For some, especially those new to cycling, their skill levels don’t match their strength. But you can work on it.
Bike handling is a key requirement, not just to staying safe on the bike but also to becoming a better rider, writes cycling coach and former national track champion Aidan Ryan
It was apparent in the 2012 Tour of Kildare Sportive event on a rainy August Sunday. The high fitness levels of so many riders weren’t matched by their skills. It could have been almost any Irish sportive event or early season race. Once the Garda vehicle got out of the way the pace rose to the 40’s and stayed there, gradually whittling away those who fitness did not match their aspiration.
Then came a series of wet ‘S’ bends. To the left and right there was that sound bike riders hate to hear. If you drag a coke can along the ground you get a similar sound. It was as if a secret silent sniper was taking out riders as they rode past. Now the front group was down to handful. Those who made it past the “sniper” had one thing in common, skill.
There is no doubt that endurance is the most important aspect of a road rider’s fitness. It is critical to be able to put out the watts continuously. However there is not much value in having a massive aerobic capacity if you are spending much of your time sliding on your back along the tarmac.
Cyclists generally put in huge amounts of hours training on the road. Many spend more time on the turbo trainers. Most will happily spends hours cleaning and tinkering with their bikes. But have you ever seen a cyclist practicing the skills they need to take part in their chosen events? We just don’t see skills as important in the sport.
Recently British Cycling coaches noted that some of its talent transfer riders (coming from other sports) had under achieved due to difficulties with skills such as taking up food while on the move and fitting or removing clothing on the move.
Watch the pros descending in the Tour de France (remember Tommy Voeckler’s bunny hop escape into someone’s garden in 2011) and it is impossible not to appreciate the skill involved. Most of these top riders have come through an underage coaching system which has emphasised skill acquisition. Our own Sean Kelly is reported to have practiced slaloming his bike through milk churns in the family farmyard as a youngster. While a young Stephen Roche was coached around cones in the car park of the old Dundrum shopping centre.
What are the skills that are important for road cycling?
Below is a list of some of the skills which may be required in a sportive or race. A good exercise would be to rate yourself out of 10 for each of these.
Cycling Skills from the Start Line [Score 1- 10]
- Clipping in and moving off [ ]
- Clipping out [ ]
- Looking ahead [ ]
- Keeping straight while looking around [ ]
- Pedalling efficiently [ ]
- Choosing an appropriate gear [ ]
- Riding in a closely bunched group [ ]
- Getting the maximum shelter when behind another rider [ ]
- Riding through & off in a working group [ ]
- Braking [ ]
- Cornering [ ]
- Descending [ ]
- Dealing with obstacles/hazards on the road [ ]
- Using one hand on the bars while eating or drinking [ ]
- Collecting handed up food, bottles, clothing etc [ ]
- Putting on or removing clothing on the move [ ]
- Dealing with physical contact from other riders [ ]
Each of the above skills could justify an article on its own. But in general you can improve your skills by:
- Spending more time on the road and less on the turbo trainer
- Seeking the advice of experienced coaches and riders
- Riding with groups of experienced riders
- Practicing the skills in safe areas such as closed car parks or on grass
Turbo trainers are great for fitness as they eliminate any variables which might interfere with your planned training session. The down side of this is that they also take away the possibility of skill development with the exception of pedalling efficiency. You don’t even need to be capable of riding a bike top use turbos.
On your bike on the road you can manipulate your spin to allow you opportunities practice many of the skills mentioned above
An experienced coach will be able to look at you on the bike and assess your skill deficit. They will also be able to prescribe drills and practices to help you improve your skills.
For many of the skills involved in group riding it is not possible to improve without other riders. You wont be able to perfect your through and off skills or your drafting skills on your own.
Normally experienced riders are safe and predictable in a group. They don’t brake or swerve suddenly and are aware of riders around them. This allows them to ride close together as a tight and efficient aerodynamic group. Their steadiness will allow you to be confident in getting close to the wheel in front.
Another benefit of riding with experienced riders is that you constantly have demonstrations of the various skills well performed.
In a group of experienced riders your mistakes will usually be pointed out. This can be done fairly vocally if they feel you may be a threat to their safety so leave your sensitivity at home.
An empty car park, play ground or a grassy area are ideal places to practice skills such as clipping in and out of the pedals, braking, cornering, dealing with obstacles, taking food and bottles on the move putting on or taking off clothing while moving and dealing with contact from other riders. Grassy areas are great for getting used to contact from other riders as it is unlikely to hurt (much!) if you fall.
Ten minutes practicing some of these skills as a warm up and/or cool down to each spin will go along way towards developing you into a more complete cyclist.
Aidan Ryan has been involved in track & road racing and mountain biking for nearly 40 years. He has won seven national track titles and represented Ireland on a number of occasions. He is a level 3 coach and holds a degree in physical education. Aidan has coached riders of all levels from beginner mountain bikers to European track champions, from leisure riders to ultra-distance record holders.