Seven basic skills every cyclist should have (and what’s new)

Biking Skills

May 9th 2021

Bob Forgrave

So you’ve got a new bike . . . or are getting a new bike. Now is a great time to get familiar again with the “golden oldie” timeless, basic skills–and how even those have changed a bit over the years.

1. How to ride safely around traffic (car or pedestrian)

I recently got an e-mail with someone who shared that drivers pay more attention to him when he rides against traffic. It was all I could do to keep my response from being all caps. “Of course drivers are avoiding you more! You’re that guy riding the WRONG WAY in their direction!!!”

Riding safely around traffic does not mean riding so everyone avoids you. It’s about selecting your routes so that you minimize dangerous traffic, and then following the normal traffic rules as if you are driving a car—except when you qualify as a pedestrian.

For example, even though the fastest, most common way through town may be a busy road with a 40-mph speed limit, are there slower, safer routes? Maybe routes with a dedicated bike lane (and if you choose this, use the lane that goes WITH traffic).

cyclist in safe bike lane
I used to be skeptical of bike lanes, often placed on the busiest roads with 2 inches of white paint to protect you from high-speed traffic. But bike lanes are getting better all over the country since the Federal Highway Administration released separate bike lane guidelines in 2015. This Chicago route feels super-safe to ride on!

One note about trails and sidewalks… when you’re away from cars and on one of these, you become the speed risk. When passing pedestrians, slow to the speed of a fast pedestrian for safety. Any cyclist who simply yells, “On your left!” before rocketing through will eventually encounter a startled pedestrian who accidentally hears “Move left!” with disastrous results. Don’t . . . do . . . it.

What’s new: “Greenways” are quieter residential streets specially designated by signage for safe cycling routes. Do you have any greenways along your riding routes? Should your city have some? It all starts with interested residents.

residential greenway sign
Our street just became part of a greenway combining neighborhoods and the footpaths that connect them. No infrastructure needed except awareness of the existing excellent places to ride and walk. What hidden gems can you connect in your town?

2. How to lock up your bike.

Bike thefts are at an all-time high. The easiest type of bike to steal? One that’s not locked up at all–a theft of convenience–because you were only going to leave it there for a minute. To someone else, that looks a lot like a free bike!

Any lock can be cut with the right power tools, but the easiest alternative to not locking a bike is to wrap a simple cable lock through both wheels, so someone at least has to have a tool to walk off with part of your bike.

And if you’ve got valuable add-ons like a cycle computer or bike light, it’s a good habit to put those in a pocket while your bike is unattended, so nobody else gets a five-finger discount.

bike component theft
The five-finger discount at work. Frames are well-secured with a great lock. Components, not so much. Note that the wonderful lock was not through any of the four now-missing wheels.

Beyond that, heavier, sturdier locks are more protective, and require more substantial power tools to defeat.

What’s new: Some full-size bikes fold in half; just fold your bike in half and bring it inside at work or overnight so you don’t have to theft-proof it.

The CHANGE 702 folding into a Smart Car
A CHANGE 702 folding street hybrid that fits in a Smart Car will also fit securely in your apartment or office.

3. How to pump up your tires.

Properly pumped tires, to the pressure marked on the side of the tire, are not only more efficient for pedaling, but more resistant to flats. There is a condition, called a “pinch flat”, in which you create your own flat by pinching (and puncturing your own tube between your rim and the road.

Don’t even go there. Just pump up your tires before a ride, with a large, convenient floor pump with a gauge on it. Then you won’t have to carry a pump around with you unless you’re going on a long, remote trip.

What’s “new”: Now there are two valve standards: the old, simple type like a car valve (Schrader) and the newer type with a pop-up center that changes height (Presta). To inflate a Presta valve, you’ll need to unscrew the top knob, then use a pump designed for Presta valves; air filling machines at gas stations do not have Presta, just Schrader.

valve types
Unlike the Schrader valves on cars, a Presta valve needs to be unscrewed before use, even if you put a Schrader-style adapter on it to use with Schrader pumps.

4. How to remove and reinstall your wheel.

This skill is essential for changing a tire, but that isn’t the only reason. You might want to fit the bike into a smaller space, such as for transport in a car, or in an extreme case, sending your bike somewhere in a shipping box. Or maybe you simply want to verify that your wheels are on tight!

There are actually three standards here. The original standard, still used on old or cheap bikes, is a threaded axle with a 1/2″ nut at each end. Stealing your wheel requires a big wrench, but so does changing a flat or just straightening your wheel.

The next standard, and currently the most widespread globally for the past 20 years, is the quick-release axle. It has a finger-nut at one end and a cam lever at the other. To tighten, use the finger nut to get the axle close enough that the cam lever is slightly tight, then pull the lever over all the way. (NOTE: If you have disc brakes, never EVER use your brake disc as leverage when moving your cam lever; You’ll bend your disc!)

The newest standard is thru-axles, which precisely place your wheel at installation, helping to get the disc brake centered.. But unlike quick release axles, the axle must be disassembled and pulled out of the wheel during wheel removal from the bike, so remember not to lose any parts!

Newest skill: When placing a disc wheel on a bike with quick-release axles it helps to look into the brake pads from the front or rear of the bike, often with one eye to eliminate depth perception and see just the pad clearance. Adjust the wheel so the disc is in the center between the pads and flip the cam lever.

5. When and how to shift.

The purpose of shifting is super-simple–to make life easier on you and your legs.

bike chain animation
Power a larger crank for a rear wheel that moves faster. Power a small crank for a rear wheel that moves easier. (Credit: fabacademy.org)

If you’re going uphill and need lots of power, you give your legs that power by downshifting into a low gear that combines each pedal revolution with as few wheel revolutions as possible. The same leg power, spread across fewer wheel revolutions, equals more strength going up that steep hill.

Downshifting = something small in the front and something big in the back.

If you’re going downhill and don’t want to pedal like crazy to keep up with your wheels, you can upshift into a high gear, so the rear wheel turns multiple times for each pedal revolution–sometimes four or five wheel revolutions per pedal revolution on a road bike. The same pedaling speed, with faster wheel spinning, equals more efficient speed.

Upshifting = something big up front and something small in the back.

What’s new: Index shifting moves one gear per click, so you’re always in gear. Front and rear derailleurs each have two finger levers–one for up and one for down.

What’s super-new: Today’s drop-bar road bikes often have integrated shift/brake levers, where one lever can both shift your gears and stop your bike.

6. How to tighten your brakes.

Stopping when needed is rather important. You brake with steel cables, which are essentially steel rope. It sounds indestructible, but here’s the dirty little secret… just like rope, steel cable unwinds over time. I don’t know how engineers fix this issue on steel cable suspension bridges, but on a bike, the answer is simply to make the cable housing longer. A longer housing makes the inside cable shorter by comparison, which means that if the cable has stretched, now it seems like the same length it once was.

You’ll know your brake cable has likely stretched if your brakes don’t quite grip the wheel to a stop anymore. Or maybe you’ve simply worn down the brake pads and aren’t quite ready to buy new ones yet. Just tighten your cables and you’re ready to ride safely again.

How to lengthen the housing? Look at both ends of your brake cables. Either at the brake calipers or at the handlebars, you’ll see a round, adjustable knob, called a barrel adjuster. Screwing it in clockwise makes the cable housing shorter; unscrewing it counterclockwise–anticlockwise in Australia–makes the cable housing longer.

barrel adjuster on shifter

But remember, our end goal is the cable effect, not the housing. So this is a rare case where unscrewing something makes “it” tighter. Unscrew the barrel adjuster for a cable just half a turn at a time, test and readjust.

What’s new: Hydraulic brakes have no cables. Hydraulic braking is tighter and more responsive, but if your braking gets loose, you’ll need to refill your hydraulic line. Totally different skill set.

7. How to fix your shifting.

Once you start to rely on good shifting to make life easy on your legs, you’ll use it a lot, changing gears with the terrain to stay in the same, comfortable pedaling speed . . . until that day when a derailleur won’t quite shift as much as you’d like. What’s going on?

Most likely, a cable has gotten stretched. On any front or rear derailleur, reaching the largest gears requires the most effort. If your derailleur can’t quite get all the way to a large gear, it’s *probably* a loose cable. And if you can’t get to a small gear, it’s *probably* a too-tight cable. But before you start happily turning the barrel adjuster, there’s something else you should know…

Front and rear derailleurs also have another type of adjustment. This one is a “stop screw” or “limit screw”, intended to make sure that your chain never, ever shifts off the low end or high end of your gears–one screw for each, on each derailleur. If these are too tight in, your chain will never get to that last (or first) gear. If they are too loose, your chain will fall off when shifting.

limit screws on old derailleur
Limit screws (and a barrel adjuster), circa 1990. Today’s limit screws are more clearly marked (H and L) and are usually hex screws on quality bikes, but the purpose is identical more than 30 years later.

So the first thing is to make sure your limit screws are good. Remember, with shifting, high gear is large in front and small in back, while low gear is small in front and large in back. So on the front, the screw labeled H is for the large gear, and the screw labeled L is for the small gear. On the back, it’s reversed. Try to shift past the end of your gears; if you can’t great. Your limit screw is likely set right.

But if you can’t get to the furthest gear, is it a limit screw problem or a cable tension problem? This is where some experimentation comes in. If you look closely under the limit screw, you can see if it is connecting or not. If not, you know to use the barrel adjuster tweaking and checking.

Or, there’s the option of taking your bike to your local bike shop, But at least now you know exactly what they’ll be working on.

What’s new: More gears on the back, and sometimes fewer on the front, for close to the same range. But all the skills remain the same.

It’s not all maintenance…

This is a long list of basic skills, but realistically, you’ll be doing only half of them regularly on a well-built bike with modern components. Pump up your tires. Ride safely and comfortably in the best gear for your legs. And lock up your bike when needed. Everything else is occasional details.

And adventure! See you out on the roads and trails…

Bob Forgrave is president of Flatbike, a bike company focused on portable adventure.


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