A Beginner’s Guide to Cycling, Part 4: Four Sets of Skills for Your First Ride
So now that you have your bike, a couple items you need for riding, and a desire to ride, you need to get out there. Luckily, getting out is the easiest part, but here are a few skills to learn and practice before hitting the roadway or bike path.
Skills for the road, pre-ride
You need to properly check your bike and inflate your tires before riding. If you are running 25mm tires, start at about 90-100 psi and adjust up or down based on your weight. Schwalbe recommends about 95 psi if you weight 185 lbs.
Knock off even more pressure if you are running bigger 28mm tires, and take 5-10 psi out of the front tire. The ride will be a lot better. Tip: Throw out the plastic valve cap and make sure you screw the valve closed after inflating.
Check out the page HERE, it will give you a good starting point.
Next, make a visual inspection of your bike. I work from the bottom upm but it doesn't matter much. This might include:
Check your air pressure (use your pump)
Check your quick release skewers and make sure they are tight and that the wheel is fully seated.
Lube your chain (once every couple hundred miles, less is better in my opinion)*
Spin the wheels and make sure the brake pads aren’t rubbing
Check and fill water bottles if needed
Check to see if your lights are attached and charged
Check to make sure your bars are straight, your headset is tight, and pull your brakes to make sure they’re good
Make sure your head unit is attached (or phone charged, bagged, and ready for your jersey pocket)
*I will cover lubing your chain at another point, soon!
Skills for the road, maintenance stuff
You have a few skills to learn before you head out. First, you need to learn how to change a tire and two, you need to know how to inflate it with whatever you are going to carry with you. Attend a flat repair clinic, ask a friend, or watch a few YouTube videos. Try to remove and re-install your tires several times before heading out. You do not want your first time trying a tire install to be out on the road. Make sure you know how to use your mini-pump or CO2 cartridge. If you mess up with your only CO2, you are going be pissed. Tip: Bring a Presta to Schrader valve adapter in case you need it on the road (They work at gas station pumps).
Campus Wheelworks holds regular bike clinics and the Campus Cycling Collective holds excellent FTW ladies events on basic skills and maintenance. Check them out.
Skills for the road, hand signals, look backs, and bottle grabs
These next skills can all be practiced in a parking lot. Make sure you master them before heading out on a local bike path or roadway.
Make sure that you know some basic hand signals for out on the road. There are three you need all the time.
Left Turn, point left with you left arm to indicate that you are turning left.
Right Turn, point right with your right arm or point upwards with a bent left arm (like in the car) to indicate that you are turning right.
Entering Lane, if you need to get over and towards the cars, point to where you are going to be moving towards. For example, if I see a car door about to open ahead, I will point down and towards the center of the road to indicate that I will be moving out into traffic.
It is essential that you practice riding with one hand so you can signal safely. If you are riding with other people, read my post about signaling during group rides before heading out.
Practice looking back and maintaining your line (stay straight!). This is an essential riding skill. Look ahead to make sure you are safe to maintain your line, and then glance backwards and get a good look. Don’t be the guy or gal who looks back and runs into a parked car! It takes practice.
Your last basic parking lot skill is reaching down and grabbing a water bottle. This seems dumb, but I watch folks drift into traffic all the time as they reach down. Try to grab your bottle and maintain a straight line. Keep your eyes forward and your best hand on the bars with a couple fingers on the brake lever. Feel for the top of the bottle and pull it firmly out and shift it up into your hand for a better grip. Eyes still forward, take a sip before feeling for the opening in the cage with the bottom of the bottle and firmly returning it. This is an important and often used movement, so practice it often. Try it blindly at stops. After a while your bike will slowly start to feel like a part of you, and soon this will become second nature. Tip: I grab and drink from the front bottle, as I find it easier to get out than the bottle on the seat post. I often swap bottles at stops on long rides.
Skills for the road, braking and shifting and going slowly
Practice braking in a parking lot at slow speeds. On most American bikes, the left lever controls the front brake and the right controls the rear. Check to see that yours are set up this way, and if not reverse my directions. The front brake is the most powerful, and I would say I use it about 60/40. After getting slowly up to speed, press the front brake lever lightly and get the feel of it when it starts to grab the rim. Do not yank it all at once, or you will come too abruptly to a stop and maybe even go over the bars. Slowly add in the rear brake.
Practice braking and getting used to your stopping speed. Get used to the way your brakes modulate and bring you to a stop. Ride and try to stop before a line in the parking lot. Take each run a little faster and see how you do with it. Pretend that line is the back of a car stopped at the light. Probably better to try it now! If they do not stop smoothly despite smoothly applying the brakes, see your mechanic. Tip: To pull the "emergency brake" get up out of the seat, get low, and put your butt behind the saddle, straightening out your arms and applying the brakes. You will be amazed at your stopping potential.
Shifting is a real art. Depending on your bike, you may have several different configurations. Take time to see how yours works. Your salesman should have explained, or you can check YouTube for your groupset and how it works.
Big ring in the front means a harder effort great on the flats, and the little ring is easier and thus better for easy spinning, hills, and climbing. Your left hand controls the front ring.
Put your front ring in the big ring before you start playing around in a flat parking lot.The cassette in the back has "cogs" and their size works the opposite way, and your right hand controls this. When you are in the biggest cog (the top or closest to the frame) in the back, it is the easiest to pedal and in the smallest cog (farthest from frame) it is the hardest to pedal. The smaller the rear cog, the faster you can go when the cranks rotate. Play around and see if you can figure it out.
Ideally, you want to stay towards the middle of the rear cassette. Being in the big front ring and the biggest back cog is bad, and so is small front ring and smallest back cog. This is called cross-chaining and is a more advanced topic. This practice puts lots of undue pressure in the chain. It may likely make some noise as well, and if you notice rubbing bring it in and have it checked out. If you hear lots of noise and see no contact points, add some lube.
One last thing is to practice riding slowly. I think so often we take for granted that it is harder to balance going slowly than going quickly. It’s simple physics, I guess. Try to ride as slowly as you possibly can a hold a line, maybe in a parking lot. Put your front tire on any line, and try to pedal keeping the wheel on the line. It is harder than it seems. Also, try to just get a general feel for sitting, standing, and balancing on the bike. Ride on the grass and feel the strange terrain.
Do some turns and some figure eights. When you really lean in, it is a good habit to keep your inside pedal up. So, if I turn and lean hard right, I want my right redal up in the 12 O'Clock position. This will keep my pedal from hitting the pavement in extreme leaning positions.
If you bought some clipless pedals, the grass and practice is your friend. I’m not going to try to tackle clipless pedals yet in this beginner’s guide.
So that’s it. You will probably forego one or two or all my advice above, but knowing how to do this stuff before going out is a huge help! Practice stuff in a safe environment, and it will transfer over when you’re in traffic and things get hectic.