Tuesday, December 11, 2012

How Slow Can You Go?

Rolling
In cycling, some associate skill and experience with being able to go fast. But going slow - and I mean really slow, like walking pace - can be even more difficult. When I first began riding as an adult, I could not keep my bike upright at super-slow speeds. I remember that the steering was hard to control; I'd end up losing my balance and having to stop. Even a couple of years down the road, it was easier to ride at 20mph than at 2mph. But finally I got the hang of it, and today I am able to ride at walking speed with no trouble at all. 

Looking back on this, I would say that slow cycling is one of the most useful bicycling skills I have picked up so far. Here are just some of the practical applications I've noticed over the years:

Wobble-free starting
When I talk to novices about cycling for transportation, a common theme that comes up is the fear of swerving into traffic when starting from a stop at a light. You can see it in the city: When some riders push off from a stop, the front end of their bike will wobble before they gain sufficient momentum to proceed in a straight line. Now, some bikes are easier to balance at slow speeds than others, but with sufficient skill even a twitchy bike can be ridden at walking speed wobble-free, eliminating this anxiety. 

Navigating traffic 
Riding in the city can be all about stop and go traffic. Being able to cycle slowly while maintaining full control of the bike makes this easier to handle, allowing the cyclist to maintain momentum and to travel more efficiently. Particularly useful is what I think of as "hovering." This is a practice that is somewhere between trackstanding and riding at walking pace. It comes in handy when inching your way forward in a line of stopped cars, changing lanes in dense traffic, waiting to turn left at an intersection, or proceeding in ambiguous right of way situations. It is much easier to both show your intent and accelerate from a position of hovering than it is from a stopped position. 

Safe MUP sharing
It used to drive me nuts to ride on crowded mixed use paths. Finding it stressful to navigate around hordes of unpredictable pedestrians, I would simply avoid MUPs during peak hours. But the greenways around here are quite scenic and can be relaxing if riding slowly is not an issue. The same "hovering" skill I find useful in road traffic works just as well for meandering amidst joggers and dog walkers. 

Riding on dirt and uneven surfaces
Cycling through muddy, rocky and otherwise challenging terrain can reduce a bike's speed considerably. Yet keeping your balance and being able to steer the bike precisely is more important than ever in those conditions. My new-found enjoyment of unpaved riding has much to do with improved slow cycling skills.

Thinking back to how I finally learned all of this, two distinct experiences come to mind. First, riding fixed gear. I remember vividly how the fixed drivetrain made me feel dramatically more in control of the bike at slow speeds. No one was there to instruct me; it was as if the bike itself was teaching me. And after getting my body used to balancing on the fixed bike that way, some of that eventually transferred over to freewheel bikes. 

But the real change was a result of instructional paceline rides. These rides taught me a number of useful techniques, including how to maintain continuous pedaling and consistent cadence regardless of speed. To ride slowly, we were instructed to switch into a low gear while pedaling and feathering the brakes, instead of coasting. This taught me to maneuver the bike smoothly, to control my speed with precision, and to stay stable even when moving at a crawl. Somehow pedaling made all of this easier and reprogrammed my body to balance with the bike. Almost immediately, I saw major improvements in my everyday bike handling skills.

If fixed gear bikes and paceline rides are not for you, one thing you could try is this: When out riding, pay attention to your pedaling. To slow down, try switching into a low gear while pedaling continuously, instead of coasting while pedaling in a high gear occasionally. To slow down even more, feather the brakes while continuing to pedal. Try to go slower and slower using this technique. Gradually your body will learn to maneuver the bike at slow speeds, whether pedaling or coasting. Learning to ride slowly transformed me as a cyclist; it is a skill I highly recommend picking up.

40 comments:

  1. This is OT but it is a Lovely bicycle. See the headbadge in the third photo.

    cgi.ebay.fr/ANCIEN-VELO-CYCLE-LOVELY-PARIS-COLLECTION-LOFT-VINTAGE-/12103611

    Possibly on topic would be Ladies on Bicycles (1899), 36 seconds of film which can be seen on youtube. Slow, precise, elegant.

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  2. I love it that it took a racing club to teach you slow cycling! Eat your heart out Cycle Chic dude :))

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    1. It might surprise you to know he used to race when he was younger. Things are not black and white.

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    2. Like the match sprinters on the track that sometimes wind up doing track stands and low speed maneuvering, only to finish in a 40+mph sprint?

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    3. Yup. I like to pretend I'm a track sprinter when I do the hovering thing.

      (Did I just write that out loud?)

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  3. Very interesting. I fear my education in slow riding has come from trying to navigate my way up the very steep hills in my neighborhood. Seriously, when I first started riding, I was on a 35 pound bike from the neolithic era... and I had to pedal my way up an 8% grade for about a mile. The first time I attempted it I got passed by a small child pulling a wagon! Useful experience, though a bit painful on the ego! :-)

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  4. I have found no better way to learn to keep a cadance, when traffic allows, than riding a fixed road bike (as in, two caliper brakes and drop bars) at an appropriate gear inch: 74 for me. Also, besides durability, and the safety of no temptation to take your eyes from the road to your chainrings, cogs or shifters, it also allows you to fine tune speed with your legs, using brakes only for more dramatic needs.

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    1. Same for me. Except -10 gear inches : )

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  5. Great advice! While performing trackstands may seem silly on a basic transportation bike without clipless pedals, it is a very useful skill that should be mastered by every cyclist eventually. This takes ones control of the bike to an even more precise level and can be very useful in a lot of traffic.

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    1. its really not necessary to stand.

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  6. I think the key to avoiding wobbly starts is to get in the right gear when slowing down - assuming you don't ride single speed, fixed or internal gearing. Training yourself to get in the optimal starting gear, given the slope you will be starting on, will get you a long way towards a smooth start. The number of inexperienced cyclists who I see starting out in an inappropriate gear is legion.

    But the bike can make a difference. My wife and I once checked out a mixte that saw some conversion since it was originally built. My wife found it impossible to steer the bike in a straight line. It looked as if she were trying to swerve all over the road. I tried it as well and had considerable difficulty making the bike go straight. I couldn't tell what exactly was wrong but with so many other used mixtes on the market we looked elsewhere.

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  7. When I put a bigger sprocket on my 3-speed rear hub so that I could climb easier, a huge side-benefit is that I can now pedal at walking speed in my lowest gear. Having a gear low enough to allow me to pedal at walking speed gives me much greater stability when navigating through traffic. Before I’d pedal a little, get going too fast, brake, put my foot down, and generally get frustrated.

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  8. Your points sound reasonable.

    I have been riding so long I honestly do not recall how I picked up my slow riding skills. Maybe my first multi-speed bike on campus where i would alternate between daily rides in a crowded campus and weekend jaunts in the surrounding countryside.

    My city bike like many in flat urban areas is single speed so downshifting. Is not an option. Best I could say to a beginner on my situation would be to concentrate a lot and be ready for the surprise when it all becomes automatic.

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  9. Was I the only one who had 'go-slow' bike races as a kid? Last one to cross the line, without falling, wins!

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    1. Nope, you're not the only one. Back in Germany in the 80s there were even contests at schools (sponsored by the German version of the AAA...) in which slow riding was one of the disciplines.

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    2. That is amazing, I had no idea!

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    3. Of course we did them -- we were kids!

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    4. I sometimes set-up/run bike rodeos for my local bike coalition. Before sending the kids out onto the "live/interactive" course there are skill builders before hand. The 'turtle race' is part of that. The kids enjoy it..."On your mark! Get set! Goooo S-l-ooooooooooo-w!"

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    5. Popular where I grew up as well.

      Old Schwinns really excelled for once as those big wheels were almost equivalent to a kick stand.

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  10. What a nice bike. Is it yours?

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    1. Sort of. It is a prototype I designed and am now testing out.

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    2. Looking forward to reading more about this.

      Very attractive bike.

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  11. I find that my fixed-gear bike works well for slow pedaling, as in creeping up on a traffic light, waiting for it to change. Still need to work on my track stand, though. I like the looks of the bike in the photo. At first I thought it was your former
    Royal H mixte, but the components are different. Details?

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    1. very different bike; I will write about it soon - didn't mean to tease!

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    2. I was also curious about the bike and went looking through your site for the model. Now that I know, I'll be patient and wait for your review.

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  12. Oh you knew I was going to like this post. The pict is great, the bike looks hot.

    Yeah the feathering while pedaling, like fixing, is what's known as engine braking in a manual transmission car, moto, tractor etc. When riding a moto the thing wants to keep going forward under suspension dive; a way to counteract that is dragging your foot on the rear brake pedal, settles the chassis right down. I think something similar happens on a bike, only the body is the chassis. You get the weight off your arms. No one seems to do this feather/pedal thing around here on a free-spinning-wheeled bike but of course fixie riders do it constantly and plan better, in general.

    The hovering would be irritating to be behind you but then again would illicit a measure of respect. Also a handy skill when driving. 2nd gear braaap!

    "accelerate from a position of hovering" = the position of command.

    I can see how a low trail bike enables you to make very low speed balance corrections theoretically "easier" than the other kind.

    The upside of feathering is also training the brain how brakes work. Too often newbs, and even experienced road riders who panic grab in a group, either use brakes as a toggle switch, on/off, or don't know how much pressure to apply at higher speeds. Easy mistakes to make.

    Feathering also scares the bejesus out of drivers because it looks like you're going to pedal right out into the intersection.

    All of this is to say just ride, but do it consciously and for God's sake play around with your bike.

    So to recap, I like the pict and the bike is hot.

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    1. The amount of extra control you can get by riding the brakes is really amazing. You can go nearly a snail's pace. And you stay upright by getting out of the saddle, and leaning the bike under you. In motorcycle training they teach the same things. All the idle tweens in the suburbs on their BMX bikes already know all this by long experience, but then forget it as soon as they turn 16 and get a car.

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    2. I routinely feather my brakes as I ride slowly in stop-go traffic. It alloys me to keep constant forward torque on the drivetrain even as I'm about to approach a standstill.

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    3. "accelerate from a position of hovering"

      If I had to do it all over again, that would totally be the name of the blog

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  13. I think arm and core strength also play a role, especially with wiggly children on the rear deck (I ride a Yuba Boda Boda with about 40 lbs of kid and 20 lbs of gear). Starting up from a stop at a light or going slowly uphill is really, really hard to do without falling or dumping the bike. I've found my stomach muscles and forearm muscles get stronger -- so the slow riding has been getting a bit easier.

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  14. Great post. I appreciate you pointing out the skill required to ride slow. From my own experience I can say that everything you say is true, particularly in the context of riding in traffic.

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  15. That is indeed a nice looking bike. I think I will adopt a similar color scheme for the Sycip I am redoing.

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    1. I call it celery shimmer.
      Well, maybe not...

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  16. Riding in snow (and ice) taught me slow.

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  17. I'd read while researching the Motorcycle Safety Foundation's "Beginner Rider Course" that a big part of learning to ride well was developing good control at slow speeds. I've still yet to take that course (or even ride a motorcycle at all, for that matter), but I've actually learned quite a lot about riding a bicycle well from reading motorcycle forums and books and such.

    I started actively practicing riding at very slow speeds, as well as just being forced to do it in Boston traffic. I'm all about the "hovering" thing, as you refer to it, and I want to learn to trackstand at some point, but I'd imagine it's quite difficult on a freewheel bike. I prefer to do all of this stuff while still seated on the saddle, though...I really only stand up to go over bumps.

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  18. A day late but as well as applying the brakes to go slow, whilst pedalling, does anyone else use this technique when going downhill in certain conditions? To give an example, I've found that in the wet and icy conditions we have in Northern England at the moment I find it more stable to use this technique, whether on road or off. I read that Sheldon Brown didn't like freewheeling as it affected balance and I agree, especially when trying to control the descent. It's not always possible though.
    Gorgeous bike, by the way.

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  19. I ride a lot at night and do much photography for my blog, photography in which I am bith the model and the photographer. In order to get decent photos at what are very slow shutter speeds I have had to master the art of very slow riding, and still make it look on camera as thought I am moving right along. Not at all easy.

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  20. I don't understand this post. How else would you ride? What was the status quo ante like? Is this (whatever it is) common?

    Occasionally I see someone lurch their bike to a stop from a good pace without having slowed first. Some even put a foot on the ground while the bike is rolling along. Don't see many though. You could get hurt trying that stuff.

    There are a few bikes that don't trackstand easily. I've never met a bike that wasn't happy to be nudged along at 1 foot/sec. Never met a child on a bike who hadn't played how slow can you go. I've watched kids who've never heard of track teach themselves to trackstand. Most adults clear on the concept learn to stand on the first try.

    The hard trick is hopping. I'd say commuter trackstands are so common in Chicago most motorists pay no attention at all. Start hopping sideways for better position when the light changes and they will see you.

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  21. This is one of those things that I don't think many kids learn any more, because they don't spend the endless (endless!) hours on their bikes that I did when growing up in the '60s and '70s. Sometimes because there was absolutely nothing else to do, we would spend time seeing just how slow we could go. We'd have a slow race to the neighborhood store, or see how long it would take to ride a rectangle around our village. Since I commute clipped in I don't try trackstands at stoplights, but I do have the ability, learned decades ago, to be moving hardly at all and still maintain my balance.

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  22. I routinely compliment my daughter (almost 6) on how steady and slowly she can ride. I think it shows that she is in control and good on her bike. She often has to exercise that skill riding her bike on the sidewalk with pedestrians (MUP).

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