Getting A Bike
For many people cycling is not an entirely new sport. They owned bikes as children or as teenagers and as they got older and started using vehicle transport or other means, the bike was hung up in the garage and slowly became an attic item or given away.
If you have decided to start again then probably your best bet is to rent a bike first and have a few sessions before deciding on which bike to buy. You could become totally obsessed with cycling magazines and have a difficult time deciding on which brand to buy.
If you still have a road bike hung up in your garage which fits you, could you probably have it serviced or overhauled at your local bike shop. Alternatively, there are hundreds of used bikes for sale online and most sellers will allow you to test the bike first. Have the bike inspected before buying as you will not know how it was treated previously and if any of the parts are compromised.
You could also buy online, if you know what you are looking for. It is easy to buy components and have them assembled, but you will lack the after sales service that you can expect from your local bike shop.
However you choose to buy your bike, make sure it is the right size and that it is safe.
What Do I Wear?
There are many options for cycling kit and vastly different price ranges. As you become more involved you might choose to be affiliated with a club and sport their colours. There are many brands to choose from and you can buy online.
The basic kit will need to be a helmet, sunglasses, gloves, shoes/socks, cycling jersey and padded shorts. If your budget is tight the most important item (arguably) is the helmet to protect your head in the likely event that you are going to fall off at some point. Padded shorts would be the second most important item as time in a hard saddle with no protection for your “under carriage” can result in a painful experience and it might put you off cycling all together.
For shoes, I would recommend that cyclists use cycling shoes which clip in to special pedals. However, for your first goes back on the bike use flat pedals and sensible trainers until you are confident that you can stay upright. When you get your first cycling shoes you will need to practice clipping and unclipping and be sure to do this wearing your helmet. Do it near a patch of grass or somewhere where you can easily catch yourself. A quiet part of a cycle path or empty car park could be a useful area, or even in the corridor in your house… there is somewhere to lean on!
What Do I Take?
Again, equipment for cycling has more variety than an old fashioned sweet shop. With time you will work out what is best for you and develop your own preferences.
As a beginner, you will need the following essential items with you on the bike:
- Water bottle – the squeezy type. If you are unstable with using one hand on a bike you may choose to use a Camelbak to start with. I would recommend you learn to use a water bottle from the start (old habits die hard).
- Lights – front and back lights
- A seat bag containing emergency items such as a repair kit or new tube, an air canister and tyre levers. If you have a small pump rather than a canister you can put that in your back pocket.
- A multi-tool set
- Small bit of cash – you might need a ride home if you cannot fix your puncture!
- A rag to clean up with after you have replaced your tyre or put your chain back on it it comes off (you can also put a couple of wet wipes in a small ziplock bag)
- A mobile phone
Basic Equipment to keep in the car
- A track pump to pump up your tyres before riding. They have a gauge as well so you can get the correct tyre pressure.
- Spare clothing
- Change of clothing – change out of your cycling shorts when you are done
- Spare tubes, general bike tools, nutrition
How do I get back on the bike?
It is early in the morning and you have arrived at the cycle path with your new or rented shiny bike and you are getting used to having these strange tight padded shorts on. You watch all the cyclists around you with all their gear, matching kits, expensive looking sunglasses and they are pumping tyres, chatting, spinning around the car park and apply lube to their chains.
It is a fleeting moment where you would like to get back in the car and go home. It is all too much.
Stand back and breathe, and remember that all of these riders have had the same moment, which is, their first day on a bike. There will always be different levels of riders wherever you are. Hopefully, there are still plenty of proficient cyclists sharing the path with you who will assist you on your way.
Keep smiling, and take a buddy with you who knows how to ride if possible.
Prepare your bike by checking the tyre pressure, apply a little lube to the chain a little bit and take a quick look all the way around for places where the rubber might be cracked, gouged or worn.
Also, check the nuts or quick release mechanisms that hold your wheels in place. Make sure that your wheels are securely fastened so they don’t come out while riding, especially if you took the front wheel off to get it into the car. Your riding buddy should assist you with this.
Test your brakes by squeezing the levers and make sure that they will actually stop your bike by applying pressure. Check that the cables are not stretched across the bike or frayed.
Check to make sure that your handle bar is set at the right height, that the stem is fastened tightly and that your seat is set at the correct height. If you have purchased your bike you should have it fitted for you in the bike shop. Similarly, if you have rented your bike they should ensure that the heights are right for you before commencing.
The last thing to check is that your chain turns cleanly through your front and rear sprockets and doesn’t rub against the derailleurs. You can do this in the car park before you set off, or do a quick test run before you set off on any kind of distance. While you are doing this, run your bike through its range of gears to make sure there are no problems with shifting or chain slippage etc., and that the drive train is free from excessive grime and doesn’t need lubrication.
If you rented your bike, do this before you leave the shop with the bike so that your day of riding is not spoiled by a faulty bike.
As you get ready to put on your helmet, check it to make sure there are no cracks on the outer shell or inner surface. The straps should be adjusted so that the helmet fits snugly, and sits down on your forehead, hitting somewhere just above your eyebrows. A common mistake is to wear a helmet that rides up too high, which won’t protect your forehead in the event of a fall.
Check your saddle bag is secure on the bike and your water bottles are full and sitting in their cages.
How Do I Start?
You have now overcome the initial feeling of rabbit’s eyes in the headlights. You have checked your bike, your helmet is on, and you and your buddy have wheeled your bikes to start of the track.
Your buddy hops on and rides off saying, “come on then”.
Take your time to learn how to mount and dismount properly. Many cyclists never learn this skill properly and these bad habits can put them and others at risk, especially if they stop suddenly in front of cyclists approaching from the rear.
Correct Starting Technique
It is easiest to learn using flat pedals to start with. Once you have mastered this, you may move on to clipless pedals and cleated shoes.
- Stand astride your bike with both feet on the ground. Most people get to this position by swinging a leg over the saddle. If you have a Women Specific Design bike or other bike with a low frame, you may be able to lift your foot over the frame. It sometimes helps to lean the bike to the side before straddling it.
- Check that your chain is sitting on the small ring at the front and the middle ring on the back. You do not want to start in a very hard gear.
- Do not try to sit on the saddle while the bike is stopped.
- Hook your foot under a pedal and rotate the pedal backwards to bring it 45 degrees forward of straight up.
- Put your foot on the high pedal, then press downward.
There is a simultaneous action which comes with this movement:
- Use the pedal as a step to lift yourself high enough to get onto the saddle and apply driving force to the chain, causing the bike to pick up speed. Put your other foot on the other pedal, and keep pedalling!
My recommendation is that before you start any distance you practice starting and stopping. Ideally, you will want to stay upright for the duration of your ride and go home feeling elated instead of bruised.
You will want to avoid using both feet on the ground to stop. We developed this habit as kids when we rode tricycles and this can be very awkward on a road bike. You also risk injuring yourself with the pedals.
If your plan is to stop (say, at a traffic light) and then start again, it is recommended that you shift down first, so that when you start again, you are not in a gear that is too hard and requires immense effort to get going again.
You will need to do experimenting as gear requirements will vary if you are on a slope. Also, if your gear is too low it will cause the pedal to turn too quickly and will not give you the support to step up nicely or get enough speed quickly.
If your gear is too high, the bike will not get enough acceleration to reach balancing speed.
When you are preparing for a stop, apply pressure on the brakes slowly (unless there is an emergency stop required) and keep the pedal of the foot that you are not going to remove from the pedal. Come to a halt, lean slightly to the side of the bike with your free foot and put your foot on the ground, toe first, and gently.
If you put your foot down before the bike has stopped, and you are also braking, you can bring the bicycle to an abrupt or painful halt.
Focus on the steps that you need to do to make an easy and controlled halt.
As you are you already in the lighter gear, you raise the pedal again to a 45 degree angle and start again.
Practice this several times, and make sure that you look behind you when starting and stopping to ensure that there is no upcoming traffic or cyclists if you are a on a cycle path.
Many beginners do not use their gears efficiently and slog away in a very high gear (big cog at the front, small cog at the back), grinding along and expending lots of energy, churning the pedals at a low speed. Others pedal very quickly without any distance gains, as they are in too low a gear (small cog at the front, large at the rear).
The key on how to use your bicycle gears efficiently is to start by finding the right gear. This means you can keep a steady rate of pedalling, (known as cadence), without feeling like you are pushing too hard or too gently through the pedals.
The most common bike is one that has derailleur gears, which will have left and right hand shifters on the handlebars and two sets of gear cogs. The front set is known as the chain ring and gives you big changes in gear (harder to pedal). The front derailleur that moves the chain between this chainrings is the shifter (or gear lever) on the left.
When you push the left-hand shifter (or lever) inward, it guides the chain over the chainrings near your pedals and changes gears. You will need to pedal while doing this to assist the chain across. You will use the larger lever to change to the big ring and the smaller one to change down to the smaller ring.
The rear cogs (or sprockets) together form the cassette, and the derailleur that shifts the chain up and down these is controlled by the right shifter. When you press right-hand shifter/lever inwards the chain is guided over the back cogs. You can do this repeatedly to ﬁne-tune your gearing, always while pedalling.
The best way to get to grips with this is to experiment, ideally somewhere quiet like a cycle path rather than out on the road.
To avoid your chain stretching and wearing out quickly, you should avoid these positions:
- Front gear on the smallest chainring, and your back gear on the smallest sprocket
- Front gear on the biggest chainring, and the back gear on the biggest sprocket.
This can cause your chain to slip, or not shift properly, and can stretch and damage the chain over time.
You will want to ensure that your chain is in a reasonably straight line at all times while riding, and avoid using the opposite extreme ends of the gears.
For example, do not use the smallest cogs on the back and the front, or the largest cogs on the back and the front. This pulls the chain between them at an angle, which can cause it to stretch. This will take some practice! You can experiment on hills, on the flat, and also on descents and see what works for you. The aim is to find an efficient pedal stroke without spending too much energy.
Facing your first hill can be daunting and there will be a temptation to get off the bike and walk it. This not uncommon so do not feel that this is a failed attempt. In time you will learn to anticipate what is coming and which gear you should be using. To practice, start shifting down a little as you approach a hill to maintain an easy stroke and find a small slope to start on rather than a 45 degree hill.
If you find the hill is very steep, it might be easier to shift from the big ring to the small ring in the front and spin your legs. Shifting to the right gear at the right time takes practice, and it will easier initially to build up from an easier gear rather than shifting down from a harder gear.
Once you have shifted down using the lever on the left, you make small changes with the right to fine tune.
Now let’s discuss what to do when you are accelerating down the hill. You will have lots of free energy now with the descent. Try not to shift up too quickly to your highest gear because on some bikes the chain can jump off gears completely which can be fairly annoying especially if you have made a concerted effort to get up the hill, successfully.
Shift your gear gradually, making sure that each gear has engaged properly before shifting to the next one. Different systems will respond differently. If you are renting a bike while you are learning, try to get the same bike (or one with the same gearing) each time so that you become familiar with it and get to know how that particular system works.
And away you go…
(Credit: road.cc, my awesome husband, Global Cycling Network, Bike Radar, and lots of very cool cyclists and triathletes)