Bringing the Alexander into Cycle-Technique
Sue Fleming, Alexander Technique Teacher
and Ursula Harries Cycling Instructor
published in STATNews, September 2011)
The Alexander Technique Teacher:
As very young person, my best remembered Christmas
present was a shiny red and white tricycle, and from then
on, that was it. Bike followed trike until the beautiful
‘mean’ machine I ride today, with me for 20 years.
The shear pleasure and excitement of that first
moment of balance on two wheels is still there, and no
amount of Manchester city center traffic can dampen my
use did, first pulled down/tight neck, tingling arms, then
painful knees. New handlebars helped but position was not
the whole answer.
I could only manage a short half-hour cycle before my
body rebelled, something more intrinsic was at fault, I
already knew what would help, the Alexander Technique, and
the difficulties I was having cycling prompted my final
decision to train as an Alexander Technique teacher.
The Cycling Instructor: Unlike
Sue, I don’t remember learning to ride a bike, but I do
remember my first holiday independent from my family:
cycling around Norfolk with a group of teenage friends.
We chose Norfolk for two reasons: it’s flat and
there’s plenty of beaches.
It was a wonderful adventure, and I’ve been cycling
About 5 years ago I traded in my trusty
touring bike for a more ‘upright’ city hybrid.
After having my new bike just a few weeks I began to
get shoulder and neck pains.
It was an Alexander Teacher who helped me alter the
way my bike was set up, and the way I thought about cycling
so that the pain was gone and it was a joy again.
As a spin-off from the Alexander lessons I also
taught myself to ride without hands on the handlebars -something I’d never learnt to do as a child, but which I now
take great pleasure in (only when I’m cycling in traffic
free situations, I hasten to add).
Matching ourselves with our bikes:
It really is quite simple: when cycling the bike is an
extension of ourselves, as our arms and legs extend the
torso, so the movements of cranks, sprockets, chain and
wheels extend our torso into cyclical movement, with
handlebars and brakes to allow for stopping and turning. So
bodies need to fit bikes and bikes bodies. The skills of
good use, body work and balance, from the Alexander
Technique, complement those of the Cycling Instructor whose
knowledge of the function of the bicycle, riding skills and
good use on the road translates into practical cycling.
Cycle training abounds in Manchester, with skills in using
the technology, but none that directly addresses the
The bikes are ‘fitted’ to the current habits of the cyclist
irrespective of whether they are unhelpful or not.
To take our ideas forward we decided to run two 5
hour workshops, targetted to two audiences, the ‘willing but
wobbly’, with a greater need for balance and confidence, and
the ‘experienced and aching’ who had perhaps already
developed some unhelpful habits around riding.
Alfred, the infamous mini-skeleton
(pictured), lent his obvious skills. Sitting on Ursula’s
young neighbour’s tricycle, he demonstrated the points of
contact: sit-bones, feet on pedals and hands resting on
played with remembering heels, legs integrated into the
back, and cyclical pedaling.
We had fun rocking forward on sit-bones, arms
connected into the back as they could move to rest on
‘handlebars’ or signal as needed.
We also played with hand contact and hand grip on
mock handlebars before trying out the various types and
styles we had assembled for the workshop.
Having looked at where we get our support
when standing (feet) and sitting (sit bones) we looked at
where we get our support when riding.
If you see the bike as an extension of ourselves,
then the importance of keeping your tyres well inflated
makes obvious sense.
Many regular cyclists have never been shown that the
optimal pressure range is written on the tyre, and that a
pump with a pressure gauge on it really is a must for
keeping tyres properly inflated.
We also looked at images of different
types of cycling: track racing, BMX, stunt biking, mountain
focus for the workshops was on ‘functional cycling’ -people
who want to use their bikes on a regular basis to get from A
to B, but it was useful to remind ourselves of the
different, and sometimes extreme, things that people do with
bikes, in order to reconnect with what it was we wanted to
use bikes for, and how this knowledge could inform our
of bodyshapes and sizes are matched by the multiplicity of
options that cyclists can now choose in terms of
handlebars, grips, gearshifts, saddles and pedals
There was a chance to try out the range of bikes and
styles we had assembled for the workshop.
A turbo trainer, designed to fix bikes so people can
train on the spot, gave the Alexander Technique teacher a
chance to work one-to-one. Often uncertainty over balance
was a result of over-stretching to reach the handlebars, and
coming off the support of sit-bones on saddle.
Riding with less stress
We moved from the classroom to the road
in easy stages; bringing new found skills gradually into
more complex situations; from easy riding in the car-park,
to weaving in and out of cones.
As a finale the ‘willing but wobblies’ went out onto
the road, demonstrating their right-hand turns with greater
ease and confidence.
With the more experienced group we didn’t go out on
the roads, but we used a 3D model to explore different
strategies that participants adopt in busy traffic
both occasions a successful and fun day was had by all.
The experienced but by now less aching were riding
with lengthened head, neck and backs, and connected ‘in’
arms that steered but did not clasp the handlebars.
What we thought about the experience:
It was good to work within a practical context, so
the Alexander Technique is seen in ‘action’, and directly
useful to an aspect of people’s lives. The games and the
one-to-one gave the people that came a different sense of
themselves, how they related to the bike, and the support it
offers. Most were not aware of sit-bones and that fact alone
wasvery helpful. Generally it was a good way to widen
familiarity with the Alexander Technique, it give people a
taste of what ‘up’ and ‘out’ can do to make life and cycling
I learnt a lot from the sessions: it was good to work
with an Alexander teacher and see how Alexander Technique
theory and practice could be applied to a familiar activity.
We also designed and ran the workshops so that
participants could share and learn from each other and as we
kept the workshops small this worked extremely well.
Before the workshops I was concerned that as a
cycling instructor I would have less to offer the
experienced group, but I was wrong about this.
There are so many different aspects to setting up
your bike and looking at different options for modifying the
points of contact that everyone came away with something
preparation for the workshops I did some fascinating
research around saddle design, which is on-going.
What the trainees thought:
generally they liked
the increased awareness of how they were using themselves
when cycling and the changes to the bike set-up that helped
posture and use on the bike, and, to use the words of Julia
Woodman, STAT Alexander Technique Teacher, cyclist and
trainee " I
really liked the way this workshop combined cycling and road
skills with the Alexander Technique" .
For Niamh Moore,
cyclist and trainee, ‘the workshop was great. Even
though I’ve been cycling for years and have had some
Alexander Technique lessons, the workshop was a revelation!
from the apparently basic how to sit on a bike to thinking
about knees, ankles, hips and a lot more. As I’m planning to
keep cycling for some time and having adjustments to my bike
I’ve since followed up with a one-to-one lesson and may have
some more to consolidate what I’ve learnt. I’ve always
enjoyed cycling but now its so much more comfortable. I’d
started to ache after longer rides and now I feel I have
some practical ideas for addressing this’.
For details of
further cycle-technique workshops, and to get in touch, go
Sue Fleming and Ursula Harries