Four Things About Cycling that aren't 'Just Like Riding a Bike'

Bike to Work Week is when we regular bike commuters hope to inspire new people to join our ranks.

I hesitate to say “our ranks” because I don’t feel as though I’m in a rank. Do you want to join a rank? I doubt it.

I prefer to think of all of us as users of roads — and that a bicycle is just one of the legitimate modes for using roads. If there’s a single factor that inspires camaraderie among bike commuters, it is the systemic privileging of automobiles on the roads most of us need to use if we want to bike to work.

Rank or no ranks, we tend to get a little excited when someone we know is warming up to giving bike commuting a try. We want it to be great for you. We want you to enjoy the benefits that we already enjoy.

Our Internet-famous Commuting 101 section is full of great advice for making bike commuting successful. There are many Web pages that offer similar advice — and they all tend to assume that the “operating a bike” part takes care of itself. But experienced cyclists have some skills that are second-nature — so much so that we forget these skills were acquired over time.

If you never cycled enough to figure out these skills in the first place, then they won’t come back to you “just like riding a bike.” Here are four “learned instincts” that can take away some of the fatigue and frustration out of bike commuting.

Barcelona Red on Red 2
Standing on Pedals | Photo: Mikael Colville-Andersen
  1. Stand on your Pedals and Save your Butt: On bumpy roads, or for any big bump you see coming, stand up and let your legs be shock absorbers instead of your butt and your spine. When I watch less experienced cyclists take a big bump with their butts planted on the saddle, I see the grimaces on their faces that say, This is one of the things I hate about cycling! It doesn’t have to be so. Standing on your pedals is definitely something you should practice in a safe situation (not in traffic) until you feel stable doing it. With your pedal cranks horizontal, lift off the seat. Keep your knees slightly bent. Roll over those bumps. Standing on your pedals can lead to another skill: pedaling while standing, which has it’s own benefits in some situations. “Stand on your pedals” is even shorthand for “turning up your power output.” It’s awfully helpful when going up difficult hills. But here I’m just talking about standing and coasting to save your butt from the worst bumps on your bike commute.
    (If you have a single-speed bike, you can skip to number 4.)
  2. Downshift Before Climbing a Hill or Coming to a Stop: Even I forget this one sometimes. If you have multiple gears on your bike (the kind that use a derailleur for shifting) then you don’t want to be in a high gear when what you need is a low gear. You want to shift to a low gear just before you need it, because your bike won’t shift when you are at a stop, and it might not shift when you are putting a lot of pressure on the pedals. Furthermore, if you shift while you are standing and pedaling hard, your chain might slip and bring your crotch down hard on your seat — and then you’ll remember it was I who encouraged you to stand on your pedals.
    • When you are coming up to a stop light, downshift while you still have room to crank your pedals and allow your chain can find the appropriate chain rings. That way you can get to a faster start with less effort.
    • When you are about to climb a big hill, downshift before the incline starts. You will be less likely to bog down and end up pushing the bike up the hill.
  3. Easy Pedaling Does Not Mean Less Effort: In your lower gears, pedaling seems so easy. You may wonder why anyone would ever shift to those higher gears that require so much effort? When you are in a lower gear, it takes more cranking to travel, say, a city block than it does in a higher gear. All that easy pedaling can wear you out more quickly than if you were to try the next gear up, or maybe the next one up from that. I’m not saying you should always go to the highest gear. Find gear that feels good, where you’re neither straining nor spinning like a hamster in a wheel.
  4. Proper Saddle Height Does Mean Less Effort: I always tell my stepdaughter that if she’s kneeing herself in the face, her saddle may be too low. Ideally your leg should be fully extended at the bottom of your pedal stroke. Ideally, that is, for efficiency. But many people like to be able to stand flat-footed when they come to a stop without getting off the saddle. (There’s that reluctance to leave the saddle again.) Unfortunately, the geometry of most bikes doesn’t allow for both flat-footed saddle-sitting stops as well as for optimum pedaling efficiency. There are lots of pages written about proper saddle height. They all say about the same thing. Here is ours. I want you to enjoy cycling, so err on the side of comfort — but think about comfort over the distance you will commute. You’ll experience less fatigue with proper saddle height.

Hey, experienced cyclists: Are there other skills that tend to get overlooked in the typical checklists for beginning and returning cyclists? What can you think of that falls in that gray area between the technical how-to’s of cycling and the finesse that can only be acquired by lots of riding?

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