Can You Handle That (Bike)?

I decided to give myself a 64th birthday present of a Road Bike Skills training session. Bruce Hendler of Athleticamps in Folsom (https://www.athleticamps.com/) offers a 90 minute, one on one session covering the basics or stopping, cornering, bike control, and vision.

I never felt like I was an especially good bike handler, and I’m always cautious on corners and downhills. So when I learned Bruce offers this kind of training, I jumped on it right away.

We went to a parking lot at Granite Bay State Park, and Bruce set up some cones forming an alley. We started with braking. He told me to get up speed and then LOCK UP the back brake and control the skid. Wow, I didn’t expect that. I was a little worried, but I accelerated to 20 mph or so and then hit the brake hard and skidded to a stop, under control and in a straight line. The skid was about 20 feet long and didn’t waver at all. So far, so good! Except for the tire, which wasn’t new and now needs to be replaced.

Next he had me stop using just the front brake. The danger here is that the power of the front brake will cause your body to want to move forward. That old ‘every action causes an equal and opposite reaction’ thing. If the rider doesn’t pay attention to this he can have one of those dreaded ‘over the bar’ experiences.

The key is to throw your butt back off of the saddle and extend your arms so that your weight moves back to counter the braking forces. I was supposed to brake hard but not skid the front wheel.

Since Bruce had put up several sets of cones, I could see how long it took to stop. The front brake without a skid stopped much quicker than the rear brake with a skid. We all know there is more braking power up front but this was a graphic display. He had me do this twice, once on the hoods and once on the drops.

Vision Exercise: Use the Corner of Your Eye to Corner

Next we worked on vision. You are supposed to look where you want to go, not where you are. I knew this too, but I’m bad at it. I tend to focus too much down and close, looking for potholes and rocks and bumps and the edge of the road. Bruce set up a tight square with cones at each corner and a stack of cones in the center. The idea was to ride around the corner cones while keeping my eyes pointed at the center stack. I was supposed to pick up the corner cones with my peripheral vision, or out of the ‘corner’ of my eye.

I did this a couple of times, first counter clockwise, then clockwise. I was shaky at first but I started to improve. What was remarkable was how much better I was going clockwise (right turns) than counterclockwise (Left turns). I know I’m way more comfortable doing downhill curves to the right, and that was obvious here. Bruce says it is because my peripheral vision is better in that direction.

He expanded the square, which made seeing the cones harder. Then he expanded the square again. I did this drill for quite a while, both directions, on the hoods and in the drops. I can’t say I was good at it but I did make a little progress.

We did a drill with cones in a single line. The idea was to shift your body toward the cone while sort of guiding the bike from one side of the line to another. I was supposed to keep my body close to the line. Bike right, body left. Bike left, body right. I was quite awkward at first but I got a little better after a few tries. This is supposed to help avoid obstacles without swerving into other riders.

Finally, Bruce set up a corner, and we practiced the O-I-O that we all know: Outside-Inside-Outside. That is how to take a corner. I did left turns and right turns and didn’t do too badly. On the other hand, the parking lot was flat, not downhill at 7 to 12%. The corner wasn’t blind; no trees or boulders blocking the view. There wasn’t any wind. And no oncoming cars to worry about.

I was behind a ‘great’ SBC descender once. He had been dropped on the climb and was going to show us how fast he could descend. He passed me at about 30 mph while I was barely doing 15, because I couldn’t see around the next turn. I watched him set up the right hander ‘Outside’ then cut across the apex “Inside” and disappear. A fraction of a second later I heard brakes shriek and heard the crash of a rider using his face to smash a windshield. Then the screams. He lived, and other than some major facial lacerations he was ok. But he was very lucky.

Bike handling skills are important, and often neglected. Most of us could benefit from some instruction and practice, me more than most riders. But no matter how good your skills are, if you ride recklessly you put yourself and others at risk. Racers get paid to take risks, but Jens Voight advised the rest of us to ‘go downhill like a grandma!’ Advice I am sure to follow.

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