Saturday, June 11, 2011

Improving Balance for the Beginner Cyclist

When you ride often enough, after a few years you tend to forget what it was like to be a beginner rider. Conducting beginner clinics (and reading some of my old journal entries) helps me remember that cycling can be a really daunting challenge. Here are a few tips for new riders that I've picked up over the years.

Practicing your études.
While no one approaches a piano the first week and starts pounding out Bach, we often forget that good cycling comes from good fundamentals. Doing scales on the piano was one of the most tedious things I had to do as a child, but it taught my fingers and my brain where the keys were, so that when it came time to read complex music, I didn't have to look down to hit the right note. In cycling, you practice finding your balance and shifting gears.

So here are the exercises for finding your balance (Etudes for Bicycle). All exercises should be done in the small ring up front (middle ring if you have a triple) and the middle of the cassette in the rear.

Removing your hand from the handlebar.
For those of you who grew up riding bikes, riding through your teens and into your 20's and 30's, you will simply not understand this. For the rest of us, if you don't remember it being a terrifying thing to remove your hand from the handlebar while riding, just to take a drink or signal a turn, well, you've probably blocked that memory. It was terrifying. If you are just learning to remove a hand while riding, here are the steps to take to move to the next level:
1. Admit it's terrifying and unnatural to remove a hand from the mechanism guiding you in a straight line. Don't beat yourself up for being afraid.
2. Take your fear, mentally put it in a zip-lock bag and put it in your back pocket. Don't look at it.
3. Find a nice open parking lot (like the back side of a mall), and with a water bottle in the cage, ride in a straight line. There should be no cars, dogs, kids on skateboards, or errant squirrels to distract you.
4. Take your hand from the handlebar, bring it to your chest, then back on the handlebar. This is a quick but smooth movement that does two things: a) keeps your center of gravity all in one plane and b) lets you start to get comfortable with having one hand on the bar. Gradually increase the time your hand is off the bar. When you are comfortable, move to step 5.
5. Touch the water bottle, then put your hand back on the bar. Repeat this step, gradually increasing the time your hand is on the bottle.
6. Remove the bottle from the cage, bring it to the handlebar, then replace the bottle. Drink if you can hold steady and feel confident, but only when you're ready. Yes, you are still riding around the parking lot.
When you have mastered removing the water bottle, drinking, and replacing the bottle in the cage, find a low-traffic location where you can increase your speed to 13 - 16 mph, and continue this drill at speed.

Back when Mildred and Algernon were sitting in the Edsel and had to signal a right or left turn, all signals were made with the left hand out the driver-side window. A roadie bent over in the drops making this kind of right turn signal doesn't make so much sense. You should signal LEFT by extending your left arm left-wards, and signal RIGHT by extending your right arm right-wards. This is the most unambiguous way to tell cars and other cyclists what your intentions are.
1 - 4. Follow the same steps as above to get comfortable removing a hand from the handlebar.
5. When you're ready for Step 5, be aware that your center of gravity will be affected by an outstretched arm. Tighten your core muscles to aid in stabilization. Practice riding in a straight line, alternately holding the handlebar with only the left hand, then the right.

Girls on a Team LUNA Chix ride practice riding the white line near Cabrillo.

Riding in a straight line.
This is honestly harder than it sounds.
1. On a low-traffic stretch of well-paved road that has a white stripe signaling the edge of the bike lane or the start of the shoulder, ride the white line, keeping your front wheel on the line.
2. Listen for cars and move to the right when they approach from behind.
3. Once you are confident, hold the handlebar with your right hand, sit up straight, pull your left shoulder back, opening the chest. Glance over your left shoulder. Turn back forward and see how far off the white line you moved.
4. Practice looking over your left shoulder while riding in a straight line. Don't forget to engage your core muscles to keep you stabilized.
Note: You can also practice riding in a straight line in a large empty parking lot with long rows of white lines.

Practicing slow, tight turns.
In a quiet empty parking lot, practice making figure eights between the parking spaces. Use the width of 4 spaces to begin with, and make your turn radius tighter as you gain confidence. Work towards completing a figure eight within two to two-and-a-half parking spaces.

Hopefully these tips will help you develop better balance!
In my next blog entry, I'll discuss shifting. Yes, much like the rising of a soufflé, shifting can be somewhat elusive and mysterious. But there are tips and tricks for everything!

Hope to see you on a ride soon!

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