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Cycling - Making progress

I cycle to work most days because it is the fastest way of getting there. When I talk about this with my colleagues they claim that that is because I cycle quickly, so cycling will not be suitable for them as they are not fit enough. I ignore the obvious response that if they were to cycle then they would soon get the fitness required to do the journey daily and quickly, instead I try to explain to them that cycling fast is not the secret. I do not make good progress on the roads by cycling very fast, instead I make the journey quickly by maintaining a high average speed.

On this page I will try to pass on some of the hints and tips that I have learnt over the years, so that you can ride quickly through town traffic. Before you use these tips, think about them and try to understand not only the instructions, but also the logic behind them. Then practise, it is only through regular riding and practising that you will become competent. If you have any questions, then please email me through the whoami page, I will try to answer them for you.

Learn to control your bicycle accurately and delicately at any speed without thinking. Your attention must be on the road and surrounding conditions, your bicycle will naturally go where you want to if you can ride without thinking about it.

Most people can ride with adequate control at average speeds, all you need to do is to practise and improve on this so that you have precise control. I think the best way of achieving this control is to go to an empty car park, then whilst riding at a comfortable average speed ride exactly on the painted lines. Pick a course around natural markers such as stones or lines (or take your own cones) and ride it whilst concentrating on exactly where your wheels go. At first you may be looking at your wheels, so once you have the hang of the route, start concentrating on looking around whilst still riding the exact course you’ve been practising.

Low Speed Riding
The next skill you need is low speed handling. When you get to a gridlock situation you may find that you need to weave your way through it. This will involve very low speed riding, quite often including ninety degree bends as you go around the back of vehicles in order to change lanes.

To learn and practice this skill again go to an empty car park, map yourself a course, then ride it as slowly as possible. The more technical the course, the better it is for you. I sometimes find it easier to maintain balance by standing on the pedals and dragging the back brake slightly.

Another major low speed skill that I consider almost essential is to slow down to a halt, stop momentarily without taking your feet off the pedals, then riding off again. I use this often at road junctions where I think it is clear but want to double check. Some people have the skills to “track stand”, where they remain almost motionless on the bicycle. I think this may be a useful skill at times, but I haven’t mastered it (thanks to lack of trying) so cannot offer any advice here.

Another option for you to learn these skills, instead of playing in a car park, is to learn to ride off road on mountain bike trails. I would recommend this if you have the time, bicycle and nearby trails. I think that most of my bike handling skills are thanks to a childhood spent playing in the dirt.

Getting the most from the bike
Secondary to achieving the bike handling skills is the need to fully understand the mechanics behind a bicycle, and how to get the most out of it. The most important items here are your gears and legs.

If you learn to ride with a high cadence (the number of times per minute you turn the pedals) then you will find it easier to ride. Learn what speed your legs are comfortable at, then use your gears to keep them at roughly that speed.

Most bicycles nowadays have two or three chain rings at the front. Whilst the smallest ring will give lowest gears, and the largest ring the highest gears, there is usually an overlap in gears (the same gear exists on more than one ring). Other than the ratios, the biggest difference between the rings is that the smallest chain ring gives a set of gears that are close together, and the largest chain ring gives a set of gears that are further apart so they have large jumps between them.

As you ride along trying to keep your legs turning at their comfortable speed you need to remember this. If you are on an open road you can use the higher gears given by the large chain ring, increasing your cadence until it is sensible to change up a gear on the cassette; if you are in town it may be more sensible to use the overlapped gears to keep the chain on the middle chain ring, so that the changes on the cassette give gears closer together and so keep your legs spinning at the same speed. You shouldn't select gears that put your chain at an angle to the bike though, such as the largest chain ring and largest cassette cog.

Think of your cadence as a car’s rev counter. Keep your legs turning in the “power band” and don’t let them go too fast or too slow. Change into the correct gear for a junction early, so that you have the power available to you instantly when you need it.

Plan ahead.
Learn to read the road ahead and plan carefully. As I have mentioned in previous pages there is little point in riding up to an obstruction at speed. By reading and planning ahead less effort can be expended, whilst your average speed fluctuates less (and so is higher overall). You need to flow smoothly through the traffic with no sudden braking, accelerating or swerving.

Use my filtering notes to hit all traffic lights on green. Get in the correct lanes at junctions with plenty of time, rather than getting stuck too late in the wrong lane. Don’t pass queues where traffic is turning, move through the queue and pass it on the opposite side to the junction.

On undulating roads, ride with slightly more effort downhill where it is possible; your inertia will help you flow up the next hill.

This is the most important part of riding quickly through traffic. The bike handling and control is nothing if you haven’t got good planning on a route to take through the traffic.


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Updated 03/11/04