Riding a bike is a skill…

and skills are good for us!

By Andy Chivers

I was riding round an empty roundabout and the bike was enjoying leaning into the curve as much as I was. It made me think about what skills you need to ride a bike, and what is the effect on the rider of gaining those skills. We all recognise the pleasure of overcoming some difficult challenge and how it improves our mood and sense of self-esteem. This undoubtedly applies to riding a bike – you only have to watch the joy and enthusiasm with which children zoom around. 

At its most basic, riding a bike requires the coordination of balance, steering, and turning the pedals. Then comes the most important skill – paying attention to your surroundings. This has been well described by the father of urban bike riding, Richard Ballantine, as ‘Relaxed Concentration’. The concentration required is itself a pleasure and it is possible to be relaxed and enjoy the challenge of riding safely and skilfully in traffic. 

There is another layer of bike riding skill which most of us go nowhere near. Danny MacAskill astounds us on YouTube with his balletic bike adventures in impossible settings. Most of us find the potholes on our journeys quite enough of a challenge, and leave bouncing around gym equipment, or the Cuillin mountains to Danny.

Some people manage to achieve extraordinary feats in ordinary streets, such as the youngsters leaping off their bikes, rolling on rider-less, until another jumps onto the saddle. Some years ago, a cycle reviewer was rebuked for suggesting that riding a bike no-handed was a good test of its design. Though of course it may not be safe, or wise, to do this while navigating traffic, or cycling downhill, it is impressive to see people nonchalantly cycling no-handed, or doing a wheelie for a hundred metres and is testament to a high-level of bike handling. These are not skills that we all need, but they demonstrate the human wish to develop and also, to play – cycling can be fun after all!

There are advanced skills which we should all aim for – everyone who rides a bike should be able to look over their shoulder to check traffic behind them before turning right. We should all know how to make an emergency stop (and have the brakes to allow it). We should all be able to ride with one hand extended to indicate a turn. We should all be able to ride in a straight line and know when to take the centre of the lane to avoid being squeezed by following traffic. Seeing ourselves as part of the traffic and with the rights and responsibilities that comes with that is crucial. We must respect and be considerate of other road users, especially pedestrians who are lower down the vulnerability pecking order. 

Bikeability training gets children started on these skills and Oxfordshire now funds this in many schools. We can all take pleasure in becoming better riders by using and improving our skills every time we go out for a ride.

Photo: courtesy of The Bikeability Trust.

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