The Art of Cycling

Things of the basic riding skills as a slightly out-of-focus image. A little adjustment, and everything comes clear.
Think of the basic riding skills as a slightly out-of-focus image. A little adjustment, and everything comes clear.

As with any sport, there’s a point at which you have to get beyond the mechanics. Some people believe that when you’re beginning, it’s okay to overlook the details. Focus on the basics and get really good at those. This way you’ll be ready for the advanced stuff later on. But this only works up to a point.

Take ballroom dance. Let’s say you learn the basics. Slow, slow, quick, quick. Awesome. Left hand here, right hand there. Hear the music? Yeah, you’re off, try again. After a while, you start to get the hang of the basics. But then you see someone who’s been dancing for years. Somehow, the basic steps that you’re doing don’t look like the basic steps that they do, even when they’re doing the same steps. You try to compensate – change a little here, a little there. But after practicing so long without all those details, all the nuance, you now have to work against what your body thinks is right.

You’ve got your basics in cycling: pedaling, breathing, keeping your cadence up, don’t sway, don’t bounce. Eyes up (don’t get wheel-locked), and keep your line. But there’s more. And though you don’t need to be capable of doing the “more” portions, it is very helpful to understand them.

Cycling in many ways isn’t about mashing pedals. It isn’t about the high speeds, the long miles, or the cool gear (okay, maybe a little about the cool gear). If you ask me – and if you didn’t, I’m not sure why you’re here – it’s about nuance. It’s about the minute changes that affect the entire landscape of the ride.

When you keep the nuances of riding in mind and apply them to your basic riding skills, suddenly everything is different. That slight shift in the hips to give more power on a sprint. Dropping your weight toward the outside pedal, allowing you the carve deeper into a turn. The slight tuck in the knees and elbows that add another half mile an hour to your downhill speed. These tiny adjustments add up quickly, generating an entirely different experience. That’s cycling. Small adjustments, big change. Hell, that’s life.

So, how do we apply the nuance – the art, if you will – of cycling to our basic riding skills? Here’s a few concepts to try and work on:

Whether climbing or sprinting, don't tense up. Even at full-out efforts, keep relaxed, and you'll be able to dig deeper.
Whether climbing or sprinting, don’t tense up. Even at full-out efforts, keep relaxed, and you’ll be able to dig deeper.

1) Focus on the circle. Your legs are makings hundreds of thousands of revolutions. Don’t think about it as an “up/down” motion. Instead, picture in your mind your feet following the edge of a circle. You want smooth pressure as you transition from one part of the circle to the other.

2) Relaxed intensity. When it’s time to put in a big effort – hard sprint, sustained climb – don’t tense up. Even when out of the saddle, your body should remain relaxed, flexible, ready to move, and only those portions engaged in active work should be tensed. Next time you’re on a long stretch of flat road or a long, shallow climb, slowly try to increase your speed and do the following:

  • Think about each portion of your body starting with your head – bowed but eyes up.
  • Then your neck – loose but holding straight.
  • Your shoulders – let them drop a little and feel your arms relaxing while maintaining solid contact with the handlebar.
  • Work your way down through your torso, hips, and eventually your legs.

You’ll notice that your faster speed and higher cadence will come more easily the more you can get your body to relax. The more relaxed your muscles are, the faster they’ll respond when you need them to.

Feel the flow. Understand where other cyclists are in relation to you by every sensory cue you can find.
Feel the flow. Understand where other cyclists are in relation to you by every sensory cue you can find.

3) Feel the flow. When in a peloton – or even just while riding with a friend – don’t stare at the riders around you. Instead, get used to feeling their presence: listen to their breathing, their bikes, their pedaling, their coasting. Feel the air flow as they come onto and off your wheel, and as you do the same. Understand their speed relative to yours. Think of their entire bike and the space it takes up, not just the rider. Use your peripheral vision more than your head-on eyesight to gauge their positions around you, and only your your primary sight to do full-checks (like when changing lines, pulling off the front, etc.).

The more senses you can engage, the better you’ll be able to understand the flow of the peloton, and the easier it will be to navigate and work with.

4) You and your bike are one. Don’t rideĀ with your bike, ride as a part of it. Understand that it is an extension of your body. Like your arms and legs, it responds to your thoughts, your intentions. Learn the expressions of your bike – the sounds, the feel – so that you understand what it’s telling you.

When you’re a child learning to walk, you are constantly being fed information through your body about how the world around you is affecting your intentions (how that uneven ground cause you to fall, for instance). It takes a while to internalize those responses and teach your body to compensate, to react. Same thing with riding: the road will send feedback through your bike, which in turn sends feedback through your body. Listen to it, internalize those responses and your reactions to them so that your motions become a natural extension of your intentions.

Maybe you shouldn't ride today?
Maybe you shouldn’t ride today?

5) Know your limits. Your body and your bike are constantly talking to you. Ignore them at your peril. They’ll usually be the first to tell you when something isn’t right, when you’re in danger. Make no mistake, even at low speeds this is an activity that – though not inherently dangerous – carries with it increased potential for harm. Learn where those limits are: how fast you can take a turn before feeling unstable; how tight of a turn. How hard can you push before you start to hurt yourself? How hot or cold can the weather get before your body has issues? How long can you ride? How fast can you descend? Only in learning your limits can your push past them, or come to understand the dangers associated with doing so.

Obviously each of these things has a lot of detail, and I can probably write a post about every one of them. To make it easier, just keep the italicized portions in your mind, as little mantras to help you remember to apply the appropriate nuances to your ride. Complete the circle. Relaxed intensity. Feel the flow. You and your bike are one. Know your limits. Complete the circle. Relaxed intensity. Feel the flow…

Eventually, your riding basics won’t be so basic anymore. When you’ve internalized these things, you’ll find yourself riding at a higher level without trying, because your body and mind are ready for it. You’ll have turned the mechanics of riding into art.

Semper Equitare.