Notes From a Novice #4: Be Johnny Cash

Another musical reference this week. And ok, so his famous song was “Walk The Line”, not “Hold Your Line”, but hopefully the title pulled you in to see what I meant.

The concept of “hold your line” is a big deal when you are riding in a group. To summarize: BE PREDICTABLE. Try to ride as straight and consistently as possible. Remember that no one else is in your head, so no one else knows what you are about to do. If you have to do something abruptly, keep control of your machine as best as possible and yell it out.

This is probably best discussed by some examples.

Starting from a dead stop at a light can be tricky for a new cyclist who is just getting used to clipping in. “Hold your line” in this instance means, get going and do it along the same line you were on when you stopped.

  • Get Going: Once you hear “green up” you need to get going. That is harder to do if you stopped in a hard gear. A future blog will address in more detail some shifting techniques related to stopping. But if you ended up in a hard gear at a stop, don’t panic when you start going again. Stand up in the saddle and power through a few turns of the crank. Your bicycle will start going, albeit slower than you probably want. But once you get going you can then focus on shifting into an easier gear. 
  • Same Line: If you were riding two abreast when you stopped, you should start your bicycle along the same line as if you had ridden right through the stop.

I think not being able to clip in is usually what causes both of these to not go so well for a new cyclist. You look down to find that pedal to take that first stoke and as your head goes to the side to find the pedal, so does your upper body. Think about that. When you twist your upper body that moves your arms, which are attached to your hands which are holding the handlebars. And guess what? When you move the handlebars to one side or the other the bike follows! All of a sudden you are on a new line which could be in a collision course with another rider.

So what to do?

First, when you have to look down (which you will have to do for a multitude of reasons), learn to look down without moving the handlebars. That means moving your head and not your entire upper body. 

Second, find your zen with your pedals so hopefully most of the time you don’t have to look down. There is big debate over which pedals are the best. Doesn’t really matter, because whatever you have on your bike is what you have to deal with today. I have had two different kinds and my biggest trick for clipping in is to “just do it”. Yep. When I don't look down and just “trust the force”, most of the time I can clip in without even looking. I would presume that most of today’s pedals are designed so that most of the time they are in the right position for you to just push your foot forward and clip in. I found that if I trust that they are hanging correctly, 9 times out of 10 I hear that click and feel that grip.

Third, believe it or not, you CAN pedal without being clipped in. If I miss the clip and am focused on getting through an intersection quickly from a stop, sometimes I pedal all the way across the intersection without being clipped in on one side. YES! It’s true! It can be done! My clipped in foot is pulling a circle and my non-clipped in foot is just resting on the pedal. Then once I get rolling I can look down and without changing my line, focus on clipping in and going faster. 

So now we are rolling in a pack again. What does “hold your line” mean now? Well, I think it means a couple things. Stay in the correct position for a two-abreast group and try not to swerve or change speeds suddenly.

  • Correct position: When you are riding "two up" you are either the left wheel or the right wheel of the car. Meaning you should ride where either wheel of the car would be in the lane. There is no middle wheel! And wheels don't jump from one side of the car to the other. There is an exception for the "sweeper" ride leader in the back if they are by themselves. No one is behind them so they can move all around. Also, I'm sure that once you get up to the much faster groups there are different protocols when there are pace lines and such. But for the novice to intermediate groups, wheels of the car is a good gauge when riding "two up". It's especially important to stay in the correct position when cornering. Wheels of the car don't spread out or scrunch together on a turn. Cutting corners or taking them too wide can cause you to run into another rider or to veer into turn lanes where cars can surprise you. 
  • Don't change suddenly: As much as you can, don't suddenly change direction or pace. Watch the people in front of you. If they stop peddling, you stop peddling. If they speed up, you try to speed up. And if you are going to drastically slow down or stop, signal it or call it out. There are times when it's acceptable to change your pecking order in the group. It just shouldn't be done suddenly and without signaling. For example, if the group is splitting apart on a hill, slower riders should move right so others can pass on the left. The rider coming from behind should say something like "passing on your left" and the rider moving to the right should make sure there is room and then point where they are going. If you can't get your hands off the handlebars, saying something like "moving right" is acceptable. The key is to remember that no one else is in your head. You have to tell the other riders what you are about to do.

So why do new riders wobble all around? I think it's a few things.

First, they may simply not yet understand the importance of holding their line.

Second, they don't usually have full control of their new machine yet. Shifting at the wrong time, swerving to miss a pothole, looking down to find the pedal - all of these things are a surprise, which takes the bike slightly off course and they under or overcorrect or simply aren't paying attention to where their bike is headed.

Third, when you get really tired, it can be difficult to stay in control. New riders probably don't have as much stamina and towards the end of a ride are just hanging on, again making it difficult to control the machine.

You've seen riders in the group that are all over the road and you think they might wreck into you. You've seen riders in the group who are smooth and steady. Which one do you want to be a couple of inches from? One of the best compliments I ever got after a ride was "I love riding behind you." On your next ride, focus a bit on riding like one of those people you trust riding behind or beside. It starts by holding your line.

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