Improve Your Bike-Handling Skills

Safety Corner logoIn past Safety Corner articles we’ve talked a lot about cyclists interacting with motor vehicles. However, surveys show that most bicycle crashes are not collisions with motor vehicles:

Distribution of Crash Types, Survey of League of American Bicyclists Members, 1996

It’s clear that there’s more to safe cycling than avoiding collisions with motor vehicles. In almost 60 percent of crashes, we simply fall without hitting anything or anybody! It behooves all of us, regardless of our levels of experience, to continually hone our bike-handling skills. Here are a few tips, largely from Effective Cycling, by John Forester, and Street Smarts, by John Allen (www.bikexprt.com/streetsmarts/).

Reducing the Weave: All cyclists weave. It’s how we keep our bikes upright—like balancing a yardstick upright in the palm of one hand. However, a good cyclist’s weave is so slight that he/she appears rock solid. Less weave means better balance and less chance of colliding with another cyclist, a motor vehicle, a pothole, or other hazard. Try this drill. Ride the white line at the road’s edge, trying to keep your tires on the paint. Relax your upper body, keeping a light grip on the handlebars. Keep your focus out front, and use your peripheral vision to track the white line. Remember, where your eyes go, your bike tends to follow. It helps to maintain a smooth pedal stroke by pushing and pulling evenly with each foot throughout the 360-degree rotation.

Looking Back: Even if you use a rear-view mirror, it’s important to be able to look behind you for traffic before changing lane position: no mirror provides a full field of view. Practice looking back on a quiet street or while riding the white line in a parking lot until you can look back for about one second over either your left or right shoulder without weaving.

“Look Ma, No Hands”: No-hands riding is a useful drill to improve your balance and learn how your bike handles. Again, practice on a quiet street or parking lot, and only on smooth pavement. Keep your hands close to the handlebars until you get the hang of it. Steer by swiveling your hips (swiveling them right to turn right, and vice versa). If your bicycle cannot be ridden no hands, or will only steer straight when you lean to one side, it needs attention.

Dodging Rocks: Every now and then you’ll be surprised by a rock or pothole that you don’t see in time to avoid using a leisurely maneuver. Just before hitting the hazard, turn the handlebars suddenly without leaning first (which feels very unnatural), so that the front wheel dodges the hazard. As soon as your wheel passes the hazard, catch your fall by turning the opposite way. Your wheels will steer around the hazard while you and the rest of your bike travel in nearly a straight line. Practice this using a sponge or other safe “hazard” in an empty parking lot.

Quick Turning: There are times when you’ll need to turn fast (for example, when a motorist turns across your path and you need to swerve out of the way). In these situations, quickly turn the handlebars opposite (yes, opposite!) the direction of your intended turn. This forces you into a lean, and you then quickly correct your handlebar position (by turning in the direction of your turn) and execute a fast, tight turn. This is similar to the rock dodge, but without straightening up. Practice the rock dodge first, and then move on to the quick turn. You can use the same quick-turn technique to recover from entering a downhill turn at too fast. Straighten your handlebars momentarily to force yourself into a steeper lean. Since we normally don’t use all the traction our tires can offer, chances are good that you’ll complete the turn without skidding out. Even if you do skid out, that’s better than riding head-on into a guardrail or trees.

Quick Stops: When stopping, most of us just pull equally on both the front and rear brake levers. Minimizing stopping distance (without going over the handlebars), however, requires using each brake differently. Apply the rear brake (right hand) just hard enough for a gentle stop, and apply the front brake harder and harder without changing the force on the rear brake. If the rear wheel starts to skid, ease up slightly on the front brake. Some advocate moving back in the saddle to keep more weight on the rear wheel. However, Forester discourages this, arguing that the slight improvement in braking performance is not worth compromising your maneuverability. Maintaining your normal riding position leaves you better prepared to quickly steer around an obstacle once you’ve reduced your speed.

Bunny Hopping: Sometimes the best way to avoid an obstacle is to jump over it. Hold your pedals level with each other, squat down, and pull up on the handlebars. Then jump up and pull your legs up under you. This works best with clip-in pedals or toe clips, but even without them you can get your front tire up, which is the important one. Just unweighting the tires without actually lofting your bike is often enough to get over a bad pothole.

Avoiding Road Hazards: Road-surface defects are the cause of many falls. Learn to spot and avoid road hazards such as holes, bumps, deep sand, drain grates with parallel slots, wet metal, and wet painted surfaces. If you can’t avoid slippery areas, coast over them without braking or turning. Giving yourself some margin from the edge of the road will help you stay away from much of the debris and poor pavement near the curb.

Taking a Course: There’s nothing like coaching from a skilled instructor with plenty of concentrated practice to really nail these skills. MassBike (www.massbike.org) offers Bicycling Skills classes, including classroom, parking lot, and on-bike practice that cover the skills discussed above and more.

Remember—safety is about choices. What choices will you make?


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