Whether you’re new to cycling or have been cycling for years, it’s impossible to have all the answers. Even pros admit to learning new skills or concepts that make cycling better for them. So what are the things you wish you knew before getting started? Perhaps you were scared to ask a question because it seemed too simple or even stupid. I often tell coaching clients, there are no stupid questions, keep asking about what you are curious about, get different opinions and try new things.
Q: Should I use clipless or flat pedals?
A: Often the confusion comes first from the name “clipless.” This name actually comes from the old toe-clips cyclists used before current pedals with cleats came along and made things safer and more efficient.Clipless pedals are the ones you clip into with cycling shoes with cleats on the bottom.
Flat pedals are simply pedals, like you would have on a BMX or kids bike. They are not popular with many racers or road riders because clipless pedals help improve your performance in racing, especially for road disciplines. But don’t rush to use clipless or exclude flat pedals from your practice completely. Flat pedals help you learn to push into the ground to execute skills (like the bunny hop) and develop a feel for the pedal stroke without the help of the clipless pedal. New riders will progress faster on flat pedals because they are not spending time learning to clip in when they should be figuring out how to ride their bike and do essential things like shifting and braking! Once you are great at riding on flats, clipless is very easy to figure out.
Q: Do I wear underwear under cycling shorts?
A: My wife, Molly, wrote a book that is largely motivated by this topic, it covers many uncomfortable questions around personal hygiene and cycling, the ‘great underwear debate’ is one of them. The chamois in cycling shorts is meant to decrease friction between your skin and the saddle and keep your skin dry. Underwear has seams, a layer of material not meant for athletics and does not generally take moisture away. So decrease the size of your laundry load and enjoy the comfort!
Q: Do I use a high or low gear?
A: This is a surprisingly common mistake that takes a few different forms. The key concept is that if someone tells you to put it in a low gear they don’t mean low on the cassette (the back gears) they mean to put it in your easiest gear. (Think about those ‘trucks use low gear’ signs at hills.) A big gear generally means a harder/faster gear, which is confusing because the cogs on your cassette get bigger as you shift to easier gears. For road riders the classic fastest gear is the ‘53-11’ meaning your big chain ring on the front and smallest cog on the back.
To keep it simple when talking to friends or kids who are starting out say ‘shift easier.’ Learning to shift is hard enough without using trucking terms. The size of the cog and chainring don’t matter for learning — the feeling of the result of pushing the shift lever/button is more important. A great way to learn about shifting is to let a beginning rider play with their bike in a stand. Encourage them to see what happens when they shift and, even play with the barrel adjuster. Isolating the skill of shifting from the skill of biking makes it much easier to learn the movement of shifting.
Q: Is everyone freezing on cold and rainy rides?
A: There will be hard moments in cycling, this is why we do it. But often there are ways to decrease your weather-related suffering at least a little. Having ridden in many Canadian winters, I very much wish I knew about neck warmers and fenders when I was younger. I had the wool socks but the other two make such a difference in warmth and dryness that they are a must if you intend to train outdoors in the fall and winter. If you can fit full fenders that cover most of the wheel, this eliminates spray that can make a post-rain ride miserable. For snow or bikes with bigger tires, a front and rear mountain bike fender still makes a considerable difference.
Having a few quality wool pieces, most notably wool socks, helps your feet stay happy in cold and/or wet conditions. They are pretty adaptable to temperature and less gross when wet. I like to use higher top versions to add warmth further up the leg. Neck warmers are also key and often referred to as a buff, scarf or gaiter. For dryer, colder days, I keep a lycra-based neck warmer in my gear bag year-round to keep my face warm, which usually means the rest of me is warm.
Q: Should I practice sprinting if I am not racing?
A: Distance runners do strides and many other sports include some form of sprint training in their weekly routines. With all the focus on endurance and threshold training, the lowly sprint workout gets missed too often. Sprinting is a very athletic expression of bicycle riding. You are often out of the saddle, balanced and moving the bike back and forth as you put your maximal effort into each pedal stroke; plus you have to avoid riders around you!
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Including 2–5 repetitions of 5–15 second sprints once or twice a week with lots of recovery is plenty to see improvement. These could even be a focal point for a warmup to your normal workouts. When you are used to pedaling explosively to accelerate you are very comfortable at the submaximal speeds and intensities, where we spend the most time during our rides.
Let us know if you have other questions — and remember no question is a bad one!