If you think riding a bike is easy because it's something you learned to do as a kid, you could have a case of "toy syndrome."
This common affliction, which seems to be an epidemic along Chicago's lakefront path right now, refers to adults who are stuck in cycling infancy and haven't yet mastered the skills they need to ride safely in traffic.
"There's a notion that an activity learned as a child requires no further instruction," said Olympic cyclist and coach John Howard, who coined "toy syndrome." But we often overlook that "roads are now crowded with high-speed, mission-driven drivers, and the bikes of today are like carbon fiber arrows," he said. "Very sleek but potentially very dangerous."
Adults aren't keen on bicycle safety classes. But if they can learn how to develop more power, safety and comfort while on their bikes, they can better deal with busy streets, a variety of turns and terrains and road hazards, including other cyclists, said Howard.
In his new book, " Mastering Cycling" Howard addresses key technical skills that he says every mature cyclist needs. Here are some highlights:
Climbing in the saddle (pedaling uphill while sitting ): This is not a huge issue in Chicago but if you do encounter a hill, try to plan ahead. "Delaying the decision too long means you lose both speed and momentum," Howard said. When your cadence (the rate at which you spin your legs) slows down, shift to an easier gear. As you gain experience and feel a need to go faster, you'll want to learn "out-of-saddle" climbing (standing on the pedals) which uses bigger gears to leverage your power.
Climbing out of the saddle: "The primary force in moving the bicycle forward is generated at the 3 o'clock and 9 o'clock positions of the cranks," Howard said. (The crankset is a component connected to the pedals which ultimately helps turns the rear wheel.) "A common mistake among less-experienced riders is mistiming the thrust of the cranks. Power is dissipated at the top and bottom of the stroke, which is essentially a dead zone when out of the saddle," he said.
Turning corners: If you've been "steering" around corners, it's time to change tactics. Bikes must be "leaned" into a turn, said Howard. The amount of lean depends on how fast you're going, how tight the turn is and "the degree and direction of the road bank," said Howard.
Braking: You can stop in two ways: Quickly, to avoid a wreck, or gradually, by applying light, even pressure or feathering the front and back brakes. "When hitting the brakes, cyclists should slip to the rear of the saddle to adjust the center of gravity," said Howard.
Shifting: The goal is to maintain a smooth speed by using an efficient cadence. To avoid a jerky cadence, shift one gear at a time and avoid big gear jumps between ranges. "Cyclists should listen to their bikes. Avoid crossing the chain over radical angles, such as the big chain ring and the larger cog in the rear," Howard said. Still, shifting gears has never been easier, now that electric push button shifters remove much of the guesswork.