I used to know a carpenter in Texas named, perhaps not surprisingly, Joe Bob. Joe Bob had a lot of problems in life, but carpentry was not one of them. He weighed about 300 lbs., had heart disease, was divorced four times, had spent time in prison for child sexual assault, was a hardened alcoholic (“I ain’t a drunk ‘cuz I refuse to have a drink before five o’clock”), and lived in trailer on the southeast side of Austin when that was where poor people lived.
“Carpentry,” Joe Bob liked to say “ain’t hard. Long as everything is plumb, staight, and level, it’s gonna hold up good. Plumb, straight, and level. That’s pretty much all you gotta know.”
He made it sound simple, but if you’ve ever tried to get two pieces of wood to join so that they are plumb, straight, or level, much less all three, you know that there’s a reason good carpenters are called craftsmen, and great ones are called masters.
I have never been good at mentoring or coaching in general, and with regards to cycling I am pretty much a nega-mentor. My basic belief is that if you are new to cycling, that is a great time to quit. Every now and then someone will ask, directly or indirectly, for some bicycle coaching/mentoring, and my position is always the same: I don’t know enough to teach, and even if I did, I wouldn’t teach you.
No hard feelings, but IDGAF about your cycling progress. I learned everything on my own, the hard way, which is why I’m not very good at it, and the last thing I want to do is bother my ugly little head about your particular cycling goals. More importantly, or rather most importantly, I don’t want to be responsible for anything that happens to you on your bike which, by the way, you should sell.
Still, despite a lifetime of nega-coaching, I finally wound up with a student I couldn’t shake, my wife. And that’s when all of the nega-coaching had to go out the door, which I realized on our first terrifying bike ride together. It’s true I’m mostly ignorant and 100% not any good, but compared to someone just starting out, it turns out that I actually know a lot, and I realized this because every pedal stroke my brain was essentially screaming “OH FUCK! OH FUCK! OH FUCK!” as eight billion catastrophes were narrowly avoided and every terrible bicycling habit known to man put itself on full display.
To make things worse, she loved it. “That was so much fun!” she said as I went quietly into the bedroom and sobbed.
Breaking it down
As I lay dying, er, crying, I tried to figure out what in the world I was going to do. This was a person I loved who was now riding a bicycle at a somewhat-greater-than-spring-chicken point in her life, and doing it in an area with lots of elevation and lots of traffic. The things that needed fixing were endless. Who was going to fix them?
Not me, that’s for sure. On the other hand, neither would anyone else. If I threw her to the group ride sharks she’d learn all their bad habits, or more likely, have a severe bicycle falling off incident before she even had the chance to permanently ingrain horrible habits.
Clearly the job was getting tossed back in my lap, but that didn’t solve much. Where to start? Everything was wrong. What to fix? Everything was broken.
So I turned to the place that has never helped me solve any problem, ever, the Internet. I googled “What do beginning cyclists need to know?” and what I came up with felt like throwing your hook into the bay and hauling out an old tire, followed by a tin can, followed by a car battery, followed by a corpse.
For example, this genius defines mission critical things as making friends, visiting bike shops, and fixing flats. These d-bags tell you it’s all about the gear, with a few throwaway links to riding in traffic. Naturally, Bicycling.com has a list of completely useless suggestions that will do zip to keep you alive or, more importantly, to make you a better bicycle rider.
The list of stupid things that won’t help is endless, which makes sense because hardly anyone knows how to ride a bike well. So how could they possible tell anyone else how to do it? This led me to the key question of “What is riding well?” I had to think about it a lot, and here’s what I came up with.
For a beginner, riding well means not getting hurt. Pretty much the same thing for a pro, now that you think about it. In fact, that’s all I cared about with regard to my wife. I didn’t care how well she climbed, descended, what gear she had, or how she looked. I just wanted her to not get hurt. Even distilling that bit of sound sense took a lot of effort. But how to do it?
The problem with teaching anyone anything on a bike
… is that there is too much going on. They are having fun. They are chatting. Looking around. Flubbing with their gears. Swerving hither and yon. Fiddling with their computer. Trying unclip before they crash onto their side at the next light and take you out with them.
It seemed like the first obstacle to learning anything was fun and chatting. Biking looks so easy when you are watching experienced riders ride and talk, but the people who are good are also seeing a lot of other things, and beneath the chatter is a very focused attention on what’s happening on the road. The newbie chatterer’s brain sees nothing, understands nothing, and is happily gabbing until “Whoa! Where did that red light/pothole/dump truck come from?” Smash, sirens, huge ER bill, rod in femur.
In other words, the predicate for learning on a bike seems to be that you have to take it seriously. As much as I hate that word related to cycling, when it comes to staying alive, serious attentiveness is way more important than anything else, and you can’t be attentive as a beginner with your mouth gaping like a fish as you talk a mile a minute. Once the ground rule of “NO FUN” was established, things got a lot easier. Sure, there were a million things going on at any given moment, but staying alive and unhurt could be reduced to a few simple elements.
Like Joe Bob, who could sum up carpentry as plumb, straight, and level, I summed up biking for my wife as “Close, cadence, and even.” These three things would keep her alive and they would, once mastered, make her a better bike rider than 99% of the cyclists out there.
Close. Have you ever noticed how most people on bicycles wander all over the roadway, like grazing goats going in whatever direction the grass happens to be? That’s because they don’t know how to ride in a straight line. The quickest way to get your shit tamed and start riding in a straight line is to ride close to someone else. Really close. Bar-to-bar close.
If you can’t ride close, you can’t control the fine movements of your bike that often make the difference between hitting or avoiding something that will knock you down. Bar-to-bar riding also forces you to ride straight, the single most important aspect of proper bike handling. If you are a few centimeters away from someone’s bars and you don’t ride straight, you will hit them.
Proximity also accustoms you to contact and teaches you how to deal with bumps and how not to freak out simply because someone’s shoulder or bars touched yours. It also begins teaching you the lifesaving skill of how to put your bike exactly where you want it. So many riders with decades of riding under their belt are clumsy, jerky, and astonishingly poor at actually guiding their bike–a big reason that they fall down. Nor can they navigate in narrow spaces. The closer you ride the straighter and more steady your shit will get.
Cadence. Beginning cyclists have no idea which gear to use, or how to shift in anticipation of a gradient, coming to a stop, or going downhill, or even how to maintain a proper cadence on flat ground. This cluelessness comes at a cost, because the wrong gears makes everything worse, whether that means leaving from a dead stop in your 53 x 11, or whether it means trying to shift out of your big ring on a sudden 15% grade, only to throw your chain and clump over on your side, possible breaking a hip, elbow, shoulder, or toenail.
Riding at the right cadence is everything, but what is “right”? Well, in my nega-mentor scenario, it’s pretty simple. “Pedal like I’m pedaling.” You have an open book in front of you that is always turned to the right page with regard to cadence. Pay attention to it and imitate it. Once you’re watching the person in the right cadence, it takes all the guesswork out of it and you learn which gear to use and you learn to shift before things happen, rather than when it’s too late.
Having someone whose cadence you can imitate also allows the rider to quit thinking about gears/gear ratios and other complex topics, and dumbs it down to monkey see, monkey do. If you’re the one being imitated, it also saves you from the horror of having to explain what gear ratios are, why they matter, and how to use them. My instruction is “Are your legs moving as fast as mine? Yes? You’re in the right gear. No? Change gears.” Being in the right gear maximizes your ability to maneuver and steer, and greatly affects your stability on the bike and therefore safety. If you don’t have someone you can ride with who knows how to pedal, you’re screwed. Sorry.
Even. Good riding is attentive riding, and the one thing that will help your attentiveness more than any other is learning to ride with your front wheel exactly even with the person next to. Expressed as a negative, don’t half-wheel. It takes huge concentration for beginners to ride even wheeled, and combined with close riding quickly teaches you almost everything you need to know about controlling your bike.
The majority of supposedly skilled racers I know are unfamiliar with half-wheeling. For a new cyclist, learning to keep your front wheel even with your partner’s will further straighten you out and keep you from wobbling. In other words, closeness and even wheels make you ride straight. Of course riding in a straight line is calculus for most people who ride; they can’t do it because they don’t know how and because no one has told them, or wants to take the time to be constantly telling them that they are veering around like a boat in a typhoon with a broken rudder.
All together, now!
These combined three things are incredibly simple but take extraordinary concentration to do every moment you’re riding until you get used to it, which is why most people simply can’t do it. When you forget about fun, about convo, about enjoyment, and you focus solely on avoiding death and injury, these three skills work wonders. There are other things as well, but that raises another problem. New riders are overloaded with information, tips, advice, and suggestions. New riders can’t prioritize and don’t know which ones are mission critical (riding close), and which ones are almost but not quite as important (matchy-matchy socks).
Giving a new rider three simple things to master, things which are simple to understand but which take lots of practice, is the best and most important way to teach critical skills without falling into the boiling cauldron of Internet new rider tips. Even if you disagree with these three items (which would make you wrong), solid riding skills are based on mastery of bike control and movement with and around other riders. Although there are many other things that you could also teach, any new rider has his hands absolutely full mastering even a single skill.
In a few short weeks my wife has learned to ride bar-to-bar, ride even-wheeled, and has figured out by slavish imitation what the right cadence for various conditions feels like. I’m still a nega-coach and am actively discouraging new clients, but at the end of the day I want her, and you, to get home safely. After a few years it would also be cool if you enjoyed it, too.
As we leaky prostate racers say at the end of every race when some whippersnapper asks us how we did, the answer is the same for a new rider as it is for a grizzled, sour, wrinkled, sag-bottomed veteran: “If you go home with all the skin you came with, you won.”
Have you ever considered subscribing to this blog but decided not to because you can also read it for free, because it’s crappy, because of that one time I insulted your pet political issue/honorable order of policefiremenveteransdogcatchers, because I curse too much, or because I was mean that other time to that person who your sister’s brother was friends with? Well, with the exception those whose objection is crappy content (and who are therefore not reading this, I’m asking you to consider kicking in $2.99 per month to subscribe to this blog and support. Dad and Mom, this includes you. Just because we’re related doesn’t mean you should be a deadbeat. Click here and select the “subscribe” link in the upper right-hand corner. Thank you!