I turned 71 in April and rather than rueing my age, I’d set a challenging goal of cross-country skiing at least 71 days. I skied 75! My second goal was to continue to improve skiing the classic diagonal stride. I’m fortunate that last summer we moved to the mountains of Colorado. As I write this on May 4 it’s spitting snow, I’ve built a fire and I’m eating oatmeal for breakfast. Dr. Mirkin would approve. I have two excellent ski areas just 20 minutes from the house.
I wrote a column last year on turning 70.
How did I improve?
Years ago my good friend and cross-country ski coach Muffy Ritz recommended the book “Don’t Look Back” by John Morton. As a former Olympian and Olympic coach, Morton draws on his personal experience to teach what makes a great skier. The combination of Training, Technique, Psychology, Health and Nutrition, and Equipment can help any skier at any level. How did I incorporate these five factors into my skiing?
- Technique is where I could improve the most. Davis Phinney, a retired pro cyclist, won 328 races in the 1980s and 90s, a record for an American, including two stages of Tour de France. Phinney was also an excellent cross-country skier. He once told a friend of mine, “If you’re not falling you’re not learning.”
I skied without poles to work on my balance. I practiced slumping like a teenager so my weight was far enough forward. I challenged myself by skiing expert courses to improve my climbing and especially my descending, my biggest weakness.
I fell a lot last winter.
- Psychology. If I was relaxed and focused — not worried about work — I skied better and I practiced being in the moment. Driving to ski I focused on my breathing and tried to let go of all my responsibilities for the day. Skiing 75 days required skiing in bad conditions and I reminded myself that any day skiing was better than working.
- Training is similar to cycling and some pro cyclists also compete in cross-country skiing events. After a summer of riding I had good endurance and once I got on the snow I worked on improving my power.
- Equipment and clothing. Ritz had recommended I get new state of the art racing skis, which made a big difference. My clothing was pretty similar to riding in the winter although the temps were lower, some days in the single digits.
- Nutrition is similar to riding in the winter, modified for much colder temps. I took a thermos of hot tea spiked with Gatorade for calories and taste. I ate fig Newtons, soft granola bars, dates and prunes, all of which didn’t freeze too hard to chew.
Improving Bike Handling Skills
As a coach I work with my clients on all of the factors. I’ve written many columns for the newsletter about these and 40 eBooks on the same subjects.
Bike handling techniques are important skills that don’t come naturally and are an area where many roadies can improve. Here are ten techniques, all of which you can practice by yourself or with others.
Practice is the key. These don’t come naturally so practice each of these until you can do it without thinking about it. Practice safely. You can practice almost all of these techniques in a parking lot or something similar. Master a technique before you try it in traffic.
1. Climbing better. I’ve written a column on climbing like the pros.
2. Pedaling technique. When a cyclist has good pedal stroke, 3 o’clock is the only point at which the foot is pressing directly down on the pedal You’ll have more power if you pedal efficiently around the full 360 degrees. You can practice this by consciously focusing on four parts of the pedal stroke.
- 12 o’clock to about 5 o’clock. The greatest muscle activity occurs in this region. Your quadriceps powerfully straighten your knees. In a good pedal stroke your hamstrings and glutes (butt muscles) also straighten your hips. You’ll get more power if you learn to engage the hamstrings and gluteal muscles. Imagine that you’re pushing your knees toward the handlebar or kicking a soccer ball.
- 5 o’clock to about 6 o’clock. The same muscles are working as above, although not as powerfully. Learn to also engage your gastrocnemius muscles, which point your toes down. Imagine that you are scraping mud off your shoes or your toes along the floor.
- 6 o’clock to about 9 o’clock. Good cyclists don’t pull up on the pedal in this arc; instead they use the hamstrings and gastrocs to unweight the pedal so that the downward moving pedal doesn’t have to push the other pedal up.
- 9 o’clock to 12 o’clock. The same muscles are working and the quadriceps flex your hips.
When you’re out riding a good drill is to concentrate on the top and bottom of the stroke for a few minutes at a time. Learn to initiate the forward and downward push right at 12 o’clock and to start to unweighting the pedal at 6 o’clock.
One-leg pedaling is the best way to improve your pedal stroke. Put your bike on the trainer. Put something, e.g., a box, on either side so you can rest the non-pedaling foot on it:
- Pedal for 30 – 60 seconds with your left foot.
- Pedal the same amount of time with both feet. Don’t bother to clip in with your right foot just rest it on the pedal.
Repeat this several times and then switch feet. Every time you do the drill try to increase the times of both the one-leg and two-leg pedaling.
Riding gravel, especially gravelly climbs is a great way to smooth out your pedal stroke.
3. Cornering safely. When you go around a corner you want to lean your bike into the corner and ride in a curve around it. However, when you apply the brakes your bike tends to straighten up and go in a straight line instead of around the corner. This means it’s important to do your braking before you get into the corner.
To practice cornering set up a slalom course with empty water bottles or pop cans in a parking lot. (Use empty cans so that if you hit one it won’t throw you.) Practice weaving your way through the slalom course. Start slowly and gradually increase your speed. As you become more proficient move the cans closer together.
4. Cornering quickly. Cornering on the tangent is the faster way around if there’s no traffic. For a right hand turn start near the centerline, ride close to the right edge of the road and finish near the centerline. For a left hand turn start near the edge of the road, cross close to the centerline and finish near the edge of the road.
Counter-steering is the fastest way to go around a corner and is described here.
You can practice both riding the tangent and counter-steering with a slalom course.
5. Braking safely on descents. As you apply your brakes your center of gravity shifts forward, which means that more of your braking power will come from your front brake. Because of this you want to apply your front brake harder … but if you apply it too hard you’ll go over the handlebars (called an endo by MTBers). To prevent this slide back in your saddle at the same time you apply the brakes. The harder you brake, the farther back your butt should go – you can even push it slightly off the back. If it’s hard to get the motion of pushing your butt back, think about pushing your bike forward under your body.
On a long descent if you brake constantly you may overheat the rim and cause a blowout. (When I started riding we glued sew-up tires onto the rims. If I overheated the rim the glue softened enough that the tire would roll off the rim – that was really exciting!) To prevent overheating pump your brakes hard enough that you can feel the bike slowing, release the brakes, pump and release … If it’s a fairly steep sustained descent I stop part-way down and feel the rim of my front wheel. If it’s too hot to touch I wait before resuming the descent.
On fairly short moderate descents practice both sliding your butt back and pumping your brakes. No descents? In a parking lot ride at a brisk pace and practice.
6. Panic stops. Panic stops are similar. Apply the brakes hard and push your butt back. You can also practice this in a parking lot. Place a bottle to show where you must come to a complete stop. Ride toward it at a brisk pace until you are 15 or 20 yards away and then brake so you are completely stopped by the time you get to the bottle. Keep repeating this with shorter and shorter stopping distances.
7. Balance at slow speeds. Knowing how to ride very slowly is useful when you’re approaching a red light or a busy intersection. Practice on a lawn so that if you fall it won’t hurt (as much). Try to take longer each time you cross the lawn.
8. Riding a straight line. Riding a straight line is easy when you’re going fairly fast because of the gyroscopic effect of your wheels. When you slow down you should still ride in a straight line, especially in a group. Practice by trying to ride on a white line in a parking lot. If there’s no traffic you could practice on the white line separating the right-of-way from the shoulder.
9. Riding a straight line while eating and drinking. Once you’ve mastered riding in a straight line then practice riding the line while pulling your bottle from the cage, drinking, and replacing it. You should be able to do the entire motion without looking down at your bottle cage. Also practice getting a snack out of your jersey pocket and eating it.
10. Not wasting energy. Sometimes you’ll see a rider bobbing his upper body back and forth with each pedal stroke. Bobbing back and forth does nothing to make you go faster – it just uses energy that would be better spent moving your bike down the road. Try to be conscious of this on the road. A good drill is to put your trainer in front of a mirror and watch yourself.
Play as you practice. Repeated practice is the key to mastering each skill and you can make practicing a lot more fun if you can do each drill competing with your buddies. Who can ride the tightest slalom course? Who can ride farthest on a straight line. Who can take the longest to ride across the lawn.
How to Become a Better Cyclist. You’ll be come a better rider by working on all five of the success factors. I’ve written an eBook on how to become a better rider and have added a sixth factor: assessing your strengths and weakness and developing a plan and goals to work on your weaknesses. When we ride we enjoy employing our strength, but to improve we need to work on our weaknesses. The 36-page How to Become a Better Cyclist is just $4.99.
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 nearly 30 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John's full bio.