The Road Less Travelled

ChateauneufduPape
The vines and terra firma of Chateauneuf Du Pape in the Rhone Valley.

I love wine. I mean, I like beer and scotch and can’t resist ordering a Vesper whenever I pretend to be a gentleman spy, but I love wine. As a semi-professional drinker, the biggest worry I have is that should my as-yet undiagnosed problem with alcohol become a diagnosed problem with alcohol, I’d have to stop drinking wine. A full bodied, well balanced red – not too fruit forward but with a good nose of earth and a long finish – will get my heart racing every time.

And speaking of a good nose of earth, I restrict that strictly to wine; last week’s face-plant while training for cyclocross was taking it a step too far. It’s amazing how a stick positioned in just the right spot at just the right angle can move a much larger object laterally with some ease. Like the Greeks using timber rollers to haul the Trojan Horse to the walls of the city, so my front wheel slid off with surprising speed, sending me to the ground stunned and with a hint of terra firma lingering in my sinuses.

The first thing we think of when we think of having good bike handling skills is someone like Robbie McEwen or Peter Sagan dodging about in the bunch, chasing the best wheels and avoiding crashes in technical finales. Or Sven Nijs avoiding barriers the way I avoid awkward conversations about things like “feelings”. But good bike handling skills are usually much less obvious than that – and much more elemental to having confidence on the bike.

Good bike handling skills are fundamentally about weight distribution and understanding how shifting your weight on the bike will affect the way it reacts to the road. The difficulty with this is that learning how your weight affects the bike involves trial and error, and in this case “trial and error” means “crashing loads”. And for anyone who has crashed a road bike, we all know this involves an empirical study about what happens when a soft surface abraids against a hard rough surface. And also the possibility of motor vehicles and other terribly unpleasant things interacting with said soft surface.

A study in extremes tends to be the most effective tool when examining how subtle weight changes might influence how the rider and machine move together as one. The basic problem with riding on the road is that the surface is so uniform that the opportunity for meaningful study are rare and come with high risks and unpleasant consequences. Which is why riding off road is the secret to becoming a good bike handler and ultimately a better Cyclist. First and foremost, the consequences of being at the bottom of the learning curve are much reduced; speeds are lower and the surfaces are (generally) softer. There are also fewer cars. But mostly, the surface is so erratic that you are constantly forced to experiment with how distributing your weight can influence the way the unit moves together.

Here are a few principles I’ve use when it comes to improving my bike handling:

  1. Don’t be afraid to crash. Crashing is what teaches us where the boundaries lie and riders who never crash are not finding their boundaries. We’re doing this off road partly because of the lowered consequences of coming off. Embrace it.
  2. Look where you want to go, not at the obstacles you’re trying to avoid. There is some serious voodoo that goes on with how your body interacts with your sight, so just keep focussed on where you want to be and your body will follow.
  3. To learn how weight distribution affects traction, find a short, steep hill with some roots and maybe even a few off-camber pitches. Take an afternoon and after you warm up, ride it over and over and over again until you get it right every time. In the dry and then in the wet. You will fall, you will hit your knee. You might even smack your sensitive bits on the top tube or your stem. Its all part of the learning process, so refer to Rule #5.
  4. Find a web of trees and pick what looks like an impossible path through them. Take an afternoon and try to ride that path as fast as possible. Race a training partner if you have one. Take turns leading and chasing. Try applying the front brake in a really tight turn and continue pedalling; then try it with the rear. Then ride with no brakes. Figure out what works for you and what makes you drop to the ground like a sack of potatoes.
  5. Find the longest, roughest stretch of flattish trail you can find and spend the afternoon riding it full gas as though you’re riding the cobbles in Northern Europe. Ride it in different gears and try to understand what speed and cadence work best. Figure out how to unload the wheels in quick succession to avoid smashing the rim against something hard and getting  a flat.

After a short while, these things become second nature and you don’t even have think about them. The next time you hit the road, you’ll be amazed at comfortable and confident you feel on your machine. And feeling comfortable and confident is the first step towards being Casually Deliberate and Looking Pro.

VLVV.

Related Posts

85 Replies to “The Road Less Travelled”

  1. @frank

    Find the longest, roughest stretch of flattish trail you can find and spend the afternoon riding it full gas as though you’re riding the cobbles in Northern Europe. Ride it in different gears and try to understand what speed and cadence work best. Figure out how to unload the wheels in quick succession to avoid smashing the rim against something hard and getting  a flat.

    Learn to ride as though seated but floating just above the saddle allowing the bike flow and follow the terrain whilst your knees and elbows filter out the jarring vibrations that would loosen eyeballs and teeth.

  2. This article is timely for me, as this morning I was obliged to employ an non-standard ablative braking technique that involved my integumentary system contacting pavement at speed.  In this case, it’s what I get for hitting a corner too hard in the wet (we had Rule #9 conditions this morning.)  No damage beyond road rash, mangled bar tape, and a trashed shifter, I’m glad to say.

    I’m in full accord with @frank here:  there is no better way to improve your bike handling than to eat shit on occasion.  Best to do it on soft surfaces.

  3. If I had a dollar for every time I’d come a gutsa on my MTB, I should have enough for a new steed!

    2. Look where you want to go, not at the obstacles you’re trying to avoid.

    So true ^

  4. Awesome topic. Another pointer: go on a ridiculously long ride and get really tired before you hit the  challenging stuff.  This was sort of the organizing principle of the Bay Area Cogal this year.  You will be brain dead which will force you to learn to trust your bike to keep you upright, as it was hopefully designed to do. This technique works very we if you have a custom frame.

  5. I am not sure what the connection is between riding off road and Chateauneuf du pape however.

  6. Although it has been probably 15 years since I’ve been on a BMX bike, I’ve found that I’ve retained many of the instincts, reflexes, and other skills gained from a whole childhood spent on one launching off of stairs, ramps, curbs, and dirt jumps with no regard for personal safety.

  7. @il muro di manayunk

    Although it has been probably 15 years since I’ve been on a BMX bike, I’ve found that I’ve retained many of the instincts, reflexes, and other skills gained from a whole childhood spent on one launching off of stairs, ramps, curbs, and dirt jumps with no regard for personal safety.

    Of course, I wouldn’t recommend this as a method for improving bike handling skills to anyone over the age of 15. Frank’s principles make much more sense if you like having bones that look, feel, and function the way they were intended to.

  8. Did all that as a kid, especially the crashing bit.  Learning to ride no hands is essential too.  It’s not an advanced skill.  It’s a basic skill, which everyone should be proficient at.  It definitely teaches one about the effects of weight distribution and how to be a good passenger on the bike.

  9. @Nate

    I am not sure what the connection is between riding off road and Chateauneuf du pape however.

    It’s what you consume to kill the pain apres accident.

  10. Want to hone bike handling skills…take up track racing if there is a velodrome near you. Lots of little bike handling nuances learned there! Especially when in a 30+ rider Miss-n-out, or a Madison with 16 teams.

  11. Having resisted the whole gestalt for a long time, I can finally admit that riding That Fucking Mountain Bike is a productive and enjoyable use of time that could otherwise be spent on the road.

  12. On Topic: I seriously encourage you all to do a motorcycle track day. You can rent a Ninja 250 for the day if you need a bike. It will build your confidence in the tires like really nothing else, and the fastest you’ve ever gone on a road bike will seem casual.

  13. …I will save my practical questions about this for Saturday morning. Damn you.

  14. @il muro di manayunk my brother in law grew up on BMX bikes and motocross machines. Has mad bike handling skills. The other week I saw hI’m do a 20 meter manual on his road bike.  That is not me however. For me a respectful fear of wadding it up seems to be part of the DNA.

  15. Try learning to ride a unicycle. If you can master that you can master anything the road can throw at you. I didn’t, so continue to crash with boring predictability.

  16. I believe there are skills that can help you mid air and en-route to the tarmac/mud/ditch. On one memorable occasion I missed a narrow walkway over a ditch on my mtb, ploughed into the ditch and flew over the handlebars to roll in front of some hillwalkers, and suffered no injuries at all.

  17. @ChrissyOne

    Yes.  I did a Keith Code course, and used to flog a 916 around track days until on one memorable occasion, I rode it off it’s wheels.  Mind you, I was giving it the berries.

    There is no greater thrill than getting the knee down at high speed.

  18. I try and spend one day a week on the MTB……find some tight single track (plenty here in Michigan) and try not to dab/unclip, its a great way to sharpen your handling skills.

  19. Yes, GREAT topic! I kept on riding cross loops well into the dark last night because I was sure I could take the corner faster and better. Then I saw a copperhead coming out to eat the frogs I was dodging.

    My last bad “crash”…stopped and wheeling over to see a bike locked on a rack at the uni campus. Front wheel caught a stick, pubis mons was promptly smashed into my stem. Ouch. That fuck hurt.

    Hope you’ll pulled through your face plant, Frank!

  20. Your preaching to the converted here. I was Mountain Biking throughout my 20’s and 30’s, and am a relevantly new road rider. I can say I crashed on average once a week when MTB’ing and when I spent a year doing downhill I had the nickname “Tree Magnet”, so Franks tip about looking at the way you want to go is spot on!

    Number of crashes in 10692 km of road riding? One.

    I’ve told all my kids, no expensive road bikes until you can handle a MTB off road properly.

    Look at the number of Pro’s who started out in MTB’ing. At least two Tour De France winners too (Evans and Froome to my knowledge).

  21. @markb

    Try learning to ride a unicycle. If you can master that you can master anything the road can throw at you. I didn’t, so continue to crash with boring predictability.

    Ha ha. Love it.

  22. let us not forget the the benefits of regular commuting through heavy traffic – an obstacle course at times with loads of tight cornering and unexpected sudden events

  23. When I watch someone seriously talented on a bike like Danny MacAskskill I can’t help thinking “I wonder how many visits to A&E it takes to get that good”

  24. How to improve bike handling skills #314: Be out for a recovery ride on the local rail-to-trail gravel path. On the return leg encounter a huge number of pink t-shirt-wearing joggers/runners/walkers (most  of whom are wearing earphones) taking part in a charity event. Try to thread one’s way through said multitude without hitting anyone and most of whom are oblivious to your cries of “on your left, on your right!”

    It’s been a while since I’ve crashed. Both were high speed: one involved a car door in the face, the other running out of road on a descent on the Glennifer Braes above Paisley. Hospital, six stitches and a concussion for the first, embarrassing scrapes for the second.

  25. I have been a head case this year over my bike handling.  Shaking off two painful crashes in the rain this past winter was giving me mental fits.  Then I made it out here, US129, aka The Tail of the Dragon, aka Deals Gap with 318 curves in 11 miles.  636, and 22 in our case.  On the descents, even a moderately skilled individual on a road bike can travel faster than the most any of the motorized vehicles using this stretch of road to commute (provided you’ve selected the right day/time to show up on a bicycle, as many other motorized vehicle show up here for fun)

    I’m sure there are many other roads like this around the world, but this one is rather legendary for several hundred miles around us in the southeast US

    @Frank

      1. Don’t be afraid to crash……. 
        1. Look where you want to go…….  
        1. …learn how weight distribution affects traction [and cornering speed]…..

        While not off rode, repetition and the above still apply.  With that said, having tried out a buddy’s CX machine a couple times, I am looking ever so much forward to more of that awesomeness (n+1 to be implemented most urgently), as I’m quite sure it will have a positive impact on my bike handling.

        for those curious of The Dragon – See some of that winding road here

      1. @Teocalli

        When I watch someone seriously talented on a bike like Danny MacAskskill I can’t help thinking “I wonder how many visits to A&E it takes to get that good”

        Mm, yes. My son–who is 23 years “old” and sometimes rides with more enthusiasm than I could wish–just last week got his third set of shiny metal bits inserted into his skeletal system.

      2. Wine is also good for the bruised ribs you get when handling experiments go awry.  I have recent firsthand experience with this one.  I recommend consoling yourself with a good Morgon Village and lots of ice, for the ribs, not the wine.

      3. Sounds a bit like Crash Club… and I don’t talk about Crash Club… except to myself of course.

      4. My best memories are when riding U jumps on psycho-cross. And muddy face plant (once only)!

      5. wiscot – I’ve given up on even calling out to folks, as every fucking human has earbuds inserted at all times.

        I’ll be commuting to my new job on a MUP. Thankfully the Under Armor brigade will still be in bed. On the way home I’ll just hit ’em with my post-work during-ride Recovery Ale empties.

      6. @Ron

        wiscot – I’ve given up on even calling out to folks, as every fucking human has earbuds inserted at all times.

        I’ll be commuting to my new job on a MUP. Thankfully the Under Armor brigade will still be in bed. On the way home I’ll just hit ’em with my post-work during-ride Recovery Ale empties.

        Tell me about. One solo runner was in the middle of the trail. I couldn’t see the earbud wires so I thought he was running quiet. I called out three times in increasing volume. Nothing. Finally I passed him very close  and he was wired up. I probably scared him shitless but what the hell was I supposed to do?

      7. @rfreese888 I would suggest that “in traffic” is not the place to “learn” bike handling skillz as the consequence of a miscalculation can result in meeting 1000kg of metal. I agree with the article that the learning needs to be done where the soft leaves, sticks, branches, dirt, and stones can teach more than they can discipline.

      8. @Haldy

        I like your suggestion better than Frank’s since I can do the velodrome thing a lot more easily than the off-roading.

      9. @Chris

        @frank

        Find the longest, roughest stretch of flattish trail you can find and spend the afternoon riding it full gas as though you’re riding the cobbles in Northern Europe. Ride it in different gears and try to understand what speed and cadence work best. Figure out how to unload the wheels in quick succession to avoid smashing the rim against something hard and getting a flat.

        Learn to ride as though seated but floating just above the saddle allowing the bike flow and follow the terrain whilst your knees and elbows filter out the jarring vibrations that would loosen eyeballs and teeth.

        That’s what I learned riding rigid mountain bikes back in the day; there’s a reason the Cobbled Kings ride a big gear; it helps you float over the saddle. But that’s just the back wheel – you have to learn how to unload the front wheel and not lean on the bars like a sack o’ potatoes.

      10. @sthilzy

        If I had a dollar for every time I’d come a gutsa on my MTB, I should have enough for a new steed!

        2. Look where you want to go, not at the obstacles you’re trying to avoid.

        So true ^

        @marko and @keeperjim both taught me those in different points of my life, both while skiing trees. If you are watching the trees, then you’ll hit the trees. Watch the path of nice white powder between them.

        This is true everywhere but in Whistler where you also want to watch the trees – or rather watch for the tiny orange tags that say “cliff”.

        @Nate

        Another pointer: go on a ridiculously long ride and get really tired before you hit the challenging stuff. You will be brain dead which will force you to learn to trust your bike to keep you upright, as it was hopefully designed to do.

        I have used this technique for 30 years – it was even more effective when nordic skiing where you have your arms and legs both swinging long objects about and economy of movement is crazy important and very hard to learn because it feels very effective to be swinging all that kit about like crazy. But 6 hours into a 8 or 10 hour ski, you go dead and your body just figures out how to expend the least amount of energy possible and still get you where you’re going.

        Same works for Cycling. Also, you can try a Softride beam; that will give you intimate exposure into who inefficient your pedal stroke is and how shifting your balance can fuck you up.

      11. @il muro di manayunk

        Although it has been probably 15 years since I’ve been on a BMX bike, I’ve found that I’ve retained many of the instincts, reflexes, and other skills gained from a whole childhood spent on one launching off of stairs, ramps, curbs, and dirt jumps with no regard for personal safety.

        Amazing how that invincibility is gone, huh? I would simply never do that now.

        @antihero

        @Nate

        I am not sure what the connection is between riding off road and Chateauneuf du pape however.

        It’s what you consume to kill the pain apres accident.

        Favorite wine, that’s all. And if you’ve ever been there and seen the state of the ground, you don’t want to encounter it at speed. Think Ventoux but slightly smaller rocks. You can see them in the background of the lead photo, which I took in ’06.

      12. @Haldy

        Want to hone bike handling skills…take up track racing if there is a velodrome near you. Lots of little bike handling nuances learned there! Especially when in a 30+ rider Miss-n-out, or a Madison with 16 teams.

        Yeah…there we are again with the high consequence crashing bit…

        @Haldy

        @cognition

        @ChrissyOne

        You’re making me really miss wine, you asshole.

        Clearly you need to head to another cogal soon.

        I believe there is one this Saturday…..

        Stoked. Testing some wheels with 28’s on ’em – amazed, actually, that the Veloforma takes a tire that big.

        Who’s in? Looks like it might be rainy…YES!

      13. @ChrissyOne

        On Topic: I seriously encourage you all to do a motorcycle track day. You can rent a Ninja 250 for the day if you need a bike. It will build your confidence in the tires like really nothing else, and the fastest you’ve ever gone on a road bike will seem casual.

        I spent the V-V Cogal descending behind a guy who rode motorcycles and a guy who spent time riding a car fast on a track (@Jamie). Both were much much much much better at cornering than I am…got a brain dump from both and spent a year working on it and I’m much better but fuck me if I wouldn’t love to spend time riding a motorcycle on a track!

      14. @markb

        Try learning to ride a unicycle. If you can master that you can master anything the road can throw at you. I didn’t, so continue to crash with boring predictability.

        …or don’t disgrace yourself riding a circus trick and do as I suggested and preserve your dignity?

      15. @RobSandy

        I believe there are skills that can help you mid air and en-route to the tarmac/mud/ditch. On one memorable occasion I missed a narrow walkway over a ditch on my mtb, ploughed into the ditch and flew over the handlebars to roll in front of some hillwalkers, and suffered no injuries at all.

        I am not an elegant creature when I leave the ground. At that, I’m not an elegant creature on the ground, granted, but even much less so off it…

        @Ron

        My last bad “crash”…stopped and wheeling over to see a bike locked on a rack at the uni campus. Front wheel caught a stick, pubis mons was promptly smashed into my stem. Ouch. That fuck hurt.

        This is the best typo in the history of the internet.

      16. @Teocalli

        When I watch someone seriously talented on a bike like Danny MacAskskill I can’t help thinking “I wonder how many visits to A&E it takes to get that good”

        I think the same thing about skiers.

      17. I used to consider a “good” mountain bike ride as one in which I didn’t crash. Maybe I need to rethink that.

        @ron what is a MUP?

      Leave a Reply

      Your email address will not be published.

      This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.