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Cycling Techniques

It is essential that you develop a smooth, straight form while riding. Cyclists who weave all over the road are dangerous to themselves and to others. Practice these skills:

Steering. It is likely that you have been riding a bicycle for years, and that your sense of balance is well developed. Remember that a bicycle with a camera-laden handlebar bag and possibly panniers will handle differently. Don’t trust to luck. Put your panniers and handlebar bag on your bicycle, and load them with weight equivalent to what you'll be carrying on your ride. Then find a straight line on a little-used road or in a deserted parking lot, and practice.

One thing you'll want to do on any ride is to keep an eye on what's happening behind you. If you're like most people, the bicycle will automatically veer to the left or right as soon as you turn your head to look back over your shoulder. Learn to anticipate this sudden change in course, and correct for it. Placing your hands far apart on the handlebars will give you more steering stability for a quick turn-around and glance. Small mirrors that attach to caps, helmets, or glasses are readily available and are highly recommended.

Steering a bicycle is accomplished by both turning the handlebars and leaning the body. Don't make abrupt steering movements, especially on down hills or on slippery surfaces such as wet asphalt or gravel. Loss of traction is all too easy with the thin tires used on touring bicycles. The wider mountain bike tires fare better, but you can still find yourself quickly unseated from rapid steering movements.

Be careful not to pedal when leaning sharply into a turn; a pedal or toe clip could catch on the pavement and result in a tumble. Also avoid shifting in turns -- the forces and counter forces involved in shifting in a curve could tax anyone's equilibrium.

Cadence and gearing. The system of gears found on multi-speed bicycles lets you choose different pedaling rates, or cadences. Selecting a comfortable and efficient pedaling cadence is important. Spinning your pedals in too low a gear is very tiring, and results in choppy, wobbly riding. A laborious, grinding cadence in too high a gear (a more common error) also results in instability, and is a primary cause of knee problems for many cyclists.

Skillful riders often use a brisk, steady cadence of 65 to 80 pedal revolutions per minute. Your choice of cadence may vary from this average, but your steady, even style should not. You may choose to start at a lower cadence of, say, 50 rpm, and gradually work up to a cadence that is comfortable over long distances.

Use the number of gears at your disposal religiously to maintain constant cadence over varying terrain. Avoid jumping from very high to low gears too quickly when trying to maintain cadence. You'll only lose your momentum. One trick used by some cyclists is to choose a gear combination that they feel they could maintain over a given headwind or terrain situation, and then click down to the next lowest gear. This slightly easier gear can then be easily maintained, even allowing for minor terrain changes or headwind gusts.

Braking and emergencies. A cardinal rule of bicycling is to brake before you have to. This especially relates to curves and down hills. Brake just before getting into a curve; then, if you need to reduce your speed further, brake gently with the rear brake while in the curve. Always apply brakes evenly; do not slam on both brakes, and never slam on just the front brake.

On down hills, many cyclists make the mistake of waiting too long before they start braking. A bicycle – especially one loaded with equipment – can pick up speed with surprising swiftness. Loose gravel or rocks, vehicles, cattle guards, and other obstructions can come up quickly at 40 or 50 mph.

Keep your body in an upright position on steep down hills. This will provide increased wind resistance and help to slow your speed. Brake in a rhythmic on-again-off-again pattern, holding the brakes on for a few seconds, and then releasing them. Continuous braking will glaze the surface of the brake pads and heat the rims, resulting in a partial or complete loss of braking power. On long downhill stretches where you feel you must brake continuously, it is a good idea to stop frequently to allow the tire rims to cool. Failure to do so can result in actually blowing the tire off of the rim as the heated air within the tire expands.

Emergency braking is a very important technique. It involves three actions that must be performed as one continuous motion. To brake rapidly, (1) shift your weight toward the rear of the saddle, while (2) moving your hands onto the brake handles and (3) apply firm even pressure to both brakes. Practice this technique both with and without equipment on the bike, on level and down-hill surfaces.

Ankling. This technique – more useful for the road cyclist than for the off-road cyclist – allows you to distribute your effort evenly over most of the pedal revolution, increasing riding efficiency and smoothness. Ankling makes full use of the ankle and leg muscles, because you are pulling up on one pedal while pushing down on the other. Toe clips and straps, or quick-release pedals locked into your cycling shoes, are a must for ankling.

In normal pedaling, the foot applies downward thrust from about the two o'clock to the six o’clock position (viewed from the right side of the cranks). Then the foot, still parallel to the ground, rides the pedal as dead weight from the six o'clock position back to about the 1 o'clock position, where another power stroke begins.

In ankling, the foot pivots at the ankle joint from a toes-up position at 12 o'clock to a toes-down (with reference to the ankle) attitude at the six o'clock position. The ankle then swings the foot back up to a toes-up position while the pedal moves from six o'clock to 12 o'clock. The ankle and leg muscles are all pulling up on the pedal during the second half of the cycle.

At the top both the stroke (12 o'clock), the foot is again in a toes-up position, ready to apply downward trust on the pedal. Of course, the opposite foot just starting to pull the other pedal upwards at this moment. Thus, you have immediate power at the top of each stroke, and increased efficiency because you aren't pushing the other foot as dead weight through half of a power stroke.

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