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Buying a Bicycle -- A Basic Guide: Getting Familiar with Your Bike

. You have got your bike and your helmet, you know how the gears work, and now you’re going to use that bike. To ride any new bike most effectively, I suggest you first practice some elementary handling skills, even if you’ve ridden bikes before, especially if your new bike is of a different type from your previous bike.

The reason why this is worthwhile, and in some cases essential, is that different types of bikes have quite different riding characteristics. That applies not only to the way they balance and steer, but also to the way they brake.

Even if you bought a mountain bike designed for the great outdoors, it’ll be smarter to first practice under less demanding circumstances. An empty parking lot is ideal.

Repeat the entire practice program at least three times. Do it once on the first day. Go for an easy ride the next time you ride, paying attention to the situations where you can apply the lessons you’ve learned. The next time you take the bike out, devote the session to practice again. Then go on a slightly more challenging ride, followed by one more practice session, and you’ll probably be ready for serious bike riding with a high level of competence and a thorough familiarity with your bike.

Check It Out

First do a dry run. Without getting on the bike, check over the entire bike. Do a check as described under “Pre-Ride Inspection” in Section 11. Are the tires inflated properly and are the wheels held in firmly with the quick-releases? Is the seat at the right height and firmly in place; ditto for the handlebars? Are the brake cables attached at the brakes, and does pulling the lever lock the wheel? Can you shift into each of the gears while turning the cranks forward with the rear wheel lifted off the ground? Are any accessories firmly attached? If any of these things are found wanting, get them corrected before riding the bike.

Riding Practice

Before starting the next practice session, put your helmet on and adjust it properly, because you may fall. And if you do, be grateful you did this practice first, because it would surely mean you would have fallen under real-life riding conditions, which are much less controlled, on the road or the trail. Practice until you are fully comfortable and competent at handling the bike, and thus much less prone to falls and other accidents.

FIG. 1. Brake check. Load the bike FIG. 2. This is the way to check with your weight and try to push it whether the handlebars are on forward as you apply the brakes, tight and straight.

Get on the bike on a level stretch and ride a straight line. Try starting off in different gears and note how different it feels, and decide which gear you find most suitable for starting off (at least on level ground). Ride and shift into all the gears in sequence—up and down, and up again, until you’ve developed a feel for each gear under these circumstances. Try to keep your pedaling rate up to at least 60 rpm, and aim for 80 rpm.

Braking Practice

When practicing with the gears, you’ll have used the brakes and you’ll have made steering corrections, but now it’s time to hone those skills separately and consciously.

When going straight at about walking speed, suddenly apply the rear brake. Note how the rear wheel probably skids? That’s not good, because the brakes are only effective and predictable when the tires don’t skid. So now get a feel for just how firmly you can apply that rear brake lever without skidding, but braking as firmly as possible. This gives you a reference for braking on level ground with a similar surface (you’ll skid even sooner on a wet road or one with sand on it).

Now brake firmly, and just as you feel you’re about to start skidding, back off on the lever a little. That’s how you keep the brake and the bike under control.

Do the same with the front brake only. But be very alert to immediately release the front brake’s lever when you notice the rear wheel starts to lift off the ground—a phenomenon known as “pitchover,” also called “endo,” and a potential cause of a serious fall if you don’t control it by releasing the front brake lever immediately.

Next use both brakes simultaneously. Practice until you’ve developed a good feel for the way your bike’s braking system, and the entire bike, responds to the force and suddenness of the brake lever application.

Steering Practice

To get a feel for the way your bike steers, just walk the bike holding it at the saddle, with one hand ready to steady the handlebars if needed. First try to follow a straight line and notice how you have to tilt the bike to the left or the right a little to correct its path each time it begins to deviate: if the bike starts veering to the left, you tilt it to the left; if it veers to the right, tilt it to the right to get it to straighten out. That’s what also happens while you are riding, and it helps if you have an understanding of it.

Now get on the bike and try to ride a straight line, paying attention to the body lean and steering corrections you have to make. When you have developed a feel for it, continue by riding a wavy line—left, right, left, and so on.

Then move on to more distinct steering maneuvers. Ride a straight line and then, at a predetermined point, make a turn to the left or the right—again until you know how the bike responds while steering a gradual curve. Then do it at a higher speed, again noticing any difference in necessary steering and leaning corrections. (Notice that you lean over much more at low speeds than when going fast.)

To perfect your handling skills, you can learn the trickiest thing—making an abrupt turn. That’s done by first briefly steering in the opposite direction (to make the bike lean over in the direction you want to go), and then immediately correcting by steering quite sharply into the direction you wanted to go in the first place. This is called the “forced” turn and it’s very useful to avoid suddenly appearing obstacles, whether on the road or off-road.

For the next exercise it’s doubly important to make sure you’re prepared to let go of the brake levers, especially the one for the front brake. Apply the brakes when riding a curve instead of going straight. First do it, gently, just with the rear brake, and let go of the lever if you notice the wheel starts skidding—sideways this time. Notice how you regain control, not by braking more vigorously, but by actually letting go of the brake.

Do the same with the front brake, very gently. If you apply it too forcefully, the rear wheel starts to lift off and you’ll lose control over the bike. If that should happen, respond by releasing the brake lever immediately. The message is, don’t use the front brake in a curve, and if you do, be prepared to let go of it as soon as the bike even hints at erratic behavior.

Next, combine the use of the brake with the act of balancing—try to stand still while balancing on the bike. To do that, come to a gradual stop while trying to maintain your balance. Hold just the front brake, letting go of it just a touch if necessary, while you keep both feet on the pedals with the cranks in the horizontal position. If you begin to tip over one way, steer in that same direction and lean in the opposite direction, then release the brake a little to roll forward, helping you regain your balance. Standing still while on the bike may not seem a very useful skill, but what this really does is give you a good feel for balancing the bike.

Different Terrain

Once you are riding on a regular basis, it’s a good idea to repeat each one of the preceding exercises on a sloping surface, both riding uphill and downhill. Make mental notes of the differences in bike behavior under these different circumstances.

Finally, if you intend to ride in rough terrain, practice on different surfaces as well—gravel roads, muddy tracks, slickrock, washboard surfaces, soft sand, even on snow and ice if you live in a region where it gets cold enough in winter.

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