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Starting and Stopping
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Sheldon Brown photo  John Allen
by Sheldon "Fast Off The Line" Brown
and John "Stepping Forward" Allen
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Do You Really Know How To Ride A Bicycle?

There is a tendency to think that once you get so that you can ride around the block without falling down, you've "mastered" riding a bicycle, and know all you need to know about basic riding technique. Like most skills, however, there are levels of mastery, and a cyclist who has learned and practiced good technique will be a safer, more effective cyclist.

How Do I Get To Carnegie Hall?

If you are one of the many cyclists who, despite years of experience, have never overcome bad starting/stopping habits, it is not to late to improve your technique. These approaches may feel funny at first, but once you get used to them, you'll see how much better they work...Practice! Practice! Practice! Emily Weidman demonstrates...

Stopping and Restarting a Bicycle from John Allen on Vimeo.

If you have not learned to do this, take the time to practice. It may sound difficult, but it isn't as hard as it sounds. Once you get used to it, it will become second nature. You will become a better, safer cyclist, because you will be able to bring your bicycle quickly up to a speed that allows you to ride without wobbling.

Starting

Many experienced cyclists have never taken the time to learn the correct way to mount and dismount, and their bad habits put them at risk when they try to start up in traffic, or up hill.

One of the most basic skills of cycling is the ability to ride straight, without wobbling from side to side. It is not possible for most cyclists to do this until they reach a certain minimum speed, typically in the range of 5-8 miles per hour (8-13 kph). Learning correct starting technique will enable you to reach this critical maneuvering speed sooner, so you will spend less time with your bicycle under only partial control.

Correct Basic Starting Technique

It is easiest to learn basic starting and stopping technique using flat pedals. Once you have mastered the basics, then if you like, you may move on to toeclips and straps, or to clipless pedals and cleated shoes.

  1. Stand astride the frame, both feet on the ground. Most people get to this position by swinging a leg over the saddle, but if you have low handlebars, you can do it over the bars as well. If you have a "lady's" bike or other bike with a low frame, you may be able to lift your foot over the frame. It sometimes helps to lean the bike to the side before straddling it.

    Do not try to sit on the saddle while the bike is stopped.

  2. Hook your less skillful foot under a pedal and rotate the pedals backwards so that the pedal is 45 degrees forward of straight up. If the bicycle has a coaster brake, you'll have to lift the rear wheel off the ground and rotate the pedals forward instead.
  3. Put your foot on the high pedal, then press down hard. This will simultaneously:
    • Let you use the pedal as a step to lift yourself high enough to get onto the saddle...and:
    • Apply driving force to the chain, causing the bike to pick up speed.

Also see our article on shoes and pedals.

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Some Wrong Ways:

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Stopping

Stopping is not so much of a challenge for most cyclists, but there are still some bad habits to lose and good habits to teach yourself.

Some wrong ways

Shift Down First

If your bike has derailer gears, it can be shifted only while in motion. It is very worthwhile to cultivate the habit of shifting into a fairly low gear as you glide to a stop, so that you will be in a suitable gear for starting up again. Usually, this will involve shifting the rear derailer onto the lowest (largest) sprocket, and the front onto the middle chainwheel if the bicycle has triple chainwheels. Naturally, in an emergency, panic stop, you'll just stop, and not worry about the gear, but for normal, controlled stops, you can teach yourself to do this downshifting automatically. If you use toe clips and straps or clip-in pedals, it's easy to lift the rear wheel and pedal forward with one foot on the ground while shifting down.

You may need to do a bit of experimenting to find the most suitable starting gear on your bike.

If you did not shift down before stopping, you will need to restart in a high gear. Shift down right away. But -- if you use clipless pedals or toe clips and straps, it is also possible to lift the rear wheel while holding onto the back of the saddle with one hand, turn the pedals in a full circle and shift with the other hand.

When To Put Your Foot Down

Perhaps arising from a desire to assist the inadequate brakes with shoe leather, some cyclists have a tendency to put a foot down too soon, which may be painful.

When stopping, you need to rest your weight on one pedal, (which will necessarily be at the bottom of its range, if your bicycle is equipped with a freewheel.) Your other foot shouldn't touch the ground until the bicycle is pretty much stopped.

If you put your foot down while the bike is still moving along, here's what happens: You're already slowing down with the brakes, and the brakes are slowing the entire bike/rider unit. If you put a foot down and transfer your weight to it, the brake then only needs to slow the bicycle, which is much lighter than you. The amount of braking force that was slowing the bike and rider at a controllable rate can bring the bicycle alone to an abrupt halt. Meanwhile, your body's momentum keeps you in motion, until you whack a delicate part of your body on the handlebar stem of your suddenly stopped bicycle...ouch!

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Extra Credit

The "Balance Stop" and the Track Stand

There are two legal requirements at a stop sign: to stop, and -- oversimplifying slightly -- to yield to conflicting traffic. Yielding is what prevents crashes. All you need to do to send the proper message to other road users is to slow so that is is clear that you will yield. Few bicyclists, or motorists, for that matter, come to a full stop unless necessary for yielding, or a police officer is watching. The requirement to stop is more annoying for bicyclists. It requires putting a foot down. Or does it?

A few US states, led by Idaho, have modified the stop-sign law so bicyclists need not come to full stop, but also, you can come to a full stop without putting a foot down if you have practiced the "balance stop", as taught in CyclingSavvy courses. The law requires that your wheels stop turning, and is silent about your position on the bicycle. Standing and rocking quickly forward on the bicycle can maintain forward momentum even as the wheels come momentarily to a complete stop. Then, releasing the brakes and rocking backward restarts the bicycle before you lose balance.

Another special stopping technique, the track stand, allows extended stops without putting a foot down -- the Guinness Book of World Records declined to offer updates when the record reached 9 hours. But, except on a fixed-gear bicycle, the track stand is possible only on an upslope. It also is trickier to learn than the balance stop.

Cyclocross techniques

The flying leap start and the cyclocross dismount, mentioned earlier, are tricky and risky; also, the cyclist steps off to the side of the bicycle between stops and starts. That is not exactly the greatest idea on a group ride or in mixed traffic. These techniques do make sense if the cyclist must carry the bicycle: a cyclocross racer jumping over an obstacle, a police officer running up stairs to pursue a suspect, and so forth. Kris Westwood from Performance Cycle gives a good, quick introduction to cyclocross techniques in the video below.

Starting and stopping a bicycle are such fundamental operations - after learning to balance - that it's surprising that they are not taught routinely!

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