Written by Our Technical Guru, Don Peddie

Keep Still

quick release“I’ve been told that keeping my upper body still while riding is a good thing. Is this true?” Yes, most cyclists strive for a still upper body because it saves energy. There will always be a bit of motion from side to side, and the bike will sway when on the road. But on a trainer your body will soak up the swaying because the bike is locked in place. On the other hand, some of the best riders had considerable movement, Eddy Merckx for instance. So there is no perfect way to ride. Don’t accentuate a natural motion, but sometimes it takes more effort and concentration to fight a natural motion than to just go with it.

Crankarm Length

There has been much debate, considerable empirical evidence, and little convincing scientific study to support these common leg-to-crankarm relationships: inseam to 31 inches, 170-mm crankarm; inseam 31 or 32 inches, 172.5-mm crankarm; and inseam 33 inches more 175- mm crankarm. Track riders generally choose crankarms up to 5 mm shorter than the above recommendations because shorter crankarms allow for faster cadences and improve cornering clearance on velodromes and in criteriums. Mountain bikers often choose up to 5 mm longer. Although longer crankarms have been favoured for hard steady efforts such as time-trialing, hill climbing and mountain biking, studies have shown that they change torque, not power. In other words, they require the rider to pedal a larger circle. In time-trialing in an aerodynamic position, longer crankarms mean that the rider closes the hip angle, reducing power. (Tip! The length of most crankarms is stamped on the back.)

Round Out Those Pedal Strokes

It’s well established that cyclists can’t actually pull up the pedals with enough force to propel the bike. It’s a nice theory, but it doesn’t work. But pedaling in smooth, round circles certainly helps. It lightens the load on the ascending pedal so there’s less resistance against the one you’re pushing down. That’s most important when climbing. The rounder you can pedal uphill, the more you’ll get out of each stroke. In fact, your technique is easier to work on when climbing because your cadence is slower, letting your brain keep up with your feet. You can concentrate on feeling the pedals all the way around. Try this, too. Instead of simply pumping up and down, pedal across the top and bottom of each stroke. This horizontal approach smooths the up-down transition and has two other benefits. First, it helps momentum, always a good thing when fighting gravity. Second, it alters the load on leg muscles to reduce fatigue.

A good time to switch to a horizontal emphasis is on the flatter sections of a tiered climb.

Prevent Dirty Fingers

Now and then the chain slips off. It happens to everyone on even the best-tuned bikes. Getting the chain back on the chainwheel doesn’t have to mean getting your fingers all dirty. Find a stick or piece of paper. Crouch beside the front wheel and steer the chain onto the BOTTOM of the chain ring that it just slipped off of. (If the chain is on the outside, by the pedal, slip it onto the big ring. If it’s on the bottom bracket on the inside, slip it onto the small ring.) Pressing the chain into the teeth of the chainring, gently rotate the pedals BACKWARDS, letting the teeth of the chainring engage the links of the chain. Continue rotating the pedals until the chain has fully climbed back onto the ring. Then stand up, lift the rear wheel free of the ground and give the pedals a forward spin. The chain will move itself to whatever cog the shifter has set it for. One touch of the chain is all it takes. No dirty fingers.

How Much Do You Drink?

Not alcohol. I’m talking about water. But how much? First, determine how much liquid you need to replace fluid lost as sweat. To do that, weigh yourself naked prior to a ride, then again after. Each pound lost during the ride means two cups of water (16 oz/480 ml) have been lost. Then add in how much you actually drank during the ride. Divide the total by the number of hours you rode, and this is your hourly sweat rate. You should drink this much fluid each hour as you cycle to maintain optimum hydration. Test yourself again during hot, humid summer weather.

Lube Now, Ride Later

When your chain needs lubrication, do the job right today to avoid a mess tomorrow. When you give the lube’s carrier a chance to evaporate overnight, the chain won’t be a grit magnet and the lube won’t fling onto the frame and wheel. Give the chain one final wipe with a clean rag before riding to keep your machine extra clean.

Get a Grip, But Keep It Loose

Keeping at least one thumb wrapped around the handlebars is the safest way to ride, preventing an unexpected bump from quickly jarring both hands loose. This doesn’t mean you should grip the bars tightly. A comfortable, relaxed grip is ideal, which will let your arms and shoulders stay relaxed so they can soak up road shock and lessen muscle fatigue. Wiggle your fingers now and then to keep them relaxed.

How to Look Back

Looking back is important when riding in traffic to check on cars. When riding in a group, looking back is important to ensure you are not dropping other riders. Unless a person knows how, it can be difficult to ride in a straight line, maintain a steady pace, and look back at the same time. Some people tend to veer to the left when they look over their left shoulder. The tendency is to redistribute weight to the turned side or turn the upper body and consequently the handlebars. Practice using these simple steps:

Cleaning the Cogs

Here’s the best tip I’ve heard for ages. Nothing is simpler or works better for cleaning the spaces between the cogs on the rear wheel than an old skate lace. Use it just like dental floss between your teeth. Remove the rear wheel and give it a try. The cogs will ratchet, spinning slightly when the lace is pulled one way, then lock in place and get cleaned when the lace is pulled back again. A bit of grease dissolver on the lace makes everything sparkle again.

Quick Release Levers: How Tight?

When installing a wheel with a quick release lever, a good rule to follow is that the force needed to close the lever should leave a white impression on the palm of the hand. The rear lever should be on the left side, away from the drive train, and tucked down or in front of a frame tube so that another wheel cannot come between it and the frame, popping it open unexpectedly. When the front lever is on the left it matches the rear one, so it looks good and follows the tradition cyclists have practiced for over 100 years.

Mr. Skippy

You’ve got a skip or slip in the drive train during pedaling. If it happens on just one cassette cog, the cog is worn out. If it happens on every cog, the chain has a stiff link. Replacing a cog—or perhaps the entire cassette—will cost you money. Fixing a stiff link is free and easy. Find that bad boy by kneeling beside your bike, turning the crank backward and watching the chain wind its way through the rear derailleur pulleys. A link that isn’t bending will be apparent. Move it to where you can grasp it on both sides, then flex the chain side to side. Be firm. Add a drop of chain lube and bend the link up and down to check if it’s as free as all the others. Keep at it until it is. Then vow to keep your chain clean and lubed, which should prevent links from stiffening.

Saddle Sore Medicine

Avoid alcohol–on your crotch, that is. Some riders—those impervious to pain—swab their crotch with rubbing alcohol after rides, figuring it’ll kill saddle-sore-causing germs. Maybe. But it can just as well irritate and over-dry the skin, spawning more sores than it prevents. Instead, wash with soap, dry well and treat suspect spots with an over-the-counter acne medication containing 10% benzoyl peroxide. After all, the typical saddle sore is a pimple.


This annoying habit occurs when two cyclists are riding side by side and one of them keeps pulling “just a bit” ahead of her/his partner, increasing the pace. Rider A edges her wheel ahead, Rider B pulls alongside, Rider A pedals a bit faster… and so on. Half-wheeling has been described as “A passive-aggressive way to go faster while annoying your cycling partners” It’s an excellent way to ensure that you ride alone. A lot.

A Plug for Plugs

Handlebar plugs aren’t just a nice finishing touch to your tape job. They are also an important safety item. During a fall, the bar could swing back hard and nail you. If the plug is missing, the result might look like a medical technician took a core sample from your thigh. If one (or both) of your plugs is missing, get a replacement on your next visit to the bike shop. Streamers are optional.

Fast Flat Fixin’

Next time you get a flat tire, search the tire tread for the culprit. Find it? Good. Now you can save time as well as your spare tube. Do so by removing one side of the tire several inches on either side of the puncture. Pull out that section of tube and apply a patch. Before you stuff it back in, be certain to remove what caused the puncture. Check the tread and feel inside the casing. Reseat the tire, add air and away you go.

  1. When looking over the left shoulder, relax the handlebar grip with the left arm, or drop the left shoulder. Some riders like to place the right hand closer to the stem.
  2. Slide your rear end slightly to the right. This helps keep the weight centred over the bicycle.
  3. At first, just glance back briefly. Practice lengthening your backward glance until you can do so for several seconds.
  4. Repeat the above steps except in the opposite direction, looking back over the right shoulder.

Read other Cycling 101 Articles

  1. Cycling 101 Introduction
  2. Heart Rate and Building Fitness
  3. Looking Ahead
  4. Hill Climbing
  5. Quick Release: A Potpourri of Cycling Tips
  6. Tires: Keep the Pressure Up, But Don’t Blow It!
  7. Shopping for a Bike?
  8. Bicycle Gear Ratios
  9. Cycling Made Easy Part 1