7 essential road cycling skills

Get to grips with climbing, descending, cornering and more

You’ve got the bike, you’ve got the kit — now it’s time to get those essential road cycling skills dialled, which will ensure you get the best from your ride!

This quick guide is the perfect starting point to help identify the key skills needed for good road riding, with a few additional tools and tips that most riders will find useful.

1. Getting the most out of your gears

Knowing when to shift your gears up and down makes for a smoother, more efficient ride
Knowing when to shift your gears up and down makes for a smoother, more efficient ride

Like cars, high gears are for powering along and sprinting, while low gears will let you spin your legs to take the pain out of climbs.

You’ll find that you tend to have a natural cadence that you’re comfortable pedalling at, then it’s a case of working out what gears your comfortable climbing and sprinting in. That said, there are a few additional things to be aware of.

Hills

When approaching a climb, shift down to easier gears as you approach or where the incline is fairly shallow.

The more pressure on the chain, the harder it is to shift gear and more likely it is to jump or, worse case, ping off the drivetrain. So try to shift when there’s not too much force being put through, hence shifting before the climb gets steep.

It’s easier to shift to a higher gear from a low gear if you feel like you can push harder than vice versa.

It’s also better when climbing to spin your legs in a low gear than try and push through a high gear, but more on that later…

Junctions

Another time to be aware of your gearing is when approaching junctions where you’ll need to slow down and, in some cases, stop. If you’ve been riding in a higher gear, you’ll find it hard to push through when you start off again.

When approaching the junction, shift down to an easier, lower gear, and you’ll find it easier to pick up speed again when you recommence pedalling.

Use the chainring for big jumps in gearing

If you want to jump up or down a large number of gears in one go, then shift between the two chainring sprockets because these have the biggest differences between them.

For example, if you’re approaching a hill and want to drop down lots of gears, jump from the big ring to the smallest. The opposite holds true if you’ve got up to speed and want to go up a number of gears.

Just be aware that the chain needs to be around the middle sprockets on the cassette at the back, and that shifting the front and the back at the same time is not a good idea because you can drop the chain completely.

As a side note, if you only clean one thing on your bike regularly it should be the drivetrain. Gears will run smoother and last longer with a regular clean and oil.

2. Using a heart rate monitor

The Wahoo Elemnt Bolt and the Garmin Edge 520
The Wahoo Elemnt Bolt and the Garmin Edge 520

Whether it’s a wrist-mounted monitor or one attached to a chest strap, keeping an eye on your heart-rate has a whole load of benefits.

These include monitoring fitness, tracking improvements and using it to train in specific zones, such as the fat burning zone for weight loss or the aerobic zone to boost lung capacity and aerobic fitness.

They are also useful for tracking calorie burn, to ensure adequate refuelling.

Some monitors work on their own, such as wrist-mounted monitors like the Garmin Vivosport, and others use a remote sensor attached to a chest or arm strap which feeds back to a remote computer such as a bar-mounted Garmin or Wahoo.

To get the most of out a heart-rate monitor, you’ll need to find your resting heart rate and your maximum heart rate, and our simple guide will tell you how to do this, plus take you through the different training zones and give you some work out ideas.

3. The importance of fuelling and hydration

Mid-ride ice cream may not strictly be sports-specific nutrition, but you've got to live a little!
Mid-ride ice cream may not strictly be sports-specific nutrition, but you've got to live a little!

The dreaded bonk. If you’ve experienced it, you’ll know it’s best avoided, and if you haven’t, take it from the rest of us you don’t want to!

Bonking is where you run completely out of energy while out on a ride. Your legs feel like lead, your head feels heavy, and the thought of continuing your ride home is just too much.

Fuel yourself properly and not only will you avoid bonking, but you’ll also find your on-bike performance is much better and, as a result, the whole experience is much more fun.

Before you ride

Stay hydrated during the day, drinking little and often is important because starting a ride dehydrated won’t help on-bike performance.  

Eat a balanced meal with carbohydrates. A breakfast of porridge with whole, rolled oats, sprinkled with dates or dried fruit makes a good base for a day of riding. O Pasta with protein and vegetables is great too. Aim to eat at least 3 hours before riding.

During your ride

Keep drinking during the ride. To replace essential electrolytes needed for good muscle function, which are lost in sweat, it’s a good idea to use a soluble hydration tablet. This is particularly important on long rides and in hot weather.

While riding, your body needs a steady supply of carbohydrates in the form of sugars to keep your muscles powered. If you go for low-intensity riding, your body will break down fat stores into carbohydrates to do this. However, go above this level and your body can’t break down fat quickly enough so will rely solely on the sugars, or glycogen, stored in your muscles, which quickly run out.  

Once that happens, it’s bonk time, so it's important to keep your body topped up with small amounts of easily digestible carbohydrates as you ride. There are plenty of nutrition products on the market to keep your energy levels topped up such as bars, gels and even waffles.

If you don’t want to use specific nutrition products, you can also try:

  • Jelly babies or other jelly sweets
  • Bananas
  • Jam sandwiches
  • Fig rolls
  • Dried fruit and nuts

After you ride

Keep drinking water if you’re feeling thirsty.

A protein-rich meal or drink will help with muscle recovery, so try some of these tasty smoothie recipes or quick meal suggestions. And of course one of the of the most popular post-ride recovery foods is a big glass of chocolate milk.

4. Riding in groups

Working together in a group can add a new dynamic to your riding
Working together in a group can add a new dynamic to your riding

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of riding along in a pack, slipstreaming each other, sliding through the air and moving like a well-oiled machine.

Group riding is thrilling but also requires a few essential skills to make it as safe as possible.

It can feel a little nerve-wracking riding so close to other riders at first, so you may want to build up by riding with friends or on social club rides.

Consistency and communication are key: be predictable, don’t make sudden moves such as turning or braking without indicating that you’re going to do it, and keep talking to the riders around you.

There are specific types of formation and movements that you’ll encounter on group rides, and we’ve put together a short video to guide you through them. Most cycling clubs should be happy to help introduce you to these if you haven’t tried them before.

These skills are also essential in a race setting, so if you’ve got a competitive edge or are just curious, it’s worth giving racing a go as it’ll help hone your skills and fitness.

5. Conquering climbs and hill training

You may want to stand to power up short, steep sections
You may want to stand to power up short, steep sections

Some love the fight against gravity, others hate it, but either way, climbing is part and parcel of cycling — unless you live in the Netherlands.

How you approach a climb will depend on its incline and duration. Short, sharp climbs require a different approach to long, drawn-out climbs. Chances are, there will also be climbs that combine the two with long climbs interspersed with punchier, steeper sections.

To start with, find a cadence you feel happy with and a low gear, stay seated and spin up the hill. Don’t try to push too hard a gear — it’s both more effective and efficient to spin your legs rather than trying to power up.

It’s also better to start in an easier gear and then go harder, than vice versa which can lead to the rider grinding to a halt and having to stop, and once you stop, it’s very hard to get started again.

For short, sharp climbs, it may be possible to push up them using a higher gear and standing while pedalling. For hills that combine the two, stick with seated spinning or use a combination of seated and standing efforts.

Of course, there’s a whole discipline of racing dedicated entirely to going uphill, and if you want to become a hill climbing star, we’ve got just the article for you.

6. Cornering

The more experience you have, the more confidently you'll handle corners
The more experience you have, the more confidently you'll handle corners

Fast cornering requires commitment and trust. Commit to maintaining speed and body position, because sudden or hard braking or direction changes can unbalance the rider, and trust that the bike and tyres can hold in the turn.

Experience and practice are key here, so one good piece of advice is to find a route with a selection of corners and practice riding it multiple times, or build it into a regular route. Each time, approach it a little faster until the feeling becomes familiar.

Speed should be controlled before entering the turn, so do any required braking ahead of time, which will be up to three times the distance if the road surface is wet.

Go into the corner wide, then lean into the apex of the turn. The bike will naturally straighten up during the turn exit.

Look out for obstacles and issues such as potholes, and only ride on the correct side of the road for the country you are in.

7. Descending

Pedals level, body low, hands on the drops — the ideal descending position
Pedals level, body low, hands on the drops — the ideal descending position

There are few things more thrilling than zipping down a mountain road, wind in the hair and tyres flying over the tarmac.

Cyclists can reach some dizzying speeds on descents. Marcus Burghardt of BMC reached an incredible 130.7kph/81.2mph on a descent in the 2017 Tour de France. But of course with speed comes risk, and if you’re not actively seeking the yellow jersey in the world’s biggest bike race, a more controlled descent is a better bet and no less fun.

Good bike setup helps here: ensure a comfortable reach to the brake levers will help maintain control over long descents. Some riders also prefer the feel of hydraulic disc brakes because they offer strong braking with subtle control that doesn’t require a lot of pressure to work, which can feel easier on the hands-on long downhill sections.

The ideal body position when descending is with pedals level, body relaxed with hands on the drops with the brake levers covered by one or two fingers. Try to avoid dragging the brakes and use both brakes equally to control your speed.

Bonus tip… bike fit

As mentioned above, bike setup is important, so it’s also a good idea to get a bike fit. It's a critical part of the process to get the most out of a bike because it’s important to have the bike set up exactly right for the rider, including the reach to the brake levers, saddle height, handlebar height and more.

This will help avoid any niggles or pains that might develop otherwise.

Aoife Glass

Women's Cycling Editor
A mountain biker at heart, also drawn to the open road. Likes big long adventures in the mountains. Usually to be found in the Mendip Hills or the Somerset Levels in the UK. Passionate about women's cycling at all levels.
  • Discipline: Mountain, road
  • Preferred Terrain: Rocky, rough and a long way from anywhere.
  • Current Bikes: Liv Avail Advanced Pro 2015, Juliana Furtado 2013, Canyon Roadlite AL
  • Dream Bike: Juliana Roubion, Liv Avail Advanced SL
  • Beer of Choice: Red wine for the win!
  • Location: Weston Super Mare, Somerset, UK

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