QUESTION: I’ve heard people talk about how easy it is to ride a bike, but what are the basic skills you need to ride on the road? —Dave S.
RBR’S STAN PURDUM REPLIES: After stage 5 of the Paris-Nice bicycle race recently, a roaming camera operator captured a scene of professional racer Romain Bardet riding toward his team bus and being joined by his 3-year-old son Angus, pedaling a tiny two-wheeler without training wheels and riding remarkably well for a beginner. But the video illustrates one of the basic skills needed to ride on the road: the ability to pedal in a straight line.
Romain, who had slowed way down to accommodate his son, nonetheless continued straight, but finally had to veer to the left as young Angus swerved into his path. You can see a short clip of the father-son ride here. One of the commenters on the clip had fun comparing the boy’s swerve to a 2021 race incident involving bike pro Nacer Bouhanni who deviated from his line in a sprint finish forcing another rider into the barrier.
So, one basic skill is the ability to pedal in a straight line. It isn’t that hard to do, especially when going fast, but it does require keeping your eyes on the road and paying attention to how you are riding. You may need to practice — say in an empty parking lot — staying straight when going slow. And this skill is critical even if you are riding alone, because you don’t want to wobble into the path of overtaking vehicle or behave unpredictably while in traffic.
Another skill is braking correctly. This is more than just yanking the brake levers. The front brake is the most effective at stopping the bike, so you want to be sure to use it, but not by itself, since this will bring the front wheel to an abrupt halt and pitch you over the handlebars. So use both front and rear brakes but favor the front one; the rear one will help slow the bike but the front one will stop it. You can help keep control of the bike while braking by sliding back farther on the seat to move the center of gravity toward the rear wheel.
A third basic skill is to keep control of your bike while descending. Since the bike moves so easily going downhill, you may be tempted to let it go wide open and enjoy the thrill. But it’s easy to crash at those higher speeds, especially if you hit a pothole or have to panic stop because an animal runs out of woods in front of you — or a car pulls out of a driveway. So you’re better to hold your speed down, but don’t keep the brakes engaged constantly, as this can cause your rims to overheat and result in a tire blowout. Instead, repeat cycles of applying and then releasing your brakes — on-off, on-off, etc. — as you descend.
Also, learn to corner safely. Do your braking before entering a corner, since braking tends to make your bike go straight. Then lean the bike into the corner as you ride through it.
Finally, keep your eyes on the road. This may sound obvious, but it’s harder to do than you might expect. There’s a lot to distract you. You do need to be aware of what’s coming up behind you, so you’ll need to glance periodically at your mirror or over your shoulder. Eating and drinking may seem to require visual attention as well. But you need to do these things with no more than quick glances. In fact, you can learn to reach down for your water bottle, drink from it and return it to its cage without ever taking your eyes off the road.
And then there’s your GPS device or cyclometer offering info you may want. My worst bike crash (resulting in a broken collarbone) happened when I was riding a paved bike path with my friend Wayne. We were traveling fast, taking turns pulling in the front, and as Wayne passed me to take the front position, he said, “We should be at about mile 9 now, right?” I glanced down at my cyclometer and saw it wasn’t on the right screen to provide that answer, so I began paging through the screens, and when I looked up again — after a couple of seconds with my eyes off the path — my front wheel was into Wayne’s back wheel. I crashed while trying to disengage — all from briefly not watching where I was going.
There are more skills you’ll learn by doing, but these should get you started.
See also 10 Essential Bike Handling Skills for Roadies elsewhere in Road Bike Rider.
Stan Purdum has ridden several long-distance bike trips, including an across-America ride recounted in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day, and a trek on U.S. 62, from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas, the subject of his book Playing in Traffic. Stan, a freelance writer and editor, lives in Ohio. See more at www.StanPurdum.com.