Nothing will elevate your rides quite like improving your bike handling skills. Sure, riding more often and for longer durations will improve your endurance, and incorporating some hard efforts into your rides will have you sprinting faster. You can even get yourself a more aerodynamic frame or wheels for a bit of free speed, or snag some lightweight components to help fly up the steepest of climbs with a bit more ease. But your handling skills are what will improve every single aspect of your cycling, no matter your fitness level or equipment setup. Exceptional handling skills will not only make you a safer rider, they’ll also make each of your rides more enjoyable, relaxing—particularly when riding in a group—and even more exciting when you encounter a fast or technical descent. The more often you ride, the more your handling skills will naturally improve. But here are a few ways that you can actively and consciously improve your handling skills by incorporating some drills into your training plan or riding routine.
This may seem obvious, but being able to safely ride your bike in a straight line is the most essential skill that every cyclist should be able to do. Most cyclists are able to ride in a relatively straight line, sure. But ask yourself, can you ride for a long duration of time in a truly straight line? Veteran cyclists may scoff at the idea of practicing this fundamental skill, but they should note that it’s fundamental for a reason: it forms the foundation of all good bike handling habits. Also consider that throughout the course of a ride, your energy levels and focus will decrease, and you may encounter some rough bits in the road. So being able to maintain a steady course in conjunction with a regular pedaling effort is key to a safe ride. When you’re riding solo, take some time during your ride and pick out a line—even an imaginary one, or one in parallel with an existing line—in the road (always being mindful of other traffic, of course). Try to ride along it without veering off. Vary your speed, as well, because riding faster will encourage your bike to maintain a steadier—and therefore, straighter—course. This simple exercise will not only hone your sense of balance, it will also improve your muscle memory and reflexes, giving you a greater familiarity with your bike’s handling characteristics and how it interacts with various road surfaces.
As cyclists, we love speed, and we’re always trying to make ourselves faster on the bike. From engaging in sprint workouts to upgrading a component for a lighter or more aerodynamic alternative, we’re always striving to go just a little bit faster. However, being able to ride slowly is just as important a skill to master as is riding fast. Being able to ride very slowly naturally improves your overall balance, and it also gives you increased confidence when you inevitably encounter slow-speed riding scenarios, particularly when riding in traffic or commuting. Find yourself on a lonely stretch of road or a lightly traveled bike path (steep climbs work exceptionally well for this type of activity), ease off on your pedaling effort and ride very slowly, around 2-3 miles per hour, while maintaining a smooth and straight line. Riding slowly reduces the gyroscopic effect that keeps your bike upright when riding at high speeds, so you'll be forced to utilize your own balancing skills to accomplish this. You’ll also most likely need to engage your core muscles a bit more than you would riding at a regular speed, which is an added fitness element to this drill. Like the previous skill of riding in a straight line, this skill will help you become more familiar with your bike’s handling characteristics, and also improve your overall balance. This skill of maneuvering your bike slowly and in tight areas will also have you unclipping from your pedals less frequently. Speaking of which, let’s talk about track stands.
A track stand is an essential skill in, you guessed it, track racing. But road cyclists should also know that it isn’t just a cool trick that will impress your mates on the group ride. It’s an active skill whose fundamental components will translate to better overall bike handling, steering ability, and confidence. Not only will it give you the ability to more quickly start pedaling again after a complete stop by not needing to unclip and clip in again, it’ll help improve your balance on the bike when grinding up steep climbs. Before we go any further, it’s vital that you familiarize yourself with your area’s local regulations when it comes to cycling traffic laws. Many jurisdictions have unique laws when it comes to stop lights, stop signs, and yielding amongst vehicles (including bikes). So be sure you know the law in your riding area when it comes to whether track stands are permitted, or if fully unclipping from your pedals and placing a foot onto the ground is mandatory.
When it comes to practicing your track stands, the best location would be a quiet road with a gently sloping gradient. Don’t be afraid to set aside your clipless cycling shoes for the time being and use a set of sneakers or street shoes for this activity—this will allow you to more quickly and easily put a foot onto the ground as you’re learning to complete a track stand. Start by facing the upward slope of the gradient. Stand up out of the saddle, and put your dominant foot forward. Then put some pressure onto it to drive your bike forward, and ease off the pressure to allow the bike to roll backwards slightly. Your bike will rock backwards and forwards as your muscles become used to the sensation, and then it’s just a matter of repetition in order to find your bike’s balance point. Practice, practice, practice until you can stand up, not tip over, and have your bike remain in place without moving forwards or backwards.
This drill follows the same principles as the aforementioned “riding slowly” one, but with an added degree of difficulty. We recommend doing this in a closed or private area, and not on a regular road or public thoroughfare. Create a short course for yourself within a relatively small space using some small items like a spare inner tube, water bottle, or a bundled up wind vest. The idea is to create a unique circuit that will require you to ride slowly through it and navigate around the items, all while building your slow-speed handling skills. We particularly like a “slalom” style course, with a line of items placed in a row—you’ll need to zig-zag your bike back and forth around each item. Another good shape is a “figure 8,” which can be accomplished with only two items—you’ll then ride in a figure-8 pattern around the two items. Both of these scenarios will require you to ride slowly, learn your bike, and be very aware of how your hand position and body weight are utilized to control your steering in tight turns.
One of the best ways to improve your bike handling is to simply change up the surface atop which you’re riding. Smooth, tacky tarmac can make for a dream ride, but it doesn’t challenge your handling skills in the ways that loose gravel or loamy dirt can. If you’ve got a mountain bike or a gravel bike in your quiver, then put aside your cherished road bike for a day or two a week and hit the trails. Being able to safely and efficiently maneuver your bike across a variety of road, trail, or bike path surfaces will accelerate the improvement in your overall handling of two-wheeled vehicles. Likewise, challenging your balance and fine muscle movements by forcing them to control a whole new style of bike will also make you a better overall cyclist. And, of course, don’t be afraid to get your road bike dirty by taking it out on a light gravel path every now and again.
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