Bicycling: How I Learned to Ride a Straight Line

. . . from an Older Belgian Woman

By John D. Eustice

I went to Belgium in the mid 1970s as part of a wave of American riders who wished to infiltrate the mysterious and distant European racing scene. The Belgians condescended to us who were fool enough to attempt to endure their cobblestones, side winds, cold rain, and high-speed racing. To them we were the “English,” lumped together with the Aussies, the Kiwis, the Yanks, the Brits, and the English Canadians. We were one and the same. (The Quebecois were smarter than we were, and went to the Parisian racing clubs.) The rest of us would arrive, put up with decrepit 19th-century factory housing (which was illegal for anyone except the Turks and the “English” racers) and most of the English would last only two to three months before going home with broken bikes, broken hearts, and broken dreams. Many even quit racing forever after their first Belgian campaign.

I, on the other hand, loved it. But then I had had the advantage of being schooled in New York City by the descendants of the Madison Square Garden Six-Day racers. I could ride a bicycle and I fit right in with the hurly burly of the Belgian “Kermesse” races. Good results were coming and I thought that I was pretty hot stuff. That is, until the old Belgian lady.

Belgium has a network of bike paths that flank most of the major roadways. They’re not clean, wide, and pretty, like the manicured paths of their Dutch neighbors to the north. But everyone, from grandmothers to Tour of Flanders stars, use them. Sometimes there’s a path on each side of the road, and sometimes there’s only one with two-way traffic on the same narrow path.

One day I left Gent, where all the “English” were based, and headed south for the hills, finding myself on a narrow, two-way “fietspad.” Off in the distance, I could see a cyclist, an older Belgian woman riding to work, coming towards me. Belgians ride hard. Racers, students, workers—they all have a crazy work ethic and press the pedals with gusto. It was raining (of course) and she was grinding up a long hill towards me. I realized that she had her line, and she was not going to budge an inch from it. The path was just wide enough so that our handlebars could pass with about 5 inches between them. We got closer and closer. No field sprint, or wet cobblestoned turn had freaked me out the way this old woman was now doing, because, as she came closer and closer, she caught my eye and sized me up (“English!”). She knew that I knew she could ride a bicycle better than I could. She was a relentless freight train on rails steaming towards me. I panicked and my nerves went all squirrelly. I held my breath, closed my eyes, and she whipped by with a couple of inches to spare. I was traumatized enough that I needed to turn around and go back to Gent to collect my nerves.

She gave me, however, the most important lesson I would ever learn in cycling or racing, and that was the importance of riding in a straight line, a really straight line. I worked on it and worked on it, and once in the pros, absolutely focused on it. Because in pro racing, even being one centimeter off line can be catastrophic. And the other pros will hate you forever for it.

From that experience, and through my entire pro racing career, I learned the basic rules of how to ride. They are not complicated rules, but they are universal, and require focus and effort. They are the same in Belgium, France, or Italy, and whether one is a pro or a bicycle commuter. Professionals go out and ride their bicycles every day, that’s their job. And the job includes making certain that one gets through the ride without incident or drama, because any of the above interrupts training and stops you from doing your job well. It’s really that simple.

The bicycle is not a spin bike clamped to the ground, nor an unruly horse about to throw you off at any moment should you dare loosen your death grip on the handle bars. Consider the bicycle as a musical instrument, a thing of beauty, grace, and balance. There is artistry in cycling. A good rider floats along, with loose hands, relaxed arms, and fluid pedal action. You search constantly for the perfect rhythm between terrain, gears, and breathing. A great cyclist “breathes” the bicycle.

Rule # 1:  Relax on the machine

The more relaxed you are, the more control —thus safety—you will have, and the more endurance you’ll have. A good trick is to relax your lower jaw. The rest of the body will follow. Caress the pedals, don’t try and smash them. Your feet should rest lightly on top of the pedals, even when pedalling hard.

Rule # 2: Control from the center

Your hands don’t steer the bike, your belly button does. It all comes from the core. So practice riding in one of our parks, and try and steer by completely relaxing your arms and simply pointing your belly button into a turn. The rest of your body and the machine will follow. Feel your hip automatically drop into the movement. Try and learn to ride with no hands and in that way properly feel how the core controls the bicycle. The arms have little to do with it.

Rule #3 :  Learn to ride in a straight line

Again, the parks are fantastic training tools. Put yourself directly on one of the white traffic lines and follow it. Try and stay directly on top of the line. You’ll see, it’s hard to do. Most of you will go side to side. Once you start to get better at it, place the wheels to the left side of the line for 5 minutes, then the right side, then directly on the center of it. You can work at this for years. It’s key, so make it a habit. And when in a turn, hold one steady line. Local club racers, please reread this last line and try to memorize it.

Rule #4 : Look ahead and anticipate any trouble

Look way up the road and watch traffic patterns, you’ll be amazed at what you can see and avoid.

Rule # 5: Stay cool and be a benevolent cyclist

Don’t scream “ON YOUR LEFT!!!!!!!” at the top of your lungs while passing others. It’s just the most uncool thing possible and immediately labels you a “Very Bad Bicycle Rider.” If you have to put on the brakes to let a pedestrian go, then just do it, and make a little sprint to get back up to speed if you need to. Don’t buzz pedestrians. It’s like the parent-who-was-hit-as-a-child-hitting-their-own-children-in-turn syndrome. Cabs buzz the cyclists so the cyclists buzz the pedestrians. Break the vicious cycle! A cyclist is an evolved human (we’ve figured out the beauty of the bicycle), so act like one and flow through the City, don’t crash through it.

Rule # 6: Behave on the bridges (this one is for NYC)

Go fast up the bridges and slow down them. Cowards do it the other way around. It is simply not right to blast down the bridges, endangering little kids and putting others at risk in the ways I’ve seen over the past months.

I could go on and on, but I think the general idea is there. Riding a bicycle is a marvel, and the more skill one can develop, the more pleasurable the cycling experience. Transportation Alternatives has a terrific booklet called “Biking Rules,” which has some common sense things to look at. New York cyclists are now living in a golden era, with the Bloomberg administration firmly behind the idea of cycling and creating paths and opportunities for us. But we really need to become part of the City and not a plague upon it. So chill out on the bike. Don’t fight and scream at everything in your way. Be sensible on the bridges and watch out for the little kids and older people. If you are going to roll through the red lights (and we all do it), look for the opening, then do it discretely and not with a sense of entitled arrogance—scattering terrified pedestrians while cursing and making obscene gestures at them. And, don’t ride against traffic. Please. I’ve almost been wiped out a few times by that practice.

If everyone on a bicycle tries to develop a bit of skill, learns and observes a few traffic rules, and cultivates a little respect for pedestrian rights and smooth traffic flow, cycling can really flourish in New York City. If we don’t do these things, our road could become really rough. And with the civic support we are currently getting, it would be a great opportunity lost. Enjoy your ride!

John D. Eustice is a two-time United States professional cycling champion, a cycling analyst for ESPN, Comcast SportsNet, and more. He has competed in Giro d’Italia, Paris Roubaix, and other great world races.


Comments

  1. Al says

    Great advice all around from a true pro. There is just one item I kind of disagree with. That is with so called “buzzing” of pedestrians. If I have a green light and a pedestrian is crossing on red, I will try to go around them unless the road is torn up and going around them risks damaging me and my bike. That is just plain rude behavior on the part of the pedestrian and I don’t want to encourage that.

  2. Alex says

    I agreed with Al. I don’t buzz peds on shared pathways or if I am riding through a red and they have right of way, but I don’t mind doing so if they’re popping out between parked cars or crowding street corners when I have right of way and a car driving on my other side, pinching me in.

  3. RM says

    Great article.

    Really enjoyed the story about the old Belgian lady. But C’mon, did you really turn around and go back? LOL I’m all on board and typically try to practice keeping a line when I ride and when I race. I feel an obligation to myself, my family and other riders/racers not to be reckless (other than the inherent recklessness of racing).

    That said, I don’t entirely agree with the idea of refraining from commenting when a pedestrian or other user of the park shows a lack or consideration for my right to use the road. I do my best to follow the rules, yield to pedestrians, but there are times when a pedestrian or even another cyclist shows willful disregard for my safety (a la letting your dog loose on the road so it runs directly into my front wheel) and in those circumstances, I think it is perfectly reasonable to speak up, albiet in a respectful way, unless the situation calls for stronger language.

  4. bobclifford says

    Well said John!

    Thank you for all you do to help so many enjoy the bicycle.

    Your excellent efforts are appreciated.

  5. djx says

    Nice Al. Same way a car driver who sees a cyclist doing something he doesn’t like (say, riding in the road instead of a bike lane) should just buzz the cyclist just to discourage them. Yeah, that’s real approppriate.

  6. Dave says

    Good piece. I’ve tried following the white line in the park – and it’s not easy. But I’m still trying.

    I think your analogy that recklessness flows downhill is apt (cabs>cyclists>peds). I’m a feisty yet inexperienced Cat 5, and even I know the difference race day and training day. There’s just no point in riding balls out for speed if the roadway is congested with walkers, rollerbladers, moms w/strollers, etc… But some of the cats out there are cutting thru traffic like it’s the last 2 miles of the Roubaix. It becomes an embarrassment to be a cyclist when you see other riders behaving the way some of them do in parks and on the bridges here in NYC.

    I try to train in the early morning or late nights when most peds are clear of the roads, but if I’m forced to co-exist with them, I do just that – and I modify my ride so I’m still getting something out of it. I might go into my 53×15 if it’s super congested, and just work on building strength with slow cadence. I also don’t bomb down the hill in Prospect Park – I figure if I don’t have a good head of steam coming out of the downhill, I’ll just have to work harder on the flat at the other end.

  7. Jim Boyd says

    A few years ago in a crowded Central Park, I was riding directly behind you. For me, it was a fast pace. My eyes were focused ahead of you, trying to see what was coming up. There were all sorts of obstacles: runners, pedestrians, bladers, well, you know, the usual. You didn’t slow down. You seemed to know that none of these obstacles would be in our path when we crossed it. It seemed a miracle. I was scared to death.

    Nice article, John.

  8. says

    Hi Johnny! You write with sprezzatura! Beautiful article. My favorite line is, “No field sprint, or wet cobblestoned turn had freaked me out the way this old woman was now doing, because, as she came closer and closer, she caught my eye and sized me up (“English!”).”

    In Vermont we just wander in a continuous “S” over the dirt roads. We learned everything we need about bike riding from the cows.

  9. Tony Sheehan says

    Completely agree re: being a considerate cyclist. We can make enemies with cabbies and delivery vans all we want, but we need to be considerate of pedestrians. They are the majority, and therefor have the majority voice to make decisions on cyclist rights. Plus, if the vision of New York is to have more cyclists, being an ass to pedestrian (ie potential cyclists) does not help create a bike utopia, just solidifies the divide.