Just Ride: A Radically Practical Guide to Just Riding Your Bike
In this book, I take some shots at racers, but when it comes to bike-riding skills, you should copy them. I try to. At race speeds, anything other than good form is dangerous, so good form evolves, and bad form gets crashed and dropped out. You may think the best way to learn bike-riding skills is to ride a bike, but it doesn’t work that way. You get better to a point, but unless you push yourself to the edge of danger or get specific tips, it’s easy to wallow well below your potential. It was fifteen years before I learned about the role of hips in steering, and I’d still be there now if a racing friend named Mike hadn’t told me exactly what to do. In this book I tell you what he told me, and if you don’t do it already, that tip alone will be worth four times what you paid for this book.
This part isn’t all about technique, though. It’s also about attitude. They’re equally important.
1 Don’t pedal circles
For as long as I can remember—at least as far back as 1971—cycling experts have advised riders to “pedal circles,” which means apply power all the way around a 360-degree pedal rotation. It seems to make sense. The pedals move in a circle, so keep pushing them that way. But it doesn’t make sense. Your legs have evolved for seven million years to tromp, climb, kick, stomp, and run. They move in circles when they’re on pedals, but the feet and muscles are just going along for the ride. Lie on your back and put your feet in the air and try to move your feet that way. It’s awkward and weird. It’s far more natural to move them up and down, back and forth. In fact, muscling the pedals around in a circle is a nonsense fantasy and a physiological impossibility.
So, mash. Mashing is the opposite of pedaling circles. It’s a downward force on one pedal followed by a downward force on the other, repeated till you get there or get tired. Pick a gear that feels right—easy enough and hard enough—and push the pedals down, with no concern for forcefully pulling them around in a circle. (They can’t help but move in a circle.) The conventional wisdom says this is inefficient, that it “wastes” the upstroke and doesn’t efficiently direct your leg power in the circular direction of the pedals. For decades, “masher” has been a derogatory term to describe a rider with lousy pedaling form.
But everybody mashes, and nobody pedals in circles. This has been proven by laboratory studies of top-notch riders hooked up to machines, with wires taped to various muscles to see which ones are firing at which part of the stroke. These studies prove that at normal pedaling cadences—I’m not talking about the odd, short grunt up a vertical hill—nobody pulls up on the pedals. Even pros mash. The most efficient pedalers just minimize the weight on the upward-moving pedal, so that one leg isn’t fighting the other.
If you’re typical (as I am), you’ll read and understand the idea of minimizing the weight on the upward-moving pedal, but you’ll forget it all when you ride. That’s OK—a well-tuned bike is so efficient as it rolls along that it’ll compensate for imperfect pedaling.
2 Don’t count miles
Racers count miles, and it makes sense for them, because races are measured by distance. But for anybody else, especially an Unracer, counting miles is discouraging, adds pressure, and takes away fun.
At some point it’s impossible not to count miles, because you’re part curious and part proud, and miles are cycling’s standard units of measure, courtesy of racing, endurance cycling, and competitive braggarts in general. Everybody knows what a mile is. So I’m not saying that counting miles is yet another racer’s trap you’ve fallen into, but I think there are better things to count, such as minutes, elevation, or days.
Minutes add up quickly, and if you ride slowly, you get more minutes per mile. Riding thirty minutes is a bigger pat on the back than riding seven miles, although they may be the same ride. In the same way, a three-mile climb that gains a thousand feet and takes thirty minutes sounds way better when you talk about the feet or minutes instead of the miles.
Counting days is best of all because it’s easiest. When you count a day, you check it off whether you ride five minutes or five hours. I rode my bike today!
Count things that add up fast, come easy, and encourage you.
3 You have way too many gears
For all-around riding over a variety of surfaces and terrain, you need eight gears:
1: An extra-high gear for pedaling down hills.
2: A normal high gear, for fast riding on flat roads, maybe with a tailwind.
3: A medium gear for flat rides at a moderate pace.
4: A medium-low gear for flat rides when you’re carrying some gear or are on mild climbs.
5: A low gear for steeper climbs, or longer ones.
6: A really low gear for longer, steep climbs.
7: A super-low gear for long, steep climbs with loads when you’re tired.
8: An ultra-super-low gear, a bailout gear for when the hills are really steep and you’re really tired, or you just want to take it easy up a hill.
If all you need is eight, why do some bikes come with twenty-seven, thirty, thirty-three gears? Because the higher number of gears a bike has is perceived, along with price and weight, as more advanced and better.
If last year’s hot bike was a twenty-seven-speed, then this year’s “improvement” is a thirty-speed. Again, blame racing’s influence. In racing, small increments between gears helps pedaling speed and efficiency. For the Unracer, one-tooth jumps in the rear cassette are a waste. On widely varying terrain, two-to-four-tooth jumps between gears are better. What’s the point in shifting to a cog with one more tooth, when you want to actually feel a difference? If all you need is one tooth up or down, just pedal a little harder or faster.
Most bikes these days come with two or three chain rings and nine to eleven rear cogs, so your bike will have—mathematically—eighteen to thirty-three gears. However:
- Your small chain ring is for steep uphills. Use it only with the four largest rear cogs, on steep climbs. So when you’re on your small ring, you’re riding a four-speed bike.
- Your middle ring is your most-of-the-time ring. You can use it with all of your rear cogs, but in practice you’ll use it only with the six to seven larger ones. On your middle ring, your bike’s a six-to-seven speed.
- Your big ring is for high gears and for fast riding and descents. Use it with your five smallest cogs in back. On this ring, your bike’s a five-speed.
Don’t be concerned about duplicate gears—having the same gear on different chain-ring combinations (48 × 24 and 38 × 19, for example). Some gear nuts call it a waste, but I don’t buy that. When you have a gear you use a lot, it’s nice to have it with more than one chain-ring × rear cog combination. It’s like nickels in different pockets—where’s the harm?
4 Heavy rider, hard hill
Hills are especially hard for heavy riders, and low gears are the usual solution, but there is one trick that will help you climb faster and with no more effort in a higher gear: Stand up, lean forward, hold the bars lightly, and find the gear you can pedal almost with your body weight alone. Then, as your right foot is moving down, unweight your left foot, so it isn’t pressing hard on the pedal and fighting your right foot. It’s easier to do this if you rock the bike side to side, so when the right foot is falling, the bike is leaned to the right, and so on. It helps to exaggerate it a bit—to push the bike into the lean. About ten minutes of practice will nail it for most riders, and it’ll help you climb any tough hill more easily. Of course, if you have lower gears, you can just gear down and pedal faster. But standing on the pedals and letting your weight help you is more aggressive and faster, and doesn’t seem as much like giving up.
5 Ride bumps with skill, not technology
Since the mid ’90s, it’s been nearly impossible to buy a mid-to-high end, mainstream-brand mountain bike without suspension, and if you didn’t know better, you’d think those bikes were required for fun times off road. Not true. Bikes with mechanical suspension encourage you to blast over the bumps, but only racers need to do that. All the Unracer needs is judgment, soft tires, and decent technique. Speed comes when you use all three, but how fast do you need to blast downhill over the bumps, anyway? This is where you ought to be slowing down, and a simpler bike—without the mechanical suspension—encourages and rewards that judgment and skill.
The first trick is to avoid the bumps. There’s almost always a smooth way around the roughest patches, and finding it, even if it means slowing down, is just part of being a smart, skilled bicycle rider. It’s not chickening out. Look at the land as something to pass through, not to conquer, and think of your bike as something you take with you, and ride or push, whichever makes the most sense at the time.
When you can’t avoid the bumps, ride fat, soft tires. They’re not one and the same. Fatness just allows the low air pressure that creates the cush (skinny tires demand high pressure), and it’s up to you to make sure they’re soft. You can have loads of fun riding bumps on a 45mm to 55mm tire inflated between twenty and thirty pounds per square inch (psi). A tire like that is a soft cushion of air that adjusts to bumps and absorbs shocks before they get to you.
Even with fat softies, you still need good technique, which amounts to using your body as a shock absorber. It’s all about loose joints. When you have loose joints, you don’t need mechanical suspension, because your ankles, knees, hips, wrists, elbows, and shoulders should close and open as you ride over bumps. They do this when you walk, run, jump, and land, or catch something heavy, and with a little practice, they can do it on a bike. When you see an unavoidable rough patch of trail—or a rogue pothole on the road—rise up off the saddle, bend your knees, keep a firm but not clenched grip, and relax your joints so the shock of the pounding activates them.
If you don’t nail it the first time, stick with it, but don’t try too hard. Bad technique (stiff joints) gets weeded out because it hurts and is dangerous, and good technique (loose joints) gets reinforced because it feels and works better. With time, good technique is inevitable.
6 Ride like a fairy, not an ox
If fairies rode bikes they’d never break frames or forks or taco the wheels. They’re just too light and gentle. You’re heavier, but whatever you weigh, you can improve your technique so that the bike thinks you’re thirty to seventy pounds lighter than you are, and here’s how:
- Lift your front wheel over bumps and potholes. On the downstroke, just smoothly pull on the handlebar and shift your weight rearward as your front wheel hits the rough spot. A 250-pounder can ride as light as a 180-pounder this way.
- Ride with a decent grip—not clenched—and with loose joints, using your body as a spring to absorb bumps you can’t avoid.
- Look far enough ahead to give yourself time to ride around rough spots, so you don’t have to employ the first two techniques.
- Over a longer stretch of bumps, rise up slightly off the saddle and gently squeeze the saddle between your upper inner thighs. This distributes the weight between your pedals and saddle/seat post, so neither has to take the brunt. A broken seat rail is almost always the result of riding heavy. Ride light and you’ll protect your saddle.
- Ride slightly larger, slightly softer tires than you typically would, so when you hit something unexpectedly, the softer tires absorb more of the blow, saving your body and bike.
7 Corner like Jackie Robinson
Number 42 from Brooklyn wallops one into deep right-center field. He sprints toward first, and thirty feet before the bag, drifts right, then corrects and cuts left straight toward second, his left foot pushing off of first. The drift is key. Without it, he’d run into right field and get called out, and even if he barely stayed in the legal baseline, he’d waste too much time running the wrong direction. Jackie Robinson would never do that. Corner the way he ran bases: drift right before a left turn, and cut the turn when you can see through it.
If you can’t relate to running bases, think of parking your car in a lot. You see a snug space between two cars on your left. As you approach it, you steer right (drift) before diving left and into it. It’s the Jackie Robinson drift, performed millions of times daily by people who’ve never heard of him.
A casual corner ridden at medium speed doesn’t require great technique; in fact, it allows you to lapse into bad technique, because in casual cornering, bad technique still gets you through. But make proper form habitual, and you’ll survive when a sharp corner on an unfamiliar road catches you by surprise.
There are lots of different techniques that work well. You can
- lean your bike but keep your body upright.
- lean your body and keep your bike upright.
- point your inside knee away from the bike.
- point your inside knee toward the bike.
They all work. Try them all, and settle with the one that feels best to you, with the confidence that you won’t be the only one cornering that way. And then
1: keep your inside pedal UP, so you don’t scrape; and heavily weight the outside pedal.
2: look where you want to go, not where you don’t. Your bike will go where your eyes look.
3: rotate your crotch on the saddle and point your hips into the turn. This is the best cornering tip you’ll ever get, and one that many riders don’t know or use.
8 Shift with your legs first
The more convenient your shifters are, the more you’ll shift. You can’t help it. It’s like swallowing food that you’ve already chewed and moved to the back of your mouth. Modern brake lever–mounted shifters, or “brifters,” as Sheldon Brown called them, make you shift too much. Your first “shift” should be an increase in effort. At the start of a climb, don’t go for the shift lever, just pedal harder. And when the hill eases off, don’t go for the shifter lever—just pedal faster.
When you use your legs to shift, you effectively add gears to the bike, and you fill in gaps between gears.
Also, don’t worry about perfectly timed shifts on the hill. You’ll be compensated for any falloff in efficiency by getting a little more exercise, which is kind of the point in the first place. I’m not saying to ride in too high a gear and wreck your knees, or ride too low and whir your legs around like an eggbeatin’ fool. I’m just saying instead of shifting three or four times up a hill, shift once or twice. Ride the gear a little longer, feel the slope of the road, and use your muscles a little more and the mechanism a little less. Shift when pedaling is clearly too hard or too easy, and vary your cadence and effort more in between shifts.
9 No ride too short
One of the problems with becoming a serious bike rider is that you stop going for short rides because somewhere along the line it sinks in—falsely—that a ride you don’t have to suit up for doesn’t count. That’s your inner racer talking, and you need to shut it up.
Many rides are too long. They bake you, soak you, stress your joints, numb your nerves, wear out your muscles, and take time away from a well-rounded life. My own ride limit these days is about four hours. My mood doesn’t change after four hours, but no matter how beautiful the ride is, how great the weather, how fantastic the companionship, four hours is plenty for me. Maybe your limit is half that or twice that, but you do have an upper limit.
No ride is too short. Carbs aside, is a small spoonful of your favorite ice cream too little to bother with? Is a two-minute massage not worth the trouble? Pedaling a bike is the same way. It’s pure fun, no matter how short it is. Five minutes of riding after a day of sitting or standing is a great way to unwind.
A five-minute ride in the neighborhood may sound too short, but if your bike has double-sided pedals and you don’t have to waste time donning your serious bike rider costume, you can just get on your bike and go. You can do it on a whim any time. Don’t evaluate a short ride in physiological terms.
Easy pedaling is good thinking time. I get all kinds of ideas for bikes, products, and general life solutions during short rides. The super grand solutions often come after twenty minutes, but you’ll get some good ones within five; and if you don’t, it’s still better than five minutes of sitting down and eating five minutes’ worth of chips while viewing two minutes of television commercials. The solutions and ideas don’t happen during fast-paced club rides, or rides where you’re struggling every pedal stroke. Only on easy bike rides.
I’m not saying don’t ride the Hotter ’n Heck Century or the Dreadful Double. Ride the hard rides that challenge you and feel good to complete. Go on the forty-mile club rides you wouldn’t consider riding solo. But make most of your rides more pure fun than those. That usually means shorter.
10 Paddling beats pedaling
Training wheels aren’t evil, or even stupid, but they’re a misguided attempt to help. At least they get kids onto two-wheelers who might be scared otherwise. The good ends there, though. Training wheels are bad because they teach your child to turn a bike by turning the handlebar. That’s how mom and pop drive a car, but you turn a bike by leaning, and training wheels prevent leaning. Over time, you raise the training wheels, which allows a little more lean—a teaching technique known as “fading”—but it’s better to never start with training wheels. There is another way.
Get your child a tiny bike designed to paddle, not pedal. There are bikes that go by several names (Strider is one), but the essence is a pedal-less bike with a seat low enough that a child’s feet are flat on the ground, and no pedals to bang into when she’s paddling away. Kids can start on paddle bikes as young as three. When they start learning to balance, they can raise their feet to the foot rests and coast. They learn balance and steering by leaning automatically, without your coaching. Don’t rush your child onto a pedal bike once she’s mastered a paddle bike. Let her enjoy the mastery, and wait until she asks for pedals.
Bigger kids and adults who never learned to ride a bike can learn the same way. Just remove the pedals from a real bike, lower the saddle so they can easily flat-foot the ground, and have them paddle away.
Another intermediate step is a scooter. Most of the scooters you see are those tiny wheeled ones made for kids. They’re too hard to handle. Much better are the big-wheel scooters that run on bike tires. Kickbike is one brand, but sniff around and you’ll find others. Big-wheel scooters are a blast even if you know how to ride a bike.