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How to Get Better at Cycling

If you want to get better at cycling, there's a lot more to think about than how your hair is going to look when you take off your helmet or how to balance a grocery bag on your handlebars.

By
Brock Armstrong,
Episode #443
Photo of three female cyclists

If you've been riding a bike since childhood, when you had a horn and streamers on your handlebars, you may think that cycling is as easy as, well ... riding a bike. But there's a lot more to it if you truly want to know how to get better at cycling.

I was watching the World Triathlon Series race in Leeds yesterday. There were times when even I, an experienced rider and racer, was cringing as the cyclists ripped through the city streets, mere centimeters from each other's wheels. When you watch cyclists of this caliber, you really start to appreciate the importance of proper cycling.

The type of technique I am referring to shows up in their smooth pedaling, their judicious braking, and their seamless gearing. It also shows up in their hairpin turns, their tight grouping and their overall safety at high speeds.

This isn't the type of stuff you learn from a spin class (actually, quite the opposite) or from pedaling your commuter around town (although that helps). It also doesn't automatically come from owning an expensive carbon fiber bike or a flashy cycling outfit (also known as a kit). This stuff takes practice, practice, more practice, and focus.

Cycling Physical Fitness

Technique and fitness often go hand in hand. Obviously, if you lack the strength, stamina, flexibility, and focus, you won't ever achieve the level of technique required to ride with the lead pack safely.

For example, if you're riding up a steep hill without adequate strength, power, and endurance, you won't be able to keep your cadence high and your exertion low. When you are coming down that hill, your fitness switches to upper body strength that helps you handle the bike, flexibility to get down low to reduce wind resistance and of course the confidence and nerve to allow yourself to hit some top speeds.

Cycling Mental Psychology

A recent research paper about the effects of cycling on cognitive function and well-being in older adults shows that cycling is not only good for your body, but it's also good for your brain. And the benefit goes both ways. The more you practice good cycling technique, the more you embed the movement patterns into your neuromuscular pathways. (Neuromuscular pathways are the points where an electrical impulse from the nervous system is passed to the muscle). The more that happens, the closer you get to riding like a pro. Like I said before, practice, practice, practice.

The main areas of cycling technique are:

  • pedaling
  • gearing
  • cadence
  • braking
  • cornering

Let's look at the specific technical aspects of each and how you can focus on getting better at each one.

Pedals and Pedaling

The smoother you can pedal the more relaxed and comfortable your upper body can be which, in turn, helps you conserve energy. So, one of the best ways to improve your cycling efficiency is to improve your pedaling mechanics and technique.

One of the best ways to improve your cycling efficiency is to improve your pedaling mechanics and technique.

Focus on pedaling smoothly, from the top of the pedal stroke through to the bottom but also from the bottom back up to the top. You can think of this as pedaling in circles. Pedaling in a circle is a complex thing, but mastering it can save energy.

This type of pedaling requires a specific type of pedal that cyclists call clipless. Clipless pedals are comprised of two parts: special pedals and cleats that attach to the soles of special cycling shoes. With this combo, your feet are essentially connected to the pedals, and your feet won't come unconnected until you deliberately swing your heels away from the bike. Being connected to your pedals in this way makes pedaling in a full circle possible, which is more efficient.

If you're cycling short distances or just pedaling around town, basic flat pedals—the kind you simply press down—works just fine. As you get more serious about your cycling —let's say you want to do a Grand Fondo or a century ride—your technique will be improved by having this type of pedal.

Gearing

Being able to intuitively cruise through the appropriate gears for your terrain will make you faster and more efficient. It will also make riding your bike more enjoyable and ensure that your chain doesn’t wear out too quickly.

In my experience as a coach, I find that most beginners underuse their gears. Some spend the entire time mashing their pedals and wasting a lot of power and effort in a high gear (that's when the big chain ring is at the front and a small one at the back.) Or they do the opposite and spin their legs too quickly in a low gear (small chain ring in the front and a big one on the back.) Neither of these is an effective way to ride.

Don’t fear the gears.

The key to using your bicycle gears efficiently is to learn to adjust your gearing intuitively and often. The easiest way to think of this is that your goal is to maintain a steady rate of pedaling (or cadence, which is next on the list) and then adjust your gearing to follow. This means you will change your gearing when you are ascending a hill, descending a hill, heading into a headwind or being carried by a tailwind. Anytime you feel like your effort is becoming too high or too low to maintain that optimal cadence, change your gear.

Cadence

In a nutshell, the number of times you turn your pedals in 60 seconds is your cadence. It is the same with running. Generally, counting one foot for ten seconds and then multiplying by six is the easiest and quickest way to measure cadence.

You have probably heard your cyclist friends refer to how many "watts they push," and that's because cycling is a power sport. Your power on the bike is the product of the force you apply to the pedals and your cadence.

To win a race, you want to pedal as fast as you can with the greatest amount of force you can maintain. That doesn't always mean shifting to a bigger gear and mashing on the pedals harder and harder. Grinding away like that, or flipping the pedals too quickly, in the wrong gear can increase the risk of injury, decrease your efficiency, and make riding a lot less fun.

So, what is the optimal cadence? During a normal ride, aim for a smooth pedal stroke between 85-100 RPMs (revolutions per minute). As you ride, choose gears that both allow you to pedal in that RPM range while also maintaining a manageable amount of pressure on your pedals.

Braking

Hopefully, you haven't had to send yourself flying over the handlebars to learn that braking is a surprisingly complex skill. A skill that improves with practice.

Your bike likely has two brakes, one on the front wheel and one on the back. Each has its own purpose. An excellent way to think of them is this:

  • The back brake is for slowing down
  • The front brake is for stopping

That generally means that you apply the back brake first, to slow yourself down, and the front brake when you are ready to stop. But if you need to stop in a hurry, both at the same time is a good idea. And don't worry, if you keep your body weight (and center of gravity) to the back of the bike, you won't go over the handlebars.

If you are riding in a tight group, use your brakes sparingly.

If you're riding in a tight group, use your brakes sparingly. If you're getting uncomfortably close to the cyclist's wheel in front of you, simply stop pedaling for a few seconds until you back off to a comfortable distance. Putting your brakes on unnecessarily can cause a cascade of panic in the peloton (a French word meaning 'platoon' which refers to a primary group or pack of riders).

Cornering

Perhaps the best piece of advice I ever received when it comes to cycling is this: keep your inside leg up and loose and your outside leg straight and tight while cornering. This will not only prevent your inside pedal from hitting the ground and flipping you off your bike, but it also maximizes your tire's traction on the ground. Both are fundamental aspects of cornering.

Keep your inside leg up and loose and your outside leg straight and tight while cornering.

If conditions are wet, or the corner is very sharp, make sure you slow down to a manageable speed. If you hit the corner too fast, your traction will be compromised. But apply the brakes before you enter the corner, not when you're already in it. Doing all your braking while cornering will lower your traction on the road and could cause you to skid.

In a corner, you're not only steering with your handlebars, but you're also steering with your lean. It's just a matter of balance. By moving your center of gravity, the bike can stay balanced as you go around the turn.

That means, the faster you take the corner, the further you'll have to lean your center of gravity toward the ground to maintain balance. This is a valuable skill to practice because often taking a corner safely comes down to confidence. A last-minute cornering freak-out can lead to a crash. Practice cornering somewhere safe and build up confidence before you get out into the mix.

Have Fun

I know I just threw a lot of information at you. It can seem overwhelming when all you want to do is go out and ride your bike. But I promise it won’t take long for all of this to become second nature. Just like learning to tie your shoelaces, use a computer mouse, or ride a bike (haha), it may seem difficult at first but practicing and putting in the effort will not only help you be a better cyclist but it will keep you safe and allow you to have cycling fun for years to come.

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