Thursday, May 13, 2010

Bike handling

Cycling is a sport that involves some technique. In road racing for example, we expect the rider to have good bike handling skills. That involves being able to ride in a straight line, hold that line through turns, and be comfortable riding close to other riders. Apart from such basic skills, more advanced skills are also required if one is to do well in a road race. Skills such as taking off and putting on clothing, grabbing food and water bottles, eating and drinking, hopping over obstacles, going down twisty descents, etc.

In mountain biking similar but different skills need to be mastered. Most important there is to distribute one's weight when climbing steep hills with occasional loss of traction. More difficult is hopping logs, riding in gravel or sand, and going around tight turns in mud. Yet these skills can make the difference between winning and finishing in the back.

Most cyclists who start at a young age easily master bike handling skills. Although not all become experts, most will manage to do well enough so biking handling is no limiting factor. Occasionally one will find a pro cyclist who has not mastered a basic skill, but was nonetheless able to reach the pinnacle of the sport. Perhaps the most famous example is Frederico Bahamontes, nicknamed, "The Eagle of Toledo" for his great climbing skills.

Frederico was the best climber of his generation, yet he was afraid of heights and did not descend well. He would often wait at the top of a climb for a friendly rider to join him so they could ride down together. At other times he would get caught on the descent by his competitors. Since Frederico scored his points, and made his fame at the top, this did not matter much.

The situation with respect to basic bike handling is different for cyclists who pick up the sport at a later stage in life. The largest group of those are triathletes, who are infamous for their poor riding skills. Triathletes may not ride in packs or draft for most of their events, and perhaps as a result, many don't know how to ride straight, let alone draft well.

Riding straight is considered the most basic skill a rider can acquire. In countries where people use bicycles for transportation -such as Belgium- all kids are taught to ride straight, whether they become racers or not. Riding straight is a key element in bike safety. Riding straight means suppressing natural reflexes that turn the body whenever the head turns. While such reflexes are useful when walking, doing so while riding is a recipe for disaster. The rider suddenly swerves in the middle of the road.

If you decide to ride a bike for exercise, please learn this one skill. It is more tricky than you think, but it may save your life one day. Learn to ride straight. If you want to proceed to bicycle racing, you will absolutely need to master this, lest you want to go down all the time and take a lot of people with you.

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