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Becoming a Better Bicyclist

By Marty Kaplan

Because I took riding up later in life, my focus has been on comfort, control and confidence. I leave speed and performance to those faster and younger than I. I've become a student of riding long distances comfortably, descending quickly, turning effortlessly, and staying out of trouble, which is far too easy to find if you're not careful. In this piece I'll share some of the lessons I've learned and ways to put these lessons into practice. I’ll cover learning, body position, bike handling, situational awareness, energy management and bike fit. I'll end with a brief commercial for my occasional bike clinics.

Learning How to Unlearn

One of the things I like most about bicycling is that you have to stay in the moment - lose your focus, even for an instant, and you invite danger.  Cause and effect are intimately related – do this, and that happens.  The trick is knowing which this causes which that, and that's where learning comes in. 

Riding a bike is a skill which, once learned, becomes a habit that gets embedded in our bodies well out of our conscious awareness.  And unless we experience discomfort and try to figure out why, our awareness of cause and effect – and our skill level – will remain the same.   Many riders find themselves in this situation - the "intermediate trap" - we're good enough to have fun and burn calories, but we lack the confidence and control necessary to take our riding to the next level.

Here are some of the questions that bicyclists in this situation will grapple with:

            "How come I get nervous going downhill?"

            "Why are turns quite this difficult for me?"

            "How come I find it hard to ride a straight line?"

            "Why do I get so annoyed with drivers?"

            "Why do I freak out when it's raining?"

            "Why do I get uptight riding close to others?"

            "Why do my wrists, neck, back, shoulders, or arms hurt?"

When we figure out which habits lead to what results, we're on the pathway to mastery.  For example, most riders put way too much pressure on their handlebars; their shoulders are scrunched, their necks are tight and their arms and elbows are locked in place.  This "tightness" results in poor bike control and rider discomfort.  And to make matters worse, when stress increases (like going down a steep hill or around a corner), so does the tightness, leading to even less control, precisely when we need it most. 

It's at this point that we need to heighten our awareness and pay conscious attention to our "default."  To illustrate, try this right now as you're reading these words.  Notice any tightness in your shoulders, neck and arms.  That's your default – where you naturally "go" when reading an article.  Now, drop your shoulders, relax your neck, breathe in and out, and with each exhalation, relax just a little bit more in your shoulders, neck and arms.  You probably feel more relaxed and more present.  For most people this is a relatively simple skill to learn.  But breaking the habit of holding tension in your shoulders, neck and arms is much more difficult. 

In my clinics I ask people to notice how they're holding their bodies when they're going around a corner, or up a steep hill, or when they're in traffic.  And then, after noticing how they do those things, I'll invite them to try it differently, which might initially feel awkward, weird or even dangerous.  That's unlearning in action. 

Perfecting Your Form

If it hadn't been so hard for me to learn how to ski, I might not have taken to bicycling the way I did.  I'd watch skiers glide downhill making smooth, seemingly effortless turns, their upper bodies quiet, arms relaxed, atop fast working legs.  While each skier looked different, the really good ones seemed to have a form in common, which I'd struggle to emulate.  Eventually I got it, due in large part to what I learned on the bike.

I came to call this form "dynamic neutral."  You see it in professional tennis players waiting to receive a serve, baseball players at bat waiting for the pitch, and well-trained puppies waiting for you to throw a ball.  The body appears relaxed and quiet, the mind alert and focused, and there is a readiness to move in any direction instantly.  It is a model of efficiency.

On a bike, dynamic neutral looks like this; our center of gravity is over the pedals such that our legs and butt carry most of our weight, our back and necks are fully and naturally extended, our shoulders are relaxed, our elbows are slightly bent and we're extending ourselves forward by bending from the hips and grasping the handlebar ever so lightly with our hands.  Our backs are "long," not scrunched over.  And when we pedal, our legs move but our upper body is quiet, apparently just going along for the ride and occasionally taking on responsibilities as assigned, including braking, steering and thinking.

In my clinics we find this position off the bike then practice it while moving.  Once you get it, it makes sense and feels right, but it takes constant vigilance to maintain it. And when stress gets added to the mix, our form will naturally tend to degrade.  This is the exact moment when we need to "notice our default."

Try this the next time you're riding to get a feel for how it works.  Find dynamic neutral while pedaling and maintain it as you start to ride more aggressively.  Then apply the hammer and go full tilt, but the instant you power up, drop your shoulders and notice your toes, and keep dropping your shoulders and noticing your toes to counter the natural tendency to tighten up in those areas.  At the same time, check in with your back to ensure it's fully extended, that your neck is relaxed, your gaze is outward and your hands are very lightly grasping the handlebars.  No white knuckles! All action should be in your legs, your upper body calm.  You might find it helpful to imagine that you're "unlocking your torso" such that vigorous leg action doesn't automatically result in upper body motion - your upper and lower body need to work in concert but act independently.

Done well, you'll not only have more control over the bike but you'll feel calmer, you'll conserve energy and you'll be able to tune in more easily to your surroundings because your head and neck (and brain) aren't locked in position.

Handling the Bike

The reason we strive for a quiet upper body is because a bike needs very light input to perform extraordinarily well – it's an engineering marvel that, once in motion, is remarkably stable.  By continuously returning to dynamic neutral, we avoid the natural but counter-productive tendency to "muscle" our bikes – through a turn, up a hill, or around an obstacle - to gain control.

There are four basic moves to examine and put into practice that will make all the difference in your riding experience and skill - turning, descending, looking behind us, and avoiding obstacles.

Let's start with the turn, the delicious turn, where it all comes together (or falls apart).  In my clinics we deconstruct the turn, as follows:

  1. Slow down well in advance of the turn so you don't have to brake mid-turn
  2. "See" the line you'll take through the turn
  3. Shift your weight to the "outside" pedal while bringing the "inside" pedal to the full upright position to avoid scraping it on the road
  4. Look through the turn by visually focusing on your destination around the corner, not the pavement immediately in front of you
  5. Apply the slightest amount of pressure to the downhill handlebar nudging the bike to do what it will do effortlessly and naturally…turn
  6. Lean into the turn by bringing your "downhill" shoulder ever so lightly forward (but remember to keep your weight back)
  7. Turn, baby, turn
  8. Smile and repeat.

A well-executed turn requires a huge leap of faith; you need to trust that by shifting your weight to the "outside" pedal and applying light pressure to the "inside" handlebar, the bike will actually go in the desired direction.   It will, but one has to "let go" of the belief that it won't.  Done well on a fast turn, you'll notice that your handlebars and lower body are moving beneath you and across your upper body.  This technique can only be mastered if that upper body of your's is quiet and your input is light.  But trust me…done well, a fast turn will indeed feel delicious.

Another huge challenge for many riders is going downhill.  They get anxious because they start to feel out of control.  The key to descending is paradoxical; to go fast you've got to know you can go slow.  You need to feel confident that you can stop whenever you have to – otherwise you'll tend to keep the brakes on most of the time.  And what fun is that?  This is why we practice emergency braking.

So, let's break down braking:

  1. Because your body moves forward when you decelerate, you need to shift your weight back over the saddle without pushing down on the handlebars.  This action gets initiated from your legs, not your arms. Practice this repeatedly until you can simultaneously brake hard and move your weight back, thus avoiding the much dreaded "body flip over the handlebars" move. 
  2. Get this down and you'll be more comfortable going fast.  Braking can then become a move that's initiated by strong fingers aggressively grasping the brake lever while not increasing tension in the neck, shoulders and arms – your fingers act powerfully and lightly, thus not interfering with your ability to steer around all those yummy turns.
  3. Although opinions vary on this, in my experience your rear brake mostly gets you into trouble when applied hard going fast.  Forget about it and use only your front brake, which on most bikes is the left lever.  You can apply a surprising amount of continuous pressure to that lever to slow down very rapidly…just remember to counter your body's natural tendency to shift forward.

The third move is really important to master.  Learn how to look behind you, even if you have a rear view mirror.  You've got to be able to physically look back while moving forward without swerving into the road.  In my clinics I ride behind people and ask them to tell me how many fingers I'm holding up.  After 4 or 5 tries they'll get it. 

The core skill is keeping that torso of your's flexible and "unlocked" such that your upper and lower body can act independently.  As you turn your upper body and neck to the left to quickly glance behind, you consciously keep your hips pointed forward.  It's a slight twisting motion that, done right, feels pleasant.  Practice it off the bike and you'll find it pretty easy to master.  This move can be facilitated by moving your right hand to the center of the handlebar and your left hand to the rear of your saddle.  In this way your hands serve as mild anchors for that twisting motion.

The last core skill builds on what we've covered so far.  We encounter all kinds of obstacles out there; rocks, gravel, mud, sand, potholes, glass, oil, wet leaves, sticks, stones and a myriad of other things that can break our bones.  When we get surprised our natural reaction is to "tighten up" and to unconsciously apply more downward pressure to the handlebars, thus reducing control.  To make matters worse, we tend to go to the left of said obstacles (because we fear riding off the road into sure oblivion), thus putting ourselves into harm's way.  In my clinics we practice a little mantra – "think light, think right." 

Here's how it works.  The next time you're out riding, go through or over as many obstacles as you reasonably can, and maintain control of the bike by getting especially light on the handlebars.  Barely grasp the handlebars (I exaggerate and call it "no grip"), check to ensure that all your weight is in your legs and over the pedals, flex your knees if you choose to get off the saddle and stand, and proceed, noticing how well your bike moves through and over all kinds of things, including small potholes.  And if it's foolish to go over or through it, consider passing it on the right before you take the default position to the left, and potentially into traffic.  Turn this into a game and play it often so that when you do find yourself between that rock and a hard place you'll have more options available to you.   

One more comment about obstacle-avoidance.  We tend to go where we're looking, such that if we're staring at something, we'll drive into it.  Unfortunate bomber pilots in WW2 found themselves victims of "target fixation," that is, flying into their targets.  Many accidents are caused by bicyclists fixating on the very thing they're trying to avoid.  Try this the next time you're riding; notice the obstacle, imagine a line around it (remember to "think right"), then lift your gaze up and ride that imaginary line around the obstacle.  The trick is noticing the obstacle and keeping it in your peripheral vision, not staring at it.

Building Situational Awareness

I am often appalled at how many people seem to ride as if they're the only ones out there.  They ride in the middle of the road, they double, or even triple-up in high traffic areas, they take turns without looking, they seem oblivious to other riders, etc.  We probably each have our own horror story to tell.

Situation awareness means becoming very aware of what's happening around us and how those things could affect us.  We're talking traffic, weather, lighting, surface conditions and other riders.

The more confident, relaxed and skillful a rider we become, the easier it will be to shift our focus outward to what's going on around us.  For me, part of the fun is staying out of trouble, even turning it into a game, like for example, when driving through high traffic areas where untoward contact with drivers is likely.  Drive as if you're not visible to others and notice how your riding changes, and how your expectations of others drop to a much more reasonable level. 

I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times drivers have honked at me (that's excluding those who were drawn to my tight fitting lycra or loose fitting wool) or given me the one fingered salute.  Even though the vehicle code entitles me to a piece of the road, I take up as little of it as possible.  Try this the next time you're out; ride as far to the right at all times, and go over, through or to the right of as many obstacles as possible.

Here are some other tips to help build situational awareness:

  1. Get into the habit of keeping your head, neck and eyes flexible, such that it's easy to continuously scan ahead, behind and beside yourself.  And those ears, too.  With more hybrid vehicles out there, it's harder to hear cars and respond to them in a timely way.
  2. Signal your intentions to drivers and other riders.  Know the proper hand signals, and use them.  Thank drivers when they behave courteously.  That small act of kindness will come back to you.
  3. When passing another rider, make sure its safe to proceed into the road (I'm amazed at how many riders don't check first), and if you think your sudden presence might startle a rider, let them know you're about to pass ("on your left"), and perhaps, if it applies, how many others of you might also be passing.
  4. When riding with others and you're out in front, call out and/or point to obstacles, but when you're behind others, don't depend on them for same.  I pretty much always have my head peeking around the person I'm riding behind to see what's ahead (unless it's someone I ride with often).
  5. Make it easy for cars and other riders to pass you by staying as far to the right as possible.  Be courteous and friendly to others.  Said kindness will find its way back to you.
  6. Make yourself visible (e.g. clothing and lighting), but don't expect to be seen.

Managing Energy

Given my Death Ride, Terrible Two and Paris Brest Paris experiences, I've got a lot to say about endurance riding, but I'll be brief here and leave the rest for another article.  If you're riding for an hour or two, you needn't worry all that much about energy management.  Drink some water, have some food in the tank beforehand, ride hard, and replenish yourself as needed afterward.  You'll mostly do just fine.  But when you start putting in the miles, energy management becomes crucial.  That means balancing what you consume (your input) with what you expend (your output).  Get this relationship just right and you'll ride for days; mess it up and you'll bonk, cramp, vomit, or just plain run out of steam. 

There's some conventional wisdom out there that I've found useful.  For input, it's "eat before you're hungry and drink before you're thirsty."  This works pretty well.  Just remember to start any big ride with a belly full of reasonably well-digested food (eat a few hours before), and to have eaten and hydrated well for at least a few days before the ride. 

For output, it's "ride your own ride" and "never go anaerobic."  There's a tendency, especially at the beginning of a ride, for adrenaline and/or testosterone fueled riders to go hard.  You'll see them later in the ride, cramped, tired and/or complaining.  A tactic that can be useful is a "negative split," where you plan to ride the second half of the ride faster than the first half.  This will force you to ride more conservatively early on and ensure that you'll have the energy left for a strong finish.  And watch out for pacelines - they can make or break you, so choose carefully.  Ride too hard to keep up with one and you'll lose far more time and energy that you might have gained.  But chosen well, a paceline can indeed feel like a magic carpet.  A good rule of thumb is to join pacelines that creep by, and ignore those that make you accelerate too hard to catch up.

One of the reasons I do distances as well as I do is that I've gotten very good at recovery, which happens both on and off the bike.  During a ride I'll change positions frequently ("stand early and often"), I'll stretch while in the saddle, and I'll make sure my neck, shoulders and arms are relaxed.  I'll minimize time off the bike at rest stops because the longer my muscles have to cool down, the harder and more painful it is for me to get moving again. 

Figuring out what your body needs, and when it needs it takes patience and experimentation.  "Listen" if you can, to what your body's telling you (for example, what foods and drinks you notice your drawn to, when discomfort is truly problematic or just something you need to "ride through") and respond intelligently.  And when the ride's over, look forward to some low-fat chocolate milk, which is a very effective and inexpensive recovery drink.

Finally, after the ride, keep replenishing your body of the nutrients it's lost, and don't forget the all important recovery ride the next day.  It's pretty much the only way I know to get blood to the very places where it's most needed to facilitate muscle recovery and healing.  Make it short (an hour or so) and make it easy.  Trust me, it works.

Getting and Staying Fit

Not that fit…the other fit.  And here's why it's important.  Because it's just you and the bike, and since you're the one that thinks, it's your responsibility to optimize that relationship.   I can't stress the importance of purchasing a bike that "fits" your body, then "fitting" the bike to your body once you've gotten it.  The cost for this fine-tuning service, available in most good bike shops, is well worth it.  One of Lance's nicknames is Mr. Millimeter, so named because of the way he's continually adjusting his bike to get the adjustments "just so."  You want to pay attention to the precise height and angle of the seat, it's fore and aft positioning to ensure proper placement of your knees over the pedals, the height, width and angle of the handlebars, the length of the handlebar stem and the location of the brakes and hoods.  You'll know you're on the way to optimizing the relationship between you and your bike when it "feels right."

And as you become more flexible and begin implementing the practices described in this article, you'll need to fine-tune your bike accordingly.  

Making It Happen: Take a Clinic

I offer small, value-priced, four hour clinics where we put these ideas into practice.  We begin in my garage with some off-bike work, then do my favorite 10 mile Oakland Hills loop which provides a lovely mix of climbing, descending and flats work.  The focus is on skill development, not speed, so they're appropriate for riders at all levels.  For more information and/or a brochure, please call (510.339-3216) or write (