Obstacle Course

Techniques for handling your skinny-tyred bike - and yourself - on knobbly surfaces

Posted: 24 November 2009

A ride on your road bike doesn't always require smooth Tarmac. In fact, trails and country lanes can offer blissful, low-traffic route options that you ought to consider. The trick is to know how to handle the various not-so-silky surfaces you may encounter along the way. 


The Terrain

Hard ripples that run perpendicular to the road, caused by the stress of cars passing over its surface. Shallow ridges aren't so bad, but deep ones can become too tough to ride on. 

The Technique

Washboard forms under the tyre tracks of vehicles - and then widens across the road as drivers seek a smoother line. If you can't find a precious strip of smooth dirt at the extreme left, you must confront the washboard head-on. Let the bike dance beneath you with a looser - but still secure - grip on the handlebars so that fewer vibrations are transmitted directly to your body. Likewise, keep a light perch on the saddle by letting your legs - rather than your bottom - carry most of your body weight.         


The Terrain

Close relatives of the pothole, only there's no pavement to form sharp edges. These shallow indentations pock the road like a lunar landscape, but can be very treacherous when filled with water. 

The Technique

Weave around the craters to stay on the high ground between them. Look ahead and plan your route like Han Solo flying through an asteroid field - you may not be able to avoid them all but you'll minimise the number that you have to thunk through. As with washboard, the far edge of the road may have fewer holes than the more heavily travelled centre. Be extra cautious of water-filled holes - you never know what lurks beneath. 


The Terrain

Anything from deep, gooey ruts on the road to a ribbon of thick, slick paste along the shoulder.

The Technique

This tacky stuff is a double whammy: it greatly increases rolling resistance and reduces traction (at least you'll be moving slowly as you slip on the corners and hills). Overcome the goo with a smooth, round pedal stroke, which reduces the high-torque spikes that can cause your rear wheel to lose traction. Cycling coaches teach a smooth spin by telling riders to imagine wiping their feet on a doormat as each pedal passes through the six o'clock position. Your best bet is to aim for the strip of mud that looks the least deep. 

Chunky Rocks

The Terrain

Loose, pea-size pebbles strewn about, often after a road has been recently regraded. 

The Technique

Skinny tyres can fall victim to pinch flats or cut sidewalls on this gravely terrain. Slowing your speed - a natural result of pedalling on this high-resistance surface - helps reduce impacts and can save you from punctures. If a favourite route includes frequently graded roads, or if you're planning a special route over the chunky stuff - consider swapping to bigger tyres. 

Smooth Hardpack

The Terrain

Nature's cement - smooth, hard dirt that's almost indistinguishable from pavement. 

The Technique

Hardpack so closely resembles Tarmac that you might forget what's really beneath your wheels. Even the hardest dirt provides less traction than Tarmac, particularly on corners - so slow down before you lean the bike into a turn. A good basic rule is to corner a few miles per hour slower than you would on a similarly paved turn. And keep your eyes pointed ahead: dirt roads are notoriously variable, so friendly hardpack can suddenly turn into a different kind of dirt that demands more attention. 

Mountain leader

Of course, you could go one step further - or should that be one pedal revolution further? - and develop your bike-handling skills off-road. 

"Triathletes who train on their mountain bikes in winter gain a huge advantage over those who simply stick to the roads," says Rich Martin, director of Cyclewise Training. One trick Martin uses to develop triathletes' bike-handling skills is to remove the bike chain when they reach the top of a mountain-bike loop. "Without a chain, you have no choice but to learn how to use your body weight and momentum to control the bike," he says. In a triathlon, those new skills will conserve your energy and give you an effort-free advantage over your fellow competitors.

If you haven't tried mountain biking before, head for a centre that hires bikes and offers basic training and guiding. Cyclewise Training offers courses, guiding and bike hire just 100 metres from the start of the new Altura Mountain Bike Trail at Whinlatter Forest Park near Keswick. At 19K, it's the Lake District's longest purpose-built mountain-bike trail and a brilliant place to have a go at this exhilarating sport. Hire a bike (or bring your own), enjoy the challenge of staying upright on two wheels, then head to the excellent café for some well-earned refreshments. It's guaranteed to put a smile on your face, especially when you race faster at your next triathlon. 

Visit www.cyclewisetraining.co.uk and www.forestry.gov.uk for more information.

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