Sabina finally learned how to cycle
Travel tips

How I learned to cycle on a long bicycle tour

You don’t need to be an experienced cyclist to start a long bicycle tour. I know this as a fact, because I was a complete novice at cycling just two years ago. I (really) learned to cycle on a long bicycle tour.

Of course I knew how to ride a bicycle. But my top speed never surpassed 15k/ph. Rides were 20 minutes tops and off-road cycling isn’t necessarily a thing in the Netherlands. Have you seen how many beautiful bike lanes we have? Who in their right mind would leave those on a somehow always rusty and squeaky granny bicycle. 

Lycra-wearing-show offs

If you asked me back then, I would say that road cyclists were just annoying lycra-wearing-show offs taking over our beloved calm bike lanes. So my shock was big when I found out that my new lover was one of them. ‘You will never get my in lycra!’ is what I said to Robin. I think it took him barely one month.

Somehow he had managed to convince me to go on a bicycle tour. We were both so excited. How hard could it possibly be? It’s just cycling right. I had never cycled up a hill, but I figured you just go a little slower. Inspired by Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking I thought of it like this: I have never tried that before, so I think I should definitely be able to do that.

 

Learning to cycle

Me and Pippi were right. I was able to do that, I just had to learn a lot of new techniques. Because riding up a hill doesn’t mean you just go a little slower. You might actually pedal faster. And there were many other lessons along the way. These are the most important cycling techniques that I learned on our long bicycle tour.

Cycling techniques I learned on our bicycle tour

Cadence

Spin, don’t push! If you’re grinding too hard on your pedals, your cadence will drop and your power output will decline. In layman’s terms this means that when I feel like I can’t make a smooth circle with my pedals, I’m in a gear that is too high. You can put extreme force on the pedals for a little while but if you keep doing this you will eventually only go slower. 

Gearing

To get in that right gearing you have to use your shifters. Don’t shift with too much tension on the chain, it will cause a lot of popping and grinding. If you continue to pedal softly you can shift smoothly.

Most touring bikes are equipped with two or three chainrings in the front (left shifter) and around eight to ten rear gears (right shifter). Make sure the chain isn’t too diagonal. So if the front gear is close to the bike make sure the rear one isn’t too far. Naturally the same goes for the opposite.

Moving the chain closer to the bike makes cycling easier, and moving the chain away from the bike makes you faster.

Braking

Left is your front brake and right is the rear. You use the rear brake to slow down and the front to actually stop. The front brake is most powerful, so be careful. You don’t want to fly over your handlebars. If you’re going at top speed and you need to slow down fast, put your weight on the back of your saddle and squeeze both brakes. 

Be extra gentle with hydraulic disc brakes, these are even more powerful than the mechanical ones.

Climbing

See a climb coming up? Try and get some momentum. When you’ve caught on some speed gear down before you have to start pedaling again. You don’t want to shift with full tension on the chain and gearings.

Some like to stand on the pedals and some prefer staying in the saddle. Rule of thumb here is that when a climb is under 10 percent it is better to remain seated. If the condition of the road is extremely bad you might want to stay in the saddle as well. Not enough weight on the back wheel might cause it too spin. Or if the weight distribution isn’t low enough and the climb is extremely steep, your front wheel might come off the ground. Sounds scary but you will instinctively push  down on your handlebars to not fall.

If you have front panniers, store your heavier items here while climbing. This will help with a lower weight distribution, which is better for climbing.

Feel that burn in your legs? That’s your muscles crying lactic acid. Don’t worry about it, it will disappear as soon as you’ve reached the top.

Instead of focussing on this pain, pay attention to your position. Flat back with bent elbows. Bend at the hips to lower your centre of gravity. A flat back helps open up the chest to maximize lung capacity.

Take the outer corner if possible, this way is much flatter. If there is no traffic on the road, you can try to zigzag your way up. This also makes it less steep.

Descending

Well done, you reached the top! And what goes up must come down. This can be just as daunting as going up. Remember to always ride in a pace that is comfortable for you. Keep looking on where you are going so you can properly react in time.

Make sure to adjust your speed and brake before the turn. Keep your butt planned firmly on the saddle to avoid losing traction with the back wheel. Lift up your inside knee and apply pressure to the outside to maintain balance. The pedal on the side to which you are turning is always up.

If you have to use your brakes for a longer period of time, try alternating the front and rear brake. This way they can cool off a bit in between turns. Please don’t squeeze the front brake in full force when you are riding down hill. Unless you want to learn how to fly of course.

These are our bikes, just in case you were wondering.

Bad terrain

Looking at a pothole will probably lead you straight into it. Instead try to keep your eyes one or two meters ahead of you. Hold the handlebar with relaxed arms and wrists and don’t clench. Don’t worry about a little gravel, the profile on your wheels will guide you through it.

Try to stay about one meter from the side of the road. This way you have enough room to avoid rocks and potholes.

Letting a little air out of your tires can give you better traction if you keep slipping.

Saddle sores

Hygiene is key. Make sure to properly clean your shorts and sitting area before and after every ride. We use coconut oil instead of chamois  because it’s antibacterial. If you keep having problems, see if you need to adjust your saddle. My saddle had dropped a teeny bit which was causing me a lot of saddle sores. As soon as I raised the saddle the pain disappeared.

I (really) learned to cycle

The more I rode, the better I got. I got more confident on my bike and learned from my errors. The times I fell off weren’t nearly as scary as I had anticipated. I didn’t even get hurt. Maybe a minor scrape but honestly, mostly my ego was harmed.

All I had to do to become an experienced cyclist was believe in my own capability of learning. Pippi was right all along. I had never tried it before, and I was definitely able to do it.

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7 Comments

  • CLIFFORD W HUGHES

    Thanks for that informative and inspiring post. I’d just like to point out that in the UK, and I believe some other countries, we have the front brake lever on the right!

  • Sam Rice

    Brilliant Sabina! I really enjoy both yours and Robin’s writing! Let’s have a catch up Zoom call later this week yeah?

  • Ken

    Great blog! For GEARING, you could add the following additional suggestions:
    – Downshift early; don’t wait until you are barely moving. You’ll lose momentum and you’ll have to shift under load (you already have this under CLIMBING).
    – If you can’t get into your lowest/highest gear, or have over-shifting, skipping, or weird noises, fix immediately. Carry chain lube, a chain breaker, spare link, and derailleur hanger specific to your bike. If you can’t fix it yourself, go to a bike shop in the next town, otherwise you can cause breakage or premature wear and get stuck in the middle of nowhere. This applies to the bike in general, but particularly the drive train.

    Ken.

    • Robin

      Thanks for the useful additions, Ken! Particularly like the tip about seeing a professional mechanic if you’re not able to fix the problem yourself. Don’t make things worse if you don’t have a clue what you’re doing :).

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