Beginner's guide to essential cycling skills

Basic riding skills for everyone

Before you hit the road, here are the essential basic riding skills that everyone should know and practice.

You never forget how to ride a bike, right? That’s essentially true, but coaches who teach cycling to adults say there are a few things that they do forget – or never learned.

We’re talking about things like getting the saddle height right, setting off, braking and using the gears. Plus there’s one mechanical skill that’s so useful everyone should know how to do it: getting your front wheel off and on so you can carry your bike by car.

Set your saddle right

Getting your saddle height right is vital. Just as you wouldn’t be very comfortable walking around in a pair of jeans with the legs four inches too long, so you won’t be comfortable on a bike if the saddle is too high or too low.

If your saddle is a lot too high, you’ll know about it very quickly – you  won’t be able to reach the pedals! Adjust it as shown below. If it’s just a little too high, you will still be able to reach the pedals but your hips will rock from side to side as you pedal. That will quickly make you sore and uncomfortable. A useful rule of thumb is therefore to make sure your saddle is not so high that this happens.

If your saddle’s too low, you lose muscular efficiency and so you’ll get tired more quickly. For some people, the sharper bend in the knee from a low saddle height can cause injury.

To move your saddle up and down (picture below) you’ll need an Allen key. They’re usually 5mm, though some bikes use 4mm or 6mm Allen key bolts for this. Unscrew the bolt by turning it anti-clockwise, then lift or lower the saddle as necessary. Make sure the saddle is straight as well as at the right height, then tighten the bolt firmly so that the saddle won’t rotate if you try and twist it. That should leave it tight enough that it won’t sink under you.

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There’s no single way of setting your Goldilocks height – just right – for your saddle. For racing and other serious riding it’s often suggested that you start with a saddle to pedal distance of 1.09 X your inside leg, as this has been found to be efficient for some riders. But it’s too high for many people, so we suggest a knee angle of 25 to 35 degrees with the pedal at the bottom of the stroke.

You can always tilt the bike bit to reach the ground comfortably.

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Going flat-footed: the reason many riders lower their saddles too much is because it lets them sit across the bike with a foot flat on the floor, which feels safe.

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Saddle height right: your saddle should be high enough that your knee makes a 25-35 degree angle when your foot is at the bottom of the pedal stroke.

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Saddle too low: you’ll be less efficient in this position and in the long-term you risk knee injury. And, let’s be honest, you look like a bit of a numpty.

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You can still reach the ground from the right saddle height, you just have to stretch a bit.

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Getting started

A vital skill that beginners often struggle to master is simply pushing off at the beginning of a ride. The trick is not to teeter on the saddle, but to straddle the bike and lift yourself on to the saddle as you set off.

It’s useful to know which is your lead foot, because this is the best one to start pedalling. Imagine yourself sliding across a polished floor in your socks. Which foot do you lead with? That’s your lead foot. Here's the sequence:

1 Start with your lead foot on the pedal, straddling the bike (picture below). Squeeze the brake levers gently to hold the brakes on lightly and steady the bike. A look over your shoulder is always a good idea, even on a car-free path.

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2 Release the brakes and push down with your lead foot. As you start moving, push off the ground with your other foot and lift yourself up away from the bike frame. Keep a firm grip on the bars, pointing the bike forward.

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3 Place your other foot on the pedal and start pedalling, moving your bum back toward the saddle as the bike starts moving.  A couple of pedal strokes while out of the saddle will help get you up to speed quickly.

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4 Carry on pedalling, and gently lower yourself on to the saddle. Keep looking forward, rather than down at the bars or the road, as this will keep you steady.

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5 Sit yourself comfortably and away you go. Keep a light grip on the bars and your head up, and keep looking down the road or track.

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The trick to learning to stop quickly is to use the brakes together, then learn to use the front brake – your most powerful brake – to maximum advantage. Many riders fear that using the front brake will put them over the handlebar, but you can reduce your stopping distance by almost 50 per cent if you use the front brake rather than the rear on its own.

On bikes assembled to UK standard the rear brake is controlled by the left lever. Use this brake alone and you’ll stop, but not as quickly as you could. The best strategy for beginners is to pull the rear brake lever first and then bring in the more powerful front brake gradually.

Braking: braking

As you pull the front brake lever, brace yourself against the handlebar. The fastest braking comes when the front brake is almost lifting the rear wheel off the ground. This takes practice so spend some time in a safe, traffic-free environment seeing just how quickly you can stop.

Braking: braking

Using the gears

We see many beginners toiling up hills because they don’t know how to use their gears. It’s not obvious what all those sprockets and the buttons on the handlebars do, so don’t be afraid to ask your bike shop for a demonstration.

On a bike with derailleur gears, the front derailleur provides large jumps in gears, and you fine-tune with the rear derailleur. It’s very like a truck or four-wheel-drive off-roader with high range and low range gearboxes.

The right-hand shifters control the rear derailleur, and the left-hand shifters control the front derailleur.

Hub gears usually have just one control, on the right  hand side of the bar, to move through the whole range.

As with braking, find yourself a safe, traffic-free environment and practise shifting up and down the gears to get a feel for what they do. For starters, try putting the front derailleur in the smallest of two, or middle of three chainrings, then shift up and down the rear sprockets.

You’ll notice that the difference between one sprocket and another is not great, but because there are eight, nine, or ten of them this gives quite a wide range.

Then, shift into the largest chainring by pushing the larger button on the left-hand shifter and again shift up and down the rear sprockets with the right hand control. All the gears are harder to pedal in the larger chainring, which means you’ll go faster for a given pedalling speed. Use these gears for downhills and fast flat sections.

If you have a triple chainring, use the left-hand control to move the chain down two steps to the smallest chainring. The gears here are very easy; they’re great for climbing hills.

Another common beginner problem is to pedal very slowly in a high gear. You’ll be more comfortable and able to ride for longer if you pedal more quickly in an easier gear. It may not feel that you’re doing much work, but that’s the idea: each pedal stroke involves less effort so you can keep going for many more of them.

Picture below: a middle gear. With the chain on the middle ring of a triple or small ring of a double, you have medium-sized gears suitable for medium-speed riding on the flat and up and down moderate hills.

Gears: gears

Picture below: a high gear. With the chain on the larger chainring and a small rear sprocket you’ll travel a long way for each turn of the pedals, enabling you to go faster. Perfect for descending or just getting a move on.

Gears: gears

Picture below: a low gear. With the chain on the smallest chainring and larger sprockets you can climb hills slowly but with less effort. Specialist touring bikes, intended for heavily laden expeditions, have low gears of less than 1:1.

Gears: gears

Skill building exercises

Once you’ve mastered the absolute basics of operating the machine, then it’s time to work on steering and handling accuracy. This is mostly all about practice, but here are a couple of useful exercises that you can do with just a couple of sets of inexpensive nine-inch-high football training cones from a sports shop.

Kids love these exercises. We had trouble stopping young Alex here from zooming between the cones. As your or your youngster’s skills develop, moving the cones closer together makes this more challenging, as does varying the route to force wider arcs.

Slalom: Arrange a line of cones two to three yards apart and slalom among them. Young riders love this game because they can have fun whizzing through the gaps, or deliberately trying to knock the cones over. If your youngster thinks that’s a better game than going between the cones, challenge him to knock them over with his or her pedals rather than the wheel. It’s easy to ride straight through a cone; a bit harder to just clip it.

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Gap-storming: Arrange two lines of cones in a V formation so they make up pairs of increasingly close spacing. Try and ride between them without hitting the last pair. As your confidence increases, move the final pair closer and closer together. When the final cones are more than about 18 inches apart this is relatively easy, because you can just ride through. As they get closer, you have to start thinking about pedal position too. This is useful in the real world where barriers intended to keep motorbikes off bike paths are often narrow and tall – and don’t fall over if you clip them!

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We do not recommend the use of a training cone as a protective device.

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Removing your front wheel

It’s not a riding skill, but being able to get the front wheel off your bike is very useful because it makes it possible to load the bike into a car to get further afield and perform field repairs like fixing a puncture.

There isn’t room here to deal with all the possibilities, so we’ve tackled a very common situation, a bike with V-brakes.

If you are lucky enough to  have disc brakes you can ignore all the steps involving the brakes – the brake disc just drops out from the brake when you undo the quick release.

Road bikes with calliper  brakes usually have a lever on the brake to increase the pad spacing so the wheel can be pulled out between them.

1 (Picture below) You may need to create some slack in the brake cable. Undo the lockring on the barrel adjuster and screw it all the way into the lever body.

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2 Slide the bellows-shaped cover off the steel tube (called a noodle) at the top of the brake so you can see where the noodle fits into the brake arm.

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3 Squeeze the brake arms together so that the noodle comes free from its anchor point in the brake arm.

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4 Here’s a top view so you can see how the end of the noodle should be pulled back until the cable can slide up through the slot.

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5 The brake fully open. The pads are now spaced widely enough that the wheel will pass through them easily.

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6 Undo the quick-release lever on the wheel hub by pushing it out from the wheel. It’s not a spanner handle so don’t try to unscrew it by turning it.

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7 The quick-release in fully open position. The heel should now be loose in the fork, but the lips on the ends of the fork legs stop it from just dropping out.

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8 To allow the wheel to clear the fork lips, unscrew the nut on the opposite end of the quick release enough that the wheel can come out.

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9 Lift the bike off the wheel and you’re ready to stow your bike, fix a flat or do whatever else needs doing.

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10 To refit the wheel, start with the quick release open, tighten the nut so touches the fork, then unscrew a couple turns. Close the lever. It should need considerable effort.

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11 To close the brake, squeeze the arms together and push the noodle into place. Replace the bellows and, if necessary, take up the cable slack at the lever.

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Want more beginner tips? Then make sure you pick up On Your Bike! Your Complete Beginner’s Guide to Cycling

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