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I'm a commuter; I mostly ride around the city to get to work, go shopping, visit friends, and stop by the pub. I have basic cycling skills down; proper mounting and dismounting, signaling turns, standing on my pedals to sprint up short hills, and so on. But I've seen some more advanced skills and tricks that I don't know how to do, such as bunny hops, track stands, and the like.

What advanced cycling skills are useful for a commuter or city rider, and how can I learn to do them? I'm interesting in things that are useful, not just showy, and interested in city riding, not mountain biking. For instance, learning to bunny hop might be useful for that one point where the curb cut to get back on the bike trail is half a block down from where the trail actually is.

For each trick or skill, describe it and how it's useful in the city, any limitations it might have (can only be done on a fixie or a mountain bike with front shocks, or should only be done when you have plenty of clearance on both sides, etc), and describe how to learn it, either directly in the answer or by referring to a good resource on learning it elsewhere.

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How To Do a Track Stand –  dotjoe Nov 12 '10 at 17:19
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@dotjoe Feel free to write an answer describing what a track stand is and how and when it's useful, and link to that question for the description of how to learn it. –  Brian Campbell Nov 12 '10 at 17:28
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A bit of related stuff here: What do you wish someone had told you before your first commute? –  freiheit Nov 12 '10 at 18:03
    
How is your city for biking? Do you fear for your life when your wheels hit the street? What are normal car speeds? Is the terrain flat or hilly? Rough or paved? –  Jay Bazuzi Nov 12 '10 at 19:42
    
@Jay My city is Boston; it's pretty bad for any form of transportation on the streets. Crazy drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians, crazier streets. The only saving grace is that because the drivers and streets are so crazy, everyone is generally alert and paying attention to what's around them, and traffic isn't moving too fast. Not too much in the way of hills. But I'm curious about tips that will apply to any urban riding. –  Brian Campbell Nov 12 '10 at 21:40
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8 Answers

up vote 47 down vote accepted

Some important skills for commuters:

Looking directly behind you without turning.

This is a surprisingly difficult skill to master. When a rider looks directly backwards, it is common to turn in the direction they twisted their head. It takes a lot of practice to make resisting that turning automatic. The importance of looking behind you in traffic should be obvious.

Rapid countersteering

It is not uncommon to come up to an intersection when a vehicle in the crossing direction will come in front of you, and you will not have enough time or space to stop safely. Sometimes what is required is a countersteered* turn into the direction the crossing vehicle is traveling. This requires a quick turn of the handlebars in the opposite direction you want to turn, which will cause your center of gravity to rapidly swing to the side you want to be going. Returning the handlebars to turn in the direction you want to go completes the turn, and by doing so you can turn very rapidly with a very tight radius.

You might not be able to stop, but it can be preferable to make a sudden turn rather than crashing into something.

Stopping suddenly

Not many riders are highly skilled in using their brakes. Practice slamming on your brakes, especially using only the front, and get a feel for how much force it takes to get your back wheel off the ground. Practice to the point that when you are in a panic situation you don't simply clutch the levels with every ounce of strength, practice so modulating your brake power is a purely mechanical, automatic skill. Also practice stopping on sandy, wet, and icy surfaces.

Lesser but still important skills

  • Watching for people in parked cars that might open their door right in front of you while biking alongside them.
  • Recognizing when one of the common collision situations are upon you and how to respond defensively.
  • Riding on slippery surfaces.
  • Never stop at the stop line where 18 wheelers are turning, always stop a good distance behind so the truck has room to turn.
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Great tips, thanks! –  Brian Campbell Nov 12 '10 at 22:54
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Nice answer! Maybe add a bit about lane positioning to avoid the door zone and right hooks? –  freiheit Nov 12 '10 at 22:57
    
RE: Countersteering: Motorcyclists often practice this manouver, and call it "swerving". It turns out that without that training, riders often swerve the wrong way, making a near-miss in to a sure-hit. Safety classes teach "push left, go left". The weight of a motorcycle is so much greater than a bicycle, but counter-steering to initiate a quick turn is still useful. –  Jay Bazuzi Nov 13 '10 at 3:57
    
RE: Stopping: On smooth, dry pavement, you can stop faster if you shift your weight back. I enjoy practicing sudden stops for fun. –  Jay Bazuzi Nov 13 '10 at 4:45
    
@Jay Bazuzi: For sure, on motorcycles it is much more visible. The motorcycle is so much heavier than the body, that is what you have to do to turn pretty much all the time. I've found that to be a useful demonstration for people that have a hard time accepting the concept that you start turning by going the opposite direction. On a bike it can be so fine that people sometimes don't believe me. –  whatsisname Nov 13 '10 at 18:33
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How to mount a curb. (kerb?)

Start with your bike. With enough skill, you can go up a tall curb without damaging the bike. But as novice, make it easier on yourself.

  • Remove extra weight. Backpack, panniers, etc.

  • Remove lose items. Water bottles come to mind.

  • Flat bars are easier.

  • Fat tires protect your wheels when you make a mistake.

Prerequisites

It helps if you can ride slowly. If you don't feel confident at below-walking-speeds, then you'll have a harder time learning to mount curbs.

How to do it

The most important thing is to get your body weight off the wheel that is going up the curb. You weigh 5-10x as much as your bike!

Make your approach 90% from the curb. Low speed is good, but make sure you feel stable on the bike. Stand on pedals at 3- and 9-O'Clock. Keep your knees slightly bent.

Just before the front wheel hits, throw your weight back, and yank up on the handlebars. You may lift the front wheel off the ground slightly, but it's not necessary.

Just before the back wheel hits, throw your weight forward, and hop on the pedals. You may lift the back wheel off the ground, but that's harder than the front wheel. I can't do it!

If you do it perfectly, it should be a smooth motion. The bike doesn't get jolted around. You don't lose any speed.

Where to practice

Try a flat, empty, paved parking lot. You want the biking to be as easy and safe as possible, without distractions.

Before going up a curb, practice with going over a twig or a pebble. See how smoothly you can do it. Graduate to larger items & higher speeds when ready. The concrete bars they put at the end of each parking space can be good practice, too.

Going down a curb

The same principles apply. Before your front wheel drops, shift your weight way back, and ease the wheel down. Before the rear wheel drops, get your weight on the front.

Advanced techniques

If you can bunny hop (I can't) then you can approach a curb or other obstacle at high speed, and clear it easily. Good for you.

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Been commuting on the bike for the last 5 years, never had an occasion where I needed to jump a curb. When would you need to do this? I guess I'm assuming you're not recommending people ride on sidewalks :) –  zigdon Nov 12 '10 at 20:01
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I've used it to evade a bus that was moving right into my lane on top of me. Jumped sideways onto the curb so I wasn't flat. –  curtismchale Nov 12 '10 at 20:25
    
@zigdon: I was going to write "I think bikes belong on sidewalks." Then I realized that I really believe bikes belong on the roads, and cars be rare. Anyway, it depends on where you are whether riding on the sidewalk is condoned or not. –  Jay Bazuzi Nov 12 '10 at 20:30
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At least in the US, bikes belong on the road, as far as most laws are concerned. Unfortunately, too many drivers are not familiar with the relevant laws. Using a hop to avoid an accident is a useful tool to have, I just don't want more cyclists to think the road isn't for them. –  zigdon Nov 12 '10 at 20:54
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@zigdon - There's a parking lot I regularly enter that has a very badly built curb cut -- it's essentially half the height of a curb. I use the pull-on-the-handlebars trick to get the front of the bike up there, at very low speed. You can also use similar techniques to avoid potholes. It even works with a loaded touring bike, although not as well. –  Neil Fein Nov 14 '10 at 3:58
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Try driving around bicyclists

Now that you are experienced with biking around cars, you know what drivers often do that you hate.

Periodically do some driving around bikes, to stay in touch with what drivers are going through. That will help you anticipate driver's behavior when you're on your bike.

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Very good solution indeed! After a couple of years only biking to uni, driving a car through the city again really opened my eyes. –  arne Mar 7 at 9:16
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Both basic and advanced things any cyclist should know are covered in Cyclecraft. The best book on road cycling in the world (though remember non-Brits we cycle on the other side of the road!)

http://www.cyclecraft.co.uk/

Edit: actually there is a North American edition. http://www.cyclecraft.org/

I am not very happy giving excerpts but I guess the thing that I think is most important in the book is talking about road position of the bike and taking a primary riding position and not cowering next to the curb in the broken glass and drain covers. It has a good section on being overtaken by traffic and how to discourage this if it is not safe. Also being aware of the way trucks and lorries can behave and so avoid being crushed by turning trucks (which is what causes most cyclist deaths here in London see the no more lethal lorries campaign http://www.no-more-lethal-lorries.org.uk/)

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Nice! Looks like a good book. Do you suppose you might be able to list some of the more advanced techniques they describe, or provide an excerpt? –  Brian Campbell Nov 12 '10 at 21:59
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Learn to use your ears.

I found that my ears were one of my most valuable assests when riding in traffic. Being able to tell what is going on around you without having to constantly turn your head to look just means you are more aware and therefore safer.

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One thing I am worried about is electric cars that won't have any engine sound. think about it! –  pfctdayelise Aug 5 '11 at 6:19
    
A big part of he car noise actually are the tires on the road. And there are ideas in different legislations to require some "sound machine" for electric cars. –  johannes Nov 27 '11 at 0:58
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Check with your local cycling advocacy group, they often have bike-handling classes, which tend to teach both techniques and give you some insight to the law in your area. As you mentioned you're from Boston, I recommend checking out MassBike's classes.

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As I said in the question, I'm looking more for advanced skills. I've got basic bike handling skills down pretty well, which from what I can tell are what MassBike teaches. I'm looking for advanced skills and techniques, in particular bike handling techniques, which can be applicable to city riding. –  Brian Campbell Nov 12 '10 at 22:43
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Track Standing

(thanks to @zingdon for what its called)

What I practice repeatedly at all traffic lights is balancing without putting your feet on the ground.

It improves balance which can prevent a crash if you ever get knocked slightly e.g. clipped by a wing mirror or hit an unsuspected pot-hole.

For learning:

  • brake until you come to a standstill
  • turn the handlebars slightly to one side (so that you don't roll straight forward)
  • stand up
  • pedal cranks must be horizontal - i.e. both feet at the same height
  • feather the front brake so that you move a little if you're losing your balance
  • its possible to move the bike backwards slightly by tugging against the handlebars when you feather the brake - so you can rock too and fro.
  • watch others at red lights who are doing it
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It's called track standing, and while a useful skill, careful when you do it at lights. It makes it a LOT harder for cars to know what you're doing, and I've often seen people inch forward into the actual intersection (or other lanes) without really noticing. –  zigdon Jan 24 '11 at 15:15
    
Also, you don't necessarily have to stand up to track stand. –  alesplin Jan 24 '11 at 23:41
    
@zigdon You're right - it can be risky, especially letting yourself roll forward. Also there's much potential for making a fool out of yourself. @alesplin, you don't have to but I found it much harder to balance whilst sitting down. My balance is pretty terrible at the best of times so can't hold it for long but it helped a lot. –  icc97 Jan 30 '11 at 16:32
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Look into car's side-mirrors

Very simple advice, but that it takes time to master. Gazing into parked cars mirrors will give you a warning sign of a possible open door or car that will incorporate into the traffic flow: no person reflected, great! You should be able of doing this quickly and from the reflection decide what to do: it is common that drivers lean forward so they have a broad view of the incoming cars before starting to move.

Learn to asses if a passing car will turn to the right

Did the car that over pass you, crank the motor really hard? (listen!) Was the driver looking directly ahead or turning his head to the right? Mad car drivers have done this to me dozens of times, some with less than a meter of space.

Pedestrians raising their hands

This possibly means that a bus or taxi will stop in front of you, or that they will corner you.

Learn how to do police car sounds

Police cars in my city do a sort of half-cycle-siren sound they use for bringing up attention, not really for chasing. I do it with my mouth, sort of similar to wolfs howl. Specially useful riding on the night, when there are a lot of cars skipping red lights. In general, you should be able to make loud sounds with no devices, be it hiss or whistle or even yelling. But only use them in danger situations.

As an extra: if you have a crappy front light (like I do) you should be able to change the angle it points. Directly to the ground to look at the street, this depends on current light conditions, street condition and luminosity of your lamp. Parallel-ish to the floor so it easier for cars to spot you.

This might sound crazy, but I'm sure that there are a lot of people who commute in cities as crazy as mine.

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A helmet mounted mirror seems better than the first one. Also, a decent light isn't too pricey. –  Batman Mar 7 at 2:46
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@Batman: I think you misunderstood the mirror part. Iker suggested looking into mirrors of cars on the side of the road to check whether there's someone in there who might slam open the door or pull into traffic, not to check whether there's something behind you. –  arne Mar 7 at 9:21
    
Ah, that makes a lot more sense and is useful. –  Batman Mar 7 at 14:33
    
@Batman I think that turning your head will let drivers behind you know that you spot them and that you are aware of them. Which I believe is a good argument against using mounted mirrors. Even an intense light should be able to point far ahead (getting even further than a crappy one) or directly to the ground if it's too abrupt. –  Iker Mar 8 at 17:38
    
Theres really two problems - to see and to be seen. In most cases when commuting, the latter is what you need. –  Batman Mar 8 at 22:59
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