Sharpen your road bike skills by practicing
Take some time on your solo rides to work on developing smooth bike handling chops.
The majority of us regularly just get on our bikes and go for a ride, without giving much thought to working on improving some of the basics of riding. Sharpening your technique will make you a more fluid and safer rider, both in a group and when riding solo. This article will deal with the more mundane, overlooked aspects of road riding and how to hone your skills.
In order not to jeopardize the safety of other riders, you should have these random practice sessions when you’re riding solo, and preferably on roads free from traffic. These are things we all do on the bike, but we tend not to consciously think of improving our style when we do them.
Work on your position. Concentrate on putting your weight on the saddle and unloading your weight from your handlebars. Many of us, myself included, put too much weight on the bars, and this tends to shift the balance mechanism from the hips and the saddle (where it belongs) and puts it on the bars. Make a conscious attempt to ride for a half mile with the lightest grip possible on your bars while feeling yourself sink into your saddle. Once you master this, riding with no hands is far easier…
Riding with no hands. We practiced this as kids, and the epiphany everyone had when they could finally ride no-handed was that you had to relax, be confident, and let your core and hips balance and steer the bike. Although you may find that having both hands free will allow you to perform a task on the bike; removing a jacket, opening an energy bar, etc.; the main advantage of being able to competently ride with no hands is that it will elevate your bike handling skills to a higher level even with your hands on the bars. When you’re learning, find a flat, smooth road (in Washington County, good luck) and after lightening your grip on the bars, sit up, with your body weight straight down on your saddle. Be smooth and relaxed. You’ll improve the more you practice. The two most amazing displays of riding no-hands that I have observed in person involved fast, no-hands descents. I watched veteran racer Rod Golsan ride down the steep switchbacks at the top of Dead Horse Point with his hands off the bars. And locally, our old friend Bob Wrench, with witnesses, rode from the top of Utah Hill all the way down to the Y with his hands on his hips. Between the two of them, I’ll wager they have a million miles, though.
Going for and replacing your bottle. This is actually something that requires practice. Taking a drink when you’re riding solo requires no skill, but pulling out a bottle in a group that’s riding at tempo, taking a drink, and returning the bottle, all while you’re pedaling, requires concentration and practice. Again, with one hand off the bars, your weight should be mostly on the saddle. Don’t look down at your bottle; you know where it is. Keep a straight line while taking a drink, and then replace your bottle without looking down at your bottle cage. This will take practice, but you must be able to replace a bottle without looking down. By the way, in a fast group ride or race, alternate drinking from your two bottles so they empty at approximately the same rate. It’s better to have two half-full bottles than an empty and a full bottle, in case you hit a bump or cattle guard. The useless empty bottle will stay in the cage, but you’ll lose the full one.
Riding a smooth straight line. Again, this requires a light grip on the bars and a smooth pedal stroke. Find a stretch of road that has a white line on the shoulder, and concentrate on staying on that white line for as long as you can. This will require you to be “quiet” on the bike; not having any sudden inputs to the bars or sudden weight shifts. Practicing riding a 6” wide path for a mile will help to smooth out your riding style, making you relaxed and using less energy. Just don’t inadvertently hypnotize yourself…
Practice looking behind you. Does that sound ridiculous? It isn’t. Many riders, when they look back, tend to pull the handlebars in the direction they’re looking. I’ll see riders look back to their left, and their bike lurches to their left. I tend to practice this when I hear a vehicle approaching me from behind. While keeping my bike going perfectly straight, I’ll turn only my head back towards the vehicle. It’s good practice, and it also communicates to the car or truck that I realize they’re back there.
Another means of looking behind you on the bike is a technique you don’t hear much of anymore. While traveling forward, put your head down, kick your elbow out, and look under your arm. At first, it will be disorienting because everything you’re seeing is upside-down, but with practice, this is a great way to grab a glance at what’s behind you. And it makes you look Super Pro, as long as you can pull it off without swerving.
Practice cornering. The best way to practice (and get good at) cornering is to participate in a practice criterium series. There are a few in the St. George area. If you don’t feel like racing, find a neighborhood with good pavement and no gravel, and pedal briskly through corners, staying relaxed, looking towards where you’re going (not straight ahead), and cut a nice, uniform radius with a close apex. As you continue to get faster in the corners; and you will; be careful not to dig your inside pedal into the pavement. If you’re leaning the bike quite a bit, coast through the middle of the turn with the inside pedal up.
These suggestions are all about technique, and not about training, but in order to ride fast, safe, and smooth you must have a command of these seemingly mundane actions. Practice will keep you from fumbling or being unsteady in a group environment, and that’s a good thing.
Written by Paul Scarpelli.