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Are there any time tested ways to improve one's bike handling skills?

Outside of regular riding (road) are there certain exercises one can do to increase body awareness on the bike, improve coordination, and increase balance?

Are there any exercises one can do off of a bike to increase handling skills and balance while on the bike?

18

In rapidly descending order of importance ...
(see Why I chose these priorities below)

  1. Practice track stands. See How to do a track stand?
    This teaches balance and slow bike handling skills. Also practice riding in confined spaces (the last time I fell off was trying to do a U turn on a path that was 4 ft (1.2m) wide :-)

  2. Learn to jump both wheels off the ground at the same time. This is usually called a Bunny Hop. Apply to jumping objects.
    You probably already do simple bunny hops to get up kerbs. See our bunny hop database https://bicycles.stackexchange.com/search?q=bunny+hop

  3. Learn to pick objects up from the ground with your hands (on both sides).
    Have you or a friend ever dropped something on the road and had to circle back, stop, and pick it up? With this skill you learn to control the bike while hanging off the side, with your knuckles dragging ...
    Start by placing a drink bottle on some level ground, and ride slowly past it and pick it up with one hand. When you can do it with one hand, use the other. Then go for smaller objects. Last week I picked a pump a guy ahead of me in the bunch had dropped. Be very careful with long objects; if they get in your spokes you'll never even know what happened :-)

  4. Learn to mono. Ok, so I still haven't grown up.

  5. Learn stoppies (mono on front wheel). Just how much can your front brakes cope with?

The first two have obvious utility, the third is useful (but 99.9% of cyclists live without it) and the last two are more for fun. But they will all teach you balance and control.

But probably number zero should be learn to ride with no hands. Of course, this is illegal to do on the road, and of course every kid does it. Once you can do it well, you can put on and take off jerseys, rain tops, etc. Being winter here now, this one gets used every week.

After a bit more thought, I would add a couple of easy skills that teach a lot

  • Learn to initiate a turn using only your body weight. Most people turn by countersteering a tiny amount to initiate the turn. This skill teaches you how the geometry of your bike works, and links in with balance skills.

  • Practice riding along the painted road lines and see how far you do it. The further you can go the more balanced and fine tuned you are.

And seeing the answer by dlu reminded me to add

  • On fast sections, where the surface is unknown (or known to be bumpy), get your bottom off the seat so that the bike can pivot under you.

Why I chose these priorities

Items 1 to 5 are ordered as a combination of potential frequency of use and difficulty / danger involved in learning. Certainly @mattnz is correct that stoppies are valuable in emergencies (being able to do one saved me from a HUGE T-bone once).

  • +1 for this answer. Regarding #1, I completely agree. I was doing really tight U turns on a downhill path about sidewalk width and almost lost it a couple times, going very, very slow. Almost had to hop the bike around the corner. – ebrohman Jul 23 '15 at 14:01
  • I think Sagan checked this list at the '14 Tour of Oman, probably adding a no-handed mono at some point. – ebrohman Jul 23 '15 at 14:06
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    I would put learning Stoppies higher up the list as it helps in real life emergencies if you are confident about using the front brake to the maximum. – mattnz Jul 23 '15 at 21:25
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    @matt Yes it does. The last time I did a real emergency stop was on a bike I hadn't practiced on. But as the back came up I was able to control it because I knew what was happening and was able to feather the brakes. Without the autonomic skill I'd have gone A over Z. – andy256 Jul 23 '15 at 21:43
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    +1 for learn to ride with no hands. That's such a handy skill. Also, you can practice doing wide turns with no hands just your body weight. – Sumyrda - Reinstate Monica Jul 24 '15 at 5:32
8

Off the bike many forms of exercise will help. Yoga and martial arts in particular will help with balance.

On the bike consider mountain biking to help your road technique. A mountain bike with no shocks even better. Once you learn to negotiate rocks, roots, and drop offs then a lot of the low speed stuff that happens on the street seems easy.

Cyclocoss is a great way to improve your handling skills. You get to fall at lower speed on grass. They have clinics.

If not a mountain bike but the style of road bike. A racing bike with narrow tires is not going to be as agile or forgiving as a more upright position with larger tires.

As you are learning new street technique like hoping a curb it is easier to start on a mountain bike (I think). It is easier to bail on mountain bike (I think). Set up some cones to weave in and out of. See how tight of a circle you can ride. Empty parking garages are a good place to practice. Ride over (and hop) the those cement blocks to stop the tire. See if you can ride the length of the barrier. See if you can bounce the front wheel off a wall turn around. Track stands are easier to learn on a slight incline. You can practice your downhill with a lot of turns.

  • No MTB unfortunately, but I'd love to learn on one. – ebrohman Jul 23 '15 at 14:01
  • I picked up a nice single speed fix fork (carbon) mtn for $800 to work on my handling skills and it was so worth it. And I use for walking the dog, going to the store, going to the bar .... I even use it for cyclocross practice to not run the stairs in my cleats. A light bike also helps you with learning technique. – paparazzo Jul 23 '15 at 17:47
5

Ride off-road. Riding a road bike on dirt is a great way to improve your skills. Get out on dirt roads or mild MTB trails (just be mindful that large rocks or tree roots can cause a flat or even a dented rim if you're not careful) Bonus points: you get some great looks when you pass people on full suspension MTBs! ;)

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    Yep. And the falls you'll have while practicing are softer on dirt. – andy256 Jul 23 '15 at 21:51
  • This is what I was going to answer. Although I was imagining using a mountain bike for mountain biking; maybe that's just me. – joseph_morris Jul 28 '15 at 18:11
  • It all depends on the trail! I'm talking more your local/city park type trails which tend to be fairly easy. Dirt roads/rail trails can also easily be done on a road bike (keep in mind the Tour de France was largely run on dirt roads for decades). I used to ride all over the trails around Mt Tam in Marin County on my cyclocross bike with little difficulty. Hoo Koo E Koo, Eldridge, Miwok, Bobcat, etc. are all do-able on a cross bike though you need to keep your speed in check on the descents. Golden Gate Park is a blast on a cyclocross bike and a total snooze on a MTB. – ChrisL Jul 28 '15 at 18:21
  • Not really fun with high pressure, 23mm tires. They will also have cuts in the sidewalls pretty fast. – Michael Jul 29 '15 at 7:38
  • Riding 23mm, high pressure tires isn't fun anywhere - there's a reason why so many pros now ride 25mm tires and average PSI has been decreasing because people have finally realized harder isn't faster. I ride 28-32mm everywhere these days though roads suck in Seattle. Sidewall cuts have never been a big problem, even when I wrenched for a 'cross team though could be different in your area. – ChrisL Jul 29 '15 at 18:20
3

One thing that can help is training on rollers. It's kind of dangerous at the begining, because the bike reacts a lot to little imbalances, but as you get more experience on them you will feel much more stable on the bike and this might help in feeling the bike better on the road.

As for bike handling, ride it and ride it more, I don't think anything beats experience. You can look up techniques for cornering or decending, but you will have to try them a little faster each time to know your limit.

3

I'm far from an expert here, but here are somethings that have helped me:

  • Pay attention to how you feel on the bike and how the bike responds to you. Some of this you are probably doing naturally – like shifting your weight back as you brake.

  • Read about cycling technique.

  • Encourage yourself to think about and experiment with the dynamics of the bike – for example, how does the balance of weight shift between your front and back wheels as you go from sitting to standing? How might that affect the bike's handling?

  • Listen to riders talk (or write) about the skills that seem important to them.

  • Notice how people explain their crashes and near crashes. Listen for what they did wrong or wish they'd known – you may have to infer the skills, but it will teach you a lot.

2

Don't neglect your core and upper body. If your core is weak, your ability to balance, lift, and jump the bike will also be weak.

0

I can recommend a very good book on mastering mtb skills (some transferable to any other kind of bike of course). Brian Lopes, Lee McCormack - Mastering mountain bike skills. I especially like the chapter on cornering. Plus you can start learning bike trials. Like mentioned before, start from track stand or cradle, then learn pivots on front and back wheel. Those can be done on almost any bike.

Standing on a swissball is also a great exercise for improved balance.

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0

I want to say one word to you. Just one word.

Rollers.

Riding off road will help too, but learning to ride rollers comfortably will take your balance to another level and greatly enhance your ability to recover from the unexpected: blowouts, sand, getting bumped.

We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

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    Welcome to Bicycles @Eric. When you have enough rep such a short post should be made as a comment. But, your suggestion has already been made, so again, when you have enough rep, you should just vote it up. Please check out the help center to see how this sites works :-) – andy256 Jul 30 '15 at 22:05
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    While this may theoretically answer the question, the answer has been flagged. To provide true value, you should edit and expand your answer to include the reason(s) why rollers are key to improving handling, or how you would use the rollers to improve. Remember that answers should be clear and detailed. Check out the Tour for more info. – Gary.Ray Jul 31 '15 at 2:52

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