Good bike skills are
essential to riding with a group of riders. We all know how much harder it is to ride solo than to ride with company. What’s more,
better bike handling can make you safer both by yourself, and with a group, letting you to get out of trouble when you need to and avoiding the panic that can lead to bunch crashes.
Most exciting of all, being comfortable drafting a wheel or relaxing on a descent can mean you save your energy for when you really need it, allowing you to keep up with, and sometimes overtake riders with better absolute fitness – and who wouldn’t want that?
Whatever your skill level, investing time and energy in focused practice is always worthwhile, but it’s even more essential if you know that lack of skill has been limiting your performance. Here I’ve chosen the common problem elements of cornering and climbing to show where skill as well as fitness training can influence your potential.
How to train yourself
Significant research suggests that there’s a critical window at a young age for learning skills if you want to be successful in sport. So for adults taking up the sport, it’s often easier (and more rewarding) to focus on more measurable fitness and training elements, resulting in their cycling becoming more and more ‘work-like’ and less playful.
Practising cycling skills can sometimes seem a bit silly, erratic and repetitive, and in some circumstances might feel like little more than a complete waste of time.
Another barrier is that there’s often a wide gulf between experts with all the technical know-how and beginners struggling to understand basic cycling problems. After all, expert riders can already corner and climb with relative ease without even thinking about it, making it almost impossible to explain to someone else who can’t.
Beginners may not even be aware of what they are doing, while intermediate riders are often worse off sitting on their laurels, since they have enough ability to get by, and can become complacent at improving further.
Picking up key skills
For me, riding a bike was something that was always fun, and I happily picked up some bike-handling ability riding in and out of cones, on and off planks, and over the humps in the local woods on the way to school. Later I learnt to ride in a bunch, follow a wheel and corner at speed, all as part of racing, and all before I reached the age of 15.
Reflecting back on my experience, it was less to do with luck and more to do with perseverance that I developed the skills I now use to enjoy my sport. The fun element was also a key factor, and working with others can bring this back into your riding and enhance your skills at the same time.
I think it’s fair to say that most riders are unlikely to stretch and challenge themselves in a way a child naturally would. But if you’re thinking this means it’s too late for you, you should think again.
There’s no good enough reason to give up on improving your bike handling, and if, anything, there are strong arguments for favouring skills practice for all ages and abilities, especially when it’s too late in the season to make any real gains in fitness.
The good news is that because skill learning is largely neuromuscular, significant improvements can be made quite quickly with focused training, and without being any fitter. While cardiovascular fitness takes some time to develop, in relative terms, the nervous system adapts much faster, meaning that anyone can improve, and those with the least skill to start with see the biggest improvements.
Break the problem down
Everyone will be at different stages of learning with different skills, so it’s important to take a critical look at what you do well (and not so well). Having committed to improving one aspect of your riding, the trick is to break it down into its parts.
While you’re wrestling with the whole thing in one go, it will be difficult and frustrating to make progress, so resolve to deal with bite-size chunks one at a time. Once you’ve worked on each part of the problem, put the whole thing back together and see if there’s a noticeable difference.
I’ve chosen cornering and climbing here, but it makes sense to analyse which of your skills could give you the most satisfying improvements.
When cornering, the goal for any cyclist is to get in and out of a corner maintaining as much speed as possible with the least effort. Practising corners on a slight downhill can help you focus on the technique aspect as you’ll naturally be approaching carrying some speed.
Smooth and seamless cornering can make countryside lanes a pleasure and descending relatively relaxing. For racers, feeling comfortable cornering in groups at pace is really essential.
Relaxation is critical for effective cornering. Tension can cause muscle stiffness that alters your body shape, changing the line that you’re able to take safely. Psychological factors like anxiety can also affect your judgement when riding too.
Flexibility is important so that you’re able to get into a good position for taking a corner. Staying low on the bike and tucking tight drops your centre of gravity, making it possible to take sharper lines.
Upper-body stability through the shoulders, upper back and neck also help you stabilise against the shifting G-forces involved in cornering, especially at speed or on descents
Climbing out of the saddle
Climbing out of the saddle allows you to maintain your speed over steeper hills and accelerate over the summit. An ability to stand effectively offers you a change of pace uphill that can help you lose riders or stay with a group, depending on your position. A standing climb can help stretch your body and use muscles that would otherwise stay fairly dormant when cycling.
As you approach the corner, try to look beyond it at the line through and past the bend where you want to exit. Adjust your speed by feathering the brakes (lightly and gradually applying them) so that you feel in control at the speed you are carrying. This is important because it will help you stay relaxed. Don’t approach the corner at excessive speed. You can always increase the speed later as you become more proficient.
Straighten your outside leg completely and put your weight through the pedal. Just before you turn into the corner, take a deep breath into your abdomen.Around the corner, drop both your shoulders down away from your ears, tucking your elbows in, lowering your upper body and dropping your inside shoulder even more. Breathe out as you do this and relax. At the same time, lean your inside knee outwards to help you stabilise and keep looking beyond the corner to your exit line.
While exiting the corner, stay relaxed, but maintain a solid upper body with elbows tucked in. Pick up your pedalling as soon as you can, initially focusing on progressively adding seated power as the bike straightens up, before standing to accelerate if you want to.
Upper-body strength is important if you want to maximise your out-of-the-saddle climbing power. You can stand without it, but you won’t really achieve the change of pace that’s possible until you really work your arms and upper body. Core strength is what connects an active upper body with working legs. Without it, it’s difficult to develop any kind of optimal climbing technique.
Timing and co-ordination between the upper and lower body are essential to integrate the two together to move you forwards. Getting the two ends of your body working well together is something that can only be practised while on the bike
Core on climbing
Horse stance dynamic
In another variation of the horse stance exercise, start in the basic position shown and as you breathe in, stretch and lengthen your arm and opposite leg in line with your body.
As you breathe out, bring your knee to your elbow on that same side underneath your abdomen, drawing your belly button in. As you breathe in again, stretch and lengthen in line with your body, and as you breathe out again, tuck into a ball bringing your knee to your elbow.
Repeat this 5-10 times on one side before changing over. This exercise can help with the cross-body pulling movement that assists the standing climb
Horse stance position
with deep breathing
Adopt the position as shown in the picture, ensuring that your elbows are slightly bent and tucked in, pulling your shoulders away from your ears. Make sure you keep your shoulders over your wrists with some weight through the front end to develop shoulder and arm stability and strength.
Breathe deeply into your abdomen, so that your tummy drops down, then as you breathe out, draw your belly button up towards your spine (without changing the shape of your back). Push down through one arm and the opposite knee until the other ‘diagonal’ is able to hover off the floor. Hold for 3-5 seconds, change sides and repeat.
Practising deep breathing with this exercise away from your cornering practice will make it easier for you to manage it straight away once you get on the road. You can visualise the approach to a corner too, to help with mental preparation.
Horse stance position,
kneeling on the ball
This is a more advanced exercise, but the position is the same. Start by resting your hands and knees on the ball, but keep your feet on the ground. Draw your belly button in and adopt the same fundamental position as previously.
You may need to consciously arch your back to achieve this. Slowly roll forward coming onto tiptoes so that your weight is on the ball. Gradually practise this position until you are able to balance for a few seconds on all fours on the ball.
Practise somewhere safe where there is some space and a soft landing, and work within sensible limitations. This will help you to develop core and back strength and stability with the unstable ball stimulating the righting reflexes needed to adjust your body position as you lean through a corner at different angles.
This article was first published in the Autumn 2011 issue of Cycling fitness. You can also read our magazines on Zinio, download from the Apple store and also through Kindle Fire.