2020 has been the year of endless base building. When races started leapfrogging into summer and fall and then sinking like stones in the ocean of an endless pandemic, competitive cyclists went back to putting in miles, solo on the road or on the trainer. That’s great for building fitness. Skills? More like a chain left out in the rain.
As some local racing comes back online, those bike handling skills matter—a lot. Because, as everyone who rides and races a bike knows, good performance (and staying upright) also requires efficiency and control.
“All the training in the world does not get you ready to race unless you add the skills sessions,” says BJ Basham USA Cycling Cat 1 and Power Certified Coach and Peaks Coaching Group Master Coach.
Here’s how to keep your skills sharp and race ready when it comes time to toe the line.
It’s not a crit without a corner—or three or four or more. To be fast—and safe—mastering cornering is a must. Here are the basics:
Drop into the drops: For the greatest amount of control through the corner, lower your hands into your drops. This position keeps your center of gravity low and balances your weight over the bike, putting enough weight on the front wheel to prevent it from washing out. Your hands are also in close contact with the brakes, so you can modulate speed as you head into the turn.
Stay loose: Cornering is a full body affair, so you want your touch on the bike to be firm, but flexible, to allow the bike to go where it needs to go. If you tense up and get rigid, you might straighten your arms and push your bike to the outside and/or fighting your bike through the turn. Grasp the bars firmly (but not tightly), drop your shoulders, and keep your upper body relaxed.
Scrub speed early: Braking causes your bike to sit up and makes you more likely to lose traction and skid, neither of which is conducive to cornering. Do your braking before the turn, so you go into the corner at the speed you can safely carry through the corner.
“If you are turning and braking at the same time, you have much more risk of losing traction and sliding, crashing, etc. So, controlling speed before you even initiate the turn is very important,” says Neal Henderson, a cycling and triathlon coach for over 20 years, who served as a cycling coach for the U.S. Olympic team in 2012 and 2016.
You’ll also want to think about braking earlier than usual leading up to the turn when riding in wet conditions, even with disc brakes. “It’s not just the power of the brake, it’s keeping the tire in contact with the ground, and not sliding or skidding,” Henderson says. “Using both front and rear brakes when you’re braking is important.” Feathering the brakes, the technique of lightly and rapidly alternating pressure and release of the brakes, can help you control your speed better than slamming on the brakes.
Flatten the turn: The fastest way from point A to point B is a straight line. So aim to flatten the curve by entering as wide as possible without crossing the center line and then cut the corner on the inside and exit wide (again, without crossing the center line). Obviously, if you’re racing in a pack, you won’t always have your line of choice, but position yourself best as possible.
Lean the bike: You turn your bike by leaning (as opposed to turning the handlebars), but you want to keep your tires firmly pressed into the road. That means tilting your bike while keeping your body relatively more upright. To do that, first establish your grounding by extending your outside leg and pushing into the outside pedal. Then lightly push down into on the inside hand to lean the bike into the turn.
Riding off road, such as gravel or mountain bike trails, can require more finesse as you deal with varied, often loose, terrain.
Lead with your eyes: Your bike follows your eyes. Look as far through the corner as you can, aiming for a nice wide arc. Also pay attention to what some pros call the “third eye,” or your navel. You don’t use it to see (obviously), but it does take you where you want to go when it’s “looking” in the right direction.
Coast through, pedal out: As you exit the turn, start pedaling again to set yourself up and bring yourself back up to speed. Do not pedal in the turn; you risk clipping your inside pedal and crashing.
How to Practice Solo
Corning is a something you absolutely can (and should) practice on your own. In a parking lot, you can use water bottles or skills cones to set up a mini slalom course. “Start with a straight line and practice that, linking turns left to right,” Henderson says. “To make that more challenging, offset them so you have a more acute turn required for each one. And again, start slowly and progressively build speed.” As you get better, practice more challenging corners.
“In the week before the race I would spend time in a parking lot just learning to be comfortable railing turn,” Basham says. “Not super fast, but no-brakes 180s. Lots of lean to learn to trust the bike. It makes a huge difference.”
You also can practice cornering fundamentals like swimmers practice their pull and runners do strides. The goal is to make all the little motions automatic, so there’s no thinking required when you approach the real thing. Two drills you can do while waiting for friends at the start of a ride:
Circles: Put your bike in a low gear and ride in slow left-hand circles, gradually picking up speed and bringing the circle tighter and tighter until you feel the rear wheel break traction. That’s your tipping point. Get a feel for that point and get comfortable riding within it. Practice in both directions.
Figure 8s. Next try figure 8s, which are perfect practice for real-life riding because you have to change directions quickly to maintain control. This is where you should really feel how the shift in weight and pressure in your hands and feet work to help you control direction.
A well-executed sprint is the checkmate of cycling. You’ve made all your moves, positioned yourself wisely, and now it’s time to finish with a blaze of glory (or at least try!). Of course, you also need good technique to back up your tactics.
For maximum speed you want to position yourself on the bike for optimum power and aerodynamics. Here are the basics:
Get in the drops: Placing your hands in the drops balances your weight, improves your traction, increases your aerodynamics, and puts you in the position to throw the bike to the line. Keep your elbows bent to give the bike freedom to move beneath you.
Rise out of the saddle: Standing up and getting out of the saddle lets you put your whole body into propelling yourself forward, leveraging gravity to put maximum power into your pedals.
Flatten your back: Most of your energy in a sprint is fighting air resistance, so getting low and aero helps you go faster.
Keep chin up, eyes forward: Now is not the time to be staring at your stem. You need to be hyper aware of your surroundings and potential hazards up the road. Keep your head up, eyes forward, and look where you’re going.
How to Practice Solo
The great thing about practicing sprinting is you not only hone a skill, but you sharpen your fitness, too. One of the best ways to practice is to incorporate sprint interval work into your rides. Aim for high cadence. Research shows that high pedal rates—between 100 and 120 rpm—maximize power output, reduce neuromuscular fatigue, and improve sprint cycling performance. To mimic the demands of a race situation try Flying Finish intervals.
Flying Finish: At the end of a long ride, shift to a big gear and sprint 100 percent full gas for 30 seconds. Rest for 15 seconds. Repeat 8 to 10 times. Recover completely. Repeat for another set. Keep the effort consistent during each interval and practice keeping your eyes forward and maintaining straight forward momentum.
To get comfortable with the feeling of the bike at high speeds, try decline sprint work, Basham says. “The way the bike moves and what it takes to put power into the pedals at 30 mph versus 20 mph can be pretty shocking to the system if you have not done some speed work,” he says.
“I have a couple of stretches of road that trend downhill where I can get the speed up to racing levels and have to work to keep it there so it is close to motor pacing,” he says.
[Want to fly up hills? Climb! gives you the workouts and mental strategies to conquer your nearest peak.]
Being able to look behind you without swerving or changing directions is a critical skill for racing, as well as commuting and riding in general. Here are the basics:
Look forward first: Before you glance back, survey the road in front of you to be sure that it is clear of potholes, debris, or other hazards that could cause you to crash while scanning behind you.
Keep your shoulders square: Your bicycle goes the way your shoulders are pointed, so if you rotate them while looking back, your bike is going to track in that direction. Keep your shoulders square and facing forward.
Tuck your chin to your shoulder: With shoulders squarely forward, turn your head down and to the side you want to look over, so your chin meets your shoulder and glance back to see riders (or vehicles) passing from behind on that side.
Or look under your elbow: You can also look behind you by dropping your head and looking under your arm. Dip your head toward your elbow and flare your elbow out and look through the window between your arm and your body to see where riders behind you are. This is particularly useful in race situations when you want to take inventory of who’s coming up directly behind you.
How to Practice Solo:
This is an easy one to practice in an empty parking lot or quiet bike lane (not when there’s a lot of traffic or other riders around, obviously). Simply ride along the painted line and practice scanning over your shoulder and looking under your arm until you can do it on both sides without swerving off your line.
Drafting helps you save energy—up to 30 percent if you’re in the sweet spot of the pack—but holding a wheel safely is a job all its own. Here are the basics:
Look through the riders ahead: Ideally, you want to be about six inches to a foot behind the wheel in front of you for optimum draft (and to prevent someone from cutting in and taking your spot). But you don’t want to be transfixed on that wheel, because you won’t be able to adjust to fluctuations in speed and terrain or sudden movements that happen in front of you. Like driving, you don’t stare directly at the bumper in front of you. You look ahead down the road.
Avoid prolonged wheel overlap: You are responsible for your front wheel, because what happens to it directly affects you and likely those around you should you go down. When riding in packs, there may be periodic overlap between your front wheel and the rear wheel of the rider in front of you. Minimize that as much as possible, because if a road hazard or sudden movement in the pack forces the rider to swerve in your direction, they’ll clip your front wheel and send you to the ground.
Minimize the accordion: There is a Slinky affect that happens toward the back of the pack as the accelerations and decelerations of the riders toward the front get amplified for the riders in the rear. You can minimize that affect by leaving a little more room between you and the riders directly in front of you to allow for micro-adjustments that are less abrupt and disruptive to your rhythm. The slipstream of a larger group will allow you to position yourself in this safer and smoother position while still getting the aerodynamic benefits.
Hold your line: When you’re in a pack, you need to be predictable. That means “holding your line,” continuing to travel in the path that you’re on, following the wheels you’re following, not switching or swerving. That is especially true when coming into a corner, where riders sometimes decide to reposition themselves for a “better line,” creating mayhem for those around them.
How to Practice Solo
This one is tough to practice without an actual wheel to follow. But if you have a close friend or two you have been riding safely with, you can definitely practice holding lines going through turns even from six feet away.
Being able to stop your bicycle is an obviously necessary skill. But good braking is also an energy saver, says former pro cyclist Alex Stieda. “One aspect of efficiency that’s often overlooked: slowing down,” he says. “By learning to brake skillfully, you can not only avoid accidents, but you can also improve efficiency and save energy for the times when you need it.” Here’s what he recommends:
Be ready: Any time there’s a wheel in front of you (i.e., while drafting), rest your fingers on the brake levers. This way, you’ll be able to brake quickly and minor slowdowns won’t develop into emergency-stop situations while your hands find the brakes.
Keep it equal: In 99 percent of braking situations, you want to apply pressure evenly to each brake lever so that both tires share the load. This helps maintain stability and control.
Turn smart: As mentioned previously, always brake before a turn. As you near the curve, apply equal pressure to the brakes to reach a manageable speed, and then release the levers before you begin the turn to let your speed carry you through. Braking in a turn wreaks havoc on momentum, but if it’s necessary for safety, then use the rear brake only— remember “right rear” to keep them straight in your mind, unless you’ve reversed the cables—because a front-tire skid guarantees a crash. Skidding the rear may raise your heart rate, but it will allow you to steer out of trouble.
Pedal through the brakes: In many scenarios, continuing to pedal while braking lightly will get you out of trouble. The overall effect: You won’t be a yo-yo, that person who brakes hard, then accelerates to regain momentum and wastes energy in the process.
Learn to stop hard: When you master the emergency stop, you’ll have greater overall stopping confidence because you’ll know this move is there when you need it. For more braking power, put your hands in the drops. Then, for added stability, push your weight back behind the saddle by shifting your butt and straightening your arms.
How to Practice Solo
Practice on a grass field, sprinting up to speed then slowing as fast as you can without skidding. You’ll need to modulate finger pressure on each brake lever, much like ABS on a car, to stop individual tires from skidding. Fresh brake pads greatly increase stopping performance—replace them regularly, consulting with your bike shop if you’re not sure when.
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