Back to your biking best: How to shake off the lockdown riding rust
We made it! Spring's here, the days are getting longer, and Monday, March 29 saw England’s stay-at-home order lifted, meaning just a little more freedom to start enjoying biking for pleasure.
Although both England (see gov.uk) and Wales (see gov.wales) will no longer be subject to stay-at-home orders from this date, Government advice is still to stay local and limit the number of journeys you make.
Scotland’s stay-at-home order is expected to be lifted on April 2 (see gov.scot). The rules in Northern Ireland will next be reviewed on April 15 (see nidirect.gov.uk). Ensure you check the latest rules in your area – and for your destination – before you ride.
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No doubt, 2021 is going to be a summer like no other, but before the world starts opening up again, it’s time to take stock of our riding. During the past 12 months we’ve all ridden far less than normal. Take the MCN team, for example: in a typical year we’d collectively rack up well over 100,000 miles on tests, photoshoots and pleasure rides, but in 2020 we only managed a third of that - and we’re not afraid to admit we’re feeling a bit rusty.
So in these first weeks of Spring, it’s all about easing back in gently and being aware that our skills – and those of other road users - might not be quite the same as before. Here’s how we can all get back to our biking best...
Be honest with yourself
Stuck at home for months, hardly using the roads, we all have to admit our skills will be a little blunted. But just the simple act of accepting that your riding’s going to be a little rusty means you’ll naturally put less pressure on yourself; your mind will be open and your body more relaxed. With this attitude, you’ll discover that you get back into the swing of things a lot quicker and easier than you would if you just assume you can pick up where you left off.
Try this: Go take a look at yourself in the mirror and say 'Thanks to lockdown, I am a recovering couch potato. My concentration is therefore rubbish. So is my judgement of speed, distance and timing. They will get better again – maybe better than ever before. But I need to rebuild them slowly.'
Fly solo for a bit
Although in many areas it’ll be legal for you to meet up with five biking mates from Monday, do yourself a favour and ride alone for your first few rides back, just until your concentration gets back up to speed. Riding in groups is great but can be very distracting and trouble can quickly develop if everyone’s not on their A-game.
When you do get back to group rides, don’t put pressure on yourself – keep in mind the phrase 'it doesn’t matter'. If someone is more fluid and faster, let them go. Ride your own ride.
Try this: Treat those first few solo rides back as mini lessons and give yourself some drills in the three most important things: braking, direction changing and reading bends. If you live somewhere rural, you can easily incorporate them into a ride.
Otherwise, seek out some quiet tarmac and get re-acquainted with stopping quickly and confidently, making the bike turn exactly when you want it to, and heading into corners without getting it wrong. Riding is a skill, it takes work.
Do some body work
You need to be prepared for being a bit 'unfit'. But this isn’t about taking up jogging, it’s about getting your body used to riding again. Rather than expecting to manage 250-mile days first time out, try to build up your physical tolerance in smaller chunks. Big miles straight away may result in neck-ache, persistent numb bum, aching arms and shoulders and – if you’re an enthusiastic sportsbike or trail rider – aching legs the following day, too.
Try this: Shorter rides will rapidly get your body used to bike time. Forty-mile rides every couple of days will pay huge dividends in reawakening muscles that rarely get used for any other pursuit. Hydrate well, but don’t eat a lot before you ride – it’ll make you drowsy.
Loosen up and let go
Work hard on staying loose. Ignore the fact that it’s called a 'handlebar grip'. Resist the urge to cling on tight, clamp on with your knees or lock your arms straight – you’ll affect how the bike responds and feels, and you’ll tire quickly too. Use a light touch and remember to breathe. After a few bedding-in miles, use more generous throttle, feel the power of your brakes, and apply obvious counter-steering – explore your bike and rediscover how it reacts and behaves to your inputs.
Try this: The 'chicken wings' technique is an old favourite whenever you’re at risk of riding a little tense. Check-in with yourself regularly to see if you can flap your elbows as you’re riding along. If you can, it’s a good indication that your arms are relaxed enough; if you can’t, it’s time to relax your grip a little, unlock your arms and drop your shoulders.
Use a more open hand to apply steering pressure and also to roll on and off the throttle. Put your weight down through your bum and legs and into the footrests rather than through your arms and into the handlebars.
Train your brain
The phrase 'the older we get, the better we were' rings true when it comes to mental sharpness. Yes, you might have been on top of your game 12 months ago – but you won’t be now, regardless of your ability level.
Your observation and hazard perception skills will be weaker. It takes concentration to ride well, so practice by narrating the ride to yourself. After five rides doing it out loud, do it in your head for another five, then you’ll be back to your old subconscious road ninja status – or maybe better.
Try this: Sounds utterly daft, but talk yourself through what you’re seeing and doing: 'Mirror check, lorry turning right, overtake coming up, pedestrian on the left, school ahead, yellow car waiting at the T-junction, blind bend approaching, brake, change down a gear, petrol station ahead so might be diesel spills, check mirrors, accelerate...' You’ll feel self-conscious doing it (and it’s really tiring), but it massively focusses you.
Get professional help
Whether you feel like you need it or not, spending a day with an advanced instructor will do your riding a world of good. After a long time off the bike, it’s easy to make little mistakes which over time can compound and become habits. So nip them in the bud before they become a problem by booking a riding assessment.
If you’ve been riding donkey’s years, doing a session with a professional instructor can be tough on the ego, but put it this way: even if your riding is inch perfect, just having an expert confirm it will boost your confidence no end. Everyone at MCN does this every two years as a bare minimum. And you might learn something that’ll save your life.
Try this: IAM Roadsmart offers an assessed ride for £49, where you’ll be taken out by a local assessor who’ll then feedback areas where you could improve as a rider. Then, when things open fully and the sun is truly out, you’ll be in the right place for making the most of it.
Be more defensive
Know this: the general standard of driving will have got worse during lockdown. Some have been driving the same amount as usual, only faster, others will have been driving less and may be a little slower, but both types of driver will be out of practice at processing busy traffic situations. This is a critical point for us motorcyclists; as the majority of bikes have been off the road during lockdown, drivers will struggle even more to pick us out on the busy roads.
For the first few months post lockdown, be doubly vigilant at junctions. Three out of every four crashes where drivers claim to have not seen a motorcycle rider happen at intersections, so ride in a position to see and be seen.
Try this: Approaching junctions, lock eyes with the driver – look to see what they are looking at. You will quite often be able to tell if they have seen you. If you are in any doubt, assess your contingency options in case they do pull out into your path. Can you stop in time? Do you have an escape route? Also, fluro riding kit will be more beneficial than ever.
Go somewhere new
At the first sniff of freedom, the chances are that we’ll all gravitate back to our favourite roads immediately, revelling in the familiarity of every bump, manhole cover, twist and turn on the route. But, as the old saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt so it’ll be all too easy to try to pick up where you left off and slip into autopilot at a time when you really need to be concentrating on your riding more than ever.
So, as we’ve just suffered an enforced riding firebreak, why not use it as motivation to break your own habits, too – and discover new roads and destinations?
Try this: Make a list of places you’ve never been or haven’t ridden to for a long time, then work out how and when you’re going to get there.
Instead of hitting your regular riding route, research locations within a 50-mile radius of home that sound intriguing and make them the focus of a series of evening rideouts. Then identify others further afield for a more substantial weekend ride. Research routes. Set destinations. Ride to them. And make 2021 your most memorable biking year, ever.
Your favourite road may have changed since the last time you rode it, so don’t just assume everything will be the same. The road surface may have deteriorated, a roundabout may have been added or removed or the speed limits may have changed. Worse still, there might now be speed cameras on your favourite roads.
If you've been working from home for the past year and spending most of the day focusing on screens, there’s a chance the tiny muscles in your eyes might’ve adapted to this myopic lockdown world and may now struggle to focus on distances. Go get an eye test to find out where your peepers are at. Ditto, treat yourself to a brand new visor for your helmet, too.
E-scooters and novice cyclists
Over the past 12 months there’s been an explosion in the popularity of e-scooters in urban areas, even though privately owned ones are illegal to use on the road and pavements, so keep your eyes peeled. Likewise, pushbike sales have rocketed throughout the lockdowns so be extra cautious around cyclists – they may be lacking in experience and not proficient on busier roads.
Warm up to it
It may have been a stunning late summer’s afternoon when you last rode. Even back in October we had some lovely sunny days. Now it could be potentially 15 degrees colder. It may look bright and sunny on a crisp April day but the temperature could be only single figures. Be especially careful if your bike is fitted with sports or trackday tyres.
Recalibrate your speedo
We’ve all been housebound for the past few months, and only using our vehicles for essential local journeys means most of us haven’t exceeded 60mph in ages, never mind tried to calculate braking distances and work out safe overtakes at speed. Take your time to get used to it. Don’t hit the road like it’s the last lap of MotoGP.