How do you build confidence on the saddle?

A colleague of mine chatted with me on the elevator going down and out of the office recently. She had asked for tips about how to improve her confidence while riding, as her on-the-saddle nervousness was detracting from the time she could spend with her kids while they gleefully rode their own bikes.

I figured this would make for a good subject for today’s writeup. So, how do you become a more confident bike rider?

SADDLE TIME – AND MORE OF IT

Unfortunately, there isn’t a magic shortcut or an instant cure that will take away your jitters. The best way of building confidence on the saddle is to simply keep riding your bike.

Or is it?

As starkly simple as that advice is, it’s too simple and doesn’t give you much of anything to focus on. A more effective strategy is to break down the task of riding into individual skills you can practice when you do log the saddle time.

EMERGENCY STOPS

This is first on my skills list for good reason. The laws of physics dictate that vehicles with one front wheel just don’t stop as quickly as those with two or more. There are things we can do to improve the odds, though, regardless of what brake system you run on your bike.

Befriend your front brake; it is crucial if you want to stop quickly. Key to making use of it correctly without flipping over your handlebars is to straighten out your bike, get your pedals level, stand up out of the saddle, and push your hips backward as you pull the front brake lever. In a sense, you are pushing the bike away as you brake. This counterweighting action basically makes it impossible for you to fly forward off your bike. Pull on both front and rear brake levers, but bias the front brake more.

It is imperative you practice and get used to this skill quickly, because it can literally save your life. Regular practice recommended.

RIDING ONE-HANDED

Easily second on my list is one-handed riding. If you have any plans of riding on the street with vehicular traffic, you will need some way of visually indicating your intentions, and the best way of doing this is with hand/arm signals.

Freeing one hand from your handlebars also allows you to drink or eat while riding, and allows you to turn your waist and head more so you can check for traffic behind you.

So how do you teach yourself to ride one-handed? Take advantage of your speed, as it’s how a bicycle stays upright and stable. At a medium riding pace, around 12 km/h and faster, try to have one hand let go of the handlebars while going straight, and let the loose hand hover a few centimeters over the bar, so you can hold it again if needed. You’ll soon find out that you don’t have to grip the handlebars all that tightly to maintain stability.

RIDING AT VERY SLOW SPEED

Having established that a bicycle is more balanced and stable the faster it goes, what do you do when you take away the speed? You become more active and work to maintain your balance.

This is an excellent skill to learn, one for more advanced riders. It’s also great to go back and practice every once in a while. Without speed, you are forced to constantly tweak your balance on the bike, making adjustments with the handlebars and leaning your body left and right. It’s effective both done in a straight line and while turning or going round in a tight circle.

The good news is that all this low-speed balance work translates directly into better bike handling at higher speeds. On a fast road ride, especially, you can get used to steering the bike with your hips instead of your handlebars.

RIDING IN A STRAIGHT LINE

This might sound too simplistic, but you actually do need to intentionally practice riding in a straight line. Why? I see too many bike riders who cannot ride straight without flopping their wheels over left and right. Imagine the cold bullets of sweat you’d feel having to ride alongside such a cyclist.

The constant need for left-right correction while riding straight just means a rider cannot keep balance well. Much like in car racing, the more you move the steering wheel, the slower you ultimately are. While a fast pace on the saddle isn’t top of everybody’s priorities, I bet most people want to ride without having to needlessly expend energy doing anything else but go forward.

Practicing this is as simple as finding a white line on the side of the road and trying to keep yourself as parallel to it as possible – or even ride over it if conditions allow. Again, the side effect is you learn to steer your bike using your hips, rather than your hands. For added challenge, drop your speed and hold the straight line at a very slow pace.

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Dealing with static road hazards

Contrary to initial belief, a slick bicycle tire will handle most of the things you encounter while riding on the road – whether it is wet or dry. There are a few static hazards, however, that you will need to account for when riding in an urban environment, as they all have the potential to unsettle you from steady forward progress.

Even with slick tires, wet roads by themselves are generally not a problem on a bike.

ROAD FURNITURE

“Road furniture” consists of the many standard features of a modern road, such as manhole covers, painted markings, humps, speed bumps, and drain grates. In case of road works, this can also include safety cones.

A steel grate covering a drain located in the middle of a driveway.

The safest way of navigating drain grates and tram or train rails is to cross them with your front tire as perpendicular as possible. This avoids the chance of your wheels literally falling into them, especially if you run narrow rubber such as a 20 mm tire, as it can be impossible to get out once in. Running a wider tire helps here, such as a 25 mm or 28 mm slick.

Painted markings and manhole covers, on the other hand, are dangerously slippery when wet, and so are best avoided. In the Philippine context, for some strange reason, the public works utilities love using large steel plates to cover up sections of broken road (I’d argue they barely qualify as “road furniture”). Once these get wet, these act as patches of virtual black ice.

Sometimes you just can’t ride around these things, so the best thing to do is just hit them as straight as possible, and pass over them without braking or turning.

ROAD ACNE

Meanwhile, I use “road acne” to refer to decidedly non-standard road features, such as ruts, debris, cracks, fallen leaves, loose dust, gravel, and potholes. Of these, potholes and debris are the nastiest; you want to either ride around them, or bunny-hop over them if you got the skills.

Even with slick tires, you can usually ride through patches of dust or gravel, as long as you keep upright and avoid braking and leaning – a straight-line approach is best.

If the dust and gravel are in the middle of a turn, you can maintain tire grip by slowing down and keeping upright as you approach it. This minimizes the lean-in angle of the bike as it negotiates the turn, keeping the weight of the bike as vertical as possible through the tires’ contact patches.

You tend to risk tire slippage if you lean too hard on loose-surface corners while riding on a slick tire, since the tire’s tread shoulders don’t get enough purchase or resistance against the riding surface.

Longitudinal or lengthwise cracks along the road can be deep enough to act as long narrow ruts. Dealing with them is the same as negotiating train tracks or drain grates: Approach them with your front tire as perpendicular as possible.

They look innocent, but fallen leaves are surprisingly dangerous

Fallen leaves may be a surprise as they are innocuous enough in the dry. Most leaves contain a waxy coating that plants need to help retain the moisture they already have, and repel excess water from outside. What this means for us cyclists is that on damp and wet streets, riding on fallen leaves is particularly dangerous – they are easily as slick as anything made of wet metal. As with manhole covers and steel plates, if they can’t be avoided, ride straight through them without braking or sudden handlebar movement.

How do I get faster on the bike? Part 2: More advanced tips

In the previous installment, I shared a few tips for beginners looking to up their pace on the saddle. Those will give you a solid foundation to build from. From there, these following tips should help even further.

GET LOW AND AERO

As you build up to higher speeds, you’ll notice that you expend great amounts of energy simply pushing air aside. They say that a rider’s body accounts for 80% of the aerodynamic drag while cycling at high speed. You might as well make this knowledge work for you and adopt the principles of aerodynamics.

 

The simplest way of improving your aerodynamics is to decrease your frontal area to the wind. All that requires is to adopt a lower riding position, such as using the drops on a road bike and keeping your elbows tucked in. On a flat-bar bike you can simply bend your torso lower.

Your aero also benefits hugely due to clothing. Riding in a zipped-up, tight-fitting jersey and spandex shorts will decrease the amount of excess clothing flapping in the wind, and reduce the chances of your skin chafing.

STAND UP AND GRAB TWO HARDER GEARS

There are many reasons why you’d want to pedal out of the saddle. It could be to stretch out your legs, or to relieve pressure on your groin from being seated on the saddle for a long time. You could even launch a sprint.

Most out-of-saddle situations are easiest to transition into when they are accompanied by two clicks to harder cogs. When out of the saddle, your body will naturally adopt a slower cadence, because your body weight is on your hands as it goes into each pedal stroke. You have to prepare for this with your gears by shifting to harder gears. Two cogs is usually enough.

STRENGTHEN YOUR CORE

Your back and abdominal muscles make up your core, the foundation for your hips and legs to pedal your bike. Cycling is one of those exercises that rewards good core fitness, but doesn’t build it at all. With a stable core, your legs can put out more power without having to worry about supporting the rest of your body. Try performing planks, bridges, and yoga poses like the “downward-facing dog” pose.

WORK ON YOUR SPRINT

Sprints are explosive accelerations, yielding very high speed within a very short period of time. Good sprinters make use of their bikes’ frame and wheel stiffness in order to put their muscle power into the two contact patches of the tires to the ground. This usually shows up as the bike swaying or “dancing” underneath them, in step with each pedal stroke.

With a sprint, you’re basically relying on your muscle tension to push a heavy gear from a low cadence to a very high one in as little time as possible. This takes a lot of trial and error, but is worth practicing seriously.

WISE UP TO INTERVAL TRAINING

An app like Strava can help record your intervals for later analysis by producing an estimated power curve.

At the simplest level, interval training involves short periods of hard efforts, followed by short periods of recovery. This cycle repeats. This kind of training confuses and forces your muscles to adapt, and is better for building muscle compared to long rides at a steady pace.

The hard efforts must be really hard (maybe 9 out of 10 on a perceived exertion level), while recovery must be really easy. One simple example would be to go 5 minutes all out, then 3 minutes for recovery, repeated 5 to 10 times. There are plenty of interval training programs out there, but one benefit they share is that they compress an effective training regimen in a short amount of time.

A turbo trainer can be better for this kind of training, since there’s more consistency, but you can do interval training on the road as well. You can do intervals on the flats to work on your sprinting, or do them on a familiar hill to work on your climbing ability.

ACTIVATE DIFFERENT MUSCLES WHILE PEDALING

On a long climb, such as the ascent of Tagaytay via Amadeo, rotating effort around your muscles is important to stave off overall fatigue.

Cycling is heaviest on the quadriceps muscles, the ones in front of your thigh. When fatigue sets in your quads, it will become harder to continue pedaling for extended periods of time.

Learn to rotate the effort around your legs’ other muscles, particularly those at the back. Your glutes are powerful engines for extended seated climbs, while your hamstrings can take some of the load off your tired quads and maintain forward propulsion on the cranks.

How do you do this? The trick is in your saddle position. Moving rearward allows your glutes and hamstrings to share the effort. Combine this with a smooth pedal stroke, one that’s similar to scraping the bottom of your foot at the lowest point, and you get a great way of maintaining speed while extending your endurance.

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