Generally, we just want to hop on our bikes and ride for as long as we can, but part of being a good cyclist also includes top-notch bike-handling skills that are best honed in a parking lot, driveway or backyard. Here we outline some key ways to progress your skills better than a long ride might.
Once most cyclists go clipless, they don’t go back. However, by using flat pedals, you can enhance safety and get instant feedback on skills. For example, the extra movement you get from your feet for skills like balance or wheelies can be very helpful. Simply riding flat pedals can be a form of skill practice for many adult riders who have not spent much time on them and missed this phase of cycling skill development.
Have you been slowed or stopped at a traffic light or come to a technical portion of the trail and had to put a foot down? Slow-speed balance skills, like a track-stand, are practical, enhance your safety (fewer falls) and create the foundation for advanced skills like hopping and backward or ‘fakie’ riding. To get started, practice ratcheting up a gradual hill or in slow circles by moving your pedals slightly up and down to ‘ratchet’ forward very slightly. Challenge yourself to see how slow you can go with these partial pedal strokes.
ADVANCED SKILLS: WHEELIES
Everyone wants to wheelie. This advanced skill is the act of riding balanced on the rear wheel for extended periods of time. The mistakes many riders make with wheelies are not setting their bike up, rushing past the initial mechanics of the front wheel lift, and the very important aspect of braking the front wheel down with the rear brake.
Your first steps with the wheelie are to develop the ability, while seated, to use a short pedal stroke (or pedal ‘stomp’) to lift the front wheel. This requires coordination as you lean back with your torso and give a pull with straight arms. The key is much of the lift is from your pedal stroke, not from pulling with your upper body. Many riders feel sore the day after practicing due to pulling too hard with the upper body.
Once you get the front wheel up for a couple of pedal strokes try to purposefully use the rear brake to lower the wheel back to the ground. This is counter-intuitive as you want to wheelie forever, but learning control is important to avoid flipping over. Learning to use the rear brake in this setting also lets you progress quicker to balancing braking with pedaling to extend your wheelie.
RIDING INDOORS AND CADENCE
If you are riding indoors on an indoor ‘turbo’ trainer or rollers you can, and should, include skills on your rides. Using different cadences is a traditional way to develop ‘speed skills’ but don’t overlook the skills you can work on by pedaling with one leg (which forces you to clip in and out). This ability to clip out saves falls and helps off-road riders get a foot out for balance when necessary. Many riders struggle with drinking and eating while riding, so practice this skill while on a trainer so you are ready for race day.
Don’t overlook the benefit of combining fitness training with skill training. It’s a good idea to keep a bike in your basement to practice balance drills and break up strength or cycling workouts. It is amazing how 1 minute of track-standing can change your favorite interval set!
OBSTACLE COURSES, CHALLENGES AND GAMES
You can create your own obstacle course in your backyard, driveway or even inside. “I wouldn’t have thought it remotely possible to ride my bike out of the shed and all the way around the house to the van at the front,” says Tom Hudden, a mountain bike guide. It involves two small sets of steps, a couple of single steps, some narrow paths, and opening and closing a gate. I’m getting there now, with a mix of hops, rocks and track-stands!” The driveway, yard, deck, basement or local park are common areas to work on skills, how you arrange them and use them is only limited by your imagination.
THE BOTTOM LINE
When you put yourself on the bike in any of these confined spaces, you should find these challenges, games and drills flow naturally. It might be dropping off the curb, rolling with no feet down the driveway, riding the narrow patio stones or cornering around water-bottles in the yard. Playing games in confined spaces can help you tap into the thrill of riding bikes as kids do, which translates to improved handling skills on longer rides. Use your available space to challenge yourself and have fun.