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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32 thoughts on “Four Things About Cycling that aren't 'Just Like Riding a Bike'”

  1. Vincent Lyon says:

    Great list! I think I would add two (perhaps at an ‘intermediate’ level) that have consistently marked a difference between my enjoyment on a bike and my girlfriend’s discomfort on a bike.

    -Learn to swing a leg over: rolling mounts/dismounts make you feel like a lot less of a dork when you depart/arrive on a bike. Practice scooter-ing around with your left foot on the left pedal, then when you get brave, swing your right leg over the saddle. Watch others for inspiration and practice off the roads of course.

    -Learn to ride with one hand: you only need one hand to signal, but get comfortable taking off either hand. Don’t worry about taking both off at once since it’s illegal (in NH anyway) but I find that being ambidextrous with your signaling is more intuitive for drivers and pedestrians around you. Probably redundant to say you should practice off the roads first.

  2. Justin Winokur says:

    The biggest one I can think of is learn how to properly use the front brake. Not only is it okay, but it is good to use it most of the time. The reason people “flip” over handlebars is that they are inexperienced with the braking power and they shift too far forward.earning to use it regularly. Dana that in a panic stop, you will naturally and automatically apply it correctly (or at least have a better chance of doing so).

  3. Paul In Minneapolis says:

    Shoulder check.

    Learning to look back over the shoulder.

    Find an empty parking lot, ride a line and practice looking back while not veering.

    This is one of the biggest helps when riding in traffic, be it of cars or bicycles.

  4. Sam says:

    Look them in the eye. When cars approach from side streets, even when you have the right of way, look the driver in the eye. Bicycles tend to be overlooked or nearly invisible, but when a driver looks in your eyes he/she is more likely to see and to realize there is a bike near.

    At the same time, and this happened to me yesterday, if you don’t meet their eyes you can know that they haven’t seen you. This lets you prepare to avoid potential accidents. I watched a driver approach from my right and run a stop sign while turning into my lane. Because I saw that he hadn’t seen me I was able to move to avoid getting side swiped.

  5. Dano says:

    These are great ideas for what I have found to be minor issues when bike commuting. My two biggest constraints that I have developed skills to cope with are time and safety.

    When I started commuting I realized that it takes me roughly twice as long to commute by bike as it does to drive. This sounds like a huge time waster. The trick was figuring out what the difference actually was. 20min to drive verse 50min to bike. That’s only 30 extra minutes a day, and it is 30 min exercising. Its easily a wash considering that when I am in better shape I have more energy to be efficient. When arguing with myself about whether or not to ride because of time, I run through the “deltas.” This helps me come to a transport situation that I am proud and confident in.

    The other set of skills relates to safety. Primarily developing an awareness of what is going on around me. Its an intuition to know where cars are headed and where to position yourself to be in the safest situation possible.

    In other words, for me, its the skill to ride as visibly as possible while also being functionally invisible to drivers. I have to work to be in the places drivers are looking while not committing until I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am seen. I have witnessed where people driving can look you right in the eye and still turn left in front of you in a 4 way stop. I think its the difference between drivers “seeing you” and “being seen.” Only “being seen” will keep you safe.

    I feel very safe when I ride because I take an active role. Safety is more than possible and even more likely, in my opinion, when you commute by bike.

  6. Graham says:

    I can’t say if this follows in the way you’re asking, but this is something that I learned the hard way, so…

    ALWAYS try to approach train tracks standing up and at a right angle and always assume that they are wet and slippery and slow down for them.

  7. Janice in GA says:

    You don’t even have to stand up all the way to use your legs as shock absorbers on bumpy roads. Just put your weight on the pedals and lift your butt Just. Enough.

    That’s the lazy way to do it, and that’s why I like it. 🙂

  8. EP in Montana says:

    Great tip on the front brake; most of your stopping power comes from the front brake. That’s why cars have/had disks in front and drums in back.

    I know this goes without saying, but it’s worth repeating; understand that you are a vehicle when traveling on the roadways, which means you must obey the same laws you would if you were in a car. The cyclists who blow through red lights and stop signs gives all cyclists a bad name and cause motorists to lose respect and see a bicycle as a toy (at best) and a nuisance (at worst).

    It’s also kind of in the same vein as the eye contact posts, but be predictable as possible to all other road users (other cyclists, motorists, pedestrians). When you encounter traffic of one kind or another, try to think like the other users, to better anticipate their moves and help them anticipate yours. This, in my experiences, allows traffic to move more fluidly.

  9. Clayton says:

    #4 might not be as cut and dry. Nearly all of the methods recommending fullly or near-fully extended legs at the bottom of the pedal stroke were developed in the context of performance road cycling, by performance road cyclist or closely related persons with little or no background in medical/ortho or other relevant sciences.

    The holmes method has extensive research backing a leg bend of 25-35 degrees at the bottom of the stroke. This leg bend is much more well suited for casual riders as it increases power output (if not efficiency) and greatly reduces risk of injury to the knees.

  10. JonO says:

    Learn some basic bicycle maintenance. I learned the hard way with broken spokes, flats, etc. Having something wrong with your bike makes you not want to commute. Knowing how to maintain your ride gives you a better ride, less trouble, and saves you money.

    Get the right equipment and clothing for what you’re trying to do. That made a huge difference in my bike commuting ease/enjoyment

    I completely agree with Sam on the eye contact thing. People driving are always looking for cars and sometimes they can be totally oblivious to a guy on a bike directly in front of their face. Slow way down until you see them look at you (usually with a very surprised face), and then proceede

  11. Nathan says:

    My tip is this: Your voice is your best piece of safety equipment. Practice shouting STOP at very high volume or WAIT. Especially at those moments when you half suspect a drivwer has looked right through you.

  12. The starting point mentioned in the seat position article Ted links to looks like about 25 degrees to me. That’s about my favored leg position

  13. @Nathan: I just scream like a madman “10 FEET RULE!”

  14. Karen says:

    I learned very quickly not to play follow-the-leader when I’m biking with or around other cyclists. Rely on your own eyes, ears and hand signals when you are riding in traffic rather than just following someone else. If your companion crosses the intersection but you don’t feel comfortable with the traffic or think the light is about to change then just stay put and wait until you can cross safely.

  15. Ray Lovinggood says:

    Learn where to position yourself in a traffic lane to trip a traffic signal. Okay, some signals just don’t want to trip for cyclists, but for those that do, it helps if you get to know your commute route and which lights you can easily trip and speed things along.

    If you can see where the pavement near the intersection has been saw cut and filled in with black joint sealer, then get your wheels directly on top of the saw cut joint. That’s where the detection loop is located. It isn’t tripping the signal based on vehicle weight, but by something else. I believe that “something else” is magnetic.

    If you can’t see the saw cut joints, then the loop is buried under a layer of asphalt and you have to start guessing where it might be located.

    (If you’re on a carbon bike with carbon wheels, you’re probably not commuting…)

    One of the web pages that discusses the issue is:

    Use Google to find others.

  16. Daniel says:

    When approaching cross streets I check both directions for traffic even on one-way streets. You never know if a motorist got confused or a rogue bicyclist is making up their own rules. And check those parked cars you are approaching for passengers who may open a car door in your path.

  17. Mikey Bikey says:

    Defense riding is the most important part of commuting to work by bicycle for me. Ride with all your senses (eyes, ears, nose, mouth,and hands) seeing, hearing, smelling, taste, and feelings. Protect your senses too (helment, glasses, hi-viz) etc.

  18. Find a League of American Bicyclists instructor in your area and take a Traffic Skills 101 class. THAT is real preparation.

  19. burnhamish says:

    My commute takes me through the grounds of Fermilab National Accelerator Laboratory, where they strictly enforce the rules of the road for every car and bicycle on the roadway. This means not exceeding 40 mph (check!), and stopping at stop signs. I use SPD-style pedals, so I would rather not unclip if I didn’t have to. Learning to remain clipped-in and upright while at a complete stop (however momentary) keeps me in my riding groove and on the right side of Daddy Law. I probably stop more completely than most of the cars I see. For longer waits (red lights, right-of-way traffic, etc.) I’ll unclip, since I haven’t mastered a lengthy trackstand.

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      I almost included in my list “Stopping without putting your foot down.” But I decided that was probably a “finesse that can only be acquired by lots of riding.” I find myself still improving in this area. Sometimes I can roll slowly to a stop and hang there frozen for several seconds before the track-stand wiggle begins.

      On my list, I wanted to stick to easy skills that are non-intuitive or counter-intuitive, but could be put to use right away.

      Advice like “League of American Bicyclists instructor in your area and take a Traffic Skills 101 class” from bergerandfries is great. I ought to do that. But it’s probably not something you can do before National Bike to Work Week begins.

  20. BluesCat says:

    Wow. Such good information in all of these comments! I can only add one little thing: sometimes ALL riders will have a tendency to tense up and hunch up their shoulders. You may be new to riding on the road and mixing it up with traffic. Or you may be an experienced rider coming across a hellacious road hazard.

    Whenever the immediate danger has passed, and are in a calmer riding environment, make a point to relax your shoulders and shake out your hands, one at a time. Riding for long distances all tensed and hunched up is not only tiring, but can lead to neck and shoulder pain.

  21. greypearl says:

    The “dooring zone” is a big one, since a beginner rider’s instinct is to ride as far as possible to the outside of the lane, near parked cars. That can very easily lead to an inattentive driver opening a door into the path of your bicycle. Riding further out from these cars also has the benefit of allowing other drivers to have better visibility of your approach.

    On a related note, I also see a good number of cyclists swerving in and out of the lane of traffic, usually because of the presence or absence of parked cars. This can be dangerous if a motorist or other cyclist is overtaking you, especially if your movements are unpredictable. Maintaining a straight line is much better.

  22. Tom Bowden says:

    Take the Lane! Unless of course there is a cycletrack or a well designed bike lane.

  23. Jim Good says:

    Perfect advice! Very important.

  24. Mattie says:

    Not to nitpick, but…

    #1 kind of goes overboard with directions on how to stand on pedals.

    Case in point, I ride fixed gear full-time at this point.

    I can stand on my pedals. However, I can not keep my pedals horizontal and remain in motion.

    Why would you want to stop pedaling while riding on the road anyway? I see it all the time and those people coasting their way down the road look about as stable as a new born chick trying to walk.

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      Oh dear. I would have expected a recumbent rider to be first to complain about that.

      If you are riding a fixed-gear bike, then this article isn’t meant for you. It’s meant for people who don’t have years of riding skill and experience. I could be wrong, but I think of fixed-gear riders as cyclists who have experience with freewheel bikes and choose take on the challenge of fixed gear bikes along with their pleasures — whatever those may be.

  25. BluesCat says:

    Mattie & Ted – Actually, when I’m going across some pretty deep valley gutters on my ‘bent I sort of hoist myself up off the seat, using the handlebars and pedals, in order to mitigate the jarring; sort of the same motion as a technical climber’s “laybacking.”

    And I coast all the time. When I’m taking an alternate route to work, I go through a couple of school zones. If I’m still pedaling as I zoom through them, Johnny Law hiding on the side street will plainly see I’m speeding and cite me.

    Traffic Court Judge to the BluesCat: “You were driving … er … riding a WHAT?”

  26. Last year during 30 Days of Biking in September I had an aha moment when I realized I automatically shift my weight back as I brake for a full stop.

    It wasn’t automatic early on–it was a trick my bike-racing husband taught me and certainly not part of my early riding on that banana bike with the handlebar streamers.

    This led me to compile a whole list of things I now do without having to think about them, all of which were learned behaviors:

  27. John M. Hammer says:

    I never thought of that as the lazy method. More like the highly-skilled method. It’s very similar to the motion a horse rider uses when trotting (called posting).

  28. snuzzled says:

    I had my seat height adjusted by my LBS. He had to crank it up quite a bit and now bicycling is a lot easier. Before the adjustment, the 8 mile commute to work was out of the question. Now, it’s easy. However, when I stop at a light, I can still reach toe to the ground while seated. But my knee is slightly bent when the pedal is in the lowest position. Is my seat still too low?

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      Slightly bent isn’t a problem. I usually have my knee unbent when my foot is level which means it’s slightly bent when I point my foot down a bit (ball of the foot on the pedal).

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