Several weeks ago I wrote a column on Anti-Aging: Why Practicing Balance is Important. Balancing your body is a learned skill and balancing on feet isn’t the same as balancing on your bike. Falls are the number-one cause of injuries and death from injuries among older Americans. Every 19 minutes in this country, an older person dies from a fall. (New York Times) Most bike accidents don’t involve a vehicle or another person — the rider just loses control.
Experts differentiate between balance and stability. Balance is controlling your body without movement against gravity. Stability is controlling your body during movement. The first column discussed balance and stability off the bike. This column discusses stability on the bike.
I’m working on an eBook Cycling in Your 70s, 80s and Beyond and this column is based on my research.
You can practice and develop your stability skills in the off-season when the weather isn’t conducive to long rides. Empty church parking lots are great places to practice as are the outer empty areas of large parking lots. The following skills will help you maneuver your bike without kissing the asphalt.
Explore riding slowly.
I wrote a column on Anti-Aging: How Can an 83-year-old Climb Long Hills? The key for Eli was to ride slowly, more slowly than he thought possible.
- Practice riding slowly. In the parking lot ride laps, each lap a little more slowly than the last. Don’t worry about riding a straight line. When you think you’ve reached your limit challenge a buddy to see who’s better.
Learning how to stay stable and hold your line is one of the keys to staying upright in the following situations. You don’t want to accidently swerve into traffic doing any of the following:
Riding in a straight line
Riding in a straight line is pretty easy when you’re zipping along, but maintaining your line becomes more difficult in these situations.
- Riding slowly. If possible use a painted line. Start riding down it briskly. Keep repeating your trips down the line going more slowly each time.
- Starting in a straight line. Practice your starts and experiment to see what changes you can make to help you start straighter. Hand positions on the bars? Choice of gears? How much you push off with one leg compared to how hard you pedal with the other leg? How can you transition smoothly from one foot on the ground to getting both feet on the pedals and your butt on the saddle?
- Getting a water bottle. If you have to look down to grab a bottle it’s hard to hold your line. Practice riding a straight line with one hand on the bars while getting the bottle, taking a drink and replacing the bottle all without looking down. Replacing bottle is the trickiest. Develop the feel for when the bottom of the bottle is touching the top of the cage somewhere and then how to maneuver the bottle into the cage.
- Reaching your back pocket. Practice reaching back and grabbing a snack without torqueing your body, which affects your line.
- Looking back. I highly recommend using a rear view mirror, which is generally useful for monitoring what’s behind you. Even with a mirror you should look over your shoulder to double check before moving into the traffic lane, turning left or turning right.
- Climbing. Riding a straight line while climbing is similar to riding slowly. However, it’s harder to hold your line if you mostly press down on the pedals rather than pedaling with a round stroke. Moving your upper body side to side also makes it harder to climb in a straight line.
- Sharp corners. Riding around curves is relatively easy. Especially on bike paths you may need to turn sharply. Put a water bottle on the parking lot and practice turning around it.
- Slalom. Put a row of bottles on the parking lot spaced a couple of bike lengths apart. Practice riding around the right side of one bottle, left of the next bottle, right, left, etc. As you master your slalom course put the bottles closer together.
- Intersections. Even if you have the green light blasting through an intersection is always dangerous — a driver may not see you even if you have the right of way. In the parking lot practice slowing down to just two to three mph and looking left and right.
- Brief almost track stand. A track stand is when a rider on the velodrome stops completely and balances trying to force the other rider to take the lead. You don’t need to be able to do this; however, the ability to ride so slowly you almost stall can allow you to check for traffic and wait until it’s clear
Riding a straight line on a smooth road is pretty easy; however, conditions can make it much more challenging.
- Gravel. Even if you don’t regularly ride gravel roads you may encounter a gravel trail, road construction with gravel, a gravel pull-off, etc. If the gravel is only an inch or so thick it’s rideable. Maintain your momentum — the faster you ride through gravel the easier it is. Pedal with a round stroke so you have smooth power transfer to the rear wheel. Loosen your grip on the handlebars slightly. The front wheel will move around in the gravel and if you ride with a loose grip, the bike and your body won’t move around as much at the same time. If you don’t have gravel roads to practice on, often there’s gravel along the side of a bike path or the shoulder of a road.
- Sand. Riding through sand is similar to riding through gravel but trickier because the sand is shiftier. Experiment to learn when you can ride through it and when walking is safer.
- Bump. Sometimes you’ll encounter a pothole or something across the road, which can throw you. Your front wheel will suddenly decelerate. So you don’t lose your balance shift your weight back in the saddle to compensate for the deceleration and to make it easier for the front wheel to get over the bump. You don’t necessarily have to slow down; it’s easier to ride a straight line over a bump if you’re riding your normal speed. If you don’t have potholes, practice riding over a 1” piece of lumber firmly anchored.
- Obstacles. It’s always safer to ride around something instead of over it. If at all possible go to the right around the obstacle. Put a water bottle on the parking lot. Practice riding toward it and looking quickly over your right shoulder to check if a rider is there. Then jogging quickly to the right and back to your normal line. Practice riding toward the bottle and imagining a car door suddenly opening. Look quickly over your left shoulder; if it’s clear jog left and then back to your line.
- Panic braking. When you initially brake, your body moves forward putting more weight on the front brake. The front brake will have traction and is less likely to skid so put more pressure on the front brake. As a result your body’s normal trajectory is over the bars onto the pavement. The key is to staying on the bike is get your center of gravity back by sliding your butt back in the saddle. If you’re braking hard, especially descending, you might even push back off the saddle a little.
- Braking with disc brakes. Disc brakes are very effective and because of their great braking power it’s pretty easy to lock up one or both of your wheels. Practice applying different amounts of pressure to each brake to learn what you can do without locking up the wheel.
You can make games with a buddy out of many of these practice sessions:
- Slow race. On a lawn in a park if possible, see which of you can take the most time to get from point A to point B. Don’t worry about riding a straight line doing this. You could do this on pavement but it’s safer on grass.
- Slow straight line. Use a painted line see who can ride the farthest on the line at a certain speed. Then try it again a little more slowly.
- Slalom. Take turns riding your slalom course in the parking lot progressively moving the bottles closer together. Who can maneuver through with the bottles closest together?
- (Almost) stalling. This is similar to the slow race. Start just a few yards from a bottle on the parking lot simulating the start of an intersection. Who can ride the most slowly to the bottle. You don’t have to ride a perfectly straight line, just don’t wobble around too much.
- Bumping. This is skill to develop if you ever ride in groups. It’s another good one to practice on grass. Riding side by side about an arm’s length apart, one rider reaches over and pushes the other rider gently to the side. Although it’s counter intuitive, when you get pushed the key is to lean toward the rider to keep your center of gravity over the bike. If you turn away from the rider you’re likely to go down. Practice getting pushed gently on both the right and left sides. Progress to riding closer to each other and getting bumped not just gently pushed.
NEVER ride no hands! It looks cool when a pro throws his hands in the air as he wins. A friend tried riding no hands to put on lip balm … and missed six weeks of summer because he broke his collarbone.
I also wrote a column on 10 Essential Bike Handling Skills.
Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process My e-Book explains the physiology of aging and how to assess your current fitness. It includes exercise programs for cardiovascular health and endurance, training with intensity, resistance training, getting more flexible, improving your balance and slowing bone loss. It includes a dozen stories about their personal experiences by riders ages 54 to 82. The 107-page Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process is $14.99.
Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written over 40 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John’s full bio.
David Stihler says
A tip on riding through sand. I live on the coast of California by Monterey CA. There is always fine sand which blows on the bike path near the ocean. The sand can be several inches deep. I’ve learned to ride through sand by wiggling my front wheel. Picture a snake wiggling through the sand or grass. Wiggle it back and forth fairly quickly and it will get you through 3 or 4 inch deep sand for about 6 feet or so. If the length of sand you’re going through is more than a few feet. Dismount and walk.
Ollie Jones says
A small thing, coach: Please avoid using the word “accident”. It connotes inevitability. Use “crash” instead. “Accident” should be be reserved for truly random events, like falling after a squirrel darts in front of the bike. As your fine article points out, crashes can be avoided by training and care.
Even crashes due to some clod stepping in front of the peloton aren’t accidents.
What you call a “Brief almost track stand” is called a HATS by me and my ride buddy. Half Ass Track Stand, executed when a track stand is called for but neither of us can really do one!
Dick Reynolds says
Good suggestions all. , Riding the demarcation line between the traffic lane and bike lane – after checking for traffic in my mirror – is a part of my riding routine. I find practicing sl-o-0-0-w sharp turns is also very helpful. At 87 anything I can do to enhance my balance and keep me riding safely is welcome.
Russ Marx says
No Hands? Twenty Five years ago a friend said you shouldn’t ride no-hands if you are over 50. Since then I have made it a practice to ride no hands for a few seconds on every ride. At 79 I can still do it, A friend and I used to have “no hands races, Slow to 10 mph then accelerate to 20.
Westly Windsor says
Yes I agree with the no hands practicing as it teaches and reinforces the use of your body weight, via you bum on the saddle, to control the line of the bike as well as through the bars.particularly useful when cornering at speed.
I also have done it all my riding life and still do at 77.
One has to choose the right time to practice away from traffic.
Russ Marx says
If you are cooling down riding in the parking lot, riding around “no hands” makes your heart rate go back up!