There are a number of reasons to take one precious training hour per month and devote it to improving your cycling dexterity. One reason is of course is to improve your ability to maneuver through the pack whether on a group ride or in a race. Another reason is to improve your safety and the safety of the riders around you. There seems to be a common misconception that some crashes are just inevitable. In my experience this just isn’t true. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that with a combination of experience, skills and mental preparation, ALL crashes are avoidable.
However, the reason that I usually find to be most convincing is that by practicing skills and improving agility on the bike, you will actually become a stronger, faster cyclist. The reasoning behind this is that by being more relaxed and confident on the bike, you will waste less energy through tension and anxiety and you will be able to apply all your energy to turning over the pedals. The most important thing to take away from the drills outlined in this article is not any particular skill or ability, but an overall improvement in your sense of confidence and relaxation on the bike.
You don’t have to be a coach to run a skills clinic. Here is a basic outline of the clinic I run. Find an empty parking lot or a grass field, gather some friends and give it a try.
This is truly cruel and unusual punishment to have pictures like this while the Toolbox Editor just spent the day mimicking Bib the Michelin Man and commuting in -15oC and 25km/h winds! A grassy field works great for many of the bumping drills too.
The Warm Up
Just as your body needs a good warm up before a hard interval session, your mind needs some early morning calisthenics to get those neurons firing.
Follow the leader – This is a fun, easy way to get things going. One rider can take the reins here and lead the group around the parking lot. The idea here is not speed but dexterity. Impose a maximum speed limit or give points for being the slowest to complete an obstacle course without touching down! Practice sharp turns, cutting in between obstacles and, for a more advanced group, hop a curb or try a track stand. Try to stay as close together as possible. This can be done as an elimination exercise. Keep going until the last rider has to place down a foot or plain falls off. NB If you have a spare training bike, skill drills are not the time or place to showcase the new bike you got for Christmas!
Center of Gravity
Just like a gymnast, figure skater, or a diver, there are some things that the body has to learn instinctively. The following series of drills will improve your innate sense of balance.
Ankle Grabbing – This drill involves holding onto your leg while pedaling. What you will find is that flexibility and the length of your limbs has very little to do with success in this exercise. The real key is the ability to push the bike away from the side you are leaning to while continuing to ride in a straight line. By pushing the bike to the side and keeping your center of gravity in the middle, you effectively bring your body lower to the ground. Start by pedaling the length of the parking lot holding your right calf with your right hand and your left hand in the drops. This should be fairly easy. Try it on the other side. Then see if you can move your hand down to your ankle and hold on to it while you pedal. Once you achieve that, you can try to pedal while holding the heel of your foot. The farther you lean your bike to the side, the lower down you will be able to reach.
Object Retrieval – This is a natural progression from ankle grabbing. Using the same concept as the above drill, practice picking up water bottles from the ground. Ride slowly up to the bottle and, pushing your bike away from the side you are leaning to, bring yourself low enough to the ground so that you can retrieve the bottle. You can start by trying to knock the bottles over using your left hand and then your right. Move on to picking up the bottles and then putting them down without letting them fall over. From there, you can practice picking up smaller objects such as soda cans or bottle caps.
You too can play Bike Limbo!
If you spend a lot of time riding in packs, you will inevitably make physical contact with other riders. Even if you usually ride on your own, practicing these drills will improve your overall ability to handle your bike. The most important thing to take away from these drills is that a little bit of contact is not a big deal. As with the previous drills, there is a natural progression of exercises.
Look Back – A basic skill that many cyclists lack is the ability to look over their shoulder without coming off their line. For this drill, pick a partner who is roughly your size. Start by riding the length of the parking lot with your right hand on your partner’s shoulder, looking over your right shoulder. Don’t be afraid to lean on your partner. He will keep you going in a straight line. Once you’ve mastered that, practice looking over the outside shoulder. Try to really turn around and look behind you while maintaining a straight line.
Don’t look back in anger, just relax and enjoy the view around you while using your mates for support. The supporter should make sure they’re nice and relaxed and call out any obstacles.
Elbow Bumping – In this drill, you’ll make some light contact with your partner. With your hands in the drops, to prevent your handlebars from hooking (always protect your handlebars when riding in a tight pack), stick your elbows out and ride the length of the parking lot knocking elbows. You can use your elbows as bumpers, letting them absorb the brunt of the impact.
Shoulder Bumping and Leaning – Once you are comfortable with elbow touching, you can practice making direct contact with your shoulders. Once again, keep your hands in the drops to protect your handlebars. Try to stay shoulder to shoulder and progressively increase the strength as well as the length of the impact. Practice leaning into each other and holding it for a few seconds. The ultimate goal with this drill is to ride the length of the parking lot completely leaning on each other. You will be surprised at how stable you feel, even though you are wholly dependent on the other rider to keep you upright. The take away from this drill is that when you are bumped in the pack, your instinct should be to lean into the impact rather than pull away from it.
As you build practice and confidence, you can really test out how far and hard you can lean on another rider. The truly adventurous can also re-enact the head-butting fun between McEwen and O’Grady at the 2005 Tour. Next stop after that is a new act for Cirque de Soleil!
These skills are important, not just for safety but also to avoid flat tires and to keep your wheels true. As with the other drills, there is a natural progression here.
Front Wheel – Assuming your parking lot has white lines to indicate parking spaces, practice riding the length of the lot, hopping your front wheel over each line as you cross it. This is mostly done using the arms to pull up on the bars.
Rear Wheel – Now do the same thing but with your rear wheel. You will use your legs to pull up on the pedals and lift the rear wheel off the ground.
Both Wheels – Once you’ve mastered the front and rear wheel separately it is time to get both wheels off the ground at the same time. At a jogging speed, bend your knees, push the bike down into the ground and then burst upwards, pulling up simultaneously on the pedals and the handle bars. Once you feel comfortable jumping white lines, you can try some bigger obstacles such as soda cans or sticks.
Advanced Bunny Hopping – Once you can easily jump your bike over curbs and pot holes, give these advanced skills s try. Ride up to a soda can so your back wheel is even with the can. Bunny hop just the rear wheel and while it is in the air, swing it to the side, knocking the can over. Next, try a sideways bunny hop. Ride parallel to a white line or an obstacle. Do a bunny hop and once you are off the ground, move the entire bike sideways and over the line or object. Do both these drills to the right and then to the left.
There are three ways to take a corner on a bike. Lean the bike, lean your body and the bike and turn the handlebars. Most steering is done by leaning, but learning how to turn the bike using the handlebars can be a useful skill. By turning the handlebars instead of leaning the bike, you prevent the possibility of having the tires slide out from underneath you on a wet road or on a gravelly turn.
Parking Space Crit – In this exercise, you are going to have your own little criterium inside a single parking space. Attempt to make a full circle inside the confines of a parking space. Remember to look to the place where you want to go, instead of where you currently are (this is important in all turns). Once you’ve mastered turning in one direction, try it the other way.
Try to do an even tighter turning circle than a Smart car.
K Turns – This drill is more of a confidence builder than an actual skill you might use on the road. At a slow speed, ride parallel to a wall. With the wall on your left, turn directly into the wall so your front wheel hits it at a 90 degree angle. Allow the wheel to bounce back off the wall a few inches. Turn the wheel to the right and continue riding parallel to the wall. Do this several times along the length of the wall.
The Big Finish
I like to finish all my skills clinics with a little competition that incorporates a lot of the skills we just worked on.
The Slow Race – Have all the riders line up as if at the start of a race. Mark a finish line about 20 meters away. Using balance and steering, each rider will attempt to rider as slowly as possible without falling over. The last rider to cross the line is the winner. If they clip out, ride backwards or crash, they are out of the race.
I tried to cover some basic skills in this article, but if you have other drills you’d like to add, send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Perhaps one day I will put together a comprehensive list of every cycling skills drill known to man!
Josh Horowitz is a USCF Certified coach and an active Category 1 racer. For more information about his coaching services and any coaching questions you may have, check out his website at LiquidFitness.com. To find out more about the Liquid Cycling club, go to LiquidCycling.com.