Moving From ‘Beginner’ To ‘Pro’: The Tricks That Make The Difference
Since the London Olympics in 2012, studies have shown that up to 52% of the British public have been somewhat inspired to take up cycling as a regular mode of transport or regular sporting activity. With so many new riders taking to the road, it’s easy to spot an amateur from a seasoned pro. There are a few obvious ‘tells’ like the wrong gear, the wrong bike and terrible road sense but those problems are usually remedied fairly quickly. If you’re new to the cycling game but want to make faster progress then we have a few pro tips that will make all the difference.
After trawling the net and talking to as many full-time cyclists as we could, we’ve found a few tricks that can separate your riding from the crowd and put you on the path to greatness. Some of the tricks that didn’t make the cut included learning how to remove a front wheel or change a cable but we thought that cycling tips should actually be about cycling, rather than maintenance side of things, we’ll cover all that later on. The ones that did make the final cut will make your daily ride a lot easier – and you’ll look like a pro too!
One of the first major mistakes that newbie cyclists make is the position of saddle. If your saddle isn’t in the correct position for your height or riding style, you’re going suffer from a whole lot of aches and pains and look the fool as well – which is more than enough to put the average learner cyclist off of the sport for life!
Firstly, you’ll need to work out whether your saddle is too high or too low. If it’s way too high, you’ll find it difficult to reach the pedals. If it’s just a little bit too high, you’ll find it uncomfortable to pedal and you’ll find yourself rocking all over the place. If your saddle is too low then you’ll notice that you’re getting tired a lot faster; this is because you’re losing your muscular efficiency.
Adjusting the saddle is fairly easy and usually requires nothing more than an Allen key. Once you’ve found the correct size, simply unbolt the saddle and reposition it by either lifting or lowering the seat. When you think you’ve found the optimum setting, check that the saddle is straight and re-tighten the bolt with your Allen key and make sure that you can’t twist the seat and make sure it doesn’t sink when you sit on it!
The best way to check that you’ve got the right height is to go out for a quick ride up and down the road; if it’s still not correct, then change it again. There are scientific measurements for optimum riding but it’s best to find something comfortable to begin with and fine tune it over time.
Many beginners struggle with pulling away: it sounds surprising but it can be a complicated move if you’re unfamiliar with it. There are many ways to get moving but it if you’re in doubt, stick with this one: it’s the easiest and the most widely used way to move from a stationary position to moving forward.
Firstly, you need to know which foot is you lead foot – it’s not always the same as the hand that you write with, so it’s worth checking. Simply straddle your bike and place a foot on the pedal; the foot that came up first is generally your lead foot. So, now you’re straddling your bike, with one foot on the pedal but not yet up on your saddle, what do you do next?
Keep your hands on the brakes and give them a gentle squeeze; at slow speeds (where you’ll be in a moment) applying a little brake increases your traction, keeping you more stable. When you think you’re ready to go, take a look over your shoulder and push down with your lead foot. You can ease off the brakes but keep them engaged ever so slightly. As you move forward lift your other foot onto the pedal, keeping your hands on the handle bars, moving forward in a straight line.
As you begin to accelerate, you can take your brakes off completely; as you’re pedaling, you should still be standing upright. If you move to the saddle before you’ve reached the optimum speed, the sudden weight distribution may cause you to wobble and that won’t look very professional at all!
Once you’ve reached a decent speed, begin to move yourself back towards the saddle whilst you’re still pedaling. Don’t forget to keep your eyes on where you’re going whilst you’re doing this. Once you’ve sat down comfortably, you’re off on the road…and that’s how the professionals do it!
Braking is a serious skill to learn and once mastered, it could potentially save your life. No matter what mode of two wheeled transport you ride, you’ll always hear ‘front brake – bad’ and while that’s true in some scenarios, the front brake is also your most powerful brake and the one that you need to trust if you’re ever going to stop in time. Many guides are quick to explain braking in terms of power and stopping distance but it’s much easier to visualize braking as something different altogether: weight distribution.
Imagine your cycling along a flat and straight road and need to stop suddenly. If you pull the front brake quickly, imagine all of the weight on the bike being transferred to the front as quickly as you’re cycling. This equals an over the handlebar kind of stopping, which isn’t ideal. Now if you imagine applying the rear brake, all of that weight being transferred to the back of the bike, you’ll understand that you’re still not going to stop in a hurry either. Now imagine applying the rear brake first, allowing your weight to shift backwards and then applying the front gradually and you’ll be able to visualize your bike coming to a stop in an efficient and safe way. Throw your weight to the back and then move it forward to stabilize; the perfect way to brake!
In an emergency, you should do the same but in reverse; front brake first then the rear to stabilize. The difference here is that the front brake is up to fifty percent more powerful than the back and if you need to stop in a hurry, that’s the one you need – providing you use the back to keep yourself upright though!
Understanding the gearing on a bicycle can be a headache; firstly, there are all of those sprockets and chain rings and it seems that you’d have to be a natural born mechanic to understand any of it! Fortunately, at the beginner to intermediate stage of a cyclists career, the real mechanics of your gearing isn’t that important but understanding what gear to use and when, is.
With the Tour de France on at the moment, it’s not uncommon to see a beginner tackle a hill or two will admirable gusto but it can also be painful to watch, especially as you know that a bit of gearing know-how would save them from tomorrow’s aches and pains and more than a bucketful of sweat!
The best way to begin understanding your gears is to ask for a demonstration at your local bike shop, the guys there know what they’re doing and they’re happy to help you out. If you’re not in a position to ask for help and need to master the basics on your own then it’s time to find yourself a quiet road or paved area and practice the differing combos and understanding which one will benefit you depending on your situation.
Selecting the appropriate gear is all about understanding how to get the most ‘bang from your buck’, you want to travel the furthest distance with the least amount of energy spent. You might be surprised to learn that what you thought was right was actually wrong! If you pedal slowly in a high gear, you’re actually expending more energy than if you were to pedal faster in a slightly lower gear. If you think about that as an example, it should inspire you to go out and experiment with your gearing, allowing you to make more energy-efficient decisions in the future!
Skill Building Basics
By now, you should understand the basics of riding; you’re positioned correctly, you can brake correctly, you can change gear accurately and know how to control your bicycle. When it comes to taking your riding to the next level, you’ll understand that it’s all about training, experience and practice; each one of these can be advanced by going out for a regular ride but the best way to gauge your progress is to put your skills to the test. Every now and again, it’s good to put yourself in a test environment and see how much you’ve improved or find out where your faults lie. The only problem is, nowhere really offers regular testing and assessment, so it’s up to you to play the judge, jury and executioner as well as the test candidate too! Here are a few tests that you can do at home with some inexpensive materials.
What you will need:
Remember those plastic cones that you see at school football training sessions? You can either get those small little ones or the slightly more expensive, rubber cones that look like miniature traffic cones. Those are the tools that you need; those and a traffic-free stretch of road.
The Slalom: Place your cones in a line, with each cone separated by a two meter gap and see if you can ride around each one. This sounds easy but now you’ve got to try it at very speeds, from a snails pace to as fast as you think that you safely can. You can also play around with the spacing; try tighter gaps to test your skills.
The Figure of 8: Similar to the slalom but you’ll only want to use two cones, separated by a large gap. Can you do a few consecutive figures of eight without having to put your feet on the floor? Again, this sounds much easier than it is. The trick to success is about looking where you’re going and using your brakes for traction. Try it!
The Emergency Stop: Use your cones to make a small box of around 30cm x 30cm. Now go for a ride around and build up your speed, to your usual riding speed and then aim for the box and try to come to a complete stop with your front wheel in the middle of the box. The chances are that you’ll over shoot or stop before the box but it’s a great way to test your braking at high speeds and to see your braking and steering accuracy. In a real accident situation, it’s good to come to a stop exactly where you intend to, rather than let fate put you into a more dangerous place.
The Gap Game: We found this cool test online and it’s surprisingly difficult. Arrange your cones into two lines, in a V-shape, like two lines that look an arrowhead, minus the actual point! The test is all about seeing whether you can put your bike where you want it. As the distance between the cones gets narrower, it’s very difficult to get through without clipping a cone or two. Make the gap smaller and smaller each time, until you have to focus on your pedal position before you can clear the gap. It’s more difficult than you’d think!
Many of these little tests are from Motorcycle Module 1 test and approved by the DSA. If you can do them on a motorcycle, you should have no trouble at all on a bicycle; although you don’t have the benefit of a clutch! Learning how to control your bicycle in any situation marks the real difference between a beginner and a pro, so make sure you find the time to practice – because practice makes perfect!