This post is inspired by what I have been seeing quite a lot of in my classes recently and also by a vivid discussion on one of indoor cycling instructors’ forums.
It’s about riding a bike hands free. A seemingly innocent topic that got a lot of instructors very agitated and if I am honest, it does rub me the wrong way sometimes when I see it in my class too. Why – you ask?
First, let’s discuss the issue from the favourite perspective: keeping it real. Which basically means, if you don’t do it outside, you don’t do it inside. But if any of you ever rode a bike outside, as a kid or teenager, or even watched kids ride bikes you know they DO do it. It’s not easy and it’s a kind of “right of passage”. It simply means you’re good! You are cool.
I have done it. I would sometimes ride almost all the way from school hands free! And (don’t tell my mum) I would take the two very dangerous turns downhill hands free too. Oh the thrill of it! It allows you to feel the bike. You realise how important little shifts in your body position are. You can actually turn hands free! I loved it.
You would also do it on a long ride to take a break and rest your back a bit, stretch a little.
Pro cyclists do it when they need their hands free: to eat, adjust helmet, glasses, take off an extra layer of clothing. Actually anyone who ever rode outside knows that it’s annoying to have to stop to take the jacket off only for the wind to change 5min later when you have to stop again to put it back on – waste of time unless you can let go of the handle bars and do it while riding.
Therefore various benefits include: rest, balance/core work and practicality.
Now let’s move indoors. Rest? Sure. Especially if you are new to cycling and you find the normal position uncomfortable. I actually encourage little breaks where you roll the shoulders back, shake off you hands – a lot of beginners tend to squeeze the handle bars causing the shoulders to rise and the whole upper body to stiffen up.
I do however discourage sitting up for 30 sec or more at a time or doing it every minute. Why? As we are on a stationary bike when you let go of the handle bars you do not cause the core to engage in a more beneficial way – the bike doesn’t move, you do not need to balance. Pedalling technique suffers a bit as well, especially if you do it on a “hill”. And if you let go with too little resistance you are more than likely to be bouncing uncontrollably.
Mainly though, you are robbing yourself of a workout as sitting up significantly diminishes the power you are able to produce: you are not working as hard as when you are holding onto the bars. If you train on a bike with a power meter, try it: watch the Watts in both positions.
Now as an instructor you always look for reasons why people do things in a certain way, especially if it’s not something you do during the class so there must be other reason. I see 4 of them.
First, as mentioned above, stiff upper body due to squeezing the bars too tight. This can be trained over time.
Second, bad bike set up which is making riding uncomfortable. This can be easily fixed.
Third, issues that cannot be spotted unless the participant discloses them. It can be for example a chronic neck problem which again can be remedied by raising the handlebars slightly. Someone on the forum mentioned a participant who had the habit of sitting up a lot. It turns out he had a pacemaker and even with the handle bars higher than normal he found the position uncomfortable for longer periods of time. So as you can see there are exceptions to every rule.
Fourth, and that is my own observation: those unwilling to work hard do sit up A LOT. Mainly because when you are sitting on a bike for 45min, unless you are pushing hard enough to make it uncomfortable and raising your heart rate, it is plainly BORING. The only variation would be to sit up, look around trying to spot the clock praying it will show it’s almost over…
To sum up, sitting up hands free on an indoor bike for a few seconds to have a drink, a stretch etc is fine and is not dangerous. Longer or frequent periods in that position are just inefficient.
Now going hands free whilst STANDING is a totally different matter. Nobody would do it outdoors and you definitely shouldn’t do it indoors. It DOES NOT work your balance and core more – the bike is not moving so you do not really practice that skill. It puts unnecessary pressure on your knees and lower back, your pedal stroke is no longer circular and smooth plus you run a risk of losing your balance and leaving your teeth on the bars.
Exaggerating? This is what happened to me in June during my last class before the Tour of Cambridgeshire race. We were climbing out of the saddle and I let go of one hand to make a motion: keep your bum back and your bodyweight on your legs, when my cleat came loose and my foot came out. To prevent myself from falling I had to grab the handle bars quickly and trying to do that I jarred my index finger into the bars. My hand swelled up for a few days. Two months later and I am waiting for an x-ray results as my finger is not fine. I can’t shake hands with people as squeezing it is very painful, I can’t write with a pen without wincing and lifting a mug or a kettle causes discomfort too.
Consider yourselves warned 🙂