Safety is paramount in road cycling. On previous occasions we have given you some tips on how to keep safe on the road, such as using lights and clothes with reflective detailing, as well as always staying alert to what is going on around you, acting with caution as if other vehicles or pedestrians could not see you.
Our safety often depends on our own skill. Thanks to the following three technical exercises you will be able to improve it, gaining confidence, and therefore safety, on the road bike. Look for a quiet road or street with little traffic to practice, especially if you are a beginner. Here are the three technical skills we’ll work on:
- Braking hard without falling off and skidding
- Cornering downhill
- Riding out of the saddle
Braking hard without falling off and skidding
In case of emergency (a car door opening, a pedestrian crossing, another cyclist braking in front of us), and with no other option, we must brake hard using both brakes, especially the front one, which is where we have most braking power. But be careful, if you brake too hard you can fly over the handlebars and/or cause the rear wheel to skid.
How to avoid falling off? Move your weight backwards, placing your buttocks behind the saddle. The harder you brake, the further back you should move.
How to prevent the rear wheel from skidding? There are two options:
- Pull up on the clipless pedals, causing the rear wheel to bounce on the road.
- Release the brake lever slightly and squeeze it again to prevent the rear wheel from locking.
The bike should be as straight as possible for both techniques and there should be no dust, sand, stones or any other element that could make us skid. Everything changes when it rains. Here is more information on how to ride in wet conditions.
We are not trying to be Nibali on his way to win the 2015 Giro di Lombardia, but knowing how to position our body to distribute the weight correctly is essential for safe cornering. In the Italian's descent we can see both techniques from the previous point and the one in this point.
However, let’s not forget that we are not in a race. There are other vehicles on the road, we must stay in our lane, and we are not allowed to enter the oncoming lane when cornering unless it is absolutely necessary to avoid an accident or a fall.
Let's start with body position. The inside leg should be up, with the pedal at 12 o'clock, and the outside leg should be down, with the pedal at 6 o'clock. If you open the knee on the inside of the turn, you shift your weight inwards and create wind resistance, which helps you to corner or to correct your cornering line.
The lower your center of gravity, the better you will be able to handle the bike. Therefore, on descents it is advisable to ride with your hands on the drops (with one finger always touching the brake lever) and bend your torso downwards. This way you also distribute your body weight between both wheels, which gives you more grip and stability.
Anticipate cornering by braking in advance. You can use the two techniques from the first point if necessary. Keep looking ahead to see what the curve looks like. Position your body, loosen the brakes slightly to line up while watching ahead for any obstacles on the road or changes in the curve to adjust your position on the bike.
Be careful when you start pedaling out of the curve if the bike is still leaning. By lowering your inside leg, you are likely to touch the road with the pedal, your rear wheel will jump and lose contact with the ground and you are likely to fall as Pavel Sivakov did in the Dauphine in 2020.
Alternatively, if you apply force with your bike still leaning, the wheel may not have sufficient grip and you’ll end up skidding like Richie Porte in 2015.
This technique should be practiced on the descents you are familiar with, preferably on good asphalt and with little traffic. The aim is to become less stiff, loosen up and gain confidence, a key aspect on descents; it is acquired over time and can be lost in a flash.
Riding out of the saddle
You've just come out of the curve and you need some extra power to speed up. The best way to do this is getting out of the saddle to exert more force on the pedals. Doing this correctly is critical not only to regain momentum on a downhill or sprint, but also for safety and comfort reasons above all.
Let's start with three tips:
- Before getting out of the saddle, place your hands on the handlebars and hold onto it tightly. On a road handlebar, grip the hoods or the drops. On a flat handlebar, your hands should hold the handlebar grips. Don't get out of the saddle unless you have a good grip and be careful if it rains or it's cold, otherwise you'll end up like Geraint Thomas in the Tour de Romandie
- It is not recommended to grab the handlebars in the middle. You lose stability and control to balance or move the bike.
- Before getting out of the saddle, shift to a higher gear for more resistance when you exert force on the pedals. If your cadence is too high, you’re using the wrong gear and not applying force, you can lose your balance and have an accident or, at the very least, an unpleasant surprise. If you want to learn more about how to use bike gears, you'll find more information in this post.
Firm grip on the handlebars and shifting to the right gear - check! Now, how do we get out of the saddle? When you have your leading leg (right leg if you are right-handed, left leg if you are left-handed) between 12-1 o'clock on the pedal stroke clock, rise up slightly out of the saddle forward and use your leg as a support (along with your hands) to stand up on the pedals. Use your arms to balance the bike while continuing to pedal.
You will find it hard to dance rhythmically with your two-wheeled partner at the beginning. Synchronization takes time and practice, but eventually you will be able to do it automatically. You will find your own style. There are cyclists who like to apply a lot of force, at low cadence, and there are riders such as Alberto Contador, famous for the way they dance on the bike:
By changing body position, you can relax your muscles and rest your buttocks, which makes the ride more comfortable. Sometimes you gain more control and safety, for instance to brake hard and to dampen bumps or avoid potholes by bunny hopping. Finally, when going uphill or doing sprints you get to use all of your leg strength.