During my time as a cyclist I have ridden with riders of all different levels, from brand new beginners to seasoned former professionals. While obviously former pro racers have more skills than beginners, they also have such great confidence when riding their bikes. Confidence can help you get out of situations that could result in some kind of crash and can also help you take your riding to the next level. Every cyclist needs to learn some basic and more advanced skills, but at a certain point once you master those skills, making gains becomes more about confidence in yourself on the bike. You can have fantastic skills, but your riding will never progress to the next level unless you have confidence in your abilities.
If you decide you want to move beyond the basics of simply riding and possibly race your bike or even participate in faster paced group rides you need to have confidence in your abilities to be truly successful. I have encountered many cyclists who are solid, skilled, steady bike handlers but they lack the confidence to race or push themselves to that next level.
One of the keys is to always stay calm. When I went on my first larger more advanced group ride several years ago, I ran into a situation where another rider forced me off the road. I hit a patch of dirt, panicked and wound up wiping out onto the pavement. If I had just stayed steady, kept my head up and kept pedaling I probably could have safely navigated my way out of that situation. Instead I became flustered, probably hit the brakes and wound up on the ground.
Keeping calm when you are riding in a group will help you to avoid potentially bad situations. It can even turn a potential crash, like the one I had, into just a minor incident on the bike. If you lose your nerve and hit your brakes unexpectedly or make erratic movements within the group you will do more harm than good to yourself and the other riders around you. Focus on what you are doing, keep your head up, be aware of your surroundings and nine times out of ten you will be fine.
Have faith in yourself and the bike. In situations where you have to go through a turn quickly in a group or in a race, have faith that the bike will go where you direct it. Again, keep your head up, focus on where you want the bike to go, maintain your speed and you will be able to make it through that turn faster than you thought you could. The same principle applies to descending. Many beginners are terrified of descending, I know I was. They nervously ride the brakes the whole way down making the descent less smooth. One thing to remember is that as long as the wheels are rolling, that bike wants to stay upright. Also, based on the laws of physics, the faster you are moving the more likely the bike is to stay upright. The more speed there is, the more centrifugal force you have going for you. So, at a higher rate of speed, when going through a turn or on a winding descent you can make small adjustments to keep you heading on the correct path, the less speed you have the more dramatic your movements or corrections will have to be. Therefore, letting go of those brakes and keeping your pace quick will make your riding feel smoother and steadier.
The need for confidence is even greater in mountain biking. In the woods your bike is constantly being jostled as it goes over dirt, roots, rocks or other obstacles. Many times I have lost my nerve while mountain biking, stopped pedaling and fallen or had to put a foot down in the middle of a tougher section of trail. In mountain biking never stop pedaling, you will be amazed at what you can ride over if you just keep those pedals moving. Again, keep the bike rolling forward and it will want to stay upright. Always look where you want to go and not at obstacles on or near the trail. Your bike will always move in the direction in which you are looking, so if you are staring at an obstacle your bike will probably be heading straight for that obstacle instead of safely around it. Keep these things in mind and you will have much greater success and spend much less time walking your bike or falling over in the woods.
If you are new to riding or even just lacking confidence in your abilities you don’t need to throw yourself into a bike race tomorrow. Start to build your confidence by practicing and pushing yourself a bit more outside of your comfort zone. Experiment with going a bit faster and seeing how the bike handles. Watch videos of professional racers or ask for advice from more experienced riders. Start to work toward building that confidence by practicing on your own first and then expand to riding with one or two others that you trust. Eventually you will start to feel more self-assured and hopefully can take that leap into going on that group ride you always wanted to try or jump into a race to see how these skills apply at that level. Like anything in life, if you don’t take a chance once in a while you will never realize your full potential. Believe in yourself and the bike and you can do things that may have seemed daunting or even impossible.