Defensive Riding

By Maynard Hershon

I’m riding with two guys, one I’ve ridden with previously named Dan, the other a thirty-ish dude neither of us had met. We’ll call him Will. We ride down one Denver bike path to another, this one headed west toward Morrison and the foothills.

The Bear Creek Trail to Morrison is narrow and technical so we ride in a line but not a tight one; there are too many blind corners and too much oncoming traffic to ride close behind one another.

We seem to have similar strength, or at least to be interested in maintaining similar speeds. When we stop at a convenience store in Morrison, Will tells us that the guys he’s ridden with near his suburban home have not been super riding partners. They’re rude, is the feeling I get.

He’s riding a Felt, perhaps not the most expensive team-replica Felt, but a nice bicycle nonetheless. It’s his first bike, or his first good one, and he spent what seemed to him to be serious money on it. You can imagine how he felt when his so-called riding buddies taunted him about it, as if his bicycle were somehow unworthy of their training ride.

So Will found his way to Denver and the confluence of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek, in front of the big REI store, where he met Dan and I. As we rode, I noticed that he was an on-again, off-again pedaler. He’d pedal for 20 seconds, coast for five and pedal again.

On the way to Morrison, as I described, we rode along in a loose line, separated by a bike length or two, so his herky-jerky pedaling wasn’t a problem. But on the way back to REI, after we left the twisty Bear Creek Trail, we had more line-of-sight; we could ride something like an actual paceline.

I sit at the back at first, half a bike length behind Dan, Will behind me. At some point on the bike path, we pass a few other riders. Will finds himself in front of Dan and I.

He pedals for 15 seconds and quits. He coasts for five or 10 seconds and pedals again. It’s impossible to follow him closely and requires constant attention to avoid rolling into his back wheel. I see that no one has told Will about steady pedaling and he is unaware that he’s doing what he’s doing.

He does it standing or sitting, by the way, like a guy riding to work in his office clothes and trying to use the least amount of effort possible so as not to sweat. Pedal, coast, pedal, coast.

If your interest in cycling is limited to commuting or errand running, you can pedal and coast to your heart’s content. You may irritate the person behind you on the bike path but he is a stranger and you may never see him again. He probably won’t be following six inches back either.

But if you pedal and coast in close company, you’ll make yourself persona non grata, no matter how costly your bike. That’s not cycling rocket science, as you surely know. It’s cycling 101, or was, when riders taught other riders so we’d all have safe, smooth riding friends. Good riders are steady riders.

I ride up beside Dan in a straight stretch of bike path. I say to Will, “When you’re in front, you’ve got to pedal steadily, not pedal and stop, pedal and stop.”

I must have upset Will because instead of merely smoothing out his pedal effort, he pedaled harder. He rode away from us. I’d evidently offended him, a chance I knew I was taking when I chose to say something to him.

I yell,”You don’t have to pedal harder, just more consistently.”

I guess he didn’t hear me. Now maybe he thinks that riders in Denver are as obnoxious as those in his suburb.

If you’re a new rider and have a chance to learn something from a veteran rider, please set aside your pride or protective shield or whatever it is that makes it distasteful to hear criticism, no matter how constructive. What if you have a problem like Will’s and aren’t even aware you have it?

You can’t learn to pedal consistently from a book or from some online source. You probably aren’t even conscious that you’re coasting a third of the time. Someone who’s seen good riders has to watch you do it fifty or a hundred times and tell you.

If you can’t hear that person, you won’t learn and you’ll have wasted another ride strengthening a bad habit. And you’ll have been defensive and stubbornly unwilling to learn, unwilling to absorb wisdom freely shared.

If you are a new rider you do not know all about cycling. There’s a lot to learn. You would do well to listen and apply the lessons you feel are worthwhile.

Not everything suggested to you will be golden. Not everyone in cycling who looks like a wise old-timer is a wise old-timer. No one’s saying you don’t have to use your own judgment.

But you don’t know everything yet and you’re probably excited enough about cycling to want to know everything. You’d at least like to use your time on the bike effectively. You’d like to learn to pedal efficiently, sit on the bike comfortably and cover ground faster and more smoothly. Right?

You can’t ask Google or Wikipedia. You can’t ask the salesperson at the bike shop who has never seen you ride. You can’t ask your buddies who’ve been riding about as long as you have.

But if you want to learn to be a better rider, you have to trust someone, I’d say. Maybe you’d look at me and figure that guy can’t know anything, and you’d reject any suggestion I might offer. Fair enough.

But someone at some point will seem like the real thing, a thoughtful, observant bike rider. When that person offers help, listen. He or she wouldn’t be offering help unless you showed promise as a rider and seemed genuinely interested in the sport.

Listen. Learn to pedal steadily, relax on the bike, bend your elbows, ride predictably and in a straight line, anticipate hazards and point them out, on and on.

If you find yourself unwilling to listen to anyone at all, think about this article and about Will. He may get stronger if he stays at it but he won’t get classier. Strength is perishable; class is forever. You’ll be strong each year if you train hard. But once you learn to ride, you’re a rider for life.

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