Cycling with Cars: Riding the Line

Many new cyclists or cyclists who are thinking about using their bike to commute to work are anxious about riding in the road with traffic.  It’s not as scary as it looks and in many circumstances riding with Cycling in traffic - picture from labreform.orgcars is actually safer than riding in segregated bicycle lanes or what are euphimistically called “bicycle paths”.  If you’re going to be at all serious about road cycling or are going to commute to work you are going to have to share the road with cars.  How to ride a bike in traffic can be a controversial topic that generates discussions informed by passionately held ideologies and beliefs.  The advice and opinions expressed here are based on many years and tens of thousands of miles spent sharing the road with cars.  I ride with cars every day and I don’t want to be killed, maimed or seriously injured on the bike.  These are some of the ways I’ve found to most effectively accomplish those things.  Keep in mind that there are no hard and fast rules about riding in traffic.  You have to evaluate and adapt to each situation separately.  Riding safely with cars involves riding the line and riding defensively among other things.

The first question you have to ask if you’re going to ride in the road with cars is where in the road you should ride.  People who are not used to riding with traffic are likely to say, “as far away from the traffic as I can get.”  That seems like it makes sense but in most cases it’s exactly the wrong thing to do.  Why is that?  One of the most important things to keep in mind when sharing the road with cars, maybe the most important thing, is that it is absolutely essential that the drivers of the cars see you and be aware of you.  This seems so obvious that you might wonder why it needs to be mentioned at all.  The reason is that drivers generally aren’t looking for cyclists, they’re looking for other cars, and it’s very easy not to be aware of something that’s right in front of you when you’re looking for something else.  To see a terrific example of what I’m talking about, check out this video.  It’s only about a minute long and it’s very cool. . . . .  See what I mean?  You’re already wearing that bright and garish jersey to make yourself more visible to the drivers, you also need to ride where they have a better chance of both seeing you and being aware of you.

Riding the line

So where should you ride?  On the outer (right hand) edge of the driving lane, not on the outer edge of the road near the curb.  Many roads have a solid white line that separates the roadway from the shoulder.  You should ride as close to that white line as you can.  Depending on road conditions and the width of the shoulder, you can ride on either the roadway side of the line with the cars or the shoulder side of the line but you should try to stay close to the line.  It’s also a good idea not to get in the habit of riding directly on the line.  Road markings are usually made using a plastic or epoxy based paint and they get slippery when wet.  You’re more likely to have your wheels suddenly go out from under you on a wet road when you’re riding over the painted lines on the road.  If you get in the habit of riding directly on the painted line in dry conditions, you’re likely to unthinkingly ride on the painted line when the road is wet as well.  Practice riding to either side of the line.

Road debris - picture from humantransport.orgOn a road with a paved shoulder of even a few feet, the closer you ride to the outside edge of the roadway, the further you move away from the area of the road the driver is watching.  The drivers may be able to see you but they will be less likely to be aware of you.  In addition, the closer you get to the edge of the roadway the more likely you are to run into road debris like stones, rocks, gravel, sand, sticks, glass, garbage, bits and pieces of metal and other junk that has been swept to the side of the road by rain and passing cars.  Riding through this stuff is dangerous and you want to avoid it whenever possible. 

Unless a road is extremely narrow, traffic lanes are usually wide enough for a car to comfortably pass you when you are riding on the road side of the line.  On roads with virtually no paved shoulder like the one in Road with no shoulderthe picture at the left, you have no choice but to ride on the road side of the line.  However, even this country road is wide enough that passing shouldn’t be a problem.  If there is no line at the side of the road, ride near the outer edge of the roadway but not so close to the edge that you’re having to weave in and out of the traffic lane in order to avoid road debris.

When you’re riding down a street that has an occasional car parked along the side you want to avoid the temptation to weave out to pass the car and then drop back in toward the curb once the parked car is behind you.  When you drop in toward the curb the parked car is blocking you from the field of view of drivers who are behind you.  If there are several parked cars spaced at intervals along the side of the road, a rider who weaves in and out to pass the cars is popping in and out of the driver’s field of vision and this can be very dangerous for the cyclist.  The solution is to ride far enough into the road to pass the parked cars and stay there.  When approaching a parked car, try and see if there is someone sitting in the car who might open a driver’s side door and hit you as you go by.  People rarely look for cyclists when they’re getting out of their car and this type of collision happens more often than you might think.

Riding near the line is only part of what you can do to maximize your safety when sharing the road with cars. How you ride the line is also important.  You want to ride a smooth, steady line without weaving back and forth.  There are several reasons for this.  If you’re weaving around you may be pulling out of the driver’s zone of awareness when you go one way and into the line of traffic when you go the other.  Another benefit of riding a smooth, straight line is that it gives the driver coming up behind you confidence that you know what you’re doing so that they can reliably predict where you’re going to be when they pass you.  Think about what’s it’s like when you’re driving and come up behind a cyclist.  If the bike rider is wobbling all over the place, passing them can be a nerve-wracking experience.  If they’re riding straight and sure, passing is usually no problem.

Holding to a straight, sure line when you ride is a valuable skill for the road cyclist to have for many reasons and one of the best ways to practice this skill is by riding the line along the side of the road.  Part of this skill involves learning to turn and look back over your shoulder to see what’s behind you without straying from your straight line.  When you turn to look over your shoulder, there’s a tendency to drift in the direction you’re looking which means drifting into the line of traffic.  You can practice line riding skills like looking over your shoulder when you’re riding the line and there’s no traffic behind you.

Remember that the drivers don’t want to hit you almost as much as you don’t want to be hit.  You can make their job easier and increase your level of safety by riding the line in a straight, smooth and sure fashion.

Hill Climbing 102: Riding Techniques

This is one of a pair of posts designed to help new riders climb.  I looked at pedaling and shifting in Hill Climbing 101.  In this post I’ll examine some riding techniques that can improve your ability to climb hills.  Part of the climb up the Col du Sarenne, the back route up to l'Alpe d'HuezThere are many different approaches to climbing and riders at different stages of development will tackle a climb differently.  A new rider who is desperate to survive to the crest will climb very differently from an experienced racer trying to drop the competition on the steepest part of the climb.  Hill Climbing 101 and 102 are written for the relatively inexperienced cyclist who might benefit from some information about basic climbing techniques.

Drop your heels.  To get a sense of what this feels like, move your leg so that your foot is at the bottom of the pedal stroke.  With your foot in this position, keep the ball of your foot motionless on the pedal and tilt your foot so that your heel is lower than your toes.  You’ll feel the stretch in your calf muscles and achilles tendon.  Try and keep your foot in this position all the way around the pedal stroke but especially on the downward push.  Keeping the heels low brings more of the hamstrings (the muscles in the back of the thigh) and glutes (the muscles in the butt) into play.  These are very powerful muscle groups – use them to get you over the hill.  Pedaling with the heels dropped is relatively easy when your feet are attached to the pedals by clipless pedals.  It’s much harder to do, but still possible, if you are using basket-style toeclips or no clips at all.  Many riders tend to point their toes downward which puts less stress on the hams and glutes and more on the quadriceps (the large muscles on the front of the thigh) and calves (frequent calf cramping is a good indication you’re pointing your toes down).  This tendency can be accentuated by the use of toeclips.  If you’re doing this, try to break the habit and drop your heels when you climb. 

Change working muscle groups.  As you labor up the hill the muscles you are using will become exhausted as waste products produced by your straining muscles accumulate faster than they can be carried away in the bloodstream.  It doesn’t take long to clear these waste products if you can make less use of the muscles for a moment.  You can’t coast on a climb, however, because you’ll lose your momentum or come to a dead stop.  The solution is to briefly work different sets of muscles throughout the climb to give particular muscle groups precious time to recover.  There are several ways to do this.  If you typically ride with toes pointed down or feet flat, drop your heels for a bit to bring your hamstrings and glutes more into play and give your quadriceps and calves time to recover.  Likewise, if you usually ride with your heels dropped, raise them so your feet are flat or point your toes down thereby taking the load off the hams and glutes and shifting it onto the quads and calves.  Shift forward and back on the seat.  Sitting on the front of the seat accentuates the quads, sitting on the back accentuates the hams and glutes.  Stand up for a brief interval and then sit back down.  Just before you stand, shift into a bigger gear and then shift back to the smaller gear when you sit down.  You will have more power when you stand and if you stay in the smaller gear you will lose momentum.  Use these techniques for 10 to 30 pedal strokes periodically throughout the climb to buy recovery time.

Remain seated while you climb.  Standing is terrific for short bursts of power or for a change in muscle use (and hence a bit of muscle recovery) on a very long climb.  However, it is less efficient than sitting and will tire you out faster in the long run.  You will be stronger at the end of the ride if you climb sitting at the beginning.  Less efficient to begin with, standing becomes much more inefficient if your technique is not good and good standing technique is much harder than it looks.  Many riders with poor technique weave back and forth across the road when they stand and thrash back and forth, twisting at the hips.  This wastes a lot of energy (which you will wish you had 20 miles further on down the road) and is hard on the lower back possibly leading to back soreness or tightening on long rides.  Experienced riders are likely to disagree with this advice to climb while seated because standing on the climbs is a standard practice among advanced riders.  Having developed the ability to climb efficiently while standing is one of the many skills that separates the advanced rider from the novice.  If you stick with road cycling, you’ll learn to climb in a standing position but when you’re just starting out, I think it’s better to learn to climb efficiently and well while sitting before learning the more difficult skill. 

Keep a loose, relaxed grip on the handlebars.  As you strain up the hill it’s easy to grip the handlebars harder and harder.  White knuckling the handlebars like this can lead to numbness in the hands.  More importantly, the tension in the hands will spread up the arms to the neck, shoulders and chest.  Tightness in the chest will restrict breathing which will reduce oxygen consumption.  Oxygen is essential for both removing waste products and bringing fresh supplies of energy to your working muscles.  Your legs will tire more quickly and you’ll have a harder time finishing the climb if you are not breathing freely.

Keep your momentum as long as you can.  On short or rolling hills keeping momentum is often the difference between an easy climb and a hard one.  If you are approaching a hill from a flat road, build up some speed on the flat so you hit the bottom of the hill moving fast.  Maintain a constant effort when you hit the hill.  As the gradient steals your momentum, downshit to easier gears to keep your momentum going as long as you can.  You will quickly learn to recognize the point on a climb when your forward momentum dies and the climb turns into a pure grunt and you’ll want to prevent that from happening for as long as possible.  If you are riding a series of rolling hills, make use of the preceding downhill to build momentum for the next uphill.  Don’t coast on the downhills.  This will come naturally if you are trying to maintain a constant effort (see Hill Climbing 101) as you will be gearing up and accelerating throughout the downhill.  If you want to put out extra effort, squeeze out every last bit of speed you can on the downhill where it’s relatively easy so you don’t have to work so hard on the following uphill.  As your skills increase you will find that you can fly over hills that once gave you trouble by building the speed you need at the base of the hill and by conserving momentum through the climb by downshifting at just the right moment.

Ride with rhythm.  Many climbs are too long or too steep to be conquered with momentum.  When you’re on one of these, try and find a rhythm that you can ride at comfortably.  Essentially this means finding a cadence that feels right and then using your gears to maintain that cadence as the gradient fluctuates over the course of the climb (see the sections on cadence and maintaining a steady effort in Hill Climbing 101).  The right cadence will feel like a natural, comfortable rhythm.  Shift into a bigger gear when the gradient relaxes and into a smaller gear when the hill steepens to maintain that rhythm.  Don’t worry about what other riders are doing, find your rhythm and stick with it. 

Don’t coast after the crest.  There are going to be times when you crest a hill in agony.  Your legs are screaming for relief, you are in oxygen debt and panting uncontrollably,  and all you want ot do is make it stop.  You’re over the top and now gravity is your friend as it carries you down the other side.  You can coast for a minute; it’s your reward.  Don’t do it.  Keep your legs turning and shift into a higher gear so that you’re getting some resistance from the pedals.  The terrible burning feeling in your legs is produced by the buildup of waste products in the muscles you just overworked.  If you coast and stop using the muscles, those waste products just sit there causing you pain.  If you continue to use the muscles, gently in comparison with what you just did while climbing, the contraction of the muscles will squeeze the waste products out into the bloodstream where they can be carried away.  If you keep pedaling, the pain ends sooner.

Practice on every hill.   It doesn’t matter how long or short the hill is or how large or small the gradient is.  You can always find something to practice and it’s easier to be successful on the small hills than the big ones.  Use every hill as an opportunity to get better.  Success on the small hills today will lead to success on the big ones tomorrow.

Never quit on a hill.  Never.    I don’t really know if this is sound advice or not.  It makes sense and it works for me but anecdotal evidence like this is never worth much.  Here’s the advice anyway.  You’re going to suffer on climbs.  Maybe you went too fast on the early part of the climb and went into the red zone, maybe you blew a shift and killed your momentum, maybe you just don’t have enough left at the end of a long ride to take the climb in stride.  Whatever the cause, you are going to suffer.  The temptation to give up on the climb will be overwhelming.  Don’t do it, fight to the end, pay the price.  Suffer.  A lot of learning to climb is about training the body but some of it is about training the mind.  To be the kind of rider who doesn’t quit, you have to practice not quitting.  If you’re a road rider for any length of time, sooner or later someone is going to challenge you on a climb.  If their skill and fitness levels are so far beyond yours that it is no contest, they’re a jackass who has no business challenging you in the first place.  Ignore them.  However, if the riders are close in skill and fitness it usually comes down to heart and will.  Who will endure the greatest amount of suffering and not break.  If you have refused to quit on every hill in the past, you know that no matter how bad it gets, you’ve been through it before.  You didn’t quit then, so don’t quit now.  Believe me, the first time some guy challenges you on a hill and you break him and drop him in the last 100 meters of the climb it will all have been worth it.

Hill Climbing 101: Pedaling and Shifting

Hills are the bane and the salvation of the road cyclist.  They’re hard, sometimes agonizingly hard, and yet without them road cycling would be unbearably boring.  I’ve had the good fortune to have ridden some of the Laura rounding turn 12 on l'Alpe d'Huezgreat Tour de France climbs in the French Alps like l’Alpe d’Huez and the Col du Galibier.  I’ve also ridden 30 miles of prairie road that was dead flat and straight as an arrow.  If given the choice, I’d ride the climbs every time.  Climbs are the yardsticks by which experienced cyclists measure themselves while new riders often look on them with fear and loathing.

This is one of a pair of posts designed to help new riders climb.  I’ll look at some riding techniques in Hill Climbing 102.  In this post I’ll examine pedaling and shifting.  There are many different approaches to climbing and riders at different stages of development will tackle a climb differently.  A new rider who is desperate to survive to the crest will climb very differently from an experienced racer trying to drop the competition on the steepest part of the climb.  Hill Climbing 101 and 102 are written for the relatively inexperienced cyclist who might benefit from some information about basic climbing techniques.

Cadence.  Cadence refers to how fast your feet go around on the pedals and it lies at the heart of cycling whether on hills or flats.  Most cycling computers measure cadence in revolutions per minute (rpm) although cyclists will often speak of cadences of 90 or 100 and leave out the “rpm”.  There are two basic approaches to cadence:  Spinning and mashing.  Spinning means pedaling in a small (easy) gear at a high cadence while mashing is pedaling in a big (hard) gear at lower cadence.  In very rough terms, spinning will generally build cardiovascular fitness and endurance while mashing will build strength and bulk.  Mashing is also more likely to produce muscle and joint (especially knee) injuries.  As a very general strategy, spinning is usually better than mashing although there are so many different kinds of riders and different kinds of road conditions that there will be many exceptions to this general rule.  The typical recommendation is to spin at cadences of 85 to 105.  This may be a difficult cadence for new riders to maintain but it is good to practice until you can comfortably ride in this range.   When climbing, it is best to spin at a high cadence in a small gear.  Many times you may find yourself climbing in your smallest gear so you can’t shift into an easier gear and spin at a higher cadence.  However, as your fitness improves or the gradient of the hill lessens you can begin to ride in bigger gears.  When this happens, work on achieving a higher cadence on the climbs before you work on climbing in a bigger gear.

Maintaining a steady effort.  If there were one bit of advice that I would hold out as the holy grail of long-distance riding technique, this is it.  The idea is to put forth the same amount of effort consistently throughout the ride.  One way to do this is to maintain a steady cadence.  You adjust for changes in gradient, road conditions, wind, fatigue, etcetera by changing gears and keeping your legs going around at the same rate.  This means that going downhill you gear up into bigger gears and accelerate; going uphill you gear down into smaller gears and decelerate.  Many riders try to maintain a constant speed rather than a constant effort going uphill.  They tend to exhaust themselves on the steeper parts of the hill and then lose momentum on the flatter parts of the hill.  On many hills the gradient will become a bit less steep for the last section before the crest.  The rider who is focused on speed will ramp down their effort as the climb becomes less difficult.  When they back off the effort they often back off too far, lose momentum, slow down and find it difficult to switch from slowing down to speeding up while they’re still climbing.   The rider who is focused on maintaining a constant effort will kick into a higher gear when the gradient eases up and fly over the crest.

Pedaling in a circle.  Once when riding in the Washington DC AidsRide (340 miles in 4 days to raise money to help those suffering from HIV/AIDS) I was riding alongside some inexperienced riders giving them help and encouragement as they climbed a long hill and I suggested they pedal in circle.  As he struggled to keep going, one of riders looked at me like I’d lost my mind and said “Isn’t that what we’re doing?”  Surprisingly, the answer was “no”; his feet were going around in a circle but like most inexperienced cyclists he wasn’t applying force to the pedals all the way around the circle.  As much as you can, try and exert force all the way around the pedaling arc, not just on the downward push.  Push down, pull back at the bottom, lift up and pull through at the top.  This is not as easy as it sounds and it is a skill that takes a long time to master.  However, climbing is difficult enough without trying to do it with only part of your available muscle power.  You’ve got a whole leg and 360 degrees of arc to move it through.  Use the whole thing.  Pedaling in a circle is impossible if your feet are not connected to the pedals.  It’s much harder to do with basket-style toe clips because when you pull back at the bottom of the pedal stroke, you pull your foot off the pedal.  You really need clipless pedals to take full advantage of pedaling in a circle.

Gear shifting.  This is perhaps the most difficult hill-climbing skill to develop.  When there is load on the chain, such as when you’re climbing a hill, downshifting to an easier gear puts more strain on the chain and the shifting mechanism than shifting up to a harder gear.  You’ll often need to downshift to an easier gear during a climb but if you don’t do it soon enough, there may be so much stress on the chain that you can’t make the shift and then you’re stopped dead in a gear that’s too big to get up the hill.  On the other hand, if you downshift too soon, you lose your momentum which can turn an easy climb into a hard one in the blink of an eye.  You can feel this happen if you downshift to an easier gear and suddenly your feet are spinning on the pedals and meeting very little resistance.  It’s all about timing.  The trick is to relax your pedal stroke for a brief instant and shift into the easier gear a split second before you have to so that you can put forth the same effort throughout the climb.  The only way to get good at this is to practice.  There’s nothing like a perfect climb where each shift comes smoothly at precisely the right moment and you feel like you’ve just flown over the hill as if it wasn’t there.

Climbing is hard but learning to climb is worth it.  During the AidsRide I rode up and down that hill I mentioned earlier several times helping riders make it to the top.  The hill was the longest on the entire 340 mile ride and many of the new riders had been dreading it since the ride began.  I began riding with one woman at the bottom of the climb who was very much overweight and out of shape.  Like maybe 100 lbs overweight.  In addition, she was riding a hybid rather than a road bike which was making the climb a good deal more difficult for her.  About a quarter of the way up, she knew she wasn’t going to make it.  I talked to her about the hill climbing techniques discussed here and in Hill Climbing 102 and encouraged her to keep going.  Another 10 feet, just make it another 10 feet.  She was in agony.  Just 10 more feet.  The hill had such a fearsome reputation that a good number of people had stopped to stand along the road and cheer the riders on as they struggled up the climb.  Someone had parked a van with a sound system in the back near the top of the hill and Gloria Gaynor’s disco anthem “I Will Survive”  was booming out.  We’re halfway up and the woman was going so slowly that I don’t know how she remained upright on the bike; I had to keep looping around in small circles next to her in order to move fast enough not to lose my balance.  She knew she wasn’t going to make it but she refused to give up until she absolutely couldn’t give it one more pedal stroke.  Just 10 more feet.  Tears of pain and effort were streaming down her face.  About 30 feet from the top of the hill amidst the music and the cheers of the onlookers she realized she was going to make it, that she was going to succeed at something that just moments before she believed was impossible.  The look that came over her face at that instant was so beautiful and so pure that it made every moment I had suffered building the climbing strength that allowed me to ride with her that day worth it.  It was the kind of thing you never forget.  Hills will do that for you.