You don’t always have to follow the rules in life. In sports, it’s hard to get around them — they’re usually put in place to keep athletes playing fairly and safely.
This certainly applies to cycling. For instance, keeping your chain clean. If you don’t do it, you run the risk of compromising your safety, performance and life of your equipment.
That said, some of the most popular advice experts dole out to new cyclists — without proper explanation and context — can create inefficient and even unsafe riding situations. Here are three such “rules” that you should start breaking today.
1. “PUT YOUR BUTT BACK ON ANYTHING TECHNICAL”
You’ll hear this cue around technical trails all the time, sometimes even at the top of a road descent. While it’s meant to help riders find a low and balanced athletic position, riders often take this suggestion too far, and the result can lead to hanging your hips way too far back behind the saddle, perhaps even over the rear hub.
This position not only makes cornering very hard, it makes reacting to any bumps, jumps or other obstacles almost impossible. If you do hit something and end up on your front wheel, the ensuing position creates a “totem pole” effect, where the rider is at the top with the bike stacked underneath vertically.
Rather than thinking “butt back,” attack obstacles with your shoulders over their handlebars. Should you come to a drop or dip that requires the bike to be pushed down into a compression dip or steep drop, then the bars can be pushed from your relatively forward position, maintaining your neutral body position.
You may end up sitting on the rear wheel on a very steep mountain bike trail, but it’s important you push the bike down the drop rather than throwing your hips back like an anchor, which creates the potential for an endo as your front end drops. Think: pushing the bike forward, not pulling yourself back.
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2. “DON’T SHIFT WHILE CLIMBING”
It’s crucial to shift while climbing, but you can also shift while standing. The better rule is to not grind your gears, and avoid making horrible noises with your drive-train by practicing unloading your drivetrain as you shift. Shifting on hills doesn’t have to be a violent clatter of gears.
To get a nice, quiet shift requires about a quarter pedal-stroke “soft pedal” where you keep the pedals moving but just don’t apply quite as much force. You might surge for a couple pedal strokes and then just back off for an instant to let the shift happen. This can also be done with your front chain rings; it just takes a bit more finesse. Learning to stand can help your shifting by letting you more easily accelerate a big gear and then back off for a second to shift. Shift in a calm, controlled way, one shift at a time, not in a desperate attempt to slam to the top of your cassette.
3. “NEVER STAND UP”
Sure, it takes less energy to sit on your bike, but you also miss out on the leverage your arms and body weight can apply to the bike to get up steep climbs. Standing is a good practice to accelerate for corners, sprints or short climbs and can also provide a much needed break for your butt. Avoiding standing prevents you from climbing better and riding your bike more athletically.
To get better at standing quickly, try practicing finding balance at the bottom of each half pedal stroke by stopping at the 6 o’clock position. Once at the bottom of the stroke, stop pedaling and check that you can feel your weight on that pedal and a slight counterpressure with the opposite hand, which will push to bike in the opposite direction.
You want to be strategic — don’t stand all the time — but getting used to standing and developing the skill and efficiency to stomp those pedals is something you won’t regret.
As you continue to improve your cycling skill and fitness, be sure to check in on rules you assume always apply. While we get smoother and more automatic in our cycling movements as we become better cyclists, we must also continue to apply the different skills we have at our disposal to new contexts: bigger hills, harder rides and more variable terrain.
By continuously trying different tactics, even ones you assumed were wrong, you’ll better understand what your bike can do, and you’ll find you’re able to adapt quickly to any cycling situation.