“You Go Where You Look” – Visual Skills for Cyclists

One path to better bike handling skills starts with your eyeballs. Whether you want to learn to negotiate technical sections and punchy climbs on the mountain bike or have more confidence and control through corners and descents on the road, visual skills are key.

A cyclist looks down the trail 2-3 seconds ahead to where he's riding.

A cyclist looks down the trail 2-3 seconds ahead to where he’s riding. Photo by Lori Clarke.

“You go where you look.” How many times have you heard this? You can choose not to go where you look, but it sure takes a lot more mental effort. That’s why so many people manage to hit potholes and rocks dead. Obstacles in our path are fascinating. They’re big, they’re pointy, they’re deep… the more likely they are to give us a flat tire or even end our ride, the more irresistible they become. “There was this big rock, right in my path out of nowhere, and it just took me down!” Well, it doesn’t have to be like that. Here are some more specific tips and explanations to help you understand why visual skills will help your riding, and how to decide where “where” is.

  • Look 2-3 seconds ahead of your bike. Raise your chin, and look farther down the trail or road. When you’re looking at your tire or just in front of it, especially if it’s knobby, it moves quickly. And, the road or dirt flies underneath you really fast, which is enough to make anyone more nervous. Look up, and the whole world slows down. You’re giving your mind and body more time to react to what’s coming up.The natural angle of your neck when you’re on a bicycle is angled downward because your whole upper body is. You may have to ditch your helmet visor or cycling cap until you get used to lifting your head more, especially while you’re riding in the drops or in a TT position. If you still have trouble lifting your head to see farther out, consider a bike fit with attention to possibly raising the bars.
  • The faster you go, the farther down the road or trail you need to look. When you’re working a gnarly rock garden, 2-3 seconds may be only 8 or 10 feet ahead. On the road with the wind behind your back, 2-3 seconds is going to be considerably farther out.
  • Use your peripheral vision, not only to the sides but also up and down. Cycling is a three-dimensional sport. When you focus 2-3 seconds down the road, your brain picks up the obstacles you need to avoid and you have time to change course. You don’t have to stare at the overhead tree branch to avoid it. Based on your speed, you know when to duck. It’s the same thing with rocks and potholes.
  • Relax and breathe. A lot of us tense up when the going gets tricky, but that’s the opposite of what we should do. Clenched teeth, a stiff neck and shoulders, elbows locked straight, knees clamping the top tube or a death grip on the bars help create a rigid truss between you and your bike. This makes it much more difficult to control your bike.
  • When you are tense, every tiny bump translates directly to your head, and the road or trail looks a lot scarier than it needs to, because your eyes are shaking along with the rest of your body and bike. Plus, holding all your muscles tense wastes valuable energy .
  • Try this relaxation technique. Start at the top of your head and relax your eyebrows. Work downward from there. Relax your jaw, let your mouth hang open and exhale. Relax your neck, your shoulders, elbows, wrists and hands. I even wiggle my fingers to symbolize the tension leaving my body. Now you’re ready to handle anything.
  • Practice looking between the pieces of glass or rocks, instead of at them. Your tires will magically go where you’re looking, which should NOT be the obstacle, thus saving you a flat repair.
  • Practice riding in a straight line. Fog lines, parking lot markings or even a thin fence board that’s five or six feet long work well. If you veer off the line or board, pick a reference point in alignment with your line. It could be a tree, a house or anything at eye level. Look at that, instead of the line in front of your tire, and I bet you’ll do better.
  • Let the landscape sweep past your eyes, don’t focus on each rock, root or pothole. Focusing on each thing is like doing a chunky dot-to-dot puzzle. You’ll ride smoothly and with flow by looking ahead and then tracking the biggest obstacles with your downward peripheral vision. The rocks aren’t going to move in the 2-3 seconds before you reach them, and your brain has already told your body what to do to avoid them.
  • A cyclist keeps her head up, looking far down the trail to the next obstacle.

    A cyclist keeps her head up, looking far down the trail to the next obstacle. Photo by Lori Clarke.

    Stop if you want to enjoy the scenery when the road or terrain gets tricky. You can’t ride a technical section and take in the view at the same time. Enjoy first, then ride!

  • In fast corners, look down the road or trail to the point where you’ll start your turn. This is called your “approach.” Once you get to that point, called the “entrance,” you should be looking ahead to the apex, or the tightest point in the turn. Let the apex sweep past your peripheral vision to the side and down, and look to the exit of the corner.
  • In blind corners, pretend you have X-ray vision to see through the trees, buildings or side of the mountain to where you want to go. Again, don’t focus on particular details of the trees or rocks, let them sweep past as you continue to look ahead to where you want to go.
  • In slow or really tight corners, crank your head, shoulders and maybe even hips around to help get your eyes pointed in the right direction. The slower the corner, the more body movements you’ll need. Don’t cheat by getting your body into position but move your eyeballs back to your front tire!
  • Through the mud, sand, gravel, soft downhill or rough sections, look past the mess to where you want to be. Though your bike might go in a lot of directions as it negotiates the loose terrain, having the right momentum can keep your wheels turning and you’ll more likely end up safely on the other side.
  • On punchy, short and steep climbs, look past the crest into the sky, rather than at the face of the slope. Looking at where you want to go on a short steep hill means looking UP to where you’ll be in 2-3 seconds, not AT the face of the slope before you start climbing. Leaning forward will also help you keep your weight balanced and you’ll avoid slipping a tire.

Visual skills take practice, yet are the most basic of all handling skills. Anytime you’re on a bike, find reference points and test yourself. Look between pebbles or pieces of paper on the road, or see how long you can stay on a parking stripe line. Just like your bike follows your eyes, handling skills and confidence will grow once you’re relaxed and know where to look.

Coach Elaine Bothe works with all levels of mountain bikers and cyclocross racers, and is a certified skills instructor. She is available for one on one dirt skills lessons as well as training programs.