5 Essential Cycling Skills You Need to Know

Marc Lindsay
by Marc Lindsay
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5 Essential Cycling Skills You Need to Know

Just because you know how to stay upright on a bike doesn’t mean you really know how to ride. In fact, many beginner cyclists overlook the basics, which can make reaching weight loss or distance goals difficult.

These five essential cycling skills help you get faster and be safer out on the road:

1. BRAKING

Before you get caught up in getting faster, you’ll need to learn how to stop safely — and it’s more complicated than just grabbing one of your brake levers.

The front brake is on the left side of the handlebars while the rear brake is on the right (unless you’re in the UK or a place where they drive on the opposite side of the road as we do here in the States). The front brake has more stopping power than the rear, but using it by itself — especially during an emergency stop — can send you over the bars. If you opt to rely solely on the rear brake, you can cause the rear wheel to fishtail and lose control over your bike.

For this reason, it’s good practice to always use both brakes evenly when coming to a stop. When you’re riding in heavy traffic or in close proximity to others, make sure you keep both hands either on the brake hoods or in the drops so that you can easily grab both brake levers when you need to stop.  

Practice: In an empty parking lot or a residential street with little traffic, sprint for 10 seconds and practice safely coming to a stop as quickly as possible. This will give you an idea of your bike’s braking power and how long it takes you to stop your bike safely.

2. BALANCE

Yes, most of us have already developed enough balance to ride a bike safely. But riding on the road for exercise requires you to develop this skill a little more as your speed increases. You’ll also need better balance when riding in tight spaces, such as riding in traffic or on group rides with friends.

To make balancing easier, look up the road to where you’re headed instead of down at the ground or at the obstacles you’re attempting to avoid. This will help your steering and keep you from wobbling.

When riding on a road bike, you’ll have to ride around corners at a higher speed than normal. To make it easier, put your hands in the handlebar drops to lower your center of gravity. This will make balancing a bit easier and allow you to steer by leaning your bike into the turn rather than turning with the handlebars.

Practice: Since balancing is harder the slower you go, cone drills can be a good way to develop your balance on the bike. Set up a series of cones in a straight line and slalom through them without knocking the cones over. Narrow the gap between the cones as the drill gets easier.


READ MORE > 17 TERMS EVERY RIDER NEEDS TO KNOW | CYCLING LINGO 101


3. SHIFTING

Not knowing when or how to shift gears can cause you to lose momentum and possibly have to get off your bike on a climb. For this reason, it’s important to understand how to make your gears easier or harder and to shift to the right gear before you actually need it.

For big shifts you’ll need to switch between the front chainrings, which are located near the right pedal. You can switch between the big and small front chainrings by tapping the left shift mechanism on the handlebar on a modern road bike. Shifting to the smaller chainring will make pedaling easier, while moving up to the big chainring will make pedaling significantly harder.

For smaller shifts, use the shift mechanism on the right side of your handlebars. This moves the chain up or down the rear cassette, which is located on the right side of the back wheel. Moving the chain up the rear cassette makes pedaling easier, while moving the chain down the rear cassette makes pedaling harder.

When approaching a hill or other change in terrain, make sure you give yourself time to get in the right gear before you reach it. Once you’re on the climb, it’ll be harder to switch to the right gear — especially if you’re in a big gear that makes it too hard to pedal. For this reason, make sure you switch to your small chainring before you begin a climb.

Practice: Pick a stretch of road without much traffic. Practice switching from your big to small chainrings back and forth. Move the chain up and down the rear cassette from the easiest gear to the hardest. Try to only move the chain one cog on the rear cassette at a time for controlled shifting.

4. PEDALING

Pedaling a road bike with clipless pedals isn’t the same as pedaling the bike you learned to ride as a kid. While flat pedals only allow you to push down, to ride efficiently over long distances you’ll need to practice pedaling in smooth circles.

By learning to push down and pull up on clipless pedals simultaneously, you’ll use the hamstrings, glutes and calves instead of just relying on the quadriceps muscles. This improves your power, reduces fatigue and makes you a more efficient cyclist.

Practice: If you have an indoor trainer, single-leg pedaling drills can help you get better at pedaling in circles. Simply unclip one foot from your bike and pedal with one leg for 10–15 revolutions. If you don’t have an indoor trainer, concentrate on pedaling with only one leg at time while you’re out on the road. You’ll still have both feet clipped into the pedals, but try to only use one leg for about five revolutions before switching to the other leg. Concentrate specifically on pulling on the upstroke, which activates your hamstrings.

5. DESCENDING

Gaining comfort going downhill at high speeds can be counterintuitive for new cyclists. Bike handling, balance and braking technique are all put to the test — but before you go downhill all out, safety should be your number 1 priority.

To control your bike safely, keep your weight over your saddle to maintain traction of the rear wheel and use the drops to lower your center of gravity and make balancing easier. Always keep your hands near both brake levers to control your speed. Look further up the road for obstacles than you would normally, which is needed for your faster speed. Remember to try and steer with your hips by leaning the bike rather than turning the handlebars. Relax your grip as much as possible to keep your hands and shoulders from fatiguing and avoid oversteering when approaching an obstacle.

Practice: Before you get ready for downhills at high speed, practice going around sharp corners in your neighborhood. Place your hands in the drops and sprint to gain speed. Before you reach the turn, begin braking to control your speed through the corner. Enter the corner wide and aim for the apex, keep your eyes up the road toward the exit. Lean your bike into the turn by pushing your outside foot down (your outside leg should be straight). Don’t brake in the turn. Then, pedal out of the turn. Repeat until you’ve mastered this enter-exit routine before you head for any long, fast descents.


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About the Author

Marc Lindsay
Marc Lindsay

Marc is a freelance writer based in Scottsdale, Arizona. He holds a master’s degree in writing from Portland State University and is a certified physical therapy assistant. An avid cyclist and runner of over 20 years, Marc contributes to LAVA, Competitor and Phoenix Outdoor magazines. He is the former cycling editor for Active.com.

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