Most cyclists learned to ride bikes as children and haven't revisited the basic skills of bicycling as adults. “There appears to be a notion among many cyclists that an activity they learned as children requires no further instruction,” says John Howard, three-time Olympian and 18-time national masters cycling champion. “This ‘toy syndrome' continues to affect cycling.”
Howard stresses the importance of cyclists' developing more power, comfort, and safety for riding on the streets in traffic, negotiating turns and terrain, and dealing with road hazards, including other cyclists. “Equipment has evolved, speeds have increased, and the rigors of competition have tightened, but the basic techniques aren't being taught to masters cyclists,” Howard says. In his upcoming book, Mastering Cycling (Human Kinetics, 2010), Howard addresses the top technical skills that are essential for every cyclist.
Climbing in the saddle
Fast, efficient climbing requires cyclists to recognize the precise moment when action is needed and to know what action to take. “Delaying the decision too long will result in the loss of both speed and momentum,” Howard says. Gear selection and shifting sequence depend on the cyclist's available power, fitness level, and pitch of the climb. The length of the climb also dictates the approach. “If you are starting to climb a long, gradual hill, use a gear that is comfortable and lets you maintain an rpm of about 90,” Howard explains. “When your cadence begins to slow down, downshift to an easier gear. If you are going to stand on the pedals, you may want to shift up to a higher gear so that you don't waste energy spinning.”
Climbing out of the saddle
When climbing out of the saddle, the goal is to maintain a consistent heart rate and increase forward momentum. “Gravity will win the battle if you surge on the pedals, pull and push your upper body forward or backward, or worse, pull your upper body up and down, disengaging the important core muscles,” Howard says. “The primary force in moving the bicycle forward is generated at the 3 o'clock and 9 o'clock positions of the cranks.” A common mistake among less-experienced riders is mistiming the thrust of the cranks. Power is dissipated at the top and bottom of the stroke, which is essentially a dead zone when out of the saddle.
Cornering requires the ability to quickly judge the elements of a turn, including sloping, curvature, traction, and other factors that limit speed. A bicycle cannot be steered around a curve but must be leaned into the turn. “A cyclist must estimate how much lean is needed to counteract the physical forces that want to project the cyclist and the bicycle in a straight line,” Howard says. “The amount of lean depends on the speed traveled into the turn, the tightness of the turn, and the degree and direction of the road bank.”
Two approaches to braking exist. One stops the bike quickly to avoid a collision or other hazard, and the other consists of feathering the brakes to slow or stop forward progress. Feathering is the practice of applying light, even pressure on the front and rear brakes and is used in most circumstances. The hot stop should be used when there is no choice but to stop. When hitting the breaks, cyclists should slip to the rear of the saddle to adjust the center of gravity. “The action is accompanied by an approximate bias of two-thirds on the front brake and one-third on the rear brake,” Howard explains. “Cyclists will have very little time to slip back in the saddle and apply the front brakes. When it is done properly, the bike can stop in half the distance that it would normally take.”
Maintaining a smooth speed with an efficient cadence prevents overtaxing the muscles and cardiorespiratory system. “Whether you are a competitive or a recreational cyclist, your cadence needs to be as comfortable and smooth as possible, never jerky,” Howard says. He advises shifting one gear at a time and avoiding big gear jumps between ranges. “Cyclists should listen to their bikes and avoid crossing the chain over radical angles, such as the big chain ring and the larger cog in the rear. This will save wear and tear on the drive train and the knees,” Howard adds.
For more information, see Mastering Cycling.