Getting started with cycling

Wednesday, May 30, 2018. Author Martin Cheifetz

Martin MTB

On an individual level, riding a bike is good for your head and your heart.  It makes you fit, strong, helps control your weight, gives you time to yourself or active time with friends, and is one of life’s simple pleasures and most enjoyable healthy habits.  On a macro level, riding a bike can also help with environmental, economic, transportation, and public health issues, and as such, the United Nations named June 3rd as the first World Bicycle Day.  But we’re FitnessGenes, not the Economist, so let’s talk about how getting started in cycling can help YOU get fit and feel fabulous!

I’m a lifelong cyclist, so here are my top 10 tips to help beginners or casual riders be comfortable, happy, and get started in the right way:

1. Figure out where you are most likely to ride your bike and get a bicycle that suits that terrain and environment

There are road bikes, a bewildering assortment of mountain bikes, folding commuter bikes, city bikes, single speeds, fixies, beach bikes, gravel bikes, cyclocross bikes, hybrid bikes, touring bikes, e-bikes, and more.  Don’t make yourself nuts, but think about how you’re going to use the bike most frequently. 

If you live in a city and will be using the bike for commuting, you have different requirements than a person who lives in the country and will be riding on trails.  Do you live in flat terrain or do you live in a hilly or mountainous environment?  If it’s the latter, the weight of the bike and gearing is more important.  Are you more interested in riding on the road or trails?  There’s no point in having a big beefy mountain bike if you’re only ever going to ride on the road, and likewise, if riding on the road is daunting, bypass road bikes entirely and head straight for the mountain bikes or hybrids. Also, will you only be riding on dry days or do you think that you’d ride when it’s wet?  If it’s the latter, a bike that has disk brakes becomes more appealing (and expensive). 

Do you have any serious injuries or health issues that prevent strenuous exercise?  If so, an e-bike (a bike with a little power assist motor) can be an excellent idea. Have a chat with friends or family who ride or go to your local bike store and discuss options with them.  Of course, an internet search for “How to choose the right bicycle” will throw up thousands of articles and videos helping you weigh up the variables and narrow down your selection.

2. Find a bike that fits your body

Regardless of what type of bike you choose, it is imperative that the bike fits you.  You need to be comfortable.  If you’re not comfortable, you’ll be miserable, and whatever “bargain” you just bought will become something else to hang your laundry on, rather than becoming a fitness tool or an object of passion you look forward to riding. 

Make sure you try a variety of bikes before you buy.  Most good bike stores will help you with correct bike fitting. A proper fit not only helps increase comfort and enjoyment, but it also helps reduce the risk of injury and improve your cycling performance.  Your body has three contact points with the bike:  your hands, feet, and butt.  Each of these 3 points needs to be comfortable, properly aligned, and in sync with the other two areas, otherwise your posture, comfort, and performance will suffer.

As a subset of the first 2 points, how much money you spend on a bike is entirely up to your personal budget circumstances, but you can have a great time on an inexpensive, older, used bike (as long as it fits you and is safe and functional) and if you’re buying a new bike, well…..you definitely get what you pay for.  If you think or know you'll be riding often, buy the best bike you can afford (you won’t regret it).  If you are unsure how often you’re going to be riding, you should rent or demo a few different types of bikes in a few different kinds of terrain to see if you can envision this object becoming a part of your life.  With bikes or anything else, it is always better to make an informed decision than just guessing and hoping for the best.

3. Wear appropriate clothing

Getting dressed for cycling can be somewhat challenging and requires a bit of seasonal trial and error depending on where you ride and whether your body tends to run hot or cold.  Here are a few basic tips:  First of all, don’t wear cotton.  It gets wet and stays wet.  Secondly, overdressing is as bad as underdressing.  Thirdly, get yourself some good padded cycling shorts (or padded cycling underwear) and some cycling gloves. 

Apart from these basics, the first step in planning what to wear is figuring out where you’re going, how long you’ll be out, and looking at a weather report, paying attention to the wind in addition to the more obvious temperature and precipitation factors.   As I mentioned in the first tip, talk to some friends or colleagues (who live near you and who will be riding the same type of terrain) and find out what they wear.  What your mother in law in Florida wears on her beach bike cruising ride is not what you need if you’re riding mountain trails or alpine passes in Colorado,  country roads in Connecticut, or commuting in a busy urban environment.

4. Have the appropriate safety gear

You need a helmet, so please don’t argue.  You need protective eyewear as something is invariably going to fly into your face: dirt, road grit, insects, etc.  Gloves could either be considered an essential piece of clothing (as mentioned above) or a necessary bit of safety gear (in the event of a fall).  If you are are riding at dawn, dusk, or in darkness, you need lights for your bike and ideally clothing with reflective elements. 

Having a way to fix a flat tire is mandatory.  Ideally, you should become self-sufficient and know how to fix a flat tire, but as long as you live in a reasonably populated area, another road/trailer user will assist you sooner than you think (as long as you have the spares you need).  Cyclists tend to be very helpful to other cyclists in need!  You also need a multitool that covers all the adjustments on your bike. 

Take your phone (and if it’s not waterproof, put it in a plastic bag) and tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to return (and don’t forget to notify them that you’ve safely returned or are running late!)

5. Choose terrain appropriate for your ability and your bike

If you have a road bike, taking it off-road is not a good idea.  Your bike won’t like the experience and neither will you.  If you have a mountain bike, riding it on the road isn’t that much fun (too slow and heavy). 

If you’re overweight, very unfit, or just starting out, ride on the flats and stay away from the hills until your fitness improves.  If you start out on a ride that’s too hard, you’ll be miserable, and you won’t want to do it again.  Remember, we’re looking to create healthy habits here, so start slowly and have reasonable expectations! 

If you’re new to cycling (especially mountain biking), choose your riding buddies carefully and make sure you understand the terrain they’re discussing before you sign on to their “epic” ride.  Epic to them could easily mean a disaster for you. 

If you’re just starting out with cycling in general, plan your first few rides to be about 30 minutes, moving up in 15-minute increments until you can ride for 2 hours.  Once you can ride for 2 hours, you can cover some significant ground and start varying your training with using different levels of intensity and different types of sessions (intervals, hills, sprints, tempo rides, Fartlek, etc.) to dramatically improve your form and fitness.

6. Proper nutrition is essential during (and after) your ride

This is a complicated subject, particularly as cycling distances increase, but at the most basic level: you need water and you need food. 

If you’re riding for an hour or less, a water bottle and a muesli bar in your pocket will suffice.  Anything longer than an hour and you need to start thinking strategically about fueling yourself.  This may be a carbohydrate/electrolyte drink instead of water, and either riding a route that has easy access to cafes and stores or carrying high energy food with you (gels, bars, gummies, nuts, etc.) in your jersey pocket or hydration pack. 

Much the same way as you don’t want your car running out of fuel before you arrive at your destination, you don’t want your ride to be hampered by your own lack of energy.  In the hour before you ride, make sure to drink some water and have something easy to digest like a banana or some oatmeal.  After your ride, especially if you have ridden for more than an hour, you will need to refuel according to your FitnessGenes recommendations.  A mix of protein, carbs, and healthy fats in accordance with your Nutrition Calculator will help the recovery process

7. Foam rolling before and after a ride can be very helpful

Cyclists often get very tight hips, quads, hamstrings, and glutes.  5 minutes on a foam roller before and after your ride can prevent or alleviate any pain in your legs, butt, and back. Most foam rollers will come with a list of exercises to help you target specific areas.  Foam rollers come in a variety of lengths, firmnesses, and surface textures.  If you only can buy one, buy a full length, smooth surface, medium-firm product.  Rollers that are too soft are useless, and ones that are too hard can be too painful and won’t get used.

8. Support your local bike shop

Internet shopping is great if you know exactly what you’re looking for.  But if you don’t know what you’re looking for because you’re new to cycling, or new to an area, or need any advice, I highly encourage you to spend some time (and some money) at your local bike store(s). 

Generally speaking, people who work at bike stores are passionate and knowledgeable about cycling.  They can help you with bike fit, clothing, accessories, routes, destinations, and most importantly, service.  Like anything else, bikes break, require regular maintenance, spare parts, and service.  If you’re a regular customer at your local bike store, you’ll be amazed at how they can always squeeze in a quick repair for you while everyone else waits.  Your bike shop may also have a cycling club, local’s discounts, shop rides, maintenance classes and all sorts of helpful extras, including great coffee!

9. Track your progress

Fitness of any type is all about progressive adaptations.  At the gym, progress is measured by lifting more weight or performing more reps with the same weight. 

From an aesthetic/bodybuilding perspective, you’re looking for bigger arms, a smaller waist, or an overall lower body fat percentage. 

Cycling is no different and riding further or faster are your primary goals. The 30-minute ride that seemed out of reach last month will soon become your warm-up for a 2-hour weekend ride.  The hill that seemed “impossible” to climb becomes a manageable challenge.  The “stop sign to stop sign sprint” becomes a fun little time-trial.

There are many ways to track your cycling progress, but the easiest thing to do is to use Strava or Map My Ride on your smartphone.  You can always buy a dedicated cycling computer or GPS sports watch at a later date.  These dedicated devices are unquestionably better options but incur an additional cost.  Tracking your cycling progress enables you to document the fact that “it’s not just your imagination” that you’re riding faster and getting fitter; you can prove it and share it with your friends. 

10. Join a club and/or sign up for a few events

Cycling by yourself is great.  It allows you time and space to think constructively or just to daydream.  Cycling with a club is even better.  By surrounding yourself with likeminded people in your area, you’ll make new friends, learn new skills, learn new routes, find new coffee shops, and have some helping hands in the event of a mechanical failure.  Your weekly club rides become a commitment, and that helps motivate you to get out there on days where you may not feel like it.

Cycling events, whether they are charity fundraisers or sportive rides are also a great way to give yourself "something to train for".  If you're the type of person who "needs a reason" to get out and ride, find an event that's a manageable distance....or even a bit of a stretch.  Ideally, your event should be in a new area, so that you also get the benefit of seeing new terrain, and have the fun of seeing new sights.  You'll find that it's more fun being among dozens (or hundreds) of other riders and the organizers take care of all of the logistics around route planning, aid stations, etc., so many of the stresses of planning a big day out are organized for you.  All you need to do is turn up and ride. Easy!

If you enjoy your time on the bike, your physical and mental health will most certainly benefit, so I hope you can get out there and start riding regularly. If you’d like more details on any of these topics, you can reach me at martin.cheifetz@fitnessgenes.com or send a tweet to @martincheifetz  I’m happy to help.

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