Six tips to improve your bike handling skills
We turn to the experts for six golden pieces of advice for improving your skills on a bike
Do you ever feel uneasy on a bike in close quarters, or jealous of the rider in front of you who seems to make a habit of showing off their advanced bike handling skills while you feel limited to taking just one hand off the handlebar to grab a sip of water?
You're not alone. Improved bike handling skills will make you feel more comfortable on the bike, particularly when riding in a group, and will help you stay safe out on the road. It’s with great interest, therefore, that we’ve spoken to two coaches, Stu Auckland and Dave Lloyd, to get six top tips that will help you improve your bike handling skills.
But first, a little on why and how these skills are so vital for cyclists everywhere.
What is 'bike handling' anyway?
The term ‘bike handling’ itself is a little vague - certainly, it can cover all manner of things from riding with one or no hands and carrying out tasks like drinking from a water bottle or taking off an item of clothing, to reacting to obstacles in a timely, efficient and considerate way.
Auckland succinctly defines it as “dealing with the unexpected" while out on the bike. "Whether this be on an unfamiliar road, riding with a group or in adverse conditions, every ride is permeated with the unexpected," he says.
Why does bike handling matter?
“A rider who has good handling skills will be a safer rider," says Stu Auckland. “If they’re confident and comfortable in handling their bike, in tune with its handling, braking and accelerating characteristics, they can also then put more energy into their riding."
Auckland says a better bike handler often has more time to make decisions when encountering hazards, because less conscious thought is put into reacting to them on the road – everything becomes more instinctive, with fewer knee-jerk reactions made because the rider is experienced and able to deal with a given situation. This takes on extra importance when riding in a group.
“You want your actions to be fast and fluid, not jerky and haphazard, especially if riding with others or within a large group" he says. “Last-minute swerving, heavy braking or constant changes in pace because you’re a ‘jerky’ rider will filter throughout the group meaning those behind will be expelling unnecessary energy slowing and speeding up, plus potentially not seeing the hazards you’re reacting to too slowly and badly."
Riding comfortably in a group often comes from learned habits on the road, as Dave Lloyd explains. “Most older riders have come through the ‘club scene’ where they are taught ‘road etiquette’ and ‘group etiquette’, and this stands them in good stead in racing and tight situations as they’ve ridden in closely packed groups with little space for manoeuvre.
While being a confident - and competent - bike handler will help keep you safe, whether riding solo or in a group, there are performance benefit, too, according to Lloyd.
“Having good bike handling skills can get you out of most ‘tricky’ situations," he says. "For example, descending fast and safely, but ‘on the limit’ is certainly something to learn and practice regularly. From a performance perspective as well as a safety viewpoint, it’s no good being the best climber if you can’t get back down quickly and safely."
What can I do to improve my bike handling skills?
So you want to improve your bike handling skills? Here are six tips to make you feel more comfortable and controlled when out on the bike.
1. Practice makes perfect
Needless to say, one of the best ways to improve bike handling is to actually get out and ride your bike - the more often you do, the more natural it will become. However, if bike handling is a particular issue for you then having a quiet space to practice troublesome skills on your own is a great way to do improve your skill on the bike.
“If you can’t perform skills like riding one handed and taking a swig from your bottle without looking down and swerving in the road, try heading to a closed supermarket car park and practice in relative safety," says Auckland.
Lloyd says you can also extend this to more difficult skills like riding no-handed or carrying out tasks like putting on and taking off a gilet on the move.
“This can take lots of time to practice, and even then you need to take extra care on the road, ensuring you have time and space in which to do it safely," he adds. Naturally, doing this on a busy road with lots of traffic is a no-no.
“But the main thing you will realise," Lloyd points out, “is the one thing you need is practice. For example, I am now approaching 68 years of age, but my descending is still improving through practice. I love descending and the buzz you can get from doing it skilfully and safely is one of the best things about cycling."
2. Think ahead
The key to being able to react to obstacles and hazards in good time is to think - and look - ahead. It’s so easy to ‘chew your stem’ when working hard at the front of a group or grinding up a climb and miss important and potentially dangerous hazards.
“Keep your head up and eyes scanning ahead," says Auckland. “You want to recognise those hazards such as potholes, puddles and other road debris so you can move out and past it smoothly and confidently.
“Also, it’s vital you practice giving out hand signals (something linked to being able to ride your bike one-handed safely) when you’re riding with others."
Check out our guide to cycling hand signals if you’re unsure which to use for a given situation. Remember, a simple gesture in good time is better than a late indication, while the finer signals can be developed over time as you become more competent.
3. Watch others
They say one of the best ways to learn is by watching others. Not just anyone, however – you need to watch those who are well-versed in good technique so that you can see how it’s really done. Step forward, The Professionals (no, not those ones of 1970s and 80s TV fame).
“Look at how the pros ride, and if you can get hold of them, the super slow-motion replays available today are superb," says Auckland. “When approaching fast corners, look at how they try to do most of their braking upright and in a straight line before coming off the brakes slowly and controlled.
“Look at how they position their leading leg and knee, how straight the outer leg is, the positioning of the body, arms and head. In this situation, it's all with the aim of using the high centre of gravity as a pendulum to swing through the corner smoothly, not like the shape of a 50 pence piece with multiple inputs," he says.
It’s also an opportunity to see how comfortable and relaxed these riders are when approaching hazards in the road, keeping rash movements to a minimum in the peloton, and remaining controlled when taking a drink or removing clothing on the move.
If nothing else, it’s another excuse to sit and watch your favourite races throughout the season guilt-free: “I’m learning about how to handle a bike properly, so I’m safer on the bike," you say…
4. Try other disciplines
Riding a bike isn’t just about being on the road – having a go at other disciplines can really have a positive impact on your bike handling skills.
Just look at the likes of Peter Sagan and Cadel Evans – different kinds of road riders but both notable for their all-terrain prowess, having started out riding mountain bikes.
Additionally, many British riders like Bradley Wiggins and Geraint Thomas have progressed through the track-oriented British Cycling programme before focusing on the road.
“Learning some track skills by going to some taster sessions at Manchester velodrome, or wherever is closest to you, is amazingly good for bike handling improvements," says Lloyd. “I see riders coming on in leaps and bounds on the track, so I would recommend this to any bike rider wanting to learn bike handling skills."
Auckland adds: “Equally, try some alternative disciplines such as mountain biking or cyclo-cross to broaden your cycling experience and horizons. “It’s no co-incidence that some of the very best descenders in the pro ranks have an off-road background."
5. Experiment with rollers
If you’ve ever been to a crit, chances are in the car park you’ve spotted some racers riding their bikes on stationary rollers. It looks precarious, and that’s because to the uninitiated, it is.
However, they’re relied upon by racers because not only do they help warm up the legs, but also the core muscles and mental awareness to stay balanced and nimble on the bike. Ultimately, learning to use rollers will help you stay smooth on the bike.
That leads us to Auckland’s next piece of advice. “Rollers are superb at helping you to practice smooth cadence and a relaxed riding technique," he says.
“If you can develop your ability to ride with your head up, move side-to-side on the roller drum smoothly and be able to take a drink one handed, you’ll reap the benefits out on the road, which is a far more stable platform.
“I also find that this is a particularly effective thing to do if you ride time trials or do triathlons in an aero tuck position – using a roller to practise this is brilliant at making you a better rider in these positions."
6. Ride in the wheels
Of course, practicing skills on your own is one thing, but you’ll likely need to be able to do them in a group, potentially surrounded on all sides by riders with little space for manoeuvre. Lloyd says that this is linked to one of the most important skills of bike handling.
“Following a wheel safely is also a massive bike handling skill in itself," he says. "Never ride directly on a wheel unless you have 100% faith in the rider in front."
“Even then, things can and do go wrong from time to time, so always aim to ride slightly to one side of the wheel in front and try to stay close."
The point here is to be comfortable riding and performing skills when there’s a premium on wiggle room, which inevitably makes these skills harder.
Naturally, however, it’s always wise to seek room at the back of the group if you’re unsure or have to perform a complex task like removing a gilet on the move.