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Almost every adult-onset triathlete knows the phrase “it’s just like riding a bike” is a gross oversimplification of cycling. Many adults know how to ride a bike, sure, but the skills required for a good-time ride with friends and family don’t necessarily translate to riding for triathlon.
What’s more, many new triathletes put the proverbial cart before the horse by placing too much emphasis on speed and not enough on basic bike handling skills. Almost every triathlete has a story (and the scars) of getting stuck in their new pedals at a stoplight or taking an overzealous corner. Speed doesn’t matter much if you can’t keep the rubber on the pavement.
Jesse Vondracek, professional triathlete and head coach at Top Step Training, says all new triathletes, regardless of fitness level or experience on a bike, should disregard the notion of “it’s just like riding a bike” and approach cycling as if they’ve never done it before. Working on the simplest techniques on the bike can have a huge impact on overall performance. By mastering the fundamentals one by one, Vondracek says a rider can increase safety, efficiency, and—yes—speed.
To build your cycling repertoire, Vondracek suggests starting with the very basic skills and mastering each before progressing to the next. Before long, you’ll be riding like a champ.
Skill #1: Starting
First things first: “If you have clip-in pedals, you should master the art of clipping and unclipping before you hit the deck,” says Vondracek. This skill can (and should) be practiced indoors, either in a trainer or by leaning against a wall. Get used to the feel of clipping in as well as the angle you need to move your foot in order to rapidly unclip.
Once you’re comfortable with the clips, take the bike outside and practice rolling out in your driveway or an empty parking lot. “With one foot on the ground, clip the other into the pedal at the 2 o’clock position,” says Vondracek.”This foot pushes down and gives you enough oomph to get going and get your other foot clipped in.”
Skill #2: Stopping
Now that you’re rolling, the next thing to master is coming to a stop. “You have two brakes,” explains Vondracek. “Your left hand is your front brake. This is the most powerful to stop you. If you only use this, you will flip over your bike 100 percent of the time.” Instead, you should gently squeeze both brakes. While slowing to a stop, slightly lean to the side you’re unclipping, and set your foot down.
Skill #3: Cornering
“Cornering smooth and fast is an art,” says Vondracek, “and it takes time to master.” New riders often make the mistake of taking corners far too fast for their abilities. To avoid a painful case of road rash, riders first need to slow down when approaching a corner. This allows for strategizing for the safest and most efficient tangent around the bend. Go to an empty parking lot or low-traffic street to practice cornering.
“Look through the apex of the corner, where you want to go,” says Vondracek. “Do not look at obstacles, over the guardrail, or anywhere else you’d rather not be.” Lean the bike by pushing on your inside hand, and put your outside foot down. Put as much weight in your outside foot as you can. “The more you practice this, the farther you can lean the bike and the faster you can corner.”
Skill #4: Handling
“Before you ride outside, you should be comfortable moving on your bike,” says Vondracek. “This means you should be able to grab a bottle and drink, grab a snack and unwrap it, and be ready to give your mate a high five.” His strategy: Take the bike to a grass field and practice riding one handed, then no handed. Practice taking your left hand off the bars and looking over your left shoulder while riding in a straight line. “For fun, practice your finish line double fist pump, or throw in a few bunny hops. Confidence on your bike will make you feel better, as well as other riders around you.”
Skill #5: Traffic
It’s imperative for every cyclist to know how to interact with traffic. “Ride defensively. Assume cars don’t always see you and look for cues that they do. Be predictable. Ride in a straight line, and signal before you do anything other than riding in a straight line. Always be ready for cars to turn out of nowhere and doors to fly open. Stay aware when riding in traffic. Even if it is the driver’s fault, you lose.”
Skill #6: Shifting
Practice shifting early and often. “If you wait too long, you will be in a very uncomfortable gear. Anticipate where you want to be. Heading into a corner, you should downshift, because you will be slower coming out of the corner.” Other tips: Avoid cross chaining, or riding in your large chain ring and your largest gear on your cassette. Shift the front derailleur before this happens.
Skill #7: Cadence
After mastering shifting in every circumstance, focus on cadence. “In general, you want to be spinning around 90-100 rpms, or revolutions per minute. Shift to a gear that allows you to achieve this cadence. Really try to work on this, especially if you tend to ride a very slow cadence. It can feel unnatural to ride at a cadence this fast, but it will save your muscles.”
Skill #8: Climbing
In addition to shifting and cadence, climbing hills requires attention to form and balance. “Try not to hunch over the handlebars,” advises Vondracek. “Practice sitting and standing in short intervals to help you break up a climb. When you stand, try to keep your weight further back on the bike.”
Skill #9: Descending
What goes up, must come down. “To descend, keep your center of gravity low. The more upright you sit, the higher your center of gravity and the more out of balance you become. Lean over, bend your arms, and find the place where your weight is evenly distributed over both wheels.”
Additionally, apply the lessons learned in braking and cornering when descending, but remember—braking and cornering are magnified in downhill situations, so feather the brakes lightly as you approach a stop or corner.
Skill #10: Group Riding
Ready to show off your skills at a group ride? Start in the back. “I recommend starting in the back the first time you ride with a group,” says Vondracek. “Watch how the riders move and pay attention to how they paceline. When you’re ready, you can move up into the group”
As with traffic, be predictable—keep your hands near the brakes and watch the people in front of you. If you see them slowing, follow suit. If they turn a corner, follow their line around the corner. At the end of the ride, if you’ve made it safe and sound, be sure to whip out that double fist pump you mastered during Skill #4.