Practicing bike skills in an empty school parking lot
Bike handling skills are essential to riding and racing safety. Being able to avoid road hazards (and this includes many triathletes), turn safely and quickly, come to an emergency stop, and mounting and dismounting your bike at the appropriate time are all skills that need to be practiced before the race.
The best place to practice your bike skills is in a big empty parking lot. Find a school on the weekend and ride around practicing some of these skills.
Ride your bike into a parking stall and turn staying within the lines so that you then come back out of the stall. Ride to another stall and do it again. These are going to be slow speed turns, but they will teach you how to control your bike at slow speeds through a sharp turn. Many races have an out and back course on a road with only two lanes. You will probably have more room than a stall’s width but this is really good practice.
Then try a faster turn riding into a stall and turning while staying within two widths of a stall. Put a water bottle at the beginning of the middle line (see image) and complete your turn around the water bottle. This simulates many U-turns in race situations.
Turning your bike when you are going slow is all about pointing the wheel where you want to go and keeping your balance. A higher speed turn requires you to shift your center of gravity and lean into the corner. You shift your center of gravity by pointing your knee into the turn. Remember this in every turn: where your knee is pointing is where you will go. If you have to turn a sharp turn, you need to get your knee pointed way out.
This pointing of the knee shifts your center of gravity into your turn. Try some low speed turns by just riding around the parking lot. First, turn by just pointing your knee, not your handlebars. You will find that you don’t even have to turn the handlebars to initiate a turn. Just the lean is enough. Try some sharper turns by pointing your knee further. You will find that steering a slight bit away from the direction of your turn is the most stable way to turn. This is called counter steering and it is a crucial turning skill on triathlon bikes and motorcycles.
It’s important to be able to come to a quick stop in a controlled manner. Pick a line in the parking lot for your emergency stop practice and play a little game. The objective is to get as close as you can to the line before applying your breaks and coming to a stop.
When you break normally just to slow down, you should always start by applying pressure to your back break. You never want to apply the front breaks first as you can flip over the front wheel very easily.
In an emergency stop you will apply both breaks hard. When you break, the deceleration pitches your weight forward over the front wheel. This makes the front wheel the most powerful breaking force. You can easily flip over the front of your front wheel. To counteract this, you should push your butt backwards on your seat and even off the back if you feel comfortable doing it.
The sequence of events for an emergency stop, and really these are almost simultaneous, are:
- Shift as much weight backwards by pushing your rear-end back off the seat.
- Squeeze both breaks hard.
- Let go of breaks to continue rolling slowly.
- Sit back on the seat.
Try this many times until you feel confident. This can seriously save your life. If a car pulls out in front of you, performing a quick emergency stop can avoid a collision.
Mounting and Dismounting
The next skill you should practice is mounting and dismounting your bike. When you mount your bike in your race, you will push your bike out of the transition area and past a line on the road called the mount line. Pick a line in the parking lot and put a couple water bottles down on it. Push your bike past the mount line, get on your bike, and ride off.
You can mount your bike anywhere past the mount line, so in the race you should push your bike past the line and find a nice clear area to get onto your bike. It always happens that people stack up on each other right past the mount line in a race and run into each other. You should push your bike past this mess and find a good clear place to mount.
Ride around the parking lot a bit and now the line is your dismount line. You must get off your bike before the dismount line. Again, slow down smoothly and dismount your bike where it’s safe to do so. Get off before the line and walk your bike across the line.
Try this a few times until you are comfortable with doing it in a controlled and mindful manner. It’s important that you stay mindful, calm, and safe throughout this entire process as some athletes lose their minds around the mount line. If you get a chance to go watch a race, spend some time near the mount line to see some crazy people. The picture below shows the mount line at my local race.
After you mount your bike a few times you will notice that it matters what gear your bike is in when you mount. If you’re in the wrong gear you will find yourself grinding a big gear to get going or you might be in too low of a gear and go nowhere. You want to remember what gear this is so you can put your bike in the right gear when you rack up for the race.
If you watch the professionals you will see that they clip their bike shoes onto their pedals and mount with bare feet. You might try this in your second race but not in this first race. Keep your mounting and dismounting simple, slow, and deliberate.
Road Bike Rider has a great number of bike skills lessons on their website.
Total Women’s Cycling has a great series of articles on biking skills on everything from cycling on ice, riding into a headwind, cornering, and much more.
Bikerider.com also has some good lessons.