One thing that’s been a topic of discussion this season, more often than I’d like, is bike handling. Being a triathlete/roadie type, I don’t feel I’m the best bike handler out there. I’m certainly no Peter Sagan!, but it is an important skill to learn for a number of reasons. This season, I’ve seen, or heard of, A LOT of team mates falling. A helmet can save you, partially, but wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t fall at all????? In addition to not falling, having adequate bike handling skills will give you confidence and skills needed to react properly to emergency situations, hold your momentum better on a TT course, and generally make you a better/faster rider! So what is bike handling and how do we learn it?
First off, a lot of being a good bike handler is confidence. Confidence feeds off itself, and is obtained by practice. The more you practice your skills the better you become at them, and the more confidence you build in yourself to make a perfect turn, use rolling hills or bumps to maintain or accelerate your momentum, or react to a situation. So Practice, practice, practice!!!!
To break this down more simply, for the purpose of this post, I’m going to talk about bike handling broken down into three separate skills.
- Being comfortable with basic maneuvers on your bike
- Holding your momentum
Being comfortable on you bike is kind of broad. The important part here is to be sure your loose and able to turn, stop, stand on the pedals, and sometimes even hop your bike at any given time. First thing to do is get comfortable with your pedals! If you’re not doing single leg drills on the trainer in the winter time, it’s time to start! Get used to clipping in and out when you have to. The trainer is a good place to practice that safely. The next thing you need to do is find your center of gravity. Being centered on the bike makes it stable. The weight is evenly distributed between the wheels, and maximum traction is achieved by the weight distribution being allocated evenly to both wheels touching the pavement. Next is maneuverability. Once you find the center of gravity, it’s good to practice slow turns. Find that center and turn the bars to the left. Make some circles as tight as possible while keeping the bike up right. Then go to the right and do the same. After that, practice some quick movements left and right. Set up a cone and go straight toward it moving left or right very quickly, at last second, at greater speeds. If your really feeling ambitious, at this point, start learning to bunny hop. It doesn’t have to be high! but sometimes it does come in handy to be able to jump over little obstacles that come up in the road.
Once your comfortable with basic maneuvers, it’s time to work on cornering. This is a favorite of mine! Cornering strategy is the same whether your in a race car, on a motorcycle or on a bicycle. Unfortunately, this is a skill most triathletes seriously lack. When you learn to corner well you find out quickly how much because you will make up bike lengths in corners, and may get frustrated on the crowded courses where other athletes lacking those skills will slow you down and break your momentum. However, when the course is clear in front of you, this is free speed! So how do you master the corners?
- Set up your approach. Before you even get to corner you should be looking ahead to see what kind of turn it is. Is it a single 90 degree turn?, is it a Chicane?, is on or off camber, or is it decreasing radius? All of these thing come into play as you judge what speed you come into the turn. Once you make that judgement decrease your speed accordingly before your get to the turn. All of your braking is done before you turn. This goes back to your center of balance. If your are braking into a turn all of your weight gets distributed to the front wheel. That means you actually have less traction!! When you are off the brakes and weight is distributed evenly between the two tires contacting the pavement, with evenly distributed weight, you achieve maximum traction. You will be able to corner more quickly and not slide out on that front wheel. A good way to achieve this is by making sure you are centered on the bike and your pedal on the outside of the turn is down perpendicular to the ground. Most of your weight will be on outside foot, not on the handle bars!
- Execute the turn. Executing the turn means hitting the right line and apex. Below is a diagram, of proper line around a corner. Remember!, the apex changes on different corners like decreasing radius, so you have to adjust. Your eyes should be on the road ahead of you. Meaning you look through the turn. Use your peripheral vision to hit the apex, your eyes should stay on the exit of the corner. You will tend to go where you look. So NEVER look to the outside ditch!!! Keep those eyes on the exit of the corner!!
3. Accelerate out of the corner. After your apex, and as your drifting smoothly to the outside coming out of the corner, it’s time to start pedaling! Quickly and smoothly pedal to regain any speed lost by the corner. You should be almost back up to speed as the road starts to straighten out again.
This leads us to holding your momentum. I like to think of momentum as free speed. It’s absolutely true that people who hold momentum better do less work over a course and achieve faster overall times, which is essential in Triathlon and Time Trial racing. The cornering we learned above is a big part of that, but there are other ways you can hold your momentum over the course.
- Learn when and how to shift your weight to the back wheel. In mountain biking, you learn quickly that it’s faster going over bumps leaning back and being light on the handlebars. Same applies on the roads! Instead of gripping your handlebars tightly when the road gets bumpy, you need to grip them only enough to keep them stable and straight. Lean back to shift your weight backward and let that rear wheel take the brunt of the bumps.
- Learn to use the downhills. Another thing you learn mountain biking is how to use rolling hills to keep momentum. With short rollers in the trails it’s possible to maintain a speed, or even accelerate, without pedaling at all!!! You simply put a little bounce in the pedals at the start of the hill to make yourself light going up it (almost like a jumping action), and press hard down and lean slightly forward on the downhill to accelerate your momentum. It’s called a “pump” track when you have several rolling hills in succession that you can maintain speed on without pedaling. On the road, the rolling hills are rarely that small and short that we can achieve what mountain bikers do on a pump track. But, what we can learn from this is that accelerating on the downhills actually helps us go uphill easier by the momentum we build. What we can do is not coast!! I see so many triathletes coast downhill. It’s important to keep a constant power on the uphill and the downhill. Using that downhill to build momentum may help you crest that next roller with very little effort at all. So…use a constant power on the downhill to build momentum, then downshift downshift downshift!!! on the uphill as many times as you need to in order to keep that momentum and constant power on the uphill. This will make course with rolling hills soooooo much easier when you practice and perfect this!!!
- Use your cornering skills! Use those cornering skills, discussed earlier, to kill your next TT course!!
Mastering these 3 things will definitely make you a faster rider. It will give you the confidence you need, and rid you of anxiety of new and challenging courses. It will even save your legs more for the run!!! The best part is though, it’s fun! It’s a lot of fun to hit the perfect corner, hit bumps and come out the other side with your momentum in tact, or hit rollers with so much authority you barely have to pedal while other athletes are grinding up the hill because they lost momentum. So PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE!!!! Be safe, and have fun doing it!