Essential Cycling Skills All Riders Need to Master
Cycling skills are essential for speed, safety, and fun. Whether you ride solo, pedal with friends at the local group ride, or participate in cycling events and races, it’s important to practice and continually improve your cycling skills. This guide covers basic and advanced techniques for drafting, pace lines, riding in a group, cornering, descending, climbing, braking, and more. It’s a great starting point for new cyclists, and for riders with decades of experience, I guarantee you’re an expert in some skills and still have room for improvement in others.
Why Bike Handling Skills Matters
Obviously, good bike handling skills are most important for keeping the rubber side down. But staying upright is only one benefit. Great handling skills are essential for maintaining your position in a pack or moving up toward the front. Your ability to corner smoothly saves energy on every turn, which adds up to a ton of energy by the end of a road race, gran fondo, or criterium.
Here’s a list of skills you need and how to get them. Each of the sections below can be an entire article itself. We’ve included links to more detailed articles on this website focusing on specific skills when possible.
Resources for Road, Gravel, and Mountain Bike Skills
Although there are universal cycling skills that apply across disciplines, each type of cycling features its own specific skillset. The guide below skews toward road cycling. We also have specific resources for MTB Skills and Gravel Cycling Skills.
Every time you lose ground in a corner you have to expend energy to make it back up. This is one of the top reasons riders get split off the back of a pack. Over time even a strong rider gets worn out by all the short accelerations to get back on the wheel. To improve your cornering, read this in-depth article and remember the following:
- Look through the corner to where you want to go. Your bike goes where your eyes go, so don’t look down at the wheel in front of you or at the pothole you want to miss.
- Focus your weight or pressure on your outside foot (which should be pointed down) and inside arm. The pressure on the outside foot is your traction, and the pressure on the inside arm is the trajectory of the turn. If you need to reduce the radius of a turn (turn sharper), apply more pressure to the inside arm to tip the bike to the inside.
- In a pack, it’s better to let a small gap open as you enter a corner than to let that gap open on the exit. In other words, if you float into the corner and maintain more momentum than the riders ahead of you, you’ll close the distance as you go through the turn and come out on the wheel and hopefully without as much need to for a high-power acceleration.
- If turns are wet, gravelly, or you’re on an unstable surface, keep the bike more upright. The more you lean, the further your center of gravity moves away from the contact patches of the tires. When traction is lower, you want to keep your center of gravity closer to midline.
Descending on a bicycle
Having good cornering skills covers most of what you need for good descending skills; the speed is just higher. Here’s a detailed article on descending. Cornering through switchbacks is one of the more descent-specific cornering skills. The important thing to remember is to start wide and do most of your braking before initiating the turn toward the apex of the corner. The other tip that helps cyclists gain confidence is to keep your gaze far down the road. At 40mph you cover the distance of a football field (100 yards) every 5.1 seconds. With corners, rocks, potholes, etc. coming at you that quickly, you must pick your lines early.
Moving up in a group
When it’s time to move up in the group, it is hard to fit between two riders riding shoulder to shoulder. Similarly, it costs a ton of energy to move to the outside of the group and accelerate in the wind. Moving diagonally is the most efficient way to go forward in the pack. To move diagonally between riders, you have to get your handlebars in front of the rider’s next to you. With your bars in front of theirs, you can dictate where the two of you go.
If the space is tight, protect your handlebars with a slightly flared elbow or make a little room with your shoulder. This is NOT the same thing as throwing an elbow or shoulder checking the rider next to you. Don’t to that. Similarly, you should never have to take your hands off the handlebars to move through the peloton. Using your hands to move a person over is dangerous and reveals deficiencies in your pack-riding skills. The only time you should put a hand on a rider’s shoulder or hip is to prevent a crash.
Cycling in a pace line
A good pace line epitomizes teamwork and the notion of a group being better than the sum of its parts. Here’s an entire article dedicated to pace line skills. The important things to keep in mind are:
- When it’s your turn to pull, maintain the speed of the group. If you surge or slow down the effect intensifies as it travels back through the group.
- You don’t have to pull for the same time as the rider before you. It’s better to take a shorter pull at the group’s speed than to slow down to take a longer pull. Similarly, if you’re strong, take a longer pull, not a faster pull.
- Pull off into the wind. If the wind is coming from the left, the pace line rotates to the left (counterclockwise). If the wind is coming from the right, pull off to the right. In a double pace line (2×2), each rider pulls off to his/her respective side and the group rides up between them.
- Save something to get back on. You’re going to have to accelerate to move from the recovery line to the pulling line, so don’t pull so hard you have nothing left to get back on.
Cycling in an echelon
An ‘echelon’ is a type of pace line used in a crosswind. Instead of lining up one behind the other, you line up diagonally across the lane. The leading cyclist rides on the side the wind is coming from. Only a certain number of riders can fit in this diagonal paceline, as determined by the width of the lane. The riders behind are left to fight for a nonexistent draft in the gutter or on the yellow line. The better choice is to establish a second echelon behind the first. When you take a pull in a crosswind, pull off into the wind and then drop back quickly across the back of the group. Don’t dawdle out there in the wind.
Read more about skills for cycling on windy days.
Climbing out of the saddle
Cyclists naturally climb hills pedaling in the saddle and standing on the pedals. Coaches Adam Pulford and Renee Eastman discussed how to decide when to sit or stand in this Trainright Podcast. Similarly, this article talks about improving the mechanics of climbing in and out of the saddle.
In a group ride setting, you want to avoid throwing your bike backwards as you get out of the saddle. When you do, you’re likely to cross wheels with the rider behind you, which can lead to a crash. Everyone behind you will be much happier if you shift up one or two gears (harder gear) as you stand up so that first pedal stroke is strong enough to maintain your momentum. Don’t forget to shift back into an easier gear when you sit back down.
In pro bike races on narrow roads, there is a lot of bumping of shoulders and elbows as riders fight for position on narrow roads and heading into even narrower sections. Even if you’re not fighting for position in a race, it is important to be comfortable with contact when you’re riding in a group. Here are some things to remember:
- Relax! Keep your elbows and shoulders loose. Keep a firm grip on the handlebars, but not a white-knuckle death grip. By keeping your upper body loose, you can absorb a bump from the rider next to you and maintain a straight line. If you’re tense, that same bump will move you off your line.
- To protect your space and your handlebars, think about moving your upper body toward the rider bumping you, but not necessarily leaning on them. If their weight is leaning on you then you must lean back for both of you to stay upright. But if it’s just a bump, you want to stay balanced on your bike and just use your body to maintain some personal space.
A great way to practice is to ride side-by-side with one or two friends on a grassy field, purposely bumping into each other, rubbing shoulders and elbows.
Looking behind you
All too often, a rider trying to look back over his or her shoulder swerves to the same side they rotate their head. In other words, if you turn to look over your left shoulder you tend to steer to the left. As you twist your torso and shoulders to look back, you’re pulling your bars to the left as well. To counter this, focus on keeping forward pressure on the bars or even pushing the bars a bit to the right. Practice in a traffic free parking lot.
The other way to stay safe when looking back in a group or pace line is to place your left hand on the shoulder of the rider to your left as you turn to look over your left shoulder (or right hand on the rider to your right to look over right shoulder).
Eating and Drinking
Some riders get nervous about taking a hand off the handlebars long enough to grab their water bottle or some food from their jersey pocket. If you’re riding in a pack for any amount of time, being able to eat and drink is essential.
Remember that your water bottle has been in the same place since the first time you bought your bike. You shouldn’t have to look down to find it, nor to place it back in the bottle cage. If you struggle to open food wrappers while riding, pre-open the wrappers for bars and chews before putting them in your pocket. The best times to reach back to grab food are the top of a climb (so you can eat on the descent) or obviously in a non-technical section of road.
To open a gel with your teeth without getting sticky stuff all over you, pinch the package at the top and use your teeth to tear the top off above your fingers. Once you’ve squeezed sucked as much as you can out of the package, you can fold the top of the package down to minimize whatever is left from leaking out into your pocket. Some people stash the empty wrappers in a different pocket or tuck them under the leg band of their shorts so they keep their food pocket from getting sticky.
By Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS
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As a strong, but not officially a competitive cyclist (other than for fun in small “pelotons”), the one time I joined a large fairly serious group ride of some 100+ individuals, amusingly I found myself drifting to the back, not because the pace was particularly hard, but rather due to my cautious self in the habit of leaving three feet between my front wheel and the rear wheel in front of me – at which time another rider would come up and force themselves into the gap. Pretty soon I was at the back laughing at how that happened. The occasional sound of crashes closer to the front of the pack did not convince I had made a wrong choice. Too much testosterone and too few skills among that crowd – never wanted to join a ride like that again! Not a worry now that I live on the rural Maine coast, and only infrequently see another cyclist, and almost never in winter. I’d never have been a crit rider, but hill climbs and time trials could have been fun. Perhaps I have a too finely honed sense of my own mortality to ever consider competitive cycling. Still, three clavicle fractures over a space of thirty years despite this caution. At over 70, I’m hoping not for a repeat!
You should look into the NSGA (https://nsga.com/) Competitors must be over 50, with age groups every 5 years. Many states have cycling as one of their events. Since everyone is older, folks respect safety as much as speed.
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What a timely and informative article, thank you Chris…. All of the mentioned skills can be learned at just about anyone of the numerous training camps that CTS offers. I personally have attended about a dozen CTS camps and one bucket list event and I can tell you that the skills I learned at these camps have made me a safer better cyclist. I now share that gained knowledge with my current cycling team as one of the coaches. Thanks to all the CTS coaches over the years for your unselfish guidance and unwavering patience.
I strongly recommend anyone of the CTS camps especially the Spring Training camps and especially the Climbing Camps for thorough and expert guidance on climbing and descending mountains. Anyone of these camps is invaluable and worth every penny.
Great, informative article Chris. Some of the seemingly subtle things you mentioned, like shifting up before leaving the saddle to keep bike moving at the same pace. I’m also glad you mentioned the need to practice doing things on the bike, like eating, drinking, (& other things like cleaning sunglasses etc.), as many seem to be weave & boob around doing this.
Another thing I’ve notice many cyclist, (as well as vehicle drivers) do, is turn into the corner too soon, (missing the actual apex). It’s a very common mistake / habit, that throws you out wide & still turning on exit, when you’d like to be accelerating.
Good advise on allowing a little more room on entry in tight packs, although when I competed in Tri’s, (not nearly as tightly packed groups), I could out brake, (late braking), most riders who were coasting into the corner.
I still practice looking behind while maintaining my line, along with other skills mentioned here. Thanks.
Double Pace Line: What about the Belgian rotation takes up less space vs double pace line rotation?
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I participated in my first cyclocross season last year and lacked the handling skills to comfortably bump into riders, and that caused me to lose many positions even though I had the strength to compete head-to-head with those in my category. Needless to say, I will be working a ton on my handling skills before this year’s season.
Good comment about gels since they always get all over my bar tape
I use electrical tape to attach three gels stacked onto my stem-that’s typically enough for the average ride. When I want one, I just tear off the packet and the top stays under the tape. Then I just have to deal with the packet, which I put in a pocket as described in the article.
I wish this advice was mandatory reading for every single rider who rides in a group. There are so many cyclists, both those new to the sport and those who have been riding for years who cannot even ride a straight line let alone eat, drink and look back without changing the trajectory of their bike. To practice these skills and maintain a straight line I ask riders to find a painted stripe, like the lane on a bike path and see if they can look back, under their arm and still be on the line when they look forward. When eating I move my left hand to the top of the bar and closer to the stem to help maintain the stability of the bike.
I have been riding for over forty years and I still practice skills and I still consciously tell myself all of the things you have mentioned from looking through the corner to how to weight the bike. Thank you for this excellent article.
I just did the Assaults on the Carolinas last weekend (100K) and got in trouble on tight blind and technical switchbacks and turns on a section of the course. I made it through, but just…..I will review the corning and descending skills links. Thanks for this article Chris.