Wednesday, March 18, 2015

At Ease on a Bicycle: Cycling Comfort, Control & Skills

When I was a kid, roller skating was a big deal. It was an activity that nearly everyone participated in, and growing up in a smaller community it was an easy way to keep kids and teenagers entertained and out of trouble in a city that didn't host many age-appropriate activities. Many Friday evenings my family would go to the skating rink and we'd roll around for a few hours.

Of course, one of those words didn't really apply to me personally:  Roll.
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As much as I always wanted to skate, I could never get the hang of it. I'd watch my mother as she'd easily glide around without issue, while I clung for dear life to the walls. Not an innate instructor by any means, my mom was never able to express or illustrate the fundamentals that would keep me upright and able to move solidly or securely in a forward direction.

I tried on my own for many years to master what seemed to be an inborn skill for so many others, but I was never successful. I spent far more time on the ground and with skinned/bruised body parts than was probably necessary.

A couple of years ago, I made a passing comment to an acquaintance who is part of a local roller derby squad that I would absolutely love to participate. However, as much as I think I'd love the sport, I cannot skate. Not only can I not skate, but just standing upright on skates without toppling seems to be an issue.

She has suggested on many occasions that she'd be willing to help me get to a point of (at least) basic skill (apparently one learns more advanced skills while trying out for the team), but I've never taken her up on the kind and generous offer.
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So, when a reader asked for my thoughts on achieving confidence and skill on a bicycle, I couldn't help but identify with her plight. I have to admit, riding a bicycle was not a competent activity for me early in life - at least not without training wheels. It's not a common sight to see a third grader riding a bike with training wheels, but I was definitely that kid, and it wasn't for lack of trying.

Then, one day, my parents decided that the training wheels were coming off, whether I was ready or not. I remember a lot of tears that day (Okay, in reality the tears took place for weeks after the training wheels came off). I didn't feel I had the ability to ride without the support of those two extra little attached wheels, but lo and behold, I somehow managed to pull it together (after many falls) to figure it out, and the rest is history.

Well, sort of. As anyone who reads here knows, I still find myself struggling in certain areas of riding. Mountain biking, for instance, has been a huge source of frustration. Riding on icy roads also strikes fear in me. Not to mention the many bicycles I've tested that kept me from ever wanting to ride those particular bikes again due to instability or some other geometry-related detail(s).

If I've learned anything from my moments of adult-bicycling frustration (or incompetence) it is that repetition is key. Much as I may dread or sometimes fear a particular location or set of circumstances, the more I practice the easier those activities/moments become.  Repetition is not the only element though. I have to allow myself the opportunity to "fail" as might be the case in some circumstances. Surrounded by people who seem completely comfortable and at ease with their skill level, it's not always easy to tell oneself that it's okay to fall, to get off and walk, to go slower than everyone else, to ask for help, or to do research before diving in head first (hopefully not literally).

Seeing (reading) that I find myself trying out a variety of bicycles and having gone on a number of test rides, I can see how there would be an assumption that I've adapted and learned to quickly find comfort or be at ease on a new bicycle. Unfortunately, that's not always the case. I've slowly overcome a lot of my fears, but there are still times when I want to run out of a shop and hide (As a side note, if a shop ever makes you feel this way - meaning someone working in the shop makes you feel inferior or incapable - it may be a good sign that you should look for another bike shop. Making the customer feel at ease is one of the most important aspects of customer service, I believe).

There are a variety of areas to take into consideration when adapting to a new bicycle though. Some of these may seem obvious, but it never hurts to bring it up in case there is something that has gone unconsidered thus far.
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A bicycle should be the proper size
This one may seem apparent without needing to be stated, but I see people nearly every day riding incorrectly sized bicycles. They look uncomfortable riding, and while I know sometimes it's a situation in which lack of funds prevented obtaining a bicycle that was the proper size (i.e. - the person is riding a hand-me-down or loaner bike), if you have the means to purchase a bicycle (whether new or used) try to make sure it is the proper size for the rider.

This can be trickier than it sounds, but if you have a good local bicycle shop, they can be very helpful in this regard. Recently, I was looking over a chart containing riders heights versus the size frame of a particular model s/he was riding. I was amazed at how different the sizes were for people of the same height. It just goes to illustrate though that an individuals proportions are very important - not just a persons height.
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A bicycle should fit properly
This is different in my mind than a bicycle being the correct size. I have had innumerable experiences on bikes that were, on paper, the size I need; however, the fit is simply off. I think this is an aspect that is both known almost immediately by the rider and can change as more time and distance traveled on the bike takes place.

I used to feel badly making a shop adjust things during a test ride, but if we stop and think about it, why would we want to test a bike while riding in an uncomfortable manner? If I'm ill-at-ease testing the bike, how will I know that it's going to work in every day life for me? Plus, it's the only way I'm going to be able to determine if the fit is right for me.

Fit sometimes involves changes to handlebar stems, handlebars themselves, brakes, shifters, seatpost, saddle, and the list could go on. Some of these things a shop may be willing to switch out for a test, but more than likely most of these changes will occur after a rider has some time with the bicycle. If the size is correct though, it may just need a bit of adjustment to find the right fit.
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Different bikes perform various types of riding better
When I first received a cruiser bike several years ago, I was so in love. I rode that bike everywhere. It was so comfortable because it sat upright (no weight on my already injured hands), the saddle was wide (I didn't have any issues with my sit bones being too wide because the seat was nearly as large as my rear end), it had an internal, 3-speed hub (I didn't have to worry about losing a chain on the derailleur), and it didn't hurt that it was pretty.

Soon, I found myself attempting 20 mile rides on a 45+ pound cruiser bike. My average speeds were probably somewhere around 6 mph, but I didn't care. I just enjoyed the ride.

Then, I started realizing that a ride into town (which at that time was about 8 miles just to the edge of our city) and back home again was taking up half the day. It was fine on a lazy Saturday with nothing else to get done, but when one is just trying to get an errand done, traveling so slowly can hinder how often those rides can take place.

The same is true of trying to ride a bike intended for paved roads on rough or rocky, mountainous terrain. While it could be done (and I've seen it happen first hand), certain tools are simply better for a given task. It wouldn't be surprising at all to feel ill-at-ease on a bicycle intended for a different type of riding.
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Bicycle handling
I think the way a bicycle handles can be crucial to a riders confidence as well. Some bikes have twitchy front ends; others feel completely stable. Some bikes have loose steering while others are tighter. Some feel completely grounded and/or heavy while others feel sprightly and/or light.

Bicycles are built for different purposes so handling is going to change from one type of bike to another. A quality that may seem unattractive for one type of riding could be a godsend for another. Some of these characteristics can change with modifications to a bike, while others would be far more difficult. For example, it would be tough to have turned my quite heavy cruiser bike into a road bike suitable for club rides. However, it might be possible to turn a touring bicycle into something that would handle a bit livelier (or course, this is highly dependent on the bicycle in question).
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New geography or topography 
I am particularly fortunate to live an area that is fairly small as far as population is concerned. While there are jerky motorists everywhere, there have been few times while riding that I've feared for my life. I know that isn't always the case for cyclists though.

Riding in more densely populated cities can have its ups and downs. For instance, larger cities are more often equipped with many miles of bike lanes; however, you may find yourself with motorists parked in those lanes, the possibility of getting "doored" while riding by a parked car becomes even more likely, pot holes the size of craters are huge obstacles, and the list could go on.

Living in smaller areas, there are many of the same challenges. There may not be as much traffic or as many bike lanes, but the reality of lanes being placed directly next to parked cars or motorists not paying attention is just as real.

Even if a cyclist has lived in the same place for a long time, changing from motorist to bicycle rider can feel overwhelming. Taking it slowly and knowing that you don't have to do anything you find uncomfortable can be helpful. Just going a bit farther each trip may assist with overcoming roads that seem insurmountable too.

Additionally, changing from riding on paved roads to dirt or other terrain can bring its own challenges. Have patience with yourself and know that you can do it. Last fall, I went on the world's shortest mountain bike ride, but it helped me feel slightly better about the bike, the way it handles/feels, and my ability to maintain control.
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Get comfortable with the parts of a bicycle
Perhaps knowing all the parts on a bicycle doesn't seem immediately necessary to find a level of comfort with a bike, but it certainly can't hurt. I have to admit, when I knew just about nothing in regard to my bicycles it was far more a mystery, which sometimes created unnecessary stress or fear. When a bicycle feels like something foreign or we're not sure how it works or what goes where it can be intimidating.

As I became more familiar with the purpose of each component, how they work together, and what could potentially go wrong on the roads, it alleviated mental strain which eased into comfort on a bike.

A bicycle is a fairly simple machine. While we may not all have the desire to learn about every bit and piece, having a general understanding and being able to make small repairs ourselves can definitely aid in the process of getting acquainted and therefore comfortable with bicycles.

Other potential areas of consideration
It's possible that there are physical limitations for the rider. Does the rider have balance, dexterity, and/or inner-ear problems? Perhaps there is another previously unconsidered physical ailment that is causing the rider to feel uncomfortable, such as an injured knee, ankle, shoulder, neck, or other body part. I believe physical injuries or ailments can sometimes require the assistance of a professional (doctor, physical therapist, etc), but there are riders who are able to overcome these - sometimes even without professional help, depending on severity.

Truly, there are many possibilities when it comes to feeling uncomfortable or not quite in control of a bicycle. If repetition doesn't seem to be helping, the bicycle is fitted properly, and there aren't any physical challenges to overcome, perhaps the problems could be emotional or mental stress/strain. I know for myself I have built things up in the past to be more challenging or difficult than they truly are. It's amazing how much stress this can put on the body. So much so that I can begin to feel dizzy or out of control when riding a bike.

Sometimes just working through a fear by creating a worst-case scenario we can come up with a plan of action should something go wrong. As the saying goes, most of what we worry about never actually happens. However, if we're prepared for something to go wrong, if there is a problem it's a lot easier to quickly adapt in the situation.

I also wrote a post several years ago regarding lessons I'd learned and I have to say that while it was intended for larger than average cyclists, I still think the points hold true for anyone who rides a bike.

Ultimately, I believe that in order to become competent at any skill, it has to be repeated. For some, there is an almost instant understanding and adeptness, while for others it may take weeks, months, or perhaps even years.

Roller skating never became a skill for me because too much time passed between attempts to practice. I became frustrated with my inability to quickly master the skates and ultimately let it go. It doesn't mean it's impossible for me to find a level of comfort, but I have to be willing to put in the time and have the patience to see it through. I was able to eventually ride without training wheels on my bike because I was forced into it. I don't recommend it as a teaching tool because it was highly unnerving, but I think there are methods for easing a person into becoming comfortable while riding by taking matters slowly.

My thoughts here are based simply on my experiences or observations around me, but others may have ideas as well. So, I ask you, what recommendations would you have for someone trying to find comfort or to become more at ease on a bicycle? Did/do you struggle to feel in control while on a bike? What did/do you do to overcome any issues? Any tips or tricks you can offer would be fantastic.

20 comments:

  1. I feel most in control of my bicycles, whether it be my step through, touring, or older mountain bike, when I grip the handlebars and can stand or just muscle up an incline rocking the handle bars. If I control the steering, it's golden for me. It means the bars are the proper height and width and I can maneuver on whim, avoid a collision, or quickly stop. I think this important realization hit me when I finally put the proper bars (for me) on my Ross or when I switched up drop bars on the Miyata touring bike for (wider) mustache bars.

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    1. Annie,

      Thanks so much for offering your experience. I've definitely had those bikes that I've struggled to be able to stand to get up a hill. Always good to find something that works! :O)

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  2. My experience has been very like yours... and the conclusions/opinions I've formed as a result are similar too! ;) I'll have a ponder about anything I've found specifically helpful and post up again later, but for now just wanted to say "Ditto!" :)

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    1. Sounds great. I know sometimes things come to me later after I process everything as well, but I know so many people have great ideas, thoughts and experiences, that I thought if we could come together and offer anything that could be helpful it would be appreciated.

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  3. This is SUPER helpful, GE. Thanks so much for taking the time to think and write about this. Everything you suggest rings true, and I especially like your point that it is ok to fail sometimes ... To get off and walk when a stretch of road seems treacherous because of heavy traffic or potholes, to go slowly over rough terrain, to take the time to practice skills which come easily to most people. It is also true that different bikes have different characteristics and it takes some time to get accustomed to this. I find that my mood is another variable here ... If I am feeling anxious for some reason ( usually PMS!) I find myself reaching for the slower but stable Pashley Poppy. If I am feeling confident and light- hearted the mixte is a perfect choice. Sometimes I want to go fast, sometimes I don't. I also agree that learning how the bike works inspires confidence, and repetition is definitely important. It is frustrating when one is not naturally athletic, and I am sure many athletic people will simply not understand what the big deal is. My children, for example, don't particularly like cycling and only come along with me on weekends because they have to. Yet they confidently navigate anything from tree roots to sharp turns with consummate ease, whereas I ( who have cycled to work every day for a year now) am far more cautious. Sigh. I have a friend who bought a road bike last Christmas because she signed up for a triathlon ... She had never even been on one before, yet she went for a 20 mile ride on the day she bought it and managed to cope just fine with drop bars, cleats and traffic. I realise ( as you said) that some people are just more naturally skilled than others. I am greatly heartened however by your statement that it took time to build up your skills and comfort level as a cyclist. It makes me feel that I will manage to achieve my goals at some point ... I do not want to be super fast, but I do want to be able to handle my bikes properly and go for long rides on them ... Maybe even do some touring like Rebecca does ... Cycling around the Isle of Wight or the Devon Coast here in the UK would be awesome!! Anyway, thanks again for the tips :)

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    1. Stephanie,

      I'm glad it's a bit helpful.

      It seems that there's something to the idea of youth and feeling indestructible. I recall those same feelings and actions that your children exhibit when I was in my "I can do anything" phase of adolescence. It's great that you bring them along with you on your rides too! I'm sure they'll remember it fondly as they get older.

      I do think there are simply those who take naturally to certain activities and others who struggle. I don't think it means that it's impossible. It just takes a bit more work to get to a place that is comfortable. If you have the desire to tour some day, I have no doubt you'll get there! :O)

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  4. I learned to ride the same way (and age) and wonder if that's affected my relative comfort levels and overcaution. I finally got a different bike (vintage Raleigh) after slogging along on a zillion pound cruiser, which was my first bike as an adult, but the learning curve has been super steep. I want to put my feet flat on the ground and I feel like the turning is squirrely compared to the slow and steady (but semi truck-turning radius) cruiser. That's it though, more practice. I also need to go easy on my hands because I have a (temporary) nerve issue and keep squeezing the handlebars like the hulk, which isn't helping matters. It's hard to be nice to yourself when you're frustrated and feel like everybody else can do it easily.

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    1. Ergonomic grips offer a flatter surface to rest your hands. You might try those. But then again, if your steering is squirrely and thus making you uncomfortable and anxious, I suspect you are squeezing the handlebars too intently. Anyway to fit wider tires on the Raleigh? I find wider tires offer a stable ride. Or try Panaracer Pasela tires. They are cushiony and grip the road, making big difference on my twitchy Peugeot. Don't give up; there is a solution to suit your needs.

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    2. At least you are aware of the fact that you're squeezing the handlebars. I remember some of my early rides I would come home with hands killing me and a strained neck - all because I had a death grip on the grips and handlebars. :O)

      It is definitely not the easiest thing to be kind to ourselves, but I think it helps when we know we're not alone too. I think Annie's suggestion of possibly finding wider tires for the Raleigh might be a good starting point to see if that would help out. I know wider tires can often make the ride much more plush for me and then my hands don't ache as bad and I even feel more in control.

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    3. Thanks for the tips! I took the bike out today (and in the meantime have had two physio sessions for my hand issues) and boy, it was like night and day! I think most of my issues could be attributed to the death grip (also apparently both arms were completely tensed up according to the physiotherapist). No squirrliness at all, today. I'm still going to have to practice to get used to rim brakes and feel more confident, but I can't believe the difference.

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    4. I think that there are times when getting our bodies some assistance can really be helpful, and it sounds like you've experienced just that. I'm so glad to hear things have taken an upswing for you! I think when we're tentative or a bit unsure, it's easier to put our bodies under stress (that we may not even realize is happening). Glad you had a great ride today. :O)

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  5. " squeezing the handlebars like the hulk" ... Lol ... I do that too. I can also identify with your turning radius challenges, as my two bikes handle pretty much like yours do when turning. It is frustrating as I have tried to be methodical about all this and have bought books like John Forester's vehicular cycling bible and consulted blogs to learn how to navigate my way through traffic and how to do the simplest things like signalling. The results so far has been that I know all the theory but still suck at actually putting it into practice. The nice thing is that my eldest had a week of cycling proficiency lessons at school and had a test at the end of it ... They take them on the roads for a week and teach them how to cycle safely on the road. He was one of two kids who got a distinction and a lovely badge to go with it. Makes me feel that at least all my theory benefited someone in the family ... Alas not me. I will keep plugging at it though ... One day I will signal without fear and look behind my shoulder without death- gripping the handlebars.

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    1. Signaling can be another one... especially if I'm on a bike that's not particularly steady. I try to keep my chin close to my body and use my eyes to look behind more than actually turning my head. You might try it and see if it helps you a bit, Stephanie.

      Congrats to your son on passing (with distinction!) his road test with the bicycle! :O)

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    2. I got a lot better at signalling on this one route that had a gradual downhill descent, so I could get a good coast going while I signalled and felt a lot more steady. I wonder if there's somewhere like that you could practice.

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  6. Interesting comments about gripping handlebars very tightly. I would second Annie's suggestion of Ergo grips, but also -- something I certainly had never heard of when I first started cycling -- it can be surprising how much core strength plays a role here. Cycling in and of itself does not strengthen the core but just a few minutes a few times a week doing core exercises makes a truly amazing difference to your sense of balance and control while cycling. It doesn't matter what type of cycling you do or what kind of bike you have. Having a stronger core definitely results in a lighter grip and much improved ability to look over your shoulder and take a hand off the bars to indicate your turns. I discovered this by accident, really, as I found my core strength improving from the Pilates I was doing following my knee surgery and in trying to correct the imbalances in my pelvis and legs.

    My own current and ongoing challenges relate to sinus problems which I am sure affect my balance -- and intermittent vertigo.

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    1. I would definitely agree with core strength adding to confidence and skill on a bicycle. After I took up kickboxing three years ago, I noticed an improvement in cycling and I think a lot of it had to do with so much core work (that I really wasn't working on prior to that). It doesn't have to be anything like kickboxing, but just doing situps, planks, etc a few times a week would definitely help with core strength and overall ability on a bike. Great suggestion, Rebecca!

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  7. One of my sisters has just taken up cycling. She has problems with one hip. Her first bike was very uncomfortable and she felt literally terrified if she could not put her feet on the ground. However, having her saddle low enough to do that was hurting. She asked me for suggestions and frankly I thought "the answer" i.e. putting the saddle at the correct height for leg extension and learning to "step off" the saddle when stopping and get back on again when starting would sound too hard or be too much for her to take in or frankly terrified. So I didn't reply to her straightaway. And she found the answer herself here:
    http://sheldonbrown.com/starting.html

    She got a different bike, one that feels a whole lot more comfortable and stable -- oddly enough, it's something of a cruiser! And she loves it! Finding the whole stopping and starting thing much more intuitive and natural than she expected. And -- funny thing -- she wanted to start cycling again so she could go out with her teenage kids, but she's discovered the joys of cycling all by herself. Me time! :)

    (I've also pointed her towards this blog, so if she sees this... Hi Sharon, hope you're not embarrassed I shared your story.)

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    1. (laughing) Thanks for sending relatives this way, Rebecca. Sharon, if you do read this, I promise not to make you come to the front of the class and make a speech about yourself or anything. :O)

      I think riding a cruiser bike is a fantastic way to transition into cycling. Some people stick with them because they find that it's just what they enjoy. Others seem to move on to other things, but I think being able to have that comfort of foot-on-the-ground-when-stopped is a big help, especially initially. I agree that when on other bikes it can very painful and awkward to have the saddle too low. It starts causing other issues (like knee pain) and no one wants that.

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  8. For me the learning curve was less about bike handling skills and fit than it was about comfort riding in different contexts. When I first took up riding again as an adult, I only felt comfortable riding on rail trails and other MUPs. I would put my bike on the car rack and drive it to the trailhead that was only about two miles from my house! Eventually, I got comfortable taking residential streets to the trailhead. It was really commuting to work that changed my perspective on riding with traffic. I've slowly but surely become much more confident. Just today, I decided to take a fun ride and deliberately avoided the green line near my home in favor of roadways because I knew the MUP would be crowded with kids on balance bikes and moms with strollers on such a nice Saturday! It's funny how much we change in just a short time almost without realizing it.

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    1. This is interesting, Kendra. I have a friend who wants to ride, but she is entirely petrified of riding with or even near traffic, even if there's a bike lane. We went on a ride a couple of summers ago that was mostly on the local multi-use path, but soon thereafter we had the really bad flooding and it wiped out a lot of the trails. Some connections still haven't been rebuilt and since they connect from one side of the city to the other, it's difficult to get her back out on a bike. I'm trying to figure out a way to ease her into it, but I don't think riding on sidewalks is a good way to go, but the trails are so choppy right now that it's challenging to find a stretch more than a mile long. I keep thinking maybe we need to just ride through neighborhoods until she's comfortable with the occasional car driving by and then slowly take her into more populated areas. It's really tricky because I think what she likes about the trails is that she doesn't really have to pay attention. The fun for her is feeling protected from the motorized traffic.

      Hearing stories like yours though give me hope. Perhaps she'll get there one day. We just have to be patient and figure out ways to help her feel comfortable and confident.

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