Everyone can ride a bike, right? No, and in fact we can all learn skills to become more confident and ride with less effort, regardless of our level of experience. Simon Vincett gleans secrets from four different skills instructors.
If someone told you that you could ride faster with less effort, feel more confident about a wider range of riding and have more fun, would you believe them? That’s nothing less than what bike skills instructors offer.
What’s more, it doesn’t matter how experienced you are, they insist you always have more to learn. One MTB instructor, Rowan Lamont, cites Olympic gold-medalist, Shane Gould, as an example. Although she once held every freestyle world record and is now in her 50s, she still has swimming lessons, saying that she is a lifelong learner.
Rosy Strong and Louise Bricknell each run companies teaching all comers a wide variety of skills from how to ride from scratch through to emergency braking and defensive riding for people already riding in traffic. They find the skills they teach are applicable broadly for many different types of riding.
Former pro rider and now trainer, Rob Crowe, is commissioned by the likes of cycling clubs and corporate teams to hone roadie skills, from how to ride in a paceline to the intricacies of bunch etiquette and communication.
All subscribe to the philosophy that the more fun you have the more you learn, and that more skills promise more enjoyment of riding in all its forms.
Risk factors are massively reduced by increased competency.
Rosy Strong, with her company, Bikes at Work, teaches riding skills to anyone from complete beginners to those heading into traffic to ride to work or heading for a cycle tour as part of a trip to Europe.
“People often haven’t been on a bike for 20 years. When they rode as kids their bikes had no gears and back-pedal brakes and now bikes seem a bit more complicated.”
“We run one-on-one lessons to get absolute beginners rolling. We run two hour sessions of basic skills such as riding with one hand and looking behind.”
Riding in traffic is a challenge to many would-be bike commuters. “Our community courses are for people who freak out about turning right, who use pedestrian crossings instead, who wobble when they do a head check,” says Strong.
These cover road sense and skills, road rules, positioning on the road, such as for roundabouts and for hook turns, and etiquette beyond the road rules, such as indicating stopping or turning left for the sake of other riders or traffic.
“Learning the proper way to do these things gives people confidence in riding in traffic,” says Strong. She finds there is an increase in people wanting to ride and wanting lessons, whether it’s partners where one confident rider wants the other to ride with them or parents wanting to brush up their skills to teach their children road awareness.
For advanced groups Strong and her instructors can teach emergency braking, swerving and when it’s appropriate, slow riding with balance and how to quickly get into the right gear.
Another provider of bike skills to all comers is Louise Bricknell at Bike Beyond. She and her instructors have taught bike skills to riders from absolute beginners to Ironmen and women, from three years old to 82.
Bricknell believes the skills people she teaches are applicable on any ride. Deft gear selection and fluid changing helps whether you’re in traffic, on singletrack or on your favourite training ride. Slow riding skills help you negotiate shared path chicanes, twisting off-road tracks or congested intersections. Measured braking keeps you in control and well positioned whether you’re on dirt, in heavy traffic or racing around a corner.
Bricknell wants to tackle the problem that it’s not cool not to know how to ride a bike. “People feel embarrassed because they should have learned as a kid. It’s a huge thing for them to come forward. We give them room to learn.”
A person who brings a less-confident partner – which is a common situation – often finds they are learning thing too. “It’s not who brings who but creating a learning environment for everyone present,” says Bricknell.
Riders also come for a course after a crash or a frightening situation. Bricknell has a collection of defensive riding skills for the purpose. “Risk factors are massively reduced by increased competency. We want people to have confidence to ride at any speed and deal with anything the bike does beneath them. Confidence gives a few moments breathing time.”
An interesting group Bricknell has helped was a bunch of kids with fixies. They wanted to learn how to skid but their parents couldn’t teach them. One of Bricknell’s instructors was a freestyle BMX champion, so he had no problem bringing them up to speed (followed by a quick stop). At the same time the instructor pointed out why they should have two brakes on their bikes.
State of flow
Rowan Lamont, of MTB Skills, says any rider will benefit from gaining mountain bike skills. He points out that except in a training course riders rarely has anyone analyse their skills and provide feedback.
His company teaches from a basis focussed on vision, position, momentum and technique, which are obviously crucial for mountain biking but are also provide very helpful proficiency for all types of riding.
A lot of clients come from road riding to mountain biking, Lamont finds. They are fit as fiddles and good at going fast in a straight line but they come unstuck when they come to obstacles. They also lack the techniques to maintain momentum over obstacles and around corners and have to expend a lot of energy speeding up again after slowing down for an obstacle or corner.
Roadies come out of a mountain bike skills course less scared, faster and more flowing through the course and consequently do it more easily and have more fun. Moreover, understanding and honed skills lessen the risk of accident for a rider.
“The test is whether your actions are repeatable,” explains Lamont. “You might flog around a course and get over the obstacles without coming off but could you do it again, and again? It’s when you’re tired you need your technique to get you through situations efficiently and with confidence.”
Lamont finds that a combination of events that result in accidents: poor body position, poor control of momentum and then an unexpected obstacle causes a fall. Better control of the techniques of positioning and controlling momentum makes the obstacle manageable.
Moreover, it’s not just you that gets a flogging when you bash your way around the bush, your bike and all its parts also take a lot of wear and tear if your technique is lacking.
You might flog around a course…without coming off but could you do it again?
A roadie takes back to road riding an understanding of how body position affects the way the bike handles and the right position for descending and carrying momentum through cornering. They gain confidence to unweight the front wheel to lift over an obstacle, such as a pothole or even a bottle skidding through the pack.
For riding to work and transport trips, mountain bike skills give confidence riding on a variety of surfaces, makes riding less effort through understanding how to carry momentum and the ability to unweight the front wheel over obstacles.
“Anyone can achieve that state of flow that is the holy grail of mountain biking,” says Lamont.
One of the bunch
Road riding appears to be an easy world to enter: if you can ride fast enough you just join a bunch. This works to an extent but the high-speed environment of the bunch has risks if you don’t know its rules, etiquette and language for communication.
Rob Crowe of Ridewiser points out this lore used to be taught by experienced club riders when prospective roadies joined a club. “Now non-racing cyclists have become so strong that club rider packs on Beach Road [Melbourne] can’t drop them. They are in bunches riding at 50km/h without a grounding.”
Non-racing cyclists have become so strong…they are in bunches riding at 50km/h without a grounding.
Crowe outlines three aspects of road riding ability: your ‘engine’, your bike handling skills and bunch etiquette. Training ‘engines’ is a core part of his business, with his proprietary Ergo stationary trainers, but as a former pro rider himself, Crowe knows that strength, speed and endurance alone don’t make successful road riders.
Depending on the group, Crowe teaches etiquette such as ‘don’t undertake’ and ‘don’t look back’ and communication basics, as well as skills such as where to look when following a wheel, taking turns on the front of a bunch, cornering skills and gear selection. More advanced lessons would cover positioning within a bunch, how to organise and sustain a breakaway group and maintain optimal nutrition.
Skills courses provide an environment to give things a try and learn to ride on your own terms. With just a bit of experience riders are more confident with situations they come upon and to make decisions about what situations they are comfortable to ride into. Less confident riders have the most to gain from a skills course and will learn the most the fastest. They don’t have bad habits to overcome. However, all the instructors here asserted from their experience that any rider has more to learn. “Congratulations to people who put their hand up and say ‘I can learn something’,” says Rowan Lamont. “Because they can and they will, and they’ll enjoy their riding more for it. Otherwise cycling gets stale.”
Finding the flow
Being rock shy and brake happy makes it hard to keep momentum on a mountain bike, so Simon Vincett enrolled in a course with MTB Skills.
On a gloriously promising Saturday morning, amid the bustle of a busy trailhead, I joined five other riders keen to improve their mountain bike skills. Our instructors, Liz and Sandy, were the perfect combination of enthusiastic and laconic, and glowed with fitness and confidence. I sensed that riding was never going to be the same for me again.
The six of us students – two women and four men – split into two groups according to experience and confidence. Before we even got to riding I learned stuff: MTB tyres are best as low as 28PSI; suspension pressure should be adjusted according to your weight; rebound can be adjusted to faster or slower on many suspension forks. Handy.
Then we started on the riding skills. First the attack position: cranks level with the ground, weight over the bottom bracket, arms bent, chest and eyes forward, with no fingers on the brakes. No fingers on the brakes. This was a challenge. Covering the brakes with at least two fingers was an established habit for me. Resisting the urge was one of the hardest things for me that we did on the day. It remains a challenge though I understand why it’s recommended: better grip on the handlebars with all ten digits and no temptation to brake when good technique is the best option. I must say instinct frequently took over and I was on those brakes without thinking on many occasions, but I believe in the value of the instruction. That’s one for me to practice.
In our attack position we turned to tackling obstacles. The basic technique is unweighting the front wheel. Like pushing a lawnmower, from the attack position you straighten your arms so your body goes back. This moves your weight back away from the front wheel, allowing it to float or lift over obstacles, whether rocks or ruts.
Now we were in motion, the priority became maintaining momentum. It was new to me that cornering aids momentum if done with the right technique: positioning your hips directly above the bottom bracket and steering with your chest. The lawnmower action of unweighting also boosts speed following an obstacle, adding to your momentum. Nice – now I’m starting to feel efficient.
Unweighting boosts speed following an obstacle, adding to your momentum. Nice – now I’m starting to feel efficient.
When it is time to brake it turns out that the back brake is the mountain biker’s friend: the lesser power of the rear brake makes it less likely to go over the handlebars. And braking needs to happen before the corner, while good technique takes you through the corner.
I must say that sometimes steering with my chest felt like I was trying to face plant into the corner. I’m unaccustomed to feeling so forward in my cornering. I did go faster around the corners though, and the tyres bit satisfyingly into the dirt. In fact, the only times I skidded were when I grabbed the brakes.
Positioning for pedalling uphill rounded out the techniques for the day: arms in, leaning forward with elbows bent, hovering 5cm off the seat to pedal over obstacles if more power is required. Then it was a matter of practising until exhaustion threatened. A slide on the fourth descent of a big rock signalled the end of the ability to sufficiently concentrate.
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