Learning a new skill can always be a difficult task, especially when you’re an outsider to the sport, and nothing could seem more intimidating than road cycling. With its crazy traffic, expensive bikes, high-tech gear, and those skinny wheels… But, it’s not all bad. Whether you are a complete beginner, making the transition from mountain biking, or are a seasoned rider who needs a refresher, this article will outline exactly how to ride a road bike.
What is Road Cycling?
Road cycling is essentially the act of riding your bike on a paved surface, street, and road. As opposed to mountain biking where you might ride on off-road trails, through the backcountry, and the wilderness.
People may road cycle for personal enjoyment, health, and as part of their job or commute. Whilst bikes were around prior to automobiles, the number of cyclists on UK roads is increasing over time.
Learning How To Ride a Road Bike
If you are like most people you probably began cycling as a child on a small bike similar to a mountain bike, with flat handlebars, simple gears, large pedals, and chunky tires. Learning how to ride a road bike will require you to understand a few different techniques, such as the correct posture, turning, braking, and learning how to ride fast.
Posture & Body Position For Road Cycling
One of the most important aspects of road cycling is your posture. Not only will having the correct posture make using the bike much easier, but it can also prevent you from any injuries.
Before you get on your bike for the first time, you want to make sure that the saddle is set at the correct height for your body.
You want to hold the bike steadily, whilst standing next to it. Raise the saddle so it is in line with your hip. If you can sit on the saddle and fully straighten one leg and pedal, then the saddle is at the correct height for you.
Head & Back Position
It’s important that whilst riding on a road bike that you keep relaxed. You don’t want to feel overly tense as this can lead to sharp movements and potential crashes.
Your back should feel relaxed, and slightly bowed. This helps to activate your core muscles and improves control of your upper and lower body. You’ll want to lean slightly forward in your seat and ensure not to rest on any bony areas of your body e.g. your elbows.
Your head should be kept up so your chin is parallel with the ground. This is essential for safety reasons and to keep your neck in a comfortable position. You will need to tilt your head from side to side to check for traffic occasionally, but the more you get out on your bike the better your peripheral vision will become.
Shoulders & Elbow Position
Your shoulders should hang in a relaxed position. To understand the correct position, shrug your shoulders and let them drop naturally into a relaxed position. You should create the habit of regularly reminding yourself to shrug your shoulders and relax whilst on a road bike. This will help you loosen up the muscles in your neck and shoulders.
I see beginners time and time again wanting to straighten their arms and lock their elbows whilst on a road bike. But, this creates extra tension in your arms and actually makes turning more difficult.
You want to keep your elbows tucked into the sides of your body and slightly bent. Not only do bent elbows allow for more control, but they also help to absorb any sharp bumps you might encounter on the road which can lead to injury if your arms are locked out straight.
Road Bike Hand Positions
Road bikes have handlebars that are known as drop handlebars. They are designed to be used with a variety of hand positions so that you can change up your seating and hand positions depending on your riding style or the situation you are in.
It’s important to know which position is best for what scenario, as they can help you ride faster, more efficiently, and safer.
Holding The Hoods
The hoods are part of the handlebars at the top of the curved section, but not the flat top. This will likely be your most frequent hand position as it gives you access to the brakes and shifters whilst reducing pressure on your lower back and neck. Because you have access to the brakes it’s a useful hand position whilst in high traffic areas or groups.
You can also use the hoods whilst in a standing climb or when you need to flatten the back and be more aerodynamic whilst still having control of the brakes.
Best uses: High traffic/groups, when you need to brake or shift frequently, standing climbs, when you need to be aerodynamic, and slow down the bike in turns.
Holding The Tops
The flat section of the handlebars between the hoods and the stem is referred to as the tops. It’s similar to holding the flat bars of a mountain or hybrid bike. Most cyclists use the tops whilst sat in an upright position to relieve pressure on their lower back and to stretch out core and lungs.
This can be beneficial after a long ride in which you have been sat with a low back and neck position.
Holding the tops allows you to utilize the glutes more and sit back on your seat, this is useful if you are wanting to climb uphill whilst seated.
The biggest downside to holding the tops is that you have no access to the brakes or shifters.
Best uses: Slow upright riding on flat surfaces, seated hill climbs.
Holding The Drops
The drops are the lowest point of the curved section on the handlebars. Holding this area allows you to lean very far forward and put your body into the most aerodynamic position possible. This is an aggressive position and is only used by cyclists trying to achieve the most speed possible.
Lowering the body position also gives you better control of the bike through corners by lowering your center of gravity. This makes it a great option for fast descent as you should still have access to your brake levers.
Sitting in this position can cause discomfort over long periods of time, therefore holding the drops is only commonly used for short sprints and descents.
Best uses: Fast descents, sprinting, straight-line speed.
How to Cycle Faster on a Road Bike
If you like to cycle competitively, or just want to increase your average speed on a road bike, there are a few techniques and tips you can use. We’ll cover them below:
Maintain and clean your road bike
If you frequently clean and lubricate your bike’s drivetrain, it will be more efficient to use, and thus increase its speed. If it is left dirty, then any dust, dirt, and rust on your drivetrain will create extra friction, which in turn, will reduce the power output of the bike.
Regular service intervals are also important to ensure the bike is properly maintained and bearings aren’t seizing up, which will have the same effect and slow the bike down.
Tyre pressure is also important to increase your bike speed. Ensuring your tires are inflated to the proper pressure will reduce resistance and friction between your tires and the road.
Improve your bike and clothing
There are many aftermarket upgrades you can make to your bike, a lot of which are geared towards improving performance and speed.
Your opportunity to maximize your speed will depend on your current setup. If you are currently riding a road bike with aluminum tires, then you can upgrade to Carbon wheels which are lighter and can be shaped to more aerodynamic profiles.
Alternatively, if you are currently biking in a baggy jacket and pants, the first upgrade you should invest in is some proper cycling clothing that is tight to your skin and thus reduces drag. Your body makes up roughly 70% of the front-facing area of your bike, therefore the clothing you wear has a big effect on your speed performance.
If you are really serious about improving your speed or compete in time trials and cycling events, you can even invest in an aero helmet. They offer the same safety levels as a regular helmet but have a shape designed to funnel the air around your head and reduce drag.
Improve your fitness & practice
One of the best ways to improve your cycling speed and endurance is to practice and ride more. This will ultimately improve your endurance, and put your muscles under progressive overload which in turn will increase their strength and performance.
You don’t want to increase the speed or distance you cycle too much as it may lead to overtraining and you might lose speed in the short term. Instead, small increases of 5-15% in weekly volume, every week, is a good rule of thumb when you’re trying to increase your riding time.
You can track your progress by riding a set distance once every few weeks and trying to beat your last set time.
How to Ride a Bike on the Road
Riding a bike on the road brings a whole host of challenges that you wouldn’t encounter if you were to ride on countryside trails. Not only will you encounter automobile and pedestrian traffic, but there are also road hazards e.g. roadworks and drains to be aware of.
If there is no dedicated cycle lane, then you will have to cycle on the road. You don’t want to ride too close to the curb as you increase your chances of clipping the curb or running into other hazards like drains and debris.
Giving yourself plenty of room also allows you to move back closer to the curb if a driver does try to overtake you too closely.
Your road awareness skills will develop and improve the more you get out on your bike. Road awareness means looking ahead and trying to pre-empt any dangers and hazards that are coming your way. This may include drain covers, parked vehicles, potholes, and puddles.
You also need to be aware of upcoming junctions, roundabouts, and traffic lights. Looking ahead will help you prevent the need to sharply swerve or brake which are maneuvers that other road users might not anticipate.
Have clear intentions (and inform others of them)
Other road users won’t know what you are about to do unless you tell them so. If you are coming up to a junction and want to turn left or right, then ensure you check behind and ahead for any cars and signal your decision with plenty of time.
If you are nervous about looking behind you or using one hand to signal your turning direction, then practice in a traffic-free environment.
Be cautious of car doors opening
Whilst you are approaching parked cars, first, check behind you and make sure it’s safe to pass, then move around the car leaving at least a car door width when passing just in case somebody opens a door in your path. This is a more obvious hazard if you have just seen the car park.
Use the correct hand position (be ready to press the brakes)
Whilst riding on the road, especially amongst traffic, it’s important that you are always prepared to press the brakes. On a road bike, holding the hoods is the best hand position, it allows you to always be prepared to press the brakes and gives you access to the shifters.
Wear the correct safety gear/clothing
Whilst cycling anywhere (not just on the road), it’s important that you wear adequate safety clothing and gear, not just for your protection, but to help other road users see you clearly.
You will need the following for road cycling:
- A cycle helmet that conforms to the latest safety regulations, is the correct size and is securely fastened.
- Appropriate clothing that won’t get tangled in your bike chain, wheels or won’t obscure your lights.
- Light coloured or fluorescent clothing that helps you to stand out to other road users.
- Reflective clothing or accessories (belts, armbands, stickers) that help you be seen in the dark.
Improve your visibility in the dark (you are required by UK law)
At night your road bike must have a front white light and rear red light. It must also be fitted with a rear red reflector, and amber pedal reflectors.
Optional extras that are highly recommended are spoke reflectors and front reflectors. Flashing headlights are permitted, but if you are riding in an area that is not lit up via streetlights a steady front light is recommended.
More information on road bike safety and laws via the UK Government website.
Consider cycle training
If you are a complete beginner and don’t have the confidence to head straight out on the road, then you should consider some cycle training. Your instructors will help you in different road conditions, talk about road safety and answer any questions you are unsure of.
How to Ride a Road Bike – Conclusion
Learning how to ride a road bike might seem like an intimidating task at first, but once you understand a few simple concepts like the correct posture, hand positions and the safety precautions you need to take whilst riding on the road it won’t take long before riding a road bike is a breeze.
It’s also undoubtedly one of the best ways to get around and enjoy some leisure time outside. Not only is it excellent for your health and wellbeing (cyclist commuters have a 52% lower risk of dying from heart disease), but it also opens up the opportunity for many different travel destinations which are based around a cycling holiday.
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