You’d think that after 20 years of riding bikes in Seattle, I would have at least tried to develop a trackstand at some point. Nope! It just occurred to me last week that I lack this completely fundamental skill. For those unfamiliar with the term trackstand, it’s the method that people use to balance on their bike without going anywhere. It’s useful for when you’re making tight turns or come to a stop light and don’t want to put your foot down.

First stop was YouTube, where trackstand instructional videos abound. This woman is very good at trackstanding, but she makes it look too easy for a beginner like me.

 

This man also makes it look easy!

 

This mountain bike guy’s instructions contradict the previous videos, as he is turning the bars away from his lead foot. But he can balance between two rocks, which is hot!

Many more videos exist for how to trackstand on a fixed gear bike, but since all of my bikes are “normal,” I didn’t want to rely on videos that show people actually pedaling their bike backwards. Could I possibly develop super-balance like this?

I thought I had a decent sense of balance, because of all the unicycling, stiltwalking, rolling globe, and tightrope I’ve done through the years. How hard could a trackstand be?

HARD. It turns out that none of the aforementioned balance skills translate directly to trackstanding. The micro-movements feel different from anything else. I would have to do this the old fashioned way, through grinding determination and repetition.

Using the slightly sloped alley outside my garage, I tried the techniques from the above videos. My main frustration with these videos is that they make it look deceptively easy. I also realized that I am slightly phobic about losing my balance on my bike and falling. I’ve only fallen off my bike about 4 times in my adult life, but perhaps I never processed it properly, and came away mentally scarred. I’d have to teach myself to work through it.

Just when I was starting to despair,  another video came up that proposed an entirely new strategy: Rigging up a stabilizer rope from your bike’s seat post to a ceiling truss, so you can practice without falling. Thanks, shirtless jazz dude in flip flops!

Here is a summary of my progress to date:

11/29/13 (“Black Friday”): I try riding slowly into a trackstand in the alley. Fear of falling causes me to jump off the pedals repeatedly. I also try a stationary trackstand technique on my muddy backyard lawn. I keep the brakes engaged out of fear. The ground starts to develop grooves.

12/1/13: Where did all these brutal-looking inner knee bruises come from? Oh. I think that’s from them hitting the top tube repeatedly in panic. This time I use another technique: Riding slowly uphill in the alley and letting the bike come to a full stop. It takes a while to get used to this feeling. Then I pedal ever so slightly forward, let the bike roll back (scary!) and do it again. I am definitely making some progress, but the neighbors are looking at me funny.

12/2/13: Ok, it’s time to try out shirtless jazz dude’s tie-down method, but with full winter clothing. Fortunately I have some rope and some exposed ceiling trusses in my garage. (Please let this not be a prelude to America’s Funniest Home Videos) The ground is level, so I’m still not sure how this is going to work. Ok, the rope is holding the bike, but I still can’t get the hang of balancing. I get the feeling that more knee bruises are forming, and hey, is this a really dangerous idea in the first place?

12/3/13: The bike’s sitting there in the garage waiting for me and the rope is still holding it. I give it another try, and figure out how to balance against the rope. It’s not a real trackstand, but it looks like one to any passers by who can’t see the green rope holding me up. Every few seconds, I try to shift the bike so I can balance “for real” and it lasts for maybe 2 seconds before I have to jump off. Small progress is being made.

12/4/13: I can see my breath in the garage today as I make another attempt. It’s getting easier to find a balance point but I’m still depending heavily on the rope. It makes me so tired after about 10 minutes that I quit and go inside. I come back down in a few hours, and am now easily able to maintain a rope-subsidized trackstand for a minute. But I begin to wonder if the rope is preventing me from progressing any further. After about 15 minutes, I remove the bike from the stabilizer setup and bring it back outside to the slightly sloping grass lawn. The areas that my feet and tires have worn away from earlier in the week are very apparent. I start from a standstill and step up on the pedals with the brakes engaged. It takes about 5 tries until I can get to a decent balance point when I can release the brakes. Incredibly, I am able to balance in a real trackstand for about 2-3 seconds, which feels like a small victory, considering where I was just yesterday. All this practice is making me really tired, so I go back inside.

You can't see the rope that is stabilizing the bike.

You can’t see the rope that is stabilizing the bike. But you can see my newly-organized garage.

12/5/13: I take a day off from trackstanding because I am so worn out from commuting downtown and back in 30° temps. This cold air seems to really affect the leg muscles.

12/6/13: Ok, I’m ready to test the waters again. The ground may be frozen but the skies are shiny and bright. I start off in the sloping grassy area of my backyard that is getting ripped up. Anyone want to help me aerate and re-seed in spring? The first thing I notice is that, huh, I haven’t all of a sudden learned how to trackstand on my day off. I see how it’s going to be! No short cuts. After doing the stationary mount technique repeatedly for about 5 minutes, I make an interesting discovery. I can balance in one place with my right foot on the pedal and my left leg sticking out to the the side, making micromovements to correct my balance. This is not trackstanding, but perhaps a circus skill worth filing away for later. What’s nice is that when I do this, I can feel my body start to understand the balance concept, and my minor phobia of falling off the bike is no longer a factor. I’m not going to fall at all! Now I know how to hop off easily when I lose my balance.

Using the “leg sticking out” technique, I am able to balance the bike enough to put my left foot back where it belongs, on the left pedal. The next step is feeling balanced enough to release the brakes. After about 10 minutes, I am getting the hang of this, and do several 3-second trackstands, which feels GREAT. What I like about those few moments of balance is that I’m at the level where I can actually practice the micromovements of the hips and shoulders. Before, it was more like flailing macromovements. As a burlesque dancer once told me, “you’ve got to learn to separate church and state,” I can feel that the hips and shoulders must be able to move independently to make thousands of tiny corrections to keep the bike upright. I’ll try to shoot some video soon.