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Top tips: How to become a better cyclist in 2020

Cornwall Big Ride Group
Cyclist magazine
6 Feb 2020

A half-century of ideas to help you get better in the saddle this year

Following the trend of addressing health and fitness as a matter of priority once the Christmas hangover has worn off, we've looked back at the 50 ways we can all become better cyclists over a 12 month period as they're all still relevant for 2020.

50 ways to become a better cyclist in 2020

1 Lose weight

Many of us carry a little more timber than we need, especially at this time of year. So eat clean and exercise often to get lean. Reducing your body mass means you’ll have less weight to haul up hills. 

2 Pedal in circles

Don’t stomp on your pedals, instead imagine you’re scraping doggy-doo off your shoes onto a kerbside to help reduce the dead spot and maintain momentum.

3 Look up

Too many cyclists spend too much time with their chin dropped. It’s why they often end up with an aching neck and sore shoulders. So look up: you’ll be more aware of your surroundings, so safer, too.

4 Practise changing tyres

Don’t wait until you’re in the middle of nowhere before finding out whether your puncture repair skills are up to scratch. Practise at home with the same pump and repair kit you’d use out on the road.

5 Adjust your saddle height

If you regularly experience pain in your knees when you ride, try raising your saddle in increments of 2mm until it stops. Alternatively, if you get pain in your back, try lowering your saddle instead. 

6 Buy new handlebars

Choose a set of bars that suit your riding style. A narrow bar is good for getting hunched down and aero, so is better for races. A wider bar opens up your chest and assists breathing, so will suit more leisurely rides. Get ones that are right for you.

7 Check your wheels

Before setting off, give them a quick spin. Do they move freely? Are they straight? Do they rub on the brakes? Are your tyres worn or damaged? Everything’s fine? Then you can set off with confidence.

8 Check your chain

Again before setting off, run your finger over the chain. It should be lubed but not totally smothered in oil. Too much will attract grit/dirt, which will grind down your drivetrain. Your finger should have just a smudge of oil on it.

9 Check your saddle

If you experience numb hands check to see if your saddle’s nose is angled downwards. If it is, then gravity may be forcing your body weight forward onto your hands. So adjust your saddle’s angle accordingly.

10 Try to give your shoulders a break

On long rides, take your hands off the bars (one at a time, please!) and shake your arm out. This helps improve blood flow while relaxing your shoulder muscles.

11 Ride one-handed properly

If you do take one hand off the bars make sure the other one is gripping the bar at the top next to the stem, rather than by the brake-lever hood. This will help you maintain better balance should you hit an obstruction.

12 Leave the Garmin at home

Guilty of obsessing over your bike computer? Then try a digital detox and bench your gadgets and apps one weekend to unlock cycling’s stress-busting benefits.

13 Fix your lights properly

When riding at night, make sure your headlight beam is aiming slightly downwards so oncoming traffic can see you without being dazzled. Be sure not to dip it too much, though, as you’ll still want to see the road around 20 metres ahead of you if riding at speed.

14 Pull your chain

As a rule of thumb, chains should be replaced every few thousand kilometres. So check your chain’s condition with a chain wear gauge – if it’s become stretched it will be making riding hard work. Spend 20 quid and 10 minutes to sort it out.

15 Change your tyres

When the weather’s poor, fit wider tyres if your frame will allow it. We’re talking 25c and higher. This will give you better grip on slippery surfaces and if they’re good enough quality, will reduce pesky punctures.

16 Switch your tyres

Your rear tyre gets worn out twice as quickly as your front one due to the extra weight at the rear, so swap them over regularly to keep the wear even and extend their lifespan, which will save you having to fork out for new ones quite so soon. 

17 Invest in a new pump

Had your floor pump a while? Then the pressure gauge may well be knackered. Inaccurate readings can result in higher rolling resistance and increased chances of a puncture. So treat yourself to a new one!

18 Fit mudguards

Cycling in winter/early spring means rain, muck and more gets flicked up off the road surface onto your backside (and anyone riding behind you) if you haven’t fitted mudguards. What’s that? Mudguards aren’t cool? Neither is a soggy bottom.

19 Check your cockpit

Before every ride, give it the once over – test your brakes are engaging and rock your handlebars back and forth. If you feel movement in the headset, loosen the stem’s clamp bolts, tighten the top cap (but not too tight) then retighten the stem bolts.

20 Nail your cornering

Smooth cornering is key to being both a good rider and a safe one, as most accidents happen on bends. So ride on your drops to distribute your body weight evenly, brake before the bend and always look ahead of it.

21 Keep it shallow

When cornering in the wet, make your turn shallow to reduce the risk of the bike skidding from under you. Ride in wide, steer straight through the turn, then exit wide.

22 Beware the rain

The first few minutes of a rainstorm can cause old dried-out oil on the tarmac’s surface to liquefy again, making the road especially slippery. It’ll take a few minutes to get washed away in a downpour, so take particular heed when the heavens first open.

23 Stand up for obstructions

If you find yourself crossing stretches of potholed road or other surfaces that could cause punctures or damage to your wheels, slow down and stand up in your pedals, with your knees and elbows bent to absorb the shocks. It’ll save your hoops.

24 Breathe better

Try ‘zooming’. Pioneered by US cycling guru Ian Jackson, it puts all the emphasis on the out breath. Jackson says, ‘Instead of just sucking in air and letting it out, try pushing the air out and letting it back in.’ Studies show that cyclists who ‘zoom’ increase aerobic capacity by up to 17%.

25 Change gears smoothly

When you’re riding hard, ease up on the pedals as you change gear. This will help ease the pressure on your chain at the right moment meaning it won’t crunch or even possibly break.

26 Increase your cadence

Don’t pedal in high gears for extended periods. Instead, shift to lower gears and increase your cadence. Aim for between 80-90 revolutions per minute, or higher if you can. You’ll get still plenty of exercise and put less stress on your knees.

27 Seek out souplesse

Souplesse is the word the French use to describe an graceful pedalling style that sees your legs whir round while your upper body remains stock-still. It makes for a much more efficient use of energy. Work on it!

28 Get a bike fit

The best way to find comfort on your bike is to get a professional bike fit. And if you had one last year, get another one because chances are your riding style will have changed (improved) because of it. A high-tech fit typically costs upwards of £200, but you’ll feel like you’re on a new bike afterwards. Ask Mr Google for local fitters.

29 Pull back on your bars

When you’re hammering along, try pulling backwards on your handlebars – this helps transfer greater energy to your pedals.

30 Don’t coast

It’s tempting to stop pedalling when you’re bombing downhill but your bike is more stable when you’re turning the pedals – it’ll also help you to hold onto your speed when you reach the bottom.

31 Stay loose when descending

If you’re stiff haring down a hill, you’re more likely to crash, so get your hands into the drops, lower your centre of gravity and shift your weight onto the front wheel.

32 Turn correctly when descending

If your descent has a turn in it, maintain your balance as you ride through a line by focusing your weight on your outside foot and inside hand.

33 Increase your calcium intake

Cycling is great for your heart, legs and lungs but because your upper body isn’t getting a workout, its bones can weaken. Make sure you get plenty of dark green leafy veg, low-fat cheese (like feta), yoghurts and milk into your diet to boost calcium levels.

34 Eat real ride food

Sports drinks and gels are handy but are all energy and no nutrient. Try using natural foods like pistachios or bananas. Alternatively, eat bocadillos (not to be confused with the Spanish word for sandwich). Colombian cyclists have grazed on this super healthy guava-based snack for decades. More at luchodillitos.co.uk.

35 Eat what your body’s used to

Your body can be trained to use certain foods just as it can be trained to fly up a hill, so find what it works best with in the saddle and don’t experiment when you’re on a big ride like a sportive. Things could get really messy – literally!

36 Drink properly

Hydration is important but so is not crashing. Keep your eyes on the road when you drink from your bottle by lifting it upwards rather than tilting your head back when you imbibe from it.

37 Do more core

Strengthen your upper body by doing core exercises. Planking, press-ups and sit-ups all do the job.

38 Built in some sprints

Keep longer rides interesting and improve your fitness to boot by chucking in a 20-second sprint every half hour or so. It gets you out of the saddle, too, which will help with aches and pains.

39 Use the correct hand position

When you’re descending or racing, grasp the drops. When you’re cruising, grab the brake hoods. When you’re climbing, hold the top of the bar. When standing, grab the hoods and rock the bike from side to side in sync with your pedalling. And always keep finger and thumb wrapped round whatever your holding onto to maintain control.

40 Set goals

Plan your rides, plan your training, plan your season and set yourself realistic targets. Having clear goals to aim for will help you to maintain a structured programme as well as motivation.

41 Sign up for a century

Learning how to pace yourself is another key lesson all cyclists need to learn. What better way of doing that than signing up for a 100-mile ride? It’ll test your ability and discipline as well as your mettle.

42 Get off your bike

Make sure that at some point this year you have a completely bike-free week. A significant period of rest will help with lingering muscle soreness, refresh your mind and re-engage your appetite for the sport.

43 Stop once in a while

Cycling’s as much about busting stress as staying fit, so stop to enjoy a spectacular view when you find one. Chances are you’ll have pedalled hard to reach it, plus you’ll have the chance for a stretch.

44 Ride with your friends

Group riding is technically trickier than riding solo but ultimately makes life easier because it allows you to ride in their slipstream once in while. Just don’t forget to return the favour. Also meeting up with mates isn’t just sociable, it helps keep you motivated.

45 Practise what you’re bad at

Hate climbs? Then climb. Can’t stand sprinting? Do interval training. Scared of descents? You get the picture. Don’t just stick to the bits of cycling you’re already good at, as you’ll never improve.

46 Clean your bike after every ride

This is extra important in the winter when roads are full of muck, gravel and salt. Yes, it’s the last thing you want to do when you come in from a ride but your bike will last longer if you clean and lube its moving parts. You’re less like to suffer a mechanical the next time you hit the road, too.

47 Raise the bar

Aching neck muscles can also be caused by having to reach too far for your handlebars. So if you’re not prepared to splash out on a bike fit, try shortening your stem or using spacers to raise your bar.

48 Let your legs off

When you’re putting in a big, sustained effort, allow each leg to float every four pedal strokes or so to rest it – ie don’t drive your foot through the pedal, simply let it go with the flow.

49 Check out your shadow

When the sun starts shining again and you find yourself riding next to your shadow, use it to check your riding position. Your elbows should be bent, as should your knees at the bottom of the pedal stroke, while your back needs to be straight not hunched.

50 Ride new routes

Don’t just ride on roads you know. Fire up Google Maps and find somewhere fun and new to go. Plan it with mates and go and explore – it’s what your bike was built for!

The original version of this article by Nick Soldinger first appeared on Cyclist.co.uk in January 2017

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