Cycling is extremely fun and a great way of getting outside and staying fit. During the lockdown period cycling has taken off with bicycle stores and manufacturers reporting a boom in demand. Manchester alone has seen a 22% increase in cycling according to a recent Guardian report. I began my cycling journey in 2018 when I secured a place in the Prudential Ride London 100 mile cycle. When I first began I was extremely nervous, I found cycling terminology confusing and the thought of changing a tyre made my palms sweat. But as the years have passed I’ve become braver, better and still love the feeling of being out on my bike. So you have bought your new bike (this might be a road bike, gravel bike, hybrid, mountain bike and so on), or maybe you’ve already started cycling but you still feel very new and confused? Here are my top tips for new cyclists compiled of all the things I learned through friends, experience or things I wish I had known from the very start.
Embrace the lycra and invest in some cycling shorts- when I first started cycling I dreaded the idea of all that lycra. I thought cycling shorts were just for the hardcore cyclists, and felt self conscious about how I might look. However, I soon realised that even the most amateur of cyclists can enjoy the benefits of a good pair of padded shorts (plus if you pick the right ones they can be very comfortable and flattering). You have three main contact points on the bike- your hands on the handlebars, feet on the pedals and bum on the saddle. Even the shortest or gentlest of rides can put immense pressure on your bum and er sensitive nether regions. Seatbone bruising, pain/swelling and chafing can all be associated with time spent in the saddle and this can make an otherwise enjoyable sport pretty grim. There are some great brands out there including Liv (my favourite), Gore, Zone 3, Pearl Izumi, Decathlon, Le Col, Maap (Maap and Le Col being two of my boyfriend’s favourites, plus if you sign up to one of the Le Col challenges on strava you can get a little bit of money off). You can read more about my women’s top cycling shorts picks here and find some money saving tips here. There is also lots of debate about whether you should go commando beneath your cycling shorts. I definitely find commando comfier and speaking to other cyclists this generally seems to be the case but ultimately it is YOUR decision- don’t rule it out though give it a go and see which you find most comfortable.
Whilst you’re embracing the cycle shorts, look at jerseys too. Cycling jerseys are really comfortable, especially for longer rides, keep your back covered when in a forward position and grip onto your cycling shorts. They also have handy pockets for storing you phone, snacks, rain jacket etc. Whilst not essential I find them much comfier to cycle in, and again the lycra isn’t as bad as you first think.
Invest in a helmet– in my opinion a helmet is one of the most essential pieces of kit you will purchase and use. However some debate around whether helmets create a false sense of security or act as a barrier into cycling still remain. According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents 40% of cycling accidents involve head injury. I definitely feel safer in a helmet and if you’re learning to cycle your chances of having minor mishaps are greatly increased.
There is no rush to use cleats- When I first started sharing my cycling journey on Instagram I got a lot of comments about my choice to cycle in trainers. People asking what shoes I cycled in, telling me I would be a better cyclist when I learn to use cleats, asking me why I don’t use cleats, and telling me I should use cleats. It all became very overwhelming and at times upsetting. Two years into my journey I still go between cleats and trainers with a ‘toe clip’ pedal. In all honesty I’m a much braver, more relaxed and happier cyclist in the latter. I don’t believe using cleats makes me, personally, a ‘better’ cyclist because I often hold myself back mentally and become very tense. When riding on busy roads in London I rarely use cleats because it is so stop start (even on the cycle paths), there is the risk of pedestrians stepping into cycling lanes and I don’t trust myself to clip out quick enough. When cycling in safe spaces I use cleats. It is ultimately YOUR choice. If you don’t mind the wobbles, the scrapes and the falls then getting stuck straight in with cleats might be for you, but if you don’t feel brave enough that is ok too. If you aren’t wanting to go straight in with cleats but want a pedal that helps keep your foot in place I recommend some of the Rockrider strapless bike toe clips from Decathlon priced at £4.99. These are a great way to build up to cleats and feel much more secure and safer than flat pedals.
Adjust your seat height– Having a comfortable seat height can help avoid injury, aches/pains and help you feel more confident and less wobbly. Finding the right seat height can take lots of tweaking. With your bike leaning against a wall or getting a friend/partner/housemate to hold your bike, position your pedal beneath you at the furthest extent from your body (if you imagine a clock this would be a 6 o’clock position). Place your heel onto the pedal and if your seat height is correct your leg should be straight with no/minimal bend in the knee, keep adjusting your seat height until you reach this. Once you think you’ve reached that height try placing your foot back into it’s normal cycling position and you should now have a slight bend in your knee of around 30 degrees (you may need to play around with the height some more depending on what shoes you cycle in). If you feel like you are reaching for your pedals, your legs are locking out/straight in the 6 o’clock position, your hips don’t feel stable or you feel wobbly in the saddle then try gradually lowering your seat until you feel more comfortable. Bike fits are a great way of maximising comfort, speed and efficiency but many may not be offering this service during the lockdown period so trial and error is one way to get comfortable.
A good saddle is worth the money– Alongside seat height, a good saddle that is angled correctly can make all the difference. Cycling shorts are great, but they can’t fully remedy an uncomfortable, poorly fitting or incorrectly angled saddle. There are a lot of saddles on the market and loads of different designs. Women and men also have different saddle needs so don’t just assume that the saddle that comes with your bike is the correct one for you. Finding a saddle is a very personal choice, no one is built quite the same. As a starting point, for women I recommend the Selle Italia Diva Flow or the Liv contact SL and for men my boyfriend uses Fizik Aliante. There are a range of saddle makes out there including Pro Logo, Fabric, Specialized and others from bike chains and brands.
Learn how to fix a puncture before you head out and carry the necessary kit with you. That first puncture is every new cyclists worst nightmare, especially if you’re not prepared. Changing a tyre can be scary and rather confusing. Global Cycling Network offer some great videos on how to do this (in fact their YouTube videos have helped me so much when throughout my cycling journey). If you still feel confused, ask a local bike shop, seek help from friends or keep googling. Practicing removing your wheel and refitting it is a great place to start as this can prove a real challenge on the side of the road. Invest in a saddlebag and always carry at least one spare inner tube (in a sandwich bag to prevent the tube being damaged), a small cycling multi-tool (see here), a hand pump or CO2 cartridge and some tyre levers so that you can cycle confidently knowing you have the kit and know how to change a puncture should one occur.
Keep your tyres well inflated and learn what PSI (pressure) they require and whether they are a Schrader or Presta valve (if you press the valve to let air out then it is most probably a presta valve). Investing in a cycling floor pump which can tell you the pressure of your tyres is really handy. Under inflated tyres can make your bike feel sluggish and difficult to ride. If your bike is stored outside you may need to pump the tyres up more frequently. A quick test to see if the tyres feel hard or soft can help you decide whether they need inflating.
Use the gears- perhaps more than you first think. This has been one of the most valuable tips given to me when I first started out. The gears are there to help you, not to make things more difficult. Be generous with your gearing, especially when you first start, as this can help you learn which gears you’re comfortable in on the flat, which gears you feel confident using downhill and which help you power up the hills. You have a chain ring close to the pedals beneath the seat which you can alternate between the big ring (I use this on the flat and downhill) then the smaller ring for going up hill. The cassette also known as the rear cog or ring, has a cluster of sprockets (the circles which your chain moves up and down). The largest of which is the easiest (save for the bigger hills), and the smallest of which is the hardest (smaller ones are best for the flat/downhill). You can move between these in either the big or small front chain ring. The gears you want to avoid are the biggest ring on the front and the biggest sprocket on the back and the smallest ring on the front and the smallest sprocket on the back. This is known as cross chaining or crossing the gears and should be avoided due to the excess pressure this puts on the chain. The best way to learn your gears is to find a flat, smooth and safe stretch of road and just play around with them, gain your confidence and learn what works. Practice makes perfect.
Cycling Snacks– for runners coming to cycling the idea of munching away on real snacks (not just gels) might feel quite alien, but the longer you’re in the saddle the more food you need. Not eating enough or taking on enough fluid can lead to a sudden loss of energy, dizziness, blurred vision and lack of power which can be pretty frightening when out on busy roads. For rides around 90minutes or longer I use home made cereal/ flapjack bars, nuts, clif bars or Science in Sport bakes. For whole days of cycling I love jam sandwiches or bagels which I stuff down my jersey pockets. For drinks invest in bottle cages for your bike where you can safely store bottles and use one bottle with water and another with electrolytes such as science in sport hydro tablets or SiS Go Electrolyte. Also practice eating and drinking on the bike as it took me a while to get used to and is a skill!
Learn your brakes– under UK standards most front brakes are on the right hand side and most rear brakes on the left, but do check your brakes as they can sometimes be the opposite way round! The front brake is the most effective at stopping you so make sure you apply this one gently alongside the rear rather than grabbing the lever and slamming on as you may find you go over the handlebars!
Gain confidence and awareness on the road. Always cycle with the flow of traffic and where possible/safe use cycle paths. Find a safe position in the road, not too close to the kerb as you’ll be riding in debris and drains, but similarly don’t ride too far out. Keep an eye on what is going on around you and if necessary slow down a little. Frequently check over your shoulder, especially when moving out into traffic to overtake parked cars and obstructions. Always make clear signals before you move.
Enjoy it! There is no rush to master every aspect of cycling. It is a huge learning curve but one that can bring you a lot of fun and happiness.
If you have any top tips for beginner cyclists then please add them below, tag and share with your friends who might find this useful and thanks for reading xxx
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You can also find more help, advice and inspiration through the new Bike is Best campaign, where you can also pledge to ride your bike more and enjoy the benefits of cycling. Find out more here.