My Top 11 Tips For Beginner Cyclists

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

As you're probably already aware, this blog is primarily focused on hiking. However, when I'm not out on the trail, my favorite form of exercise is cycling. I've been riding on a regular basis (5 or 6 times a week) for almost 30 years. At a family gathering a few weeks ago my brother-in-law announced that he was going to take up cycling. As a result, I was inspired to write this blog and impart some advice to him and anyone else who's thinking about taking up this wonderful sport, or anyone who's recently caught the bug.

To help newbies dive into the sport, the following are my top 11 tips for beginner cyclists:

1) Buy the right bike (Part 1): Before dipping your toes in, the first thing you need to consider is what kind of bike to purchase. The answer to that question will be determined by what kind riding you plan to do: off-road trail riding, dirt/gravel roads, cruising around the neighborhood, or venturing out to do one or two-hour rides on urban and rural roads. Answering that question will determine whether you need to purchase a mountain bike, hybrid, touring or road racing bike. The difference in the latter two will be determined by the amount of riding you plan to do. Although you may never enter a race, a road racing bike will be the preferred choice if you plan to ride several times a week, and especially if you wish to progress by going farther and faster as time goes by.

2) Buy the right bike (Part 2): After determining the style of bike, the next thing you'll have to do is determine the correct bike size. To do this you'll have to measure your inseam, which will determine the correct size as measured by the frame size.

3) Get a proper fit: Once you've purchased your bike it's extremely important to have it properly fitted to your own body measurements. Having a seat set too high or too low is a recipe for knee problems down the road. An incorrect fore-aft seat position could cause back problems. If you purchase the bike from a reputable bike shop they should be able to help you through this process. You can also find out how to do this on your own by clicking here or here.

4) Before hitting the road: After purchasing your bike you're going to need some additional gear before hitting the trail or road. You'll definitely want to purchase a CPSC certified bike helmet, seat fanny pack, water bottle cage(s), an extra inter tube and a flat tire repair kit. Although frame air pumps were quite common several years ago, I much prefer CO2 cartridges for re-filling a fixed flat tire. The cartridges easily fit into your seat fanny pack, and are very easy to use. Other items to strongly consider include: bike gloves, jerseys, cycling shorts, a floor air pump for home (tire tubes tend to lose significant air pressure after a week or two), chain oil (to keep your chain spinning efficiently), and a bike computer. Although it may not be apparent to a beginner, most of these items serve a variety of important functions.

If you do plan to ride frequently I would also strongly recommend purchasing clipless pedals and cycling shoes. Clipless pedals allow you to apply pressure throughout the entire pedal motion, while standard pedals only allow you to apply pressure during the downward stroke. Because of this, clipless pedals are far more efficient and make cycling a lot easier as they allow you to spin, rather than push your pedals.

5) Choose safe routes: Once your entire "kit" is ready to go, it's time to hit the road or trail. As a beginner you'll definitely want to ride on bike friendly roads and trails. Fortunately, with the internet, there are many resources for finding safe routes. It's possible your own city or town has published a map on their website showing all the safe routes in town. Google Maps has a function for finding bike-friendly routes. TrailLink and MapMyRide are also great resources. You can also try checking with your local bike club or bike shop for recommendations as well.

6) Hold your head up: To quote the old Argent song, "hold your head up!" While riding it's extremely important to know everything that's going on around you. Don't stare down at your pedals, or your computer. Look ahead to know where traffic is, or where any obstacles might be on the road or trail, such as broken glass, a pothole, gravel (be especially cautious while turning corners), or a tree branch, etc.. Look from side to side to make sure a dog, wild animal, child, or even lawn professionals (for some reason these folks regularly step out onto the road without looking) don't decide to walk in front of your path.

7) Your butt will hurt: Unfortunately your butt will definitely hurt during the first couple of rides. Actually, the same holds true for experienced cyclists after we emerge from a long winter's rest. The best thing to do is to limit your rides to less than 30 minutes on the first couple of rides. You'll also be better off by not riding on consecutive days for the first week or so. Padded cycling shorts will be of help as well. Although you'll feel a little discomfort the first couple times out, don't worry, in no time you'll get used to it and will find that sitting on a bicycle seat is no longer a problem.

8) Never assume a driver can see you: With our epidemic of distracted and inconsiderate motorists texting and yapping on cell phones, you should never assume a driver can see you. Just because you made it to a stop sign first, make sure you make eye contact with a driver before crossing an intersection. Also, just because you don't have to stop at another intersection, don't assume the driver approaching from a perpendicular street is going to stop. Over the years I've seen numerous drivers ignore stop signs right in front of me. Luckily I slowed beforehand to make sure they were going to stop first. Also, don't assume someone crossing your path while turning into or out of a driveway or parking lot can see you. Finally, watch for parked cars. It's possible that someone is in that car and about to open up their door - you don't want to test your ability to strip a door from a car.

9) Hold that line!: As an example, let's say you're riding one foot from the side of the road. You should try to maintain that distance (called "holding your line") as much as possible. Not only will you be more predictable for drivers approaching from behind, but you never know when another cyclist might approach you from behind without saying anything. If you cross paths (touching tires), it's likely one or both of you will go down. If riding in a group this rule is even more important. Obviously there will always be obstacles along the course. In those situations be sure to look quickly behind you to make sure it's alright to alter your line. Also, as a reminder, cyclists are considered to be a vehicle in the eyes of the law, so you must obey all traffic laws.

10) Let the terrain dictate your gears: To be an efficient cyclist you need to maintain a fairly constant pedal speed, as measured in RPMs. This is the number of "Revolutions Per Minute", or complete pedal strokes in a one minute time period. The most efficient pedal speed is in the 90-100 RPM range. Take the time to count your RPMs to get a feel for what 90-100 RPMs feels like. Over time this pedal speed will be instinctive and will come naturally to you. If you're only doing 70 or 80 RPMs it's likely you're in too large of a gear. Over time it will feel like your simply grinding out the miles. Maintaining 90-100 RPMs is the most optimal range, and will allow your legs to feel fresher for longer periods of time, thus allowing you to ride longer and faster. As the terrain changes adjust your gears to maintain that optimal range. Obviously, on steep hills, it will be impossible to maintain that pedal speed. Simply shift down to your lowest gear and try to spin as much as possible.

11) Avoid the death grip: Many new cyclists will hold onto their handlebars as if they were about to fall off a cliff. This is a big mistake, as this only causes tension and will result in a stiff upper back. It's best to relax your upper body and let your legs do all the work. Learn to have a light touch while holding onto the handlebars. Use different parts of the handlebars as well, such as the break hoods, the outside and inside portion of the tops, as well as the drops. Switching around on different areas of the handlebar will allow you to use and rest different muscles in your arms, shoulders and back, thus helping to prevent them from stiffening up. Here's pretty good video that shows how and when to use the different positions.

In my view these are the top things you need to know to get started in the sport of cycling. There are many other tips and techniques to make cycling safe and fun, but are beyond the scope of this article. Reading online articles, books and magazines will be of help, but experience will be your best guide. I also recommend taking beginner type rides with your local bike club. More often that not you'll be able to find someone who is more than willing to teach you the ropes.


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