valuable information and improved my riding in different ways at each one. At my last fit I learned I needed a narrower bar, new shoes, and a shorter stem, and needed to stretch out my hip flexors and hamstrings.
A pro fit is expensive ($150-300), but you’ll amortize the cost over a thousand rides, so it turns out to be cheap per ride. Still, when you’re starting out lots of things are going to change rapidly, so it makes sense to wait to do the fitting until you’ve got some conditioning and your riding style has settled in—perhaps a year.