Hone Your Riding Skills

Every year as spring rolls around I find myself dreaming up new goals for my riding. For some folks that might mean registering for rides or races, but for means it means working on one or two new skills that I really want to master. I’ll spend my whole riding season getting dialed in so that eventually, by the end of the summer, I’ve gotten so good that the skill has become embedded in my body, it’s muscle memory. No longer do I have to think about what to do, the new skill has become a natural part of how I interact with the bike and the road.

This year, I’m working on two new skills: 1) taking off my jacket while riding and 2) riding in very close proximity to other riders in a pack. Sure, these are advanced skills, but when I started years ago, getting down the basics was key. If you’re wanting to feel more confident on the bike, the best place to start is by mastering the riding techniques you’ll use on the road everyday.

Below are some suggestions for your personal skills improvement this summer.


Most riders think that going around a turn is all about turning the handlebars, but actually it’s mostly about where you look and how you handle the bike. It’s important because if you do it wrong your tires are likely to slip or skid, even on dry pavement.

Any time you’re going around a bend or corner, slow down before – not during – the turn. It feels great to go in hot and fast, but the physics of the bike make you increase your speed as you exit the turn, just when you also have the least traction. If you hit the brakes halfway through, it’s easy to loose control. By slowing down a little before the turn, you can use those same physics to your advantage to pick your your speed on the way out. If you do it right, you won’t even have to pedal to pick back up. This technique also keeps you safe when the roads are wet or icy.

Make sure you’re looking as far ahead as possible. When you’re halfway through the turn, you should be looking up at the yellow line as far as you can see down the road you’re turning onto. Your bike will always go where you look, so keeping your head up and out of the turn will give the best results. If you look down at where you’re turning, you’ll loose speed, traction and balance. Always look for “the exit” — the spot where your bike will end up after you’re around the curve.

Handling Bumps in the Road

Whether it’s a downed tree branch, an awkward bridge surface or a pothole, there are always obstacles you are not going to be able to avoid in the road. A typical reaction is to slam on the brakes and grip the bike for dear life as you stare down the obstruction — which makes getting over the obstacle much harder, and often results in a crash.

Since you have to roll over some obstacles, the key is to coast. Momentum is the friend of the bicycle (forward motion creates balance), so braking usually only makes it harder to get over things. Keep your hands off the brakes and instead on the handlebars where they can help you keep your steering steady. Looking past the object (instead of right at it) will also help you hold your speed. Most importantly, with your pedals even and level, your weight centered and your arms and knees slightly bent, lift your butt off the saddle. This allows your body to work as a suspension system and keeps your bike nimble beneath you. Your body will absorb the shock allowing your bike to keep moving beneath you in a nice, straight line as if there were nothing there at all.


One of the most under-rated parts of your bike. many riders don’t know how to correctly shift. As kids, most of us learned that if you tand up on the pedals to get going, climb hills or pick up speed. This works if you only have one gear to choose from, but most adult bikes these days have as many as 30. This number can sound overwhelming until you understand how to use your shifters and that there’s a lot of overlap in gear choices. Trying out some of these easy suggestions will save wear and tear on your chain and gears – and knees, heart and lungs as well.

The concept is simple: ride your bike like you’d drive a manual transmission car. Any time you’re getting started from a stop, make sure your bike is in an easy, or low, gear. This means your right shifter shows a 1, 2 or 3. If you don’t have numbers you’ll want it to feel really easy to pedal. This will take a little forethought, because you want to shift it to an easier gear just before you come to a stop or slow down.

Cadence is how fast your pedals rotate around in a circle and is usually talked about in revolutions per minute (RPM). Keeping up a good cadence makes it easier to get started and keep riding longer and faster. It seems backwards, but the faster you pedal — not the harder your pedal — is what helps you keep speed and accelerate.

Pedal on flat surfaces at around 90-110 RPMs, which is about twice as fast as most people pedal. If you don’t have a bike computer that can tell you your cadence, a good trick is to sing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and keep the time with your feet. It may feel a little silly, but it helps to put the stress of riding on your heart and lungs instead of your muscles. Why is that important? Because your cardiovascular system can take stress much longer than your muscles can — meaning your legs have a lot more time before you feel the burn that says you need to slow down.

If you’re going uphill, shift into an easier gear and lower your RPMs to around 70- 90. Only stand up while pedaling in the steepest sections and usually for no more than 30 seconds to one minute. This is the longest your muscles can go without fatiguing to the point of failure. If you feel like you need to stand up, see if you can shift into a lower gear first.

FREE Upcoming Skill Building Workshops

A couple of places will be offering riding skill clinics this summer that I’ll have the pleasure of leading – so come on out to work on these skills.

Athlete’s Lounge
July 16, 6pm

2671 NW Vaughn, Portland
Off and on-the-bike workshop
Great if you’re interested in learning how to understand and use your shifting better
To Register: Contact Athlete’s Lounge at 503.477.5906

City of Portland Transportation Options Department
May 31 from 9am- 1pm.

PCC CLimb Center – 1626 SE Water Ave at Clay St., Portland
On-the-Bike Riding Skills Workshop Saturday
Perfect for general bike handling skills
To Register: Contact Jeff Smith, 503-823-7083, Jeff.Smith@portlandoregon.gov

Tori Bortman is ORbike’s resident bike mechanic. She is also an educator, consultant and the owner of Gracie’s Wrench

Looking for an excellent maintenance class? Tori is an expert instructor. Her small-size classes offer plenty of instructor interaction and opportunities to learn repair in a supportive setting. Learn more on her website.

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