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Discover cycling: Basic cycling tips and skills

By Fiona Lockhart

Her Sports Magazine

January 23, 2006


It's true -- once you learn to balance on two wheels while propelling yourself forward via two pedals, wind sweeping through your hair and heart racing with adventure, it's not a skill you quickly forget. But how many of us really learn to ride a bike, as opposed to merely staying upright and managing forward motion without falling?

By employing some basic cycling tips and skills, you'll not only earn a greater appreciation for your bike but also improve your riding experience and get a better workout in the process. Take advantage of the following tips next time you hit the road.

1. Know your gears. Your front gears (located near your right pedal) are used to make the biggest shifts; for example, when you approach a hill and need to get into an easy gear fast. You may have two or three chain rings to choose from, with the smallest ring providing the easiest turnover. These gears are controlled by the shift mechanism on the left-hand side of your handlebars.

Your back gears (located on a cogset near the rear wheel) are the "fine-tuners." Use these when you need to get into a slightly different gear to increase pace or make pedaling a little easier. These gears are controlled by the shift mechanism on the right-hand side of your handlebars.

2. When shifting, plan ahead. Watch the terrain and plan what gear you'll need to be in if the terrain changes. When you get to a hill, shift to the gear you need just before you get there. Waiting too long causes you to lose momentum and puts pressure on the chain, making it harder for the bike to shift appropriately.

The best way to familiarize yourself with your gears is to hit an open stretch of road and practice shifting both front and back gears to see what they can do for you.

3. Learn to brake. The No. 1 rule of braking is to use both brakes evenly, particularly if you need to stop suddenly. The front brake (located on the left) provides more stopping power, which is why you want to avoid using it too abruptly. Slamming the front break is a sure way to catapult over the bars. Learn to ride, in the drops of your handlebars, in other words, lower part of your bars. This will give you better leverage when you apply the brakes.

To brake safely, add pressure gradually to both brakes until you slow to a desired speed or come to a full stop. Over-gripping the rear brake will give you less stopping power and cause your back tire to skid. As with gearing, watch ahead and moderate your speed in advance.

4. Look through turns. When heading into a turn, always look through the turn to where you want to go, rather than into the middle of it. Your bike will go where you're looking, so if you look at the curb you're trying to avoid, you'll likely run right into it. If you need to slow down going into the corner, brake before the turn rather than in the middle of your turn.

5. Lean your bike, not your body. As you head into the turn, push the handlebar that is closest to the inside of the turn slightly so that your arm straightens a bit. This will automatically lean your bike into the turn. At the same time, keep your body upright; don't lean into the turn with your bike.

Make sure your outside foot is pushing down hard into the pedal at the 6 o'clock position (your inside foot is at the 12 o'clock position). This will ensure that you don't scrape your inside pedal or lean the bike too far.

6. Position yourself for the downhill. Keep your weight over your saddle on down hills. If the descent is particularly steep, scoot your butt toward the back of the saddle to keep traction on your rear wheel.

Keep your focus ahead of you rather than right in front of your wheel so you can plan ahead for changes in direction or obstacles in the road. And, of course, control your speed by "feathering" your brakes evenly rather than hitting them hard at the last minute. Feathering your breakes will also help prevent your brakes from overheating which sometimes overheats your tire and that can lead to a blowout.

7. Be smooth on the pedals. Think about turning circles with your pedals rather than pushing down on them. Imagine you're gracefully wiping mud off the bottom of your foot each time you come to the bottom of your pedal stroke. This will help you apply force throughout the stroke and make your pedaling more efficient. Another way to look at it is to pull up with the foot that is not pushing down.

8. Practice riding different terrain. You can greatly improve your handling skills on your road bike by riding on gravel trails or even grass. Your speed will be slower, but you'll learn how to navigate around obstacles and over small rocks and branches, which will help when you ride on roads with traffic and debris.

9. Be defensive in traffic. Always ride under the assumption that drivers don't see you. Slow down at all intersections, even if you have the right of way. Make eye contact with drivers. Ride as close to the right side of the road as safely possible, use arm signals and obey all traffic signs and lights so drivers know where you're heading.

10. Consider clipless pedals. Clipless pedals (those without traditional "clips and straps") use a cleat to affix your cycling shoe to the pedal. This transfers the greatest amount of force from your legs to your pedals and cranks, propelling you forward with more power and efficiency (meaning you'll tire less easily).

There are several types of clipless pedals -- SPD, Look, Time, Speed play -- all with their own unique cleat. Try out several in the bike store (ask to demo them on a trainer to see which is easiest to clip in and out of) and then practice on a grassy field before hitting the roads.

Gearing up

Knowing the basics about bike equipment will get you looking and feeling like a pro in no time.

Bike frames. Bikes primarily come in four materials: aluminum, carbon, titanium and steel. Aluminum is an economical, lightweight frame, but it can feel unforgiving on rough roads. Carbon frames are very light and strong, providing a smoother ride, but they tend to be expensive. Titanium is also very light and strong, but pricey, as well. Steel frames are relatively inexpensive, but typically are much heavier than the other kinds. However, new technology has allowed Steel to be much lighter than in years past and still provides are very strong/durable option.

If you're happy with your current bike, stick with it. But if you're not comfortable on it or it's just too old, take time to test ride a variety of frame styles and materials before buying.

Helmets. A good helmet should fit well and keep your head relatively cool. Look for plenty of vents and easy-to-adjust straps to ensure a snug, comfortable fit.

Clothing. Cycling shorts have a chamois insert to provide padding between you and your bike seat. Although those "short" shorts may look cute, opt for the longer mid-thigh length to prevent inner-thigh chafing. And never wear underwear along with the shorts -- they're designed to work best alone. Look for a jersey with pockets in the back to hold energy bars, keys, phone, etc. Choose Lycra/Coolmax combinations or other technical fabric designed to wick moisture away from your skin. On cold days, the key is to always layer on the clothes (no cotton). Cotton will absorb the sweat and hold it against your body.

Pedals. You have three choices of pedals: platforms, toe clips and clipless pedals. Since your feet aren't attached to simple platform pedals, they don't allow you to maximize your stroke; all you can do is push down, but not pull up. I suggest going with a clipless pedal and shoe. It only takes 3 or 4 rides out to really get used to it and your efficiency will improve noticeably.

Toe clips (also known as "toe cages") allow you to use more of the pedal stroke. The drawback is they need to be snug, which makes them harder to pull out of for quick stops. Clipless pedals, which attach directly to a cleat in the bottom of your shoe, take a little getting used to, but with practice you'll be able to get in and out of them in a snap, as well as get the most out of your pedal stroke.

Shoes. If you have clipless pedals, you'll need shoes with cleats to attach to them. You can get either road or mountain bike shoes. Road shoes have a stiffer sole to create more pedaling power but are a difficult to walk in. Mountain bike shoes are easier to walk in, but not as stiff, so you sacrifice a little power. Even if you don't have clipless pedals, using bike shoes (as opposed to running shoes) will improve your bike speed. Carbon soles are always best.

Gloves. Cycling gloves minimize impact and chafing to your hands and protect them if you fall. You can get half-fingered ones for hot weather or full coverage for colder weather conditions. I also suggest a double layer glove with a light fabric glove layer on the bottom so you can remove it when you become to hot into your ride.

Your bike will go where your eyes go, so don't look at what you want to avoid, focus on a clear path around it.

Your bike will go where your eyes go, so don't look at what you want to avoid, focus on a clear path around it.

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