May 26, 2019

Techniques to Improve Road Bike Handling Skills

Alan Canfield Talks Bike Skills and the Four-P’s of Cycling

Techniques to Improve Road Bike Handling  Skills
Alan Canfield
Copyright 2012
 

Four-Ps of Cycling Position, Pedal, Precision, PracticeDuring the fall and winter seasons, many cyclists taper their road bike training to a maintenance level, while focusing on cross-training, rest, recovery, or simply enjoying the holidays with family and friends.   These lower-intensity rides provide a good opportunity to incorporate drills focused on improving road bike handling skills. Improving our ability to hold a steady line, pedal efficiently, and maintain smooth bicycle control improves our confidence, comfort, and safety during fast group rides and races.

Following is a general overview of the primary techniques I recommend to help improve road bike handling skills.  I developed a mental queue, the Four-P’s, to aide in organizing and recalling the techniques.

The Four-P’s are:

  • Position
  • Pedal
  • Precision
  • Practice

The Four-P’s are depicted in the image above. The  principles  progress  from  the  rider, to the pedals, to the bars, to the roadway.

Position

A comfortable, stable, and balanced position on the bicycle is required to maintain good control and handling.  If you haven’t had a professional fit from a reputable bike shop or fitter, it is highly recommended.  Even if you have been riding for ten or more years, another set of eyes and measurements can be extremely beneficial in fine-tuning your bike fit.

At a minimum, the areas where you touch the bicycle should be addressed.   These include the saddle, handlebars, and pedals.  Following are general guidelines for initial road bike fit and positioning:

Saddle Height

Measured from the pedals, saddle height should initially be set to approximately 1.09 times your true inseam.  Adjust from there based on flexibility and heel rise.

Saddle Fore/Aft and Tilt

Saddle position on the rails should initially be set to a neutral knee-over-pedal. Saddle tilt should initially be level.  Adjust from level, based on comfort and flexibility.

Stem Length

Stem length should be such that when riding in the drops, the handlebars should line up over the hub of the front wheel.

Handlebar  Height

Handlebar height should be set to 1-3 inches below the saddle height, depending on your flexibility and comfort.  Start with a higher position and adjust lower for efficiency and improved weight distribution.

Cleats

The cleats on your shoes should be set to position the ball of the foot over the pedal axle.  Moving the ball of the foot forward of the pedal axle (by moving the cleat rearward on the shoe) can provide more comfort for long rides.

The goal here is to use the offseason to reassess your bike fit, and adjust if necessary. Don’t be afraid to experiment with small changes to determine the effect on comfort, control, and performance.  If you are not familiar with the guidelines and parameters for establishing these positions, please consult a bike shop or one of the numerous references available on road bike fit.

Pedal

The second principle is to focus on developing and refining an efficient pedal stroke. Power is most effectively applied in approximately 150 degrees of rotation from top dead center.  If you are pedaling at 90 rpm’s, this equates to about 0.3 seconds to apply power during each revolution.  Several techniques can be practiced to maximize the efficient use of each pedal stroke:

Smooth  Circles

Focus on turning with your entire leg, not just mashing down on the pedals. Concentrate on using the muscles in your upper legs and buttocks.  With proper extension and rotation, the hamstrings will also be engaged during the power phase.  Excessive heel rise may also overstress the calves, leading to fatigue and cramping.

Heel Sweeps

Exaggerate dropping your heels through the bottom of the pedal stroke to increase effective leg extension and develop maximum power from the leg muscles.  Think of leading with your heels over the top of the pedal stroke to set up the heel drop.

Lifts

Similar to Heel Sweeps, Lifts are simply focusing on pulling with your feet on the upstroke.  This is effective during climbing but can also be done while seated.  When you exaggerate the upstroke and then return to normal pedaling you can feel the difference it makes.  The difference may not be significant in performance, but it provides an

improved perception of where your feet are, and how the pedaling motion should feel.

Knee Sweeps

Lightly brush the top tube with the inside of each knee during several pedal strokes.  This provides feedback to remind you of the inward knee angle, and to remind you to return to a straight knee angle.  This mini-drill helps counteract the tendency to bow out our knees when we tire, which could result in knee injury.

Repeat the above mini-drills during your rides.  Not only will they help develop an efficient and open pedal stroke, but they will help stretch out and engage new muscles. They can also break up the monotony of long solo rides.

Precision

The third principle includes the development of precise control of the bicycle, an understanding of the effect of our inputs on the bike, and an increased awareness of the environment:

Small Motions

The key to the Precision principle is to concentrate on making smooth and small motions.  At 20 mph, a 2 deg steering angle will move your bike 12 inches right or left in a fraction of a second.  We need to avoid these erratic motions, which can lead to over- steering, over-correcting, and potentially an accident.  In addition to small motions side- to-side, we need to maintain a steady pace in a group.

Look Ahead

If you see an obstacle in the road, don’t fixate and stare at it.  You will likely run directly into it. Rather, focus on the path around the obstacle, while keeping view in your peripheral vision.  Looking ahead also entails maintaining situational awareness of the environment, including the roadway, curb, cyclists, pedestrians, automobiles, and other obstacles in your path.

Relax

If you are tense on the bicycle, you will over-react to bumps and dips in the road. You may also fatigue faster when you are tense and over-grip the bars.  Think of the bars as a place to rest your hands.  The bike will practically steer itself if you have good position and balance, and maintain precise control.

Practice

The final principle is Practice, where we bring it all together and apply the principles to drills to develop and reinforce improved bike handling skills.  Please practice these drills on safe roads and solo rides so you don’t endanger yourself and other cyclists.

Ride the White Line

On a road with sufficient shoulder and minimal traffic, practice riding the white line on the right side of the roadway.  Focus on maintaining a stable and stationary torso, with smooth and efficient pedal strokes.  Work up from 1 minute sessions to 1 mile or more. This drill is similar to the straight and smooth riding required for stationary rollers.

One-Leg

Again on a solo ride on a safe road with minimal traffic, practice riding with one leg.  Slow down to a comfortable pace of 10-12 mph in an easy gear.  Unclip one leg and hold it away from the rotating pedal.  Focus on maintaining momentum and a steady pace by pedaling the one leg evenly through the pedal stroke.  Start with 30 second intervals and work up to 3 minutes or more.  Repeat for each side, maintaining a smooth pedal stroke and holding a straight line.  This is also a good drill for the stationary trainer.

One-Hand

Riding at a comfortable pace with hands on the hoods, remove one hand and rest

it on your hip.  It may be easiest to begin by removing the hand you generally drink with. Start with 20 second drills and work up to 2 minutes or more, per side.  Repeat each side from the tops of the bars, and from the drops.  This drill is improved by riding on the white line for visual feedback of your stability.  As you improve, incorporate this drill into your daily rides by simply alternating the drinking hand.

Hands-Free

Riding hands-free carries obvious risks, and may even violate your local or state statutes.  Please exercise this drill safely.  I recommend beginning slowly in your neighborhood until balance and control is developed.  Riding solo at a comfortable pace on a safe road, shift up two harder gears.  The added force required will make it easier to steer the bike with your hips.  Sit upright and relax your grip to only finger-tip pressure. Move your hands to the tops of the bars.  Keep pedaling and remove your hands from the bars while steering with your hips.  Use your core for stability, sit upright, and keep your head up and eyes forward.  Use only small inputs from your hips, pressure on the pedals, or leaning to steer the bike.  When you are ready to regain active control of the bike, place your hands slowly and lightly back on the tops of the bars.

Summary

Practicing the techniques and drills presented here can help you develop improved road bike handling skills for the following season, and make winter training rides less tedious. This overview only presents a few of the techniques and drills available.   For more details,  please  see  Watch  Your  Line:  Techniques  to  Improve  Road  Cycling  Skills, available at Amazon.com, iTunes, and Roadbikerider.com.

About the Author

Alan Canfield is a mechanical engineer, licensed professional engineer, and certified USA Cycling coach residing in Panama City, Florida.  Canfield specializes in bike fit video analysis for road, mountain, and time trial.  He can be reached on Facebook at http://facebook.com/velocanman and via email at velocanman@yahoo.com.

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    Techniques to Improve Road Bike Handling Skills

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