Master the Most Fundamental and Overlooked Skill in Cycling


“Pick your head up!” In recent years that is probably one of the phrases I’ve used most in group rides, charity rides, and during camps and Bucket List events. Of all the habits that make a cyclist more economical, safer, and faster in a group, keeping your head up and your eyes forward is the most fundamental and yet the most overlooked. Here are some tips for improving your skills in a variety of common cycling situations, and why keeping your head up helps in all of them.

Lindsay_DonnUSAPCC2014 Coaching Special: First month free when you sign up for any new 12month CTS Coaching Package in September. Continue after 30 days at our lowest long-term rate. Save your season, prep for cyclocross, or get a jump on 2015!

In a Paceline
The whole point of a paceline is to share the workload so you can go faster for less effort. If you’re not on a wheel – and I mean close! – you’re giving away energy. You’re going to have to work harder than necessary in the group and that means you’ll be more tired later. You have to pay attention at all times so you can stay in the optimal drafting position and so you can anticipate changes in pace and adjust with minimal energy output. To ride closer to the wheel ahead of you and position yourself in the best drafting position you have to keep your head up and look well past the rider immediately in front of you.

When you look farther forward you’ll see the group slowing well before you have to slow down. That means you can start coasting earlier or give yourself some space to roll into as the person ahead of you slows. This minimizes the need to brake and then accelerate. You’ll also see the people far ahead of you dig into the pedals to accelerate well before that acceleration gets back to you. This ensures you don’t get caught off-guard and can accelerate at the same time as the person in front of you so you don’t let any gap open up.

Go International! space available in 2014 La Ruta and 2015 Trans Andes Bucket List Events. Get Bucket List Qualified and join Team CTS for an awesome mountain bike stage race!

In a Pack
Riding in a pack or peloton is different than riding in an organized paceline. In a paceline there is order and everyone generally knows their role: You’re following the rider ahead of you until it’s your turn to ride at the front, then you’re rotating to the back; and you’re not going to gap anyone off the back. A pack is far less organized, especially when it comes to group rides, charity rides, and gran fondos. Keeping your head up is essential for everyone’s safety, but mostly your own.

Just like in a paceline you need to keep your eyes forward to anticipate pace changes and changes in wind direction, but in a pack you also have to watch for sudden stupidity. Someone bobbles a water bottle or freaks out when they touch another rider’s elbow and you have a bunch of people grabbing handfuls of brakes. The sooner you know about it the better chance you have to stay out of trouble and keep your momentum. Part of looking forward is planning your escape route. If you’re focused only on the rider ahead of you and something happens, you won’t know whether it’s safer to go left or right.

The worst thing you can do in a tight pack is read your computer. You think texting and driving is bad? Focusing on small numbers on a small screen on your handlebars while riding inches away from riders on all sides of you is worse. If you must see your power output in those situations – and you shouldn’t because you should have learned from training with the power meter to gauge your efforts by feel – then you have to learn to glance at the screen in milliseconds. In the past year the most frequent reason I’ve said “Keep your head up!” is because someone was looking at a computer screen.

Fall 2014 Cycling Camps: start building toward a great 2015 with a CTS Fall Cycling Camp. There’s the Giro Women’s Camp in Santa Ynez, El Tour Endurance Camp in Tucson, and more!

Free Cycling Training Assessment Quiz

Take our free 2-minute quiz to discover how effective your training is and get recommendations for how you can improve.

Descending and cornering
You don’t need to be a genius to realize that looking far ahead of you is a good idea when you’re hauling down a descent, but cyclists often forget because they’re tired. After you’ve summited a huge climb or you have 4 hours in your legs, the descent is a welcome reprieve. Tired riders hang their heads. But you can’t afford to do that on a descent, even if you’re following a wheel. Never trust the rider ahead of you to pick a good line through corners or always warn you of the pothole he barely missed.

And speaking of corners, remember to adjust your speed before the turn starts and look through the turn to where you want to exit. Don’t stare at the outside guardrail you’ll slam into if you miss the turn because that will pull your line too wide. Get into the drops and keep your outside foot down. Focus your weight on that outside foot and push your inside hand into the turn. Keep it simple: your outside foot is your traction and your inside hand is your direction. If you have to adjust to turn more sharply, keep your head and body up and apply more pressure on those two spots.

One thing everyone should practice on this weekend’s rides is getting your bottles out of the cages and back into them without looking. The cages are always in the same place; they haven’t moved since the last 1000 times you reached for a bottle. Fumbling with a bottle causes riders to swerve and is the root cause of a lot of crossed wheels. Worse yet, when someone crosses wheels while fumbling with a bottle they drop the bottle (bad for everyone behind them) and typically crash (even worse for the people behind them) because they can’t compensate for the crossed wheel with only one hand on the bars.

Talking about fumbling with food and bottles brings up the subject of when it’s the right time to eat/drink. It all comes down to this: Do you have enough time to get it done and have both hands on the bars again before you need to brake or turn? If you can get your bottle in and out of the cage quickly and accurately and without looking there will be more times and places where you can get it done. Similarly, if the wrappers in your pockets have been partially opened you can reach back, get the food, unwrap it, and get it into your mouth faster.

Riders are always a bit nervous the first day of camps and Bucket List events like the Tour of California Race Experience and USA Pro Challenge Race Experience. They don’t stay on wheels all that closely. Gaps open and have to be closed. Someone usually drops a bottle. But the group gets better with every ride and within a few days everyone from beginners to veterans are riding together smoothly and comfortably. And when that happens I know it’s a good time to take a picture, because everyone has their heads up.

Keep Your Head Up!
Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS

FREE Mini-Course: Learn How to Maximize Your Limited Training Time

Learn step-by-step how to overcome limited training time and get faster. Walk away with a personalized plan to increase your performance.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Comments 12

  1. As a new cyclist, this was a great read! Great information on this topic and I look forward to more information on cycling for beginners.

  2. Someone I knew was killed during a Charity cycling event this past week-end in Ottawa – how oddly timely that this article is published. Circumstances of what led to this tragic accident are as yet unknown in terms of who was at fault, if there is fault to be placed at all. All we really know is that the road is narrow w/o a paved shoulder, it was raining/or had just rained and something went terribly wrong between cyclist and truck. So Head’s Up everyone, all the time and hone your skills!

  3. Funny, I read a tip earlier this year on the benefit of keeping your head down as much as possible while time trialing and have been focusing on that all summer. This article is a good reminder for those rare group rides or RR.

  4. I look forward to these articles and always put into practice what i have read.
    Thanks Chris for taking the time to coach!

    1. Agreed with Don. Great piece and pic – although it would be nice fewer locked elbows (another key to supple handling skills, reduced shoulder fatigue & strain.) The chap on the front in the red looks good but a lot of the others have those straight arms with locked elbows that, in my experience, are often indicators of inexperienced, tired and, potentially, less attentive riders.

      1. Locked elbows can also be a sign of poor fit . . . namely, those who insist on have the handlebar really low, attempting to get “aero.”

        1. Post

          Different pic, problem solved. You’re right, though, locked elbows can be a sign of poor fit. It can also be a sign of inattention from someone who’s bicycle fits just fine. Keep in mind, anyone – with the best or worst bike fit – can lock their elbows. In our experience it’s more frequently a behavior/habit issue more than a real issue with fit. – CTS

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *