The Practicalities of Beginning or Returning to Cycling

We’re not going to talk about the benefits of cycling here; if you’re reading this then it’s safe to assume that you’ve decided that cycling is a GOOD THING and just want to get on with it.  Instead, we will look at the equipment you need and how to start cycling safely without injuring yourself by trying to do too much too soon.  We’re assuming that you can ride a bike but that you probably haven’t done so for some time, perhaps even since childhood.

First of all equipment.  Clearly you’re going to need a bike!  Your bike will be the single most expensive piece of equipment you will buy, so it is important to choose the right one.  The two considerations are budget and the type of riding you want to do.  There are literally hundreds of bikes available in a very wide range of prices, but all can be placed in one of four basic categories: mountain bike (MTB), road bike, hybrid/leisure and specialist (such as tricross or track bikes).  If you are new to cycling, it is unlikely you will be looking at the specialist category, so we’ll discount that for now.

Mountain bikes are characterised by chunky wheels, robust frames, suspension forks and a wide range of gears.  They are designed for riding on rough off-road terrain and can, quite literally, take you anywhere.  Choose this type of bike if most of your riding will be on rugged terrain with no surfaced paths, on specially built mountain bike trails and with challenging topography.

Road bikes, unsurprisingly, are built for riding on roads!  So they are lightweight, have thin wheels and slick tyres for speed, dropped handlebars for an aerodynamic riding position  and are at home on smooth surfaces such as public highways and surfaced off-road cycle tracks (such as those often found at the side of the road).  Choose this type of bike if most of your riding will be on smooth surfaces and you want to travel light and fast.
Hybrid bikes combine features of mountain bikes and road bikes in a package that suits the leisure / utility cyclist.  Most will have wheels and tyres that can cope with roads and moderate off road trails – compacted paths such as those found in parks, by rivers and canals etc.  The riding position on a hybrid bike is less aggressive and more comfortable than other types of bike, and they nearly always feature some method of carrying luggage – panniers, saddlebags, bar bags etc, and so are ideal for commuting to work or college, going to the shops and for general transportation.

The best way to choose your new bike is to find a good independent bike shop.  Be prepared to spend a bit of time in the shop talking to the advisors there to determine the bike that best suits your requirements and budget.  Once you’ve chosen your new bike, you also need to make sure that you buy the correct size, and again, the bike shop owner will help you with this.  The size of bike you require is determined primarily by your height, but also takes into account your arm and leg length.  Fine tuning is possible once in possession of your bike – you can alter the height of the seat, sometimes the height of the handlebars and, if really necessary, you can swap some components like stems (the part that attaches the handle bars to the bike) to alter the reach, or saddles (for one you find more comfortable).  Take time to get the “fit” of your bike right – if it’s comfortable and feels good to ride, you’ll want to ride it more.  Also, if the fit is wrong you risk injury by putting too much strain on your shoulders, back or arms.

Women’s specific bikes are available from most manufacturers.  The geometry of such bikes is different to a “standard” bike to take account of the difference in build between men and women.  It does not automatically follow that a woman will be better off with a women’s specific bike, although this is often the case.  If you are a fairly tall woman or have reasonably long arms and legs you might find that a standard model suits you better.  Take time to try out a few different bikes until you find the one that fits you best, but do opt for a women’s specific saddle.

OK, so you’ve bought a bike – what else do you need?  There are a few essential accessories that you’ll need for every ride and a few things you might want to consider buying to make your riding more comfortable.

Sooner or later you’re going to get a puncture, so unless you want to walk your bike home with a flat tyre, a puncture repair kit and a pump are essential.  You might also want to consider a set of Allen keys; most of the components on your bike will be secured with bolts, which can work loose over time, so carrying some Allen keys means you can quickly tighten them back up again without spoiling your ride.

You will need to look after your bike by keeping it clean and ensuring that the chain and gears are well lubricated.  Your bike shop will probably offer servicing and repairs, so don’t worry if you’re not a bike mechanic, the shop will help.  Just follow the basic maintenance tips contained in the owners’ manual for your bike and have it serviced regularly as recommended by the shop.

If you want to carry things on your bike, like your gym kit, your college books or your shopping, you’ll need some sort of baggage system.  A rucksack is good, but don’t carry any sort of bag that only hooks over one shoulder as it will affect your balance.  There are loads of options for bike bags from tiny saddle packs to carry the bare essentials to large panniers to carry enough stuff for a week’s holiday.  Go back to your friendly bike shop, or search the internet and choose the bags that suit the volume and weight of stuff you want to carry.

If you are going to ride at night, or even at dusk, then a good set of lights is essential.  Lights vary in price and basically, the more you pay, the brighter the light.  For front lights, if you are riding only on lit roads then you need a light that will allow you to be seen, and therefore a cheaper, lower output model will be good enough.  If you intend to ride off-road or on unlit paths, however, then you need to spend a bit more money to get a light that will illuminate the whole path in front of you so you can see exactly where you’re going.  LED lights are best for this purpose.  A red flashing light is required for the back of your bike to ensure that anyone behind you can see you clearly.  Lights with rechargeable batteries are best to keep the running costs down.  Recharge your batteries after every use, and take a spare set out with you just in case.

The stereotypical image of a cyclist is someone clad in brightly coloured, tight fitting lycra.  This is great for professional cyclists as it improves their aerodynamics and helps to keep them visible on the road; but don’t worry, it is not compulsory to wear this type of clothing!  To start or return to cycling, all you really need are comfortable clothes that allow a sufficient degree of movement (in the arms so you can reach over to grab your handle bars, and in the knees and hips to allow for the turning of the pedals).  If you prefer long trousers to shorts, make sure they won’t get caught on your chain or cogs; use a trouser clip if necessary.

The item of cycle specific clothing that you are most likely to want to buy is a pair of cycling shorts.  These are padded in the crotch area to provide comfort on the saddle.  There are many styles available that can be worn underneath other trousers or shorts, again, avoiding the “lycra-look”.

One thing you might find if you wear “ordinary” rather than cycle specific clothes for cycling is that you get a cold back.  This is because your trousers or shorts will pull down a little at the waist and your top will ride up a little as you bend over your handlebars, exposing your lower back.  This is why cycle specific trousers and shorts are cut higher at the back and why tops have what is known as a “dropped tail”, to ensure that your back stays covered.  If you are getting into cycling to get fit, and therefore intend to get hot and sweaty on your bike, then cycle specific clothing is a good idea, as it not only provides maximum comfort, but also is made from technical fibres that will wick sweat away from your body, keeping you dry and cool.

Now that you are all kitted out, you need to get on your bike and start riding.  If you haven’t ridden a bike for a while then you might find at first that you get a bit out of breath, particularly going up hill.  Don’t despair.  Riding regularly will quickly increase your overall fitness and you will find your cardio-vascular capacity and your strength improving with every ride.  As with any other form of exercise, don’t overdo it in the early stages; build up slowly to a long distance or particularly steep hill and you will be surprised at what you can achieve.  If you are at all worried about your ability to undertake such aerobic exercise, see your doctor first and work out a plan to ease in gently.

Until your fitness improves a little it is best not to suddenly start cycling every single day.  A couple of times a week is enough to start with, building up your distance and frequency over a few weeks.  If you are embarking on a fitness plan, then write out a training schedule (there are loads of resources on the internet to help you do this, or buy a cycle magazine for top tips) to take you through the first couple of months.  Also, set some goals, such as an event you want to enter or a ride you’d like to do (on your own or with friends); that might be a distance (“I want to do a 50 mile ride”) or a target time for a known route.

If you have begun mountain biking for the first time you should consider a skills course.  Riding on rough terrain, getting over obstacles and riding up and down off-road hills require special bike handling skills.  Look for courses in your local area; there will be tutors available either in a group or one-to-one situation.

Most of all enjoy yourself!  Cycling is great fun and whatever your reason for taking it up you will probably find yourself quickly becoming an addict.