Question: I have been reading your Newsletter for a while. I am a novice at biking and want to get better but am having a hard time. My problem is that I learned to ride a bike as an adult and somehow I struggle getting comfortable on the bike. I forced myself to ride on roads (prefer trails), I have done a couple of short triathlons and I have taken a couple of biking trips in Europe (one trail and one road). This year I have another trip planned but I find myself still a nervous wreck even though I find biking fun.
I get most nervous when: 1. Starting out … I don’t always start in a straight line. 2. Stopping … especially in a downhill situation … subconsciously I probably think that the brakes are going to fail. I have a bike tune-up annually. 3. Riding alongside others … I am afraid of a collision or not being able to avoid a pothole, etc. 4. Traffic … my riding is mostly on country roads with no shoulder. Some locals don’t move to the other lane … I guess they think that I should be off-road 5. Going through a trail gate … somehow I think I can’t fit through … I have gotten better but it is not second nature. Do you know of any tricks or some type of coaching that would help me overcome my fears? —Celeste A.
Coach John Hughes Replies: My main suggestion is that you do 3 practice sessions of 20 – 30 minutes each week. You’ll master the skills much more quickly than just by incorporating the skills into your rides. You can practice several of the skills in each session – of course, also practice them in your rides!
Here are my specific suggestions, addressing your fears in order:
1. Starting in a straight line
Riding in a straight line is the most basic skill, which you can practice in a large parking lot that has a straight line between rows of parking spaces (or something similar). Practice riding on the line, wavering as little as possible. It’s easier at a higher speed because of the gyroscopic effect, rather than riding slowly. Practice until you can (almost) stay on the line at your normal riding speed. You can also practice this on a very quiet road with a white line between the road and shoulder.
Next, practice starting out and riding in a straight line, as close to the white line as possible. It’s easier to start up in a straight line in a harder gear to get your momentum, and then you can shift to an easier gear.
If you’re riding with a group and still have difficulty starting in a straight line:
- Be at the back of the group when you stop so that if you waver at the re-start you won’t cause a problem for someone else.
- Veer to the right (away from traffic) rather than the left.
2. Stopping without fearing the brakes will fail
Five things to remember about braking:
1. The best place to grip the brake levers is with your hands in the bends behind the levers, not from on top of the brake hoods.
2. 90% of the stopping power is in your front brake, so apply both brakes evenly, not just the rear brake. Although most of the stopping power is from the front brake, the rear brake is what keeps you from skidding around.
3. Braking shifts your center of gravity forward, so to compensate slide back a bit in the saddle.
4. On a long descent don’t “ride the brakes” – don’t just keep them on moderately the entire time. Instead, pump the brakes – brake fairly hard and release, brake fairly hard and release, etc.
5. Always brake before the corner, not in the corner. If your bike is leaned over going around the corner and you brake, the bike will straighten back up and won’t corner.
You can also practice braking in a parking lot. Ride toward an object 30 or 40 yards away at a moderate speed (12 – 13 mph) and practice slowing down and coming to a stop. As you get more confident start closer to the object and ride faster. Keep practicing until you can stop quickly.
Then practice this on a gentle downhill, learning to slow down more and more quickly. As your confidence grows, practice on steeper hills.
3. Riding alongside others without fearing a collision or not being able to avoid a pothole, etc.
You’re smart! This can be a problem! Three tips:
1. Never ride alongside someone else unless you’re confident they can ride a straight line and not do anything to cause a problem for you.
2. Always look ahead for potholes, etc.; don’t expect another rider to warn you.
3. Always protect your front wheel. You want your front wheel even with or ahead of the other rider’s front wheel. If your front wheel is farther behind, then if the rider moves toward you it’ll knock your front wheel out from under you.
4. Riding in traffic without fear.
We’re fortunate in Colorado that by law a motor vehicle must give a bike (at least) 3 feet of clearance. Some tips:
- Don’t hug the edge of the road. This will tempt some drivers to try to pass you when it isn’t safe. Ride 1 – 2 feet away from the edge of the road.
- Since you’ve mastered riding in a straight line, you don’t need to worry about veering into the road.
- Use a mirror so you can see if a car is about to pass. Then you can: Move to the right a little, or, Get off the road and stop. I look in my mirror constantly and get off the road if I’m at all concerned.
- I like a mirror on the helmet. A mirror on the glasses also works … until you forget to put it on your glasses. A mirror on the end of the handlebar isn’t safe – you need to look down and away from the road ahead to look in the mirror.
- When a car passes safely I always wave in a friendly fashion after they’re past. Sometimes riders are jerks and impolite to cars … and then the drivers aren’t careful around riders.
5. Going through a trail gate without fear of fitting through
Here’s another parking lot drill. Put a couple of water bottles down in a parking lot farther apart than a trail gate and practice riding through them. As you get more confident, move the bottles closer to each other.
General bike handling and cornering
Go to the parking lot (again!). Take a bunch of water bottles (or something else like empty soda cans)and place them in a row with 4 or 5 bike lengths between each. Practice riding down the row weaving around each bottle (or can). It’s like slalom skiing.
Ride on the right side of the first bottle, left side of the 2nd one, right side of the 3rd, etc. Start slowly and then increase the speed to your normal riding speed as you get more confident. This will help you feel more confident cornering at normal speed.
Then move them closer together and start slowly again. Keep moving them closer, still riding slowly, to build confidence in handling your bike at slow speed.
Not long ago, I wrote a series of columns called On the Rivet, about how to build the mental skills to reduce anxiety and increase confidence. Here’s a link to that series.
The League of American Bicyclists has an excellent on-line program on how to build cycling skills called: Smart Cycling. And John Allen also has an excellent website called Street Smarts – I’ve coached with him at camps.
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Dave Minden says
I disagree with ‘mirror on the handlebar is not safe’. My bar mirror is very steady, has a wide field of view. The difference in focal field from out front of the bike to the mirror is less – so easier to focus on the mirror then back to the road – than with a helmet mirror. And, any mirror is much safer in traffic than no mirror; I notice my buddies without are not nearly as aware of cars behind as I am.
As far as riding in a straight line is concerned…I find that the further I look ahead, the straighter line I can ride. When looking at the road immediately in front of my tire, I often wander a bit. Then if I focus farther ahead, say 30-40 feet, I can ride super straight.
I know it’s hard but try to lighten up. When you are nervous, you tend to grab the handlebars in a death grip and tense up your arms, elbows, and shoulders. Relax those muscles and joints a bit and let your bike “float” a little.
Kerry Irons says
I’ve recently started riding with front and rear flashing lights (as many others do) and my subjective analysis is that I get wider clearance from passing cars now. The front flasher helps prevent people pulling out or turning in front of me.