Road riding - part 2


Good bike handling is one of those things that only comes with practice, which requires a set of learned skills, but if you want to ride on the road, alone or in a group, you will need to have the balance and confidence to:


  • Ride in a straight line, even at slow speeds - practice bringing the bike almost to a standstill and then starting off again without putting a foot down
  • Look over either shoulder - a good tip for keeping the bike in a straight line while looking behind you is to put the hand of the shoulder you are about to look over on the back of your saddle, before you look back
  • Take one hand off the bars to indicate that you are turning or to take a drink from your bottle
  • Ride in and out of the saddle, whilst climbing or to accelerate out of a corner
  • Safely manoeuvre your bike to avoid objects in the road (pot holes, stones or glass)

For all of these, there is no substitute for practice and we would suggest you do that in traffic free conditions, a park or private road.



Photos: Doug Shannon





Through and off is how cyclists describe the rotation of riders in a group so that they take turns to ride or ‘work’ on the front and also ‘slipstream’ or ‘draft’ behind another rider, where they will be recuperating. It is how a pair or group of cyclists share the work load, so that they can go for longer at a given speed than they could on their own.

It's an essential skill to master if you are ever likely to join a club training run, ride a road race, or perhaps take part in a team time trial. 


Slipstreaming, or drafting as it is more commonly referred to in cycling, allows a rider to use up to 30 percent less energy than those on the front. The benefit is greater depending upon how close you are riding to the person in front and how many riders there are in the group.


So how do I ride through and off? In its most basic form there would be just one line of riders, known as a paceline.  The rider on the front will take a turn and then move over (usually to the side where the wind is coming from), ease the pace fractionally to drop back down the paceline.  There will then be a new rider on the front who has gone through, who will continue to ride at the original pace. 


Once the rider who is dropping back has cleared the rider on the front, that rider will in turn move over, or go off, to expose a new rider to the wind. If this continues smoothly, it will result in a line of riders moving forwards and going through and a line of riders who have gone off and who are dropping back.


The amount of time spent on the front will depend on the circumstances; in a team time trial or race breakaway, it might only be 20 or 30 seconds, whilst on a club run it might be several minutes.  If in doubt, watch what other riders are doing and do the same.


It is however very important to take your turn on the front, even if you are only there for a short time.  It is easy to lose friends in training and racing if you are not seen to be doing your share of the work!


It is also important to keep the speed smooth as you come through, do not accelerate as you hit the front of the group and importantly, do not decelerate until you have moved over to one side and there is no one on your wheel. 


Finally, when you do move over, remember not to slow down too much, because you will find the group goes past you quickly and you will struggle to get back on the group as the last rider comes past you.



women riding through and off

Photo: Doug Shannon




Whatever the terrain, your choice of gear will determine your cadence (the speed with which you turn the cranks, measured in revolutions per minute).  A good choice of gears (the most modern road bikes are 20 speed; they have 10 gears on the rear cassette and a choice of two chain rings on the front, giving a total of 20 gears) allows you to pedal efficiently whether you are climbing, on the flat or descending.


The gearing that works best for you will be a matter of some trial and error, but if you are riding with a group of experienced cyclists, look at their cadence and select a gear that allows you to spin your legs at about the same speed as them, whilst maintaining the same speed. 


There are personal differences of course.  The most stark example of that was seen when Armstrong and Ullrich hit the mountains in the Tour de France.  Armstrong would select a small gear and climb, predominantly and often out of the saddle, with a very high cadence, while Ullrich would choose a big gear, which he would grind away at whilst remaining in the saddle.


Armstrong’s style proved the most effective and you will find that seasoned cyclists will have learned to spin their legs faster than someone who is new to the sport.  It is a learned skill and the only way to learn is to practice. 


If you really want to develop a good smooth pedalling style, work on an indoor (turbo) trainer can be a great help, or you could try riding track with a fixed wheel and just one gear.


Whatever your style, you need to be aware of your gears as you approach a climb and also as you crest a rise, if you want to ride efficiently within a group.


The key things to remember are:

  • It is likely that you will find pushing a big gear over a long distance on any terrain will drain your energy BUT spinning a small gear efficiently is a learned skill – you need to find what works for you
  • When climbing, do not change down too quickly or you will lose momentum BUT you must change down before you are labouring the gear


This is part 2 in a series of four technical articles on road riding, brought to you by cyclists who can still remember what it feels like to take up the sport as an adult! If you missed part 1, then have a read here.


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