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Monday, September 01, 2014

Reflections on Cycling Skills

My book, Independent Cycle Touring spends a significant portion on cycling skills. When people think of cycling, they mostly consider it a fitness activity: one where the emphasis is on how fast and how hard you can ride. Sure, aerobic capacity is important, and I'd never be one to dismiss the importance of fitness.

The reality, however, is that on the road as well as off-road, cycling is a highly technical sport. In recent years, the kind of fitness approach advocated by books such as the Cyclist's Training Bible and cross-fit type activities has led to an interesting phenomenon: of very strong fit cyclists who cannot handle their bikes and crash in situations that are just slightly technical. In the past, when it took a year or two to get fit enough to climb up to Skyline, by the time you saw a cyclist in the mountains, they were generally good bike handlers. Today, I see lots of cyclists who can't descend safely, many who can't ride safely in a paceline, some who can't start from a grade, and most can't even handle a front-wheel skid. This is endemic of a culture that prizes data, and bike handling skills simply cannot be measured with a stopwatch, GPS, or bragged about on Strava, so many cyclists ignore them.

As a result, you find cyclists who avoid pleasant riding on dirt roads, cycling in the rain, pace-lining, or worse, cyclists who repeatedly ride the same route over and over for fear of trying a new road. It's no wonder that the most popular Garmin GPS is the Garmin Edge 500, a GPS that cannot show you where you are on a map!

I once had a cyclist say to me, "Piaw: I've ridden with you for 6 months, and there's never been a ride where you didn't go off-road." By contrast, someone I know once crashed his bike riding up a driveway because he approached it at an angle and slid out. As far as I can tell,  he never rode his bike again. You cannot get better at technical cycling by staying within your comfort zone. You can only do so by constantly riding in challenging circumstances in order to improve your skills. Doing so can avoid a crash and save you from some pain later!

I don't want to over-emphasize this, since cycling is still by far safer than Motorsports. Arturo said early on in this year's Tour of the Alps that cycling felt dangerous to him, since he was descending mountain passes at speed without wearing armor or a protective roll cage around him. While this is an understandable reaction, it is entirely false. While on a descent you might approach motorcycle speed, that's at most one third of your time spent cycling; for every hour you descend, you have to climb three hours in order to make it to the descent. Most crashes are single-vehicle crashes. Even if you fell off your bike while climbing, your injuries are likely to be minor. Motorcycles and cars, however, move at speed regardless of grade, which makes them a heck of a lot more dangerous because the drivers have to be alert at all times.

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