The Seven Most Common Mistakes Made by Newbie Cyclists
Ten years ago, while at the University of Alabama, I was talking with a student about sports, and he told me that while running, auto racing, and hunting were all sports, bicycle racing was not. I asked him why bicycling was different, since it combined the physical stamina of running with the maneuvering skills of auto racing, and his reply to me was simply, "Bicycling is not a sport because anyone can ride a bicycle."
Perhaps it is unfortunate that we learn to ride a bicycle while we are very young. While learning to ride at a very early age improves one's balancing skills, it can also lock one into the attitude that bicycling doesn't require any other skills. Thus we see people riding bicycles who don't have the slightest understanding of how to sit on the bike, how to shift gears, or -- worst of all -- how to interface with traffic. If the child rode a single-speed bike, then the same person as an adult ignores multiple gearing. If the child was taught to ride on the sidewalk or the wrong way in traffic, then the adult ignores the traffic laws and follows the same foolish behavior.
The other day while riding into town, I met a cyclist who was making four of the following seven mistakes. I pointed out one of them to him, and he immediately became defensive rather than profiting from what I said, thus giving him a five out of seven score. Most of these mistakes can cause a new cyclist to quickly give up, and two of them can be deadly. These are all problems that can be solved quickly and easily. If he was the only person I have seen making these mistakes, I wouldn't be writing this page, but I see them being made again and again by new cyclists and sidewalk cyclists. If a person continues to make these mistakes, the cycling experience is almost certainly going to be short.
Mistake #1: Seat Too Low
Mountain bikes are sold with very small frames for the riders who are supposed to use them. This is done deliberately, as the cyclist is supposed to have extra clearance over the top bar in case of a fall while riding on some rugged dirt trail. On the other hand, touring bikes are sized so that the cyclist barely straddles the top bar. Nonetheless, on my touring bike, even though I barely straddle the top bar, the seat is raised high above it because my feet don't have to reach the ground while pedaling, just to the pedals. On this cyclist's mountain bike, the seat was all the way down. His defense was that the seat wouldn't go any higher, which is most emphatically incorrect. Mountain bikes are sold with especially long seat posts.
What difference does the seat height make? Well, I am not one of those who computes my seat height mathematically, and I believe seat height should vary somewhat according to circumstances. Someone first learning to balance should keep the seat very low. Someone who is fairly new to cycling and who rides in town (and thus must stop a lot) should keep the seat low enough to make the dismount less difficult at intersections. In fact, a town bike should probably be ridden with the seat an inch lower than a country bike, for the same reason. On the other hand, the power of the pedal stroke is greatest at the end of the stroke when the leg is nearly fully extended, as during a walk, while there is little power at the beginning of the stroke, when the leg is folded. People don't walk in a frog-like position because folded legs don't have any power.
Folded legs also rob the cyclist of power through cramping. A comparison can be made to TV "aerobics," where the idea of the "exercise" is "going for the burn." Why does this burn occur when exercising for just a few minutes when normally one could continue the same exercise for hours without this problem? It happens because the muscle is not fully extended each time, or in other words, is deliberately cramped. This cramping produces rapid fatigue and a burning sensation caused by the build up of lactic acid in the blood. Although the TV exercise gurus consider this desirable, it is actually a deliberate misuse of the muscles and prevents the "exercise" from improving the strength of the limb. To correct this mistake, fully extend the arm, leg, or whatever. The burn will disappear, and you will actually get a very modest exercise benefit (of course, one would get more exercise benefit from carrying out the trash).
In the same way, riding up even a short hill with the legs cramped like that will cause them to tire very quickly. In fact, that's exactly what happened in this case. The "cyclist," irritated by my remarks, "zoomed" past me (less than 20 miles per hour) to the "top" of a two percent rise. But having achieved this "feat," his legs were exhausted because they could not rid themselves of the lactic acid readily in that cramped position, and his speed dropped to a walking pace.
When people ride with their legs so badly cramped up, they never develop any power or speed and pretty quickly give up bicycling. Wouldn't it be much easier to simply raise the seat?
A very simple way to see if the seat is high enough is to balance the bike next to a wall, tree, or friend (something to hold the bike upright against) and then to rotate the pedals backwards with the heels on the pedals. If the seat is the proper height, the legs should be fully distended at the bottom of the rotation. Of course, no one should ride with the heels on the pedals; this is just as measuring method. And as I said earlier, some have good reason for having the seat an inch or so lower.
Mistake # 2: Feet Improperly on Pedals
I also pointed out to him that his feet weren't on the pedals correctly, but I should have saved my breath. With his legs in such a cramped position, it was impossible for him to place his feet on the pedals correctly.
For some reason, I see many bike riders with the arch of their foot on the pedals, as his were. The only advantage that I can see is that the heel of the shoe can catch against the pedal in this position. However, this is a very unnatural position. When we walk, our foot comes down on the heel, and then we lift off on the ball of the foot. We never walk on the arch of the foot. Try walking flat-footed, and you'll quickly see how awkward that is.
Instead, the ball of the foot ought to be over the axle of the pedal. In this position, the natural thrust of the foot pushes us forward.
There have even been those who have advocated exaggerating this natural ankle motion. When "ankling," one rotates the ankle to start pushing the pedal down while it is still very high and then one tries to maintain that thrust as far around the circle as possible. Greg LeMond advocates extending the thrust another way; he says we should pull back on the pedal with the foot as if we were trying to scrape something off of it.
Jobst Brandt has ridiculed these methods, and on thinking about it, I must agree with him. My feet have been walking and bicycling all their lives without my interference, and trying to teach them how to act is a bit of impertinence on my part. I think proper leg extension and proper foot placement on the pedal will insure proper foot action without any other change in behavior.
A good accessory for the bike is a toe clip or a clip-on pedal. These ensure that the feet are properly on the pedal, and they increase power, as no energy is lost keeping the feet in contact with the pedal surface. However, it's easy to buy toe clips that are too large or too small, and clipless pedals can be mounted incorrectly if you mount them yourself. Make sure that the ball of the foot is over the axle of the pedal.
Mistake # 3: Using the Wrong Gear
While I was a student at the University of Alabama in the early 90's, I noticed that practically all of the bikes of the sidewalk cyclists were shifted into the small-small gear. This cyclist also was riding in the small-small gear and made no attempt to shift during the short period I was riding with him.
I am not one of those people who believes that using either the small-small or the large-large gears is inefficient due to chain angle or will lead to excessive wear and tear or chain breakage. Then, why do I criticize the use of this gear?
The small-small gear is too high a gear to be using at low speeds. Riding in too large a gear, while not as serious a problem as the first two mentioned, leads to greater fatigue and lower average speed.
On one of my trips to Pennsylvania, I was pedaling down the Philadelphia bike trail when I came across a small group of bike riders who were stopped with a simple mechanical problem. It seems that one of the riders, using a borrowed mountain bike, had been stopped by a loose rear wheel. I stopped, put the wheel back into place, tightened it, tested it, shifted into the proper gear, and gave it back to the rider. I pointed out that he had been using an inappropriate gear for his speed and also that the high pedal pressure involved had been partially responsible for the wheel on the bike coming loose. He got back on the bike, defiantly shifted back into the small-small, and proceeded down the path at seven miles per hour. Why did I bother to stop?
An earlier incident not only involved the small-small gear but also incorrect pedal position. While my son was a teenager, he and I were riding our bikes across the state line into Georgia and back on a fairly flat ride. The son of a friend, who was my son's age, wanted to go with us. I was worried about the trip being too long for him, but he assured us that he had been bicycling quite a bit. On the trip, I noticed that he was using only the small-small gear and that his feet were improperly positioned on the pedals. I tried to convince him that the trip would be much easier if he made these slight changes, but he refused. Whether we were climbing or descending, he was firmly locked into the small-small gear. As the trip proceeded, I became more and more concerned about whether he would be able to complete it or not. We took a number of extra rest breaks to try to help, but he was the one wanting to push on without stopping. By the time he reached his home, he had long exceeded his limits and was completely exhausted. I don't think he ever attempted such a trip again. My son and I arrived back home, having traveled over 50% further, without being very much tired. Definitely, insufficient mileage before the trip was the biggest part of his problem, but he made every upgrade agonizingly difficult by refusing to gear down.
He would have been better off on a single-speed bicycle because the single gear on that bike is lower and thus more appropriate than the small-small combination. For more on using gears effectively, see Cycling Cadence and Bicycle Gears.
Mistake # Four: Not Stopping for a Stop Sign
I did not actually observe this mistake being made by the cyclist I met while riding into town, but I'm fairly sure that he made it. I do know that I was riding along on an empty road, I looked to one side for a second, and when I looked back ahead, he was riding in front of me. Unless I am wrong about how long I looked to one side, he must have pulled onto the main road from the side road without stopping or even slowing.
It would have cost the cyclist only a few seconds to have approached his stop sign at a lower speed and to have scanned carefully for other vehicles before proceeding. The small amount of time and effort involved is certainly worth the reduced risk.
One time while teaching in Kentucky, I went for a ride with another teacher who was a regular cyclist. He criticized me at the beginning of the ride for not wearing a helmet, saying I was an unsafe cyclist. When we reached an intersection with a busy highway, instead of stopping, he rode around in little circles. Then when he saw a sight break in the stream of cars, he raced out into the road, between the cars, and then to the other shoulder. I was amazed at his behavior. By circling around (evidently because he couldn't release his foot from the pedal), he put himself in danger from cars rapidly leaving the main road. By injecting himself between cars that were moving faster than he was, he risked serious injury to himself and others to save a few minutes. Indeed, he nearly caused a collision behind him, due to the motorist suddenly slamming on the brake to avoid hitting him.
Safety concerns not only your safety but that of other people as well. Running stop signs and red lights or committing other irregularities at intersections (the most likely place to have an accident) just puts people at risk. Don't be in such a hurry. After all, you are riding a bicycle. See How to Avoid an Accident.
Mistake # Five: Riding in the Wrong Lane
This mistake was not being made by that cyclist that day. Nonetheless, it is a common mistake. I am including in this category not only those cyclists who ride the wrong way in the traffic lanes but also those who ride the wrong way on the shoulders or who ride on the sidewalks.
One never knows who is going to do this. On one of my 75-mile trips home from where I was teaching, I met up with an older cyclist who was training for the Iron Man triathlon. I found nothing wrong with his bicycling behavior until we reached the main highway. There, he suddenly wanted to ride on the wrong side of the road where the shoulder was wider. He did not get to compete that year because he was struck by a car while bicycling. Although I never learned the details, I couldn't help but wondering if he hadn't been in the wrong lane or violating another one of the simple rules of the road.
One day while riding in Ontario, I met a retired Canadian intelligence agent, who had worked for the equivalent of our CIA. After we finished talking, he proceeded to leave on the wrong side of the road. I asked him, and he said that he always rode on the side with the widest shoulder. He said he knew it was against the law, but he figured that the Canadian police would not bother to stop him. Once again, childhood training triumphed over logic. See Wrong-Way Cycling.
I rode into town with a friend who lives in the country, the longest bike ride he had ever been on, and as soon as he got into town, he started swerving up onto sidewalks wherever possible and then back onto the street. When I criticized his behavior, pointing out that he was increasing the chance of getting hit, he said he couldn't help himself because he had been taught to ride that way as a boy. So on the way back home, I chose a street with no sidewalks to avoid the problem.
I might add that riding on the sidewalk has been found to be even more unsafe than riding wrong-way on the street. The problem is that a turning motorist doesn't see the sidewalk cyclist. See How to Ride in Traffic.
As I said earlier, people learn to ride bicycles when they are children, and then when they get back on the bicycle as adults, they want to follow the same set of rules. Unfortunately, many if not most children are either taught incorrectly or are not taught at all. Some are taught to always ride on the sidewalk, and so we see the same person, 40 years later, pedaling down a crowded sidewalk. Some are taught to ride against the traffic, following the pedestrian rule, and so we find some adults firmly and stubbornly on the wrong side, endangering themselves and other cyclists directly and sending the message to motor vehicle operators that bike riders should be ignored. I assume likewise that the behavior of the Canadian intelligence agent tells us something about the stubbornness of childhood training rather than about the Canadian intelligence service. Finally, we have those who were taught that there are no rules, and thus they are very unpredictable in their behavior. One cyclist, for instance, blasted past me and the bus in front of me up onto the sidewalk and through a red light in dense traffic without ever bothering to slow down. His speed was admirable, but the risks he was taking were unnecessarily high. Fortunately for me, I was taught to operate a bicycle following the same rules as a motor vehicle and taught it to my friends, thus preventing collisions between us when we were kids, and leading to thousands of hours of safe cycling as an adult.
Mistake # Six: Not Using Headlights and Taillights at Night
The cyclist I met riding to town was also not guilty of this mistake because, although he had no headlight or taillight on his bike, it was the middle of the day. However, when I am in the same town in the early evening, I see lots of young men riding their bikes with no light in sight, and very often, not even a rear reflector. They give as an excuse that they are not really riding on the road anyway.
According to Riley Geary, 56% of all cycling fatalities happen to adults riding at night (when less than 4% of all cycling occurs), and I have discovered that a collision between a bicycle and a motor vehicle is much more likely to be fatal after dark, especially in the wee hours of the morning. Yet in Moritz's study of commuter cyclists, those cyclists who rode after dark using lights had a lower percentage of accidents than normal. I know have traveled many thousands of miles at night, and I consider it perfectly safe.
What can explain this difference? I believe that those who operate their bicycles after dark with good headlights and taillights, using normal traffic procedures but remaining alert (since motorist driving behavior is poorer at night, due to reduced vision, sleepiness, and alcohol) are at low risk, while those who ride at night in an irregular fashion without lights and usually without even reflectors are at great risk.
It really doesn't matter if the cyclists are on the road or not, as the greatest danger is not from motor vehicles proceeding straight down the road, as the motorists have good visibility in those cases, but from vehicles turning or from cyclists crossing the road. It's even more important to ride with the traffic at night, but have good lights and reflectors when you do so.
Mistake # Seven: Not Listening
Perhaps this is the greatest mistake of all. When I meet bike riders who are making one of the above mistakes -- and this is a small minority of the riders I meet -- they often become very defensive about it. The problem might be my presentation, but I doubt it. I'm sure that they've heard this kind of information before. I even met one fellow who was not only riding on the wrong side of the road but in the middle of the lane as well, forcing every car to the wrong side of the road, and he was as insulting as possible. In his case, I think there was a deliberate desire to create mischief, but I think with most of those who commit these mistakes, the problem lies in following an incorrect childhood training that is no longer applicable.
Some might say, "Well, what about you? You want to correct other people's behavior, and you don't even bother to wear a helmet. I bet you don't like for other to correct you about that!"
No, the truth is that I am not defensive about my behavior at all. I went through a period of time when I was overly defensive (nothing to do with cycling, by the way), so I bought a book by Manuel J. Smith called When I Say No I Feel Guilty, which was extremely helpful. I have never shied away from the helmet controversy. I purchased my first helmet in the 70's, long before the debate began, and I have read the published studies on helmet use, thought about the matter quite a bit, and even tested wearing helmets for some miles. My decision to not wear a helmet is an informed decision, based on a study of the evidence, not on some childhood training or illogical belief. That's the way I make all of my decisions, not based on what I was taught nor on what everyone else is doing, but on the best evidence available, and after a personal test of my own. See my analysis of the helmet law controversy.
If you disagree with me about any of the seven examples I have brought up, you can test them for yourself, as I did. Try raising the seat post, moving the position of your foot, shifting into another gear, bicycling according the traffic code, and riding using lights at night. I think you will discover immediate improvement.
There are many other additional suggestions that can be offered to improve cycling. I don't agree with all of them, but I certainly see no harm in trying ones that seem reasonable. In most cases, I have already tried them myself. But these are the most basic and least controversial ones, and the ones which if ignored, are the most likely to cause an end to interest in bicycling.