Road Bike Handling Skills: Part 1

This post is all about the basics of road bike handling in the real world. The exercises here are designed to help you move more easily through the city, be a steady wheel in a group, and stay upright when unexpected obstacles come your way.

Almost everyone can ride a bike and use its momentum to stay upright, but being a good bike handler in any situation takes practice. Good bike handling means your body and bike work together as one. You move in a way that is graceful and in sync with your equipment. It means you ride safely and predictably by yourself and with others. Improving handling skills builds confidence in a million different ways.

Bike handling is all about cumulative effect and keeping your skills fresh. That’s why I feel it’s best to practice a little bit every time you ride. The more you practice, the more your bike becomes an extension of your body. Subtle changes in balance and body position make all the difference.

Let’s get started!

Skill #1: Emergency Braking

It happens all the time. You’re just riding along enjoying the day, then all of a sudden something pops out that you don’t see until the last second or someone unexpectedly stops in front of you. What do you do?

In a perfect world you would be able to anticipate and plan your response, but that’s not always possible. Most people would hit their brakes and hope for the best. This exercise is to prepare you to brake suddenly and know exactly what to do. It’s about knowing how and when to use the brakes and how to use your body to counter the stopping force.

It all starts with the Ready Position.

In the Ready Position you are, well, ready for anything. Here you see an example of the Ready Position on the hoods and in the drops. It’s the same position, but in the drops you have more leverage on the brakes and a lower center of gravity.

Notice my crank arms are parallel to the ground with my dominant foot forward. This is important. When not actively pedaling, most people let one foot go perpendicular to the ground. With crank arms parallel, my body weight is evenly distributed and it’s easier to maintain balance. I am also hovering over my saddle– my body weight is NOT on the bike. This allows for the most maneuverability, including the ability to bring my weight back behind the saddle to counter the braking force. I’m bent forward from the hips and have a decent amount of bend in my elbows. Everything about this position allows the most control over my bike so when I brake hard I stay in control, and if I do hit something in the road I’m in the best position to counter the impact. I’m also set up for hopping over things or quickly moving around them.

Now that you know the Ready Position, here’s how to practice braking hard.

  • Find a patch of grass and get up to speed (about 10-15 mph) and assume the Position. Hands on the hoods to start because you probably spend most of your time riding there.
  • Now, pull the brakes together HARD (harder than you probably ever have before) and as you do that, counter the braking force by bringing your body weight back behind the saddle. Brake as hard as you can without locking up your wheels, which means progressively applying pressure. Pull your brakes EVENLY, applying the same pressure on each side. They are designed to work together.
  • Allow your bike to come to a complete stop, then try it again. It’s normal to be scared when hitting your brakes hard for the first time. The more you do this exercise, the more comfortable you will be.
  • After a few rounds on grass, move to a flat stretch of asphalt. You will stop a lot faster and get a feel for how fast your bike will actually stop in real world conditions. This is important. Repeat until you are comfortable.
  • You should also practice this in the drops because the drops are your go to hand position for riding fast and going downhill. In the drops you have more leverage on your brake levers and a lower center of gravity.

While it might not always possible to stop for everything all the time, learning to be ready for obstacles is the first step. The Ready Position prepares you to brake hard and to learn more advanced skills like bunny hopping (up in the next post).

Skill #2: Ride one handed

Riding one handed is important for getting in and out of your jersey pockets, eating, and drinking while on the bike. It helps you develop a good feel for your bike’s natural stability and lays the groundwork for riding with no hands.

  • Start by finding an open stretch of road and getting up to speed (10-12 mph). Keep in mind the faster you go the less twitchy your bike will feel. Keeping your cadence high will also help by allowing you to ride smoother.
  • When you’re ready, take one hand off the hood and place it on the top of your bar near the stem. Then hover the other hand an inch or two off the bar. Repeat on the other side.
  • Next, practice taking your hand all the way off the bar and sitting up a little taller. Practice getting in and out of your jersey pockets, unwrapping a bar, and taking a sip from your bottle. Take things out of your pockets and put them back in. Switch your bottles in their cages. When you can do those things 100% of the time you’re ready to move on to the next skill.

Remember to keep your eyes looking where you want to go and always stay alert to your surroundings (especially when you may be distracted). Also, use your core muscles to help support the riding position when you have one hand off the bar.

Skill #3: Ride in a straight line

Sounds simple enough, but if you want to be good at riding in a group this is the skill to have. Most people don’t ride in a straight line well without practice. The term “hold your line” refers to this. We will combine this with riding one handed for an extra challenge because in the real world that’s how it goes.

Here’s how to practice.

  • Find a white line and try to ride along it without veering off. The faster you go the easier it is because momentum helps keeps your wheels straight. Keeping your cadence high (between 85-100 rpm) also helps.
  • Once you get the hang of it, start to slow down and see if you can stay on the line.
  • Then, to get really good at riding close to others in a group, practice riding that same straight line and:
    • Looking back behind you
    • Taking a sip from your bottle
    • Eating a bar

The next time you go to the park, spend some time every lap riding on the white line. Get to the point where you feel smooth and comfortable. You build your concentration muscle the longer you stay on the line. Then as it gets easier, you will quickly become the person other cyclists feel comfortable riding next to.

P.S. White lines can be slippery when wet. Do this drill on dry roads.

Skill #4: Go slow

Riding slowly, 1-2 mph, is a great way to heighten your sense of balance. This will improve your confidence in slow speed situations. It will allow you to come to an almost complete stop without falling over, and quickly teaches you how subtle changes in body position affects how your bike responds. If you can ride slowly, getting through the hairpin turn on the GWB will be a breeze.

Practicing this is as simple as it sounds.

  • With your hands on the hoods, allow your bike to slow down to the point where you need to focus on your balance. Go slower and slower until you’re almost stopping for a moment.
  • As you start to come to a stop, make sure your crank arms are parallel with your dominant foot forward so it’s easy to take a pedalstroke when you need it.
  • Keep your head up and eyes out on the road in front of you.

Get to know how subtle changes in your body position affect balance. It’s all about understanding your relationship with the bike and knowing how your bike responds based on its setup, geometry, position, etc.

If you’re nervous about falling over on pavement, try starting on grass until you feel comfortable. You can also practice with one shoe unclipped in case you need to put a foot down, or use flat pedals. If you choose to practice clipped in, make sure you are very comfortable getting out of your pedals quickly (another important skill).

On Wednesday, August 5 I’ll be teaching these skills in Prospect Park. Stay tuned for Part 2 of Road Bike Handling Skills coming soon!

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