I don’t care if you’re 8 years old or 58 years old, any day you buy a new bike is an exciting day. A good friend of mine had the pleasure of picking up his new ride last weekend. I came over to help him get the bike mounted on the trainer and we started talking about riding in general, and through our conversation I realized how much of my accumulated biking knowledge I generally take for granted. There’s a multitude of really simple techniques that can improve your riding that many riders aren’t aware of.

None of these techniques are by any sense revolutionary, but the difference they’ll make might surprise you:

Seat height

It always pains me to see a rider cruising along with their seat really low, knees coming up to their chin on every pedal stroke – Getting your seat in the right position is probably the single best thing you can do to improve your cycling efficiency. You’ll be far more comfortable, and you’ll be able to ride a lot longer. There are many ideas on the über-precision height-determining equation, but a general rule of thumb is that while seated on your bike, if you place your heel on the pedal your leg should be virtually straight. For a lot of you, this will feel really awkward, but believe me, once you get used to it, you’ll thank me!

Saddle

When it comes to saddles (aka. a bike seat) a good fit is usually determined by your ‘sit-bones’ being placed right in the middle of padded area at the back. The longer you plan on riding the narrower a seat you’ll want to look at – Yes they look hideously uncomfortable, but with your legs pumping up and down continuously your tender inner-thighs will thank you. If you’re just planning on heading to the corner grocery store every once it a while, I nice wide cruiser-style seat will probably do the trick.

Eventually you’ll start to learn what types of saddles work best with your body, but any good bike shop should let you ride a seat for a few days or so to get a feel for things, and if it isn’t working out, come back in and exchange it.

Gloves

Again, it may seem like a no-brainer, but a decent pair of padded glove will go a long way to making your ride more comfortable. Granted this depends a little bit on the type of bike you have… If you’re sitting really upright on a ‘cruiser’ bike, there will be a lot less pressure on your hands, otherwise you may want to look into a pair. Your hands will thank you.

Pedaling technique

This may be moving into unknown territory for some – since I think the vast majority of cyclists simply hop on and mash down on the pedals in an attempt to get from A to B. Now, this will definitely do the trick, but if you’ve moved on to either ‘caged‘ or ‘clipless‘ pedals you can get a heck more out of your pedaling stroke than you had ever thought possible. 

Essentially as you move through a complete circular pedal stroke there are four things you’ll need to be aware of, the downstroke, the backstroke, the upstroke, and the top stroke.

The downstroke is a no brainer, gravity is going to help you, and the motion is already  so ingrained you won’t even have to think about it. During the backstroke try pulling your foot back, like you’re trying to get some gum off the bottom of your foot. During the upstroke pull back and up with your hamstrings, and during the topstroke focus on driving your foot forward. The motion is effectively a ‘box’ of force, but make sure you’re thinking circles!! You want to try and keep the entire pedal stroke as smooth and even as possible.

When you start out, this is really hard… Just try pedaling with one leg and you’ll see immediately where the weak points of your stroke are. If you haven’t thought about upgrading to clipless pedals I would definitely recommend considering it – there is a learning curve involved, but the payoffs are high.

Shifting

On newer bikes, shifting is usually a pretty standard affair – click and shift. That’s it. Or is it?

If only it were that simple – The mechanics of shifting aren’t too different from what’s described above, but properly shifting your bike is all about planning. Unless you want to regularly repair/replace your bike’s drivetrain you’ll want to keep a light tension on the chain – essentially through easy pedaling. If you’re shifting into a more difficult gear this usually isn’t a problem, but when you’re looking for an easier gear, you’ll want to do your best to shift just before you need to. This doesn’t mean shifting into your easiest gear if you see a big long hill in front of you, rather just ‘dump’ a gear or two as needed, maintain that for as long as you can, then dump a few more – again, being conscious of not waiting too long before shifting. If for some reason, your planning isn’t quite up to snuff, chances are the bike will still shift, but not without a bunch horrible clinking and grinding. With practice, knowing when to shift will become second nature, but for now – be sure to put a little thought into it ;-)

Good braking/downhill technique – Notice the rider is off the saddle with their weight shifted way back – Also note that neither their arms or legs are locked.

Good braking/downhill technique – Notice the rider is off the saddle with their weight shifted way back – Also note that neither their arms or legs are locked.

Braking

Proper braking is all about weight and timing. Bad timing and improper weighting can lead to the ever-popular ‘endo’ (pictured in the banner above).

Regarding timing, the simple rule is this: brake early. Just like shifting you want to brake slightly before you need to – in most cases you’ll do this instinctively (ie. braking before you go skidding though the intersection), but when it comes to cornering you’ll want to make sure you scrub off your speed prior to hitting the corner, if not, your tires may lose traction, or skid out and cause you to lose control. 

Regarding weight – get back and get low.

Our buddy Isaac Newton stated that “an object at rest tends to stay at rest and an object in motion tends to stay in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.”

Now we know that the brakes are slowing the bike down, but what’s slowing you down? If you aren’t able to control your own body weight, your bike will stop moving as directed, but will also happily buck you off allowing the pavement/gravel/dirt to slow you down – Not optimal. Essentially to stay in control you’ll need to brace your body weight using your arms and legs, while doing what you can to lower your center of gravity. At slow speeds, you may not need to move at all, but the faster/harder you brake, you’ll need to redistribute your weight accordingly – essentially moving your bum backwards on the saddle and softening your arms/legs to control your weight. The harder you’re braking the further back and lower you’ll need to get.


It’s interesting to note that most of the tips above touch on the points of contact you have with your bike – your feet, hands, and arse… Regardless of how good a rider you are, you’ll want to pay attention to this things – ultimately they can make, or break your ride.

Bear in mind that many of the ‘tips’ I’ve outlined above are simply guidelines and starting points – Especially when you’re dealing with shifting, braking, and bike fitting there is much, much more to know.