Feeling balanced and safe on your bike is important whether you are a seasoned veteran or new to cycling. If you are stable on your bike then you are able to move over obstacles smoothly and travel at various speeds without losing your balance. You can get up out of the saddle on climbs or bumpy descents and you can lean your bike underneath you to corner around the sharpest corners.
Having a strong ‘ready’ position is critical to balance because often we are best out of the saddle when we need to balance. The ready position is achieved by getting your pedals/cranks level (3 and 9 o’clock), raising your hips up above your saddle and hinging your nose over your stem. Once you get the hang of coasting in the ready position, and moving in and out of it, you can use these three drills to improve your position and balance.
Many riders don’t like taking a foot off their pedals to maintain balance, using clipless pedals early in your development really stifles this ability. Riding flat pedals to learn skills is a great idea because you will get used to putting a foot down rather than falling over and getting timid about your balance. Great riders, clipped in or not, will be adept at putting a foot out as an ‘outrigger’ to navigate tricky corners and off-camber sections where they might slide out and simply to ‘dab’ their foot when they make a mistake on a climb. Working on taking a foot out to corner or just for the sake of clipping in and out is a great drill. Try it seated and then progress to doing it standing without sitting down.
Ratcheting is when we get into our ready position and perform partial pedal strokes to move the bike forward. I prefer my right foot forward so I would move my right pedal back and forth from 2–3 o’clock to 3–4 o’clock to push myself forward. As you accelerate your only job is to enjoy the forward momentum and return to ready position waiting for your speed to drop enough that you can once again ‘catch’ the chain with your pedals and push yourself forward with another ‘ratchet’ pedal stroke. Resist the urge to ratchet really quickly because you will miss the sensation of slowing down (and the ability to grab the chain tension) and watch that you do only half pedal strokes, your preferred front foot should stay as the front pedal.
The bump and run uses all the ratcheting practice you did in the drill above to progress your slow-speed balance (e.g., track-stands) and will also help you understand how to use the tension in your drivetrain to balance your bike, and to apply pressure to your pedals and handlebars to improve your balance. The best way to start is to use an obstacle like a picnic table and approach it slowly in your ready position. Use your brakes gradually to slow down just ahead of the seat of the picnic table or the base of whatever sturdy obstacle you choose (lamp posts, trees, decks and the corners of buildings all work). As you come to a gradual stop, use a small ratchet to gently move your wheel forward and tap the obstacle and then let off the pressure on your front foot to bring the pedals backward (raise your front foot back toward 2–3 o’clock), which also allows your wheels to move backwards slightly, since it is linked to your feet by the drivetrain! Once you have rolled back slightly turn your front wheel slightly and ride away to the side of the obstacle. Start with a very gradual and slight slow down and progress to full stops and, eventually, more backward riding.
The more balance you have the more safety, fun and speed you will find in your rides, whatever cycling discipline you do. Don’t underestimate the benefits of improving your on-bike balance as these skills transfer to your cornering, climbing, descending and shifting ability by improving your position and ability to move the bike under you.