Advice for new cyclists

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Last week’s training ride out to Harvard, MA. (near the Fruitlands Museum)

About a month ago I wrote one of my most popular blog posts, in answer to questions about how I got into all this exercise and training stuff.  I pulled together a list of six things that might be useful to someone starting out as a runner.  But if you add up the miles, honestly I’m not really a runner.  I’ve lost count of the number of miles I’ve put in on a bike, but at this point it’s a lot.  Enough of them that people often think of me when they are thinking about buying a bike or a bike part or considering riding more regularly.

Since people apparently found the last round of advice helpful, I’ve decided to share a list of the most common things I tell folks who are just starting out as cyclists.

1.  Different bikes are made for different things.

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My road bike (left) and my touring bike (right)

Mountain bikes.  Road bikes.  Hybrid bikes.  Touring bikes.  Fixed gear bikes.  Beach cruisers.  Each of them are constructed for different activities and while you can do an urban commute on a mountain bike, you will be fighting the bike’s natural strengths to do so.  By all means, start with the bike you have, but if after a few longer rides you start to think this cycling thing isn’t for you, just keep in mind that you might be hammering a nail with the butt end of a screwdriver.  Also, different bikes are made for different bodies–having a bike that fits you well is much more important than fancy brand names.  Riding a bike that’s too small is asking for knee problems; riding a bike that’s too big is begging for back pain and intersection accidents.  Again, start with the wheel’s you’ve got, but realize if you start to get odd aches and pains, that could be one of the reasons.  If you do end up deciding that the bike you’ve got needs an upgrade, keep in mind that used bikes are completely fine (all of mine have been used), but the newer the design, likely the better off you’ll be–we’ve learned a thing or two since the steel frame days!

2.  Keep your tires full and your chain lubed and you will enjoy riding more.

Bike work can be messy business!
Bike work can be messy business!

This is another piece of advice in the “don’t fight your bike every pedal stroke” vein.  Flatter tires (and fatter tires, like on mountain bikes) have more contact with the ground, which means more friction.  That’s a good thing for stability, say if the road’s wet or you’re riding on less stable surfaces–but on a normal road, it’s a drag.  Literally.  It will be harder to pedal the same distance on tires that aren’t topped off.  Not to mention, it puts you are risk for a “pinch flat” the first time you hit a substantial pothole.  Similarly, you want your bike chain well lubed so you’re not fighting friction there either.  This is really easy to do and should be done a) when you’ve been riding someplace sandy, polleny, or otherwise mucked up your chain, b) after the bike has been outside during a heavy or sustained rain, or c) whenever it sounds like there’s a pack of angry chipmunks following your bike that mysteriously disappear whenever you stop pedaling. Unless your chain is horrendously dirty, it’s a four step process that should take you approximately six minutes.

  1. Grab a rag and run it along the chain by rotating your pedal backwards.
  2. Apply a lubricant generously while slowly rotating your pedal backwards again until you’ve gone all the way around once.
  3. Grab your rag again and run it along your chain–you want a light coating over the chain, not blobs of the stuff, so don’t skip this step!
  4. Ride around a bit, running through each gear to make sure that you share the lube love with the whole works.

Done–between that and the air pressure, in about 10-15 minutes you’ll have a happy bike and a much happier rider!

3.  Obeying all (or at very least most) traffic rules pays off in the long run.

stop sign

There are lots of reasons to stop at stop lights and stop signs.  Here are my favorites!

1.  Assuming you think you could lose a few pounds, your ride will burn more fat if you start and stop in the course of a ride, than if you consistently travel at one speed by blowing as many lights as you can.

 2.  It’s a great way not to piss of the multi-ton vehicles that you share the road with.  And that good will can make your riding a lot more pleasant.  If you’re going to ride on the road and then not follow the rules of the road, you’re libel to be riding with some angry drivers.  And Massachusetts drivers are scary enough when they’re relatively calm.  As an aside, know your rights and responsibilities if your going to ride in the road; know your bike paths and which sidewalks are actually open to you (varies from town to town) if you plan to avoid road riding.

3.  You saw this one coming: it’s just safer for you and everyone on the road.  Period.  Yes, I know you checked.  Yes I know that this traffic light takes forever.  Do it anyway.  It’ll work out for you nine times out of ten, but that tenth time just isn’t worth the cumulative two minutes you saved in your commute the other nine times.

4.  You can ride fast or you can ride long, but you can’t ride fast for very long (yet).

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Quad Cycles riders at a charity ride, with Bobby Mac front and center

Here’s where I tip my hat to Quad Cycles weekend ride leader Bobby Mac, since this is basically a quote.  You’ll be able to ride for longer if you’re not pushing to ride really fast.  And you can ride faster, but you should plan on it being a shorter ride.  Conserve your energy for the kind of ride you want to have–pushing is a good thing, but only in moderation and with good hydration & nutrition.  (Actually, the 10% rule from the last post is a good one to apply here.)  Another tip for going the distance?  Keep yourself in a gear where you can pedal freely.  The harder the gear, the more you’ll turn the ride from a cardiovascular activity into a strength training activity–and chances are you can do the first one of those a lot longer than the second.

5.  Finding folks to ride with regularly that are more experienced than you will make you a better rider.

More props to the Quad Cycles crew and my friends Dave & Brian for running regular rides.  I’ve learned a ton from riding with people who’ve ridden longer and further than me.  I’ve learned things about everything from sports nutrition to cycling etiquette to basic bike maintenance skills.  I’ve also ridden longer and faster than I would have on my own by pushing to keep up with folks who are better trained, which if I’m smart about it, can help me get faster or increase my endurance in ways my solo riding probably wouldn’t.  Sure it’s intimidating standing in a crowd of bungling spandex–and there are different kinds of crews for different personalities–but finding a group to ride with is essential to becoming a better rider, will give you a crew of new friends to share your hobby with, and will give you the inside info on some of the best cycling routes in the area.

6.  It’s all about the route…and maybe a little about the destination too.

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A beautiful road-side rest stop on a bike touring trip with friends

As with much in life, cycling is sometimes about the destination, but it’s more often about the route you take to get there.  One of the reasons I think cycling has stuck with me is that the rewards (which I mentioned in my last post) are built into the activity for me.  My bike travels just fast enough to be a somewhat practical way to get from point A to point B, without being so fast that I miss the beauty rolling by me as I go.  If scenery’s not much of a motivator for you, try using a destination–in the summer, ice cream works particularly well for this.  In fact, one of my favorite new rider recommendations is to take the Minuteman Bikeway out to Bedford Farms for ice creams the size of your face.  For those less skittish of road riding, there are a ton of loops in Concord, Carlisle, Lincoln, etc. as well as some great routes for beach lovers on the North Shore.  Ask your new cycling buddies for their favorite routes–they’ll be happy to tell you and you’ll be glad you asked!

Have a favorite bike route? Or a piece of newbie advice I’m missed? Drop them in a comment below!

12 thoughts on “Advice for new cyclists

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