“It’s just like riding a bike” might be the most common cliche, but let’s be honest: Riding a bike is rarely as simple as pedaling in a straight line. There is a skill element involved—unless you plan to stick to riding back and forth on your flat driveway. So when was the last time you thought about your bike skills? We often get so caught up in progressing our fitness, we forget about honing our skills.
“We talk about progression a lot when we talk about fitness: If you follow a training plan, you’re going to gradually progress each phase of your fitness,” says Lorri Lee Lown, founder of Velo Girls and longtime head coach at Savvy Bike. “But when we look at the ‘skill’ part of cycling, we don’t do the same thing. If I were to do anything else as an adult learner, I’d take classes and practice, but we don’t do that on the bike. We tend to think about how far or fast we can ride, but we don’t think about how precisely we ride.”
Not only do bike skills require dedicated practice and awareness, they also require slow, steady progression. Take climbs, for example. “Every little grade that I go up, I’m climbing, and every little grade that I go down, I’m descending,” says Lown. “It can be the smallest hill, but I still try to think about my position, my shifting, my braking—I’m reinforcing the skill set. Then, when you’re in a higher risk situation, like those 10% grades and higher, you feel more comfortable.”
Here, we dig into a few of the key skills for safe, smooth, and fun road cycling, with help from a few expert coaches and pro riders. Now, all you have to do is practice!
1. Know where to look
As a new rider: Your natural urge is to look down at the road directly in front of you but doing this means you’re potentially missing an important thing... like that giant pothole that’s coming up, the turn you’re supposed to be making, or the car that’s acting squirrely in the other lane. It can be dangerous—even deadly—to keep your head down and your eyes focused on the few feet of pavement ahead of you.
“Our bikes and bodies tend to go where we look, so look where you want to go,” says pro road racer and Olympian Leah Kirchmann. “It’s smart to always scan the roads ahead to acknowledge the danger zones and obstacles, and then shift your focus on the correct path to take.”
This means scanning the road, not just locking your eyes on one distance. You’ll need to look down to check your time or your map occasionally, you’ll need to scan the immediate area in front of you for obstacles and debris on the road, and you’ll want to look further ahead to see if there are any changes in gradient or corners coming up.
Riding in a pack makes knowing where to look even more important: It’s so easy to focus on the rear wheel that’s directly in front of you, but in reality, you want to look further ahead, paying attention to any changes in pace or riders moving to one side to avoid an obstacle. (That’s how this author ripped a bike frame in two and broke her cheekbone: Focusing too hard on a rear wheel and riding directly into a pothole!)
The only time you may need to stop looking ahead is when you’re checking for cars behind you if you have a turn coming up. When you do need to check behind you, make sure that the road ahead is clear and there aren’t any upcoming obstacles. Then, carefully look over your shoulder, keeping both hands on your handlebars. (Some more advanced riders will let go of one handlebar in order to turn around more fully but it’s rarely necessary.)
Having good neck mobility is helpful here, since some cyclists need to turn their entire torso in order to see behind them. Sometimes, standing up helps riders get a better angle to look behind them, so try that if you struggle to turn your neck enough. If you struggle with this, it might be time to check in with a physical therapist for some mobility exercises!
2. Get comfortable with clipped-in pedals
If you recently swapped your flat pedals for clipless road pedals, you likely had a few wobbles as you tried to figure out how to get the bike moving smoothly. Maybe you even toppled over once or twice. But good news: “Everybody says you have to fall three times to figure out clipping in and getting started,” says Lown. “If we understand the physics of the bike and how to use our momentum, we’ll stay upright.”
Here, Lown offers a checklist to keep in mind as you get rolling with clipped-in pedals:
Start on a surface conducive to rolling. As you’re learning this skill, avoid starting on an uphill or on soft grass—momentum is your friend. (Yes, it’s tempting to start on a soft surface in case of crashes, but you’ll struggle more to get moving! If you’re truly nervous, opt for more worn-in/packed-down grass.)
Check your gearing. You want to be somewhere in the middle of your range, where you’ll get a bit of momentum from that first strong pedal stroke, but it’s not so hard that you’re barely able to get started.
Stand over your bike and clip one foot into your pedal. Lown recommends putting the pedal at the bottom of the pedalstroke to make clipping it in easier—then raise that pedal to almost straight up, but slightly forward so when you press into it, it immediately pushes down.
Look to the road, toward the horizon. Focus on where you want to go. Don’t look down! Hands should be on your bars, covering your brakes.
Let go of your brakes and press down with the foot that’s clipped in while lifting your butt up onto the saddle and lifting your other foot onto the other pedal. Don’t stress about clipping that other foot in right away, focus on keeping your momentum. Pedal, pedal, pedal!
As you’re in motion, think about the rest of your body. Your core should be strong, your arms should be loose, your hands should be covering the brakes. You’re ready for anything, but you’re not feeling rigid.
If you haven’t managed to get that other foot clipped in, once you’re up to a comfortable cruising speed, you can troubleshoot and coast while you clip in. “Too many people try to [clip in the other foot] while they’re still really unstable,” says Lown. “It’s so much easier if you just wait.”
3. Learn how to corner
From wide, sweeping corners to tight U-turns, corners are something that even the top pros practice regularly to improve their outcomes. For a new rider, navigating a corner means getting around a turn comfortably and safely, while for a top pro, speeding around a corner without needing to scrub any speed can be the difference between a win in a criterium race or a 10th place finish.
Cornering advice is usually to take corners as wide as possible, making the angle as gentle as possible so you don’t need to turn as sharply. But when you’re riding on open roads, it’s important to be very aware of opposing traffic and the yellow line in the middle of the road, says Angie Ridgel of Stelleri Training.
“You’ll want to drop your speed ahead of the corner rather than braking once you’re already turning,” she adds. Trying to slow down while you’re in the corner can cause you to slide out, so use your brakes to come to a comfortable speed before you start to lean into the corner. You can corner while on the tops or in the drops, but don’t try to change hand position while you’re in the turn—making the panicked move from tops to drops or vice versa as you’re leaning into the corner can destabilize you and cause a crash.
As you approach a corner, stay on your side of the road but get as wide as you can coming into the corner, then ride towards the apex (the tightest part) of the corner and go wide again on the exit.
Let your body lean into the corner (tilting toward the tightest part of the corner) and put your inside pedal up to avoid the risk of clipping a curb or debris on the road. Your outside pedal will be down. For more stability as you lean, think about pressing your weight into that outside foot.
The tighter the corner, the slower and more upright you’ll have to be, so don’t stress if you feel like a snail while you’re doing a U-turn, says Ridgel. “Even in a U-turn, get as wide as you can in the corner, because even a couple extra feet can make a difference in how smooth a corner is. And remember to keep that inside foot up,” she adds. “It makes the corner feel smoother, and in a tight U-turn, it’s much safer!”
Want to boost your skills even more? Coach Kevin Simms of Ignite Junior Cycling in Canada is a fan of adding more people to a corner, especially if your goal is to race on the road or ride in groups. “You need to practice all the different variations of corners so you’re ready for anything,” he says. “Increase pace, hit corners with other riders, switch directions—get used to all types of corners, not just the ones on your usual ride route!”
If you’re riding in the rain, these principles remain the same, but Kirchmann recommends lowering your speed even further, running a slightly lower tire pressure for better contact with the ground, and keeping your bike and body slightly more upright to stay in control. You won’t be as speedy, but you’ll be safe!
4. Make slowing down and stopping smooth
Most road bikes are now equipped with disc brakes, so if you’re returning to riding after a long hiatus, you may have a few awkward stops as you get used to the faster, more powerful stopping capability of disc brakes versus cantilever or caliper brakes of the past. Modulating your brakes rather than slamming them is critical.
Think of your brakes like a dimmer switch rather than an on/off light switch, says Lown. During your next ride, play around with gently squeezing both brakes, learning how to modulate that stopping power so you can easily slow down when you need to. Your goal should always be to proactively brake, rather than need to brake abruptly, whether that’s as you’re going down a hill, coming into a corner, or riding up to a stoplight.
“Our panic response is typically to slam on the brakes, whether it’s in our car or on our bike,” says Lown. “Avoid that. But if you do need to come to a fast, abrupt stop, pull on both your front and rear brake, and shift your weight as far back on the bike as possible to counteract the force of your front wheel stopping. Otherwise, you may find yourself flying over your handlebars.”
As you get more comfortable using your brakes, you can play with using your front brake and your rear brake separately from each other. The front brake will stop you more abruptly, while the rear brake, when fully applied at speed, can cause you to skid or fishtail.
5. Work on your drafting
Drafting—the art of tucking behind another rider and using them to block the wind and save you energy—is important for any road rider who wants to ride in a group. And it can be scary, especially at first! “Drafting is a high-level skill and should be taken seriously,” say Lown. “A race or charity ride shouldn’t be the first place you’re trying it!”
A few rules to keep in mind, according to our group of experts:
Practice with a friend who’s already a good cyclist or go to a clinic or group ride targeted at beginners. This is a skill that’s going to be harder to learn if you’re both new to it!
Maintain a distance between your front wheel and the rider in front of you’s rear wheel that makes you feel comfortable. At first, this might be a meter. Pro road riders will be within inches (sometimes even closer) of each other, but that’s dangerous for a first-timer. As you get used to drafting, you will naturally get closer and closer to the rider ahead of you. “It's better to still leave enough space to react to any movements from the rider in front of you, it isn't necessary to be directly on the wheel,” says Kirchmann.
Pay attention to your surroundings. Listen to the rider in front of you, because they may call out an obstacle before steering around it. You can also listen for shifting, which would indicate a change in gradient (a climb or descent) that’s coming up, and thanks to the screechy nature of disc brakes, you can often hear when the front of the group is slowing down.
Whether you’re in the front or in the middle of a pack, modulate your speed carefully. Try to avoid sudden changes in pace, both when speeding up and slowing down.
Don’t be afraid to speak up! If you need to go slower, let the person in front of you know. If you see a stick in the road and you have a rider drafting behind you, call it out.
6. Practice climbing
Climbing may not seem like a skill you need to practice (or that you want to practice), but it’s an important part of being a strong cyclist. That’s why we asked Phil Gaimon, who’s arguably best known for his quests to take the toughest King of the Mountain Strava segments in the world, to share his best advice.
First of all, stay on the hoods or the tops of your handlebars when you climb: Bending over to reach the drops will limit your breathing and slow you down, says Gaimon. Focus on having a relaxed upper body, too—tension in your shoulders and neck is just wasted energy.
For the most part, Gaimon recommends staying seated. “Unless it’s a short, steep climb where the top is in sight, stay seated if you can,” he says. You may want to stand just to change things up and give your body a break for a few pedal strokes, but don’t stay standing for long—it costs too much energy.
Gaimon also suggests not stressing about your cadence—how fast or slow you’re spinning the pedals. “Obviously, you don’t want to do a long climb in your hardest gear where you’re barely turning the pedals. But at the same time, I don’t think there’s a certain number of pedal strokes you need to be taking in a minute,” he says. Instead, focus on the feel of smooth pedal strokes, pulling up and pressing down in an even motion. “This helps you utilize all of your muscles,” he adds.
Also, stop the urge to go out as hard as you possibly can. “For longer climbs, pacing is everything,” he says. “I divide a climb into thirds and try to ride the first part so it feels easy, the second part so it feels moderate, and the final part so it feels hard. The pace and power tend to stay steady when I pace myself this way, and it always ends with me finishing much better than if I had started out going hard.”
Practicing your climbing skill is similar to cornering: You want to mix up your stimuli, says Simms. “Climbing is an artform or skill that is developed over time,” he notes. “You need to climb lots to actually get good at climbing!” This means riding long, short, gradual and steep climbs, rather than sticking to the same two-minute climb near your house.
7. Don’t forget about the descent
Going downhill is all about staying loose and relaxed, while modulating your speed and keeping your eyes on the road—and where you want to go. Awareness is key, so even if you’ve been listening to music for the rest of your ride, consider descending in silence so you can be better aware of your surroundings.
Generally speaking, you’ll want to be in the drops on a descent, with your fingers still covering your brakes so you’re ready to modulate your speed as needed. The lower you are, the more stable you are—but riding in the drops does take some getting used to! “It can feel scary at first, but really, it’s safer,” Gaimon notes.
“You want your weight centered between your two wheels,” says Gaimon. “I also like having one pedal down, and I’m pushing into that pedal—that adds a lot of stability. You’ll switch which foot is down depending on if there’s a corner coming up.”
At the same time, you also want to be relaxed: Your goal is to “float” over bumps in the road rather than trying to fight them. This means keeping your core engaged, but leaving a bit of laxity to your limbs, letting them act as suspension.
When you do encounter a corner while riding downhill, safety is absolutely critical. “If it’s a blind turn, assume that there’s a car coming in the other direction, possibly over the line,” says Gaimon. “Adjust your speed early so you’re not braking while in the corner. It’s even more important to do this on a downhill because you’ll have more speed as you enter the turn.”
You might assume that a former World Tour rider and top pro would relish the idea of racing downhills, but Gaimon is actually incredibly safety conscious while descending. “Always remember that you’re not on closed roads. Have fun on descents, but don’t have too much fun. It’s not worth ripping around the corner if there might be a UPS truck turning into a driveway,” he says.
8. Handle your hands
Eating and drinking on the bike is a skill that often gets ignored outside of nutritional recommendations of how much to eat and drink per hour (a bottle of water and 200 to 400 calories’ worth of carbs, in case you were wondering). But learning to remove your water bottle and successfully return it to its holder can be tricky when you’re new to riding, as can getting that bar or gel out of your jersey pocket.
Here are a few quick tips to mastering both skills:
Take advantage of every stop. This will make it the most seamless. Rolled up to a red light? Use this chance to grab a gel or swig a few sips of water before you’re rolling again.
Always keep your eyes where you want to go. This is the biggest mistake riders make when trying to grab a gel or their bottle, but looking ahead rather than down is going to keep you moving forward versus riding erratically. It takes some practice.
Try it inside. When you’re riding on your trainer, don’t put your bottle and snacks on a nearby table. Instead, pull gels out of your pocket and your water bottle in and out of the holder. While you’re doing this, practice keeping your head up, paying attention to what’s in front of you, not the water bottle cage. Do this often enough and your muscle memory will start to kick in even when riding outside.
Keep your gels in the easiest pocket to access, especially when you’re new to riding. This is usually the pocket on your dominant hand side.
Remember that speed is a good thing. As Lown said earlier, momentum is your friend, and if you slow down too much, you’ll start to wobble. You can’t necessarily pedal the entire time you’re reaching for your bottle or putting it back, but you can make sure you’re only drinking when you’re moving fast enough to coast comfortably for a few pedal strokes.
Practice makes perfect! Eating and drinking on the bike is tricky, but the more you do it, the easier it becomes. Even on short rides, practice drinking from your bottle and after a few rides, it’ll start to feel more natural.
Molly writes about cycling, nutrition and training, with an emphasis on women in sport. Her new middle-grade series, Shred Girls, debuts with Rodale Kids/Random House in 2019 with "Lindsay's Joyride." Her other books include "Mud, Snow and Cyclocross," "Saddle, Sore" and "Fuel Your Ride." Her work has been published in magazines like Bicycling, Outside and Nylon. She co-hosts The Consummate Athlete Podcast.