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Bringing the Alexander into Cycle-Technique

Sue Fleming, Alexander Technique Teacher and Ursula Harries Cycling Instructor

(First 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 cycling spirit.

 

Cycle gifMy 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 ever since.

 

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-technique workshops: Cycle training abounds in Manchester, with skills in using the technology, but none that directly addresses the cyclists use.  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 handlebars.  We 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 biking.  Our 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 practice.

 

TrainersVarieties 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 situations.  On 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:

Sue’s comments:  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 easier.

 

Ursula’s comments:  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 new.  In 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 to www.alexanderteaching.co.uk

 


© 2011 Sue Fleming and Ursula Harries

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