The Beginner’s Guide to Cycling

by Marc Lindsay
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The Beginner’s Guide to Cycling

Cycling can be an intimidating sport for beginners, but it also can be one of the most rewarding. Yes, you may have to deal with traffic and the potential of a mishap. But cycling is a great way to escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life to more scenic avenues while you improve your fitness.

Whether you’re interested in taking up road cycling, mountain biking or cyclo-cross, this beginner’s guide of do’s and don’ts will help ease your fears of the unknown and provide you with the information you need to have more fun on the bike.

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What: The most popular form of cycling, you’ll cover the most distance. You also will be subject to the same laws on the road as other vehicles.

Who: Commuters, recreational cyclists and those interested in long-distance sportive events such as century rides and Gran Fondos.

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If you’ve never ridden a road bike, the position can feel awkward. You’ll be lower and farther forward than most other bikes, and that can put strain on your back and neck.

To avoid injury and improve your overall comfort in the saddle, get a bike fit at your local bike shop. And if you’re unsure of the three basic hand positions for drop handlebars, have your fitter go over those as well.

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Skinny tires and sharp objects on the road will result in a flat tire sooner or later. To avoid being unprepared, make sure you carry the right equipment, and learn how to change a flat before you’re out on the road. This will not only ensure you’re never stranded, but it’ll also give you confidence to explore on your own without having to rely on your riding partners.

Here’s what you should always have when you head out for a ride:

  • A new tube
  • Two tire levers
  • A hand pump or CO2 cartridges
  • A patch kit (helpful if you have a second flat)

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Cyclists on the road are expected to follow the same rules as any other vehicle. This means stopping at stop signs and red lights and using hand signals when you need to turn. Even when it seems like you’re the only one on the road, it’s better to be defensive at all times to avoid an accident.

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While they might be intimidating for beginners, clipless pedals are more efficient and will help you ride longer distances much more easily. Flat pedals or those with straps only allow you to push down on the pedals, which will use the quadriceps muscles. With clipless pedals, you’ll be able to pedal in smooth circles and recruit more of your major muscles — such as the core, hamstrings and gluteal muscles — to generate power.

Before you head out for a ride using clipless pedals, practice clipping in and out in an empty parking lot or grassy field. After a few tries, you’ll realize it isn’t as scary as it looks.

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On the bike, food equals fuel. Without it, you won’t have the energy you need to repair and recharge your muscles. For beginners, bring one energy bar or gel, and plan to drink at least one bottle of fluid per hour of cycling for any rides longer than two hours.

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What: Cycling that’s done off-road. Some of the different types of mountain biking include cross-country, trail, enduro and downhill.

Who: Anyone looking to explore or race off-road trails by bike.

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Unfortunately, not any old bike will do if you plan to hit the trails. Mountain bikes have more durable components, lower gearing and bigger tires to help you tackle obstacles. Wider handlebars help you steer and control your bike more easily.

Tip: While you might be able to hold off buying trail-specific helmets and clothing, a pair of full-fingered gloves and a hydration pack are items every mountain biker should own.

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Obstacles are OK — heck, that’s part of the fun of riding on a trail. But supertechnical trails are usually best left to intermediate and experienced mountain bikers. While you’re getting more comfortable with controlling your bike, shifting and riding up steep pitches, stick to trails that aren’t littered with big boulder-size rocks. This will help you gain confidence without having to worry about crashing. It’ll also help you figure out your limitations so you can practice the skills in which you are deficient.

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Beginners will normally err on the side of caution, which usually means reducing speed. But in mountain biking, momentum is everything. It’ll make tackling climbs easier and navigating obstacles less challenging. If you see a challenging section or a steep hill ahead, increase your speed instead of slowing down. It might seem scary at first, but maintaining your momentum will make almost anything on the trail easier to deal with.

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If you do come across a section of trail that you aren’t comfortable riding through, don’t be afraid to get off your bike and walk it. Taking on tough obstacles too cautiously or timidly will usually result in a spill. It’s best to save those sections for when you’ve gained confidence and are comfortable with what you can and can’t do on the trail.

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What: A unique style of racing on a course that’s similar to what you might find at a steeplechase, consisting of mud, grass, dirt and obstacles. Courses are usually 2 miles or shorter and are completed in laps. Beginners races typically last 40 minutes or less.

Who: Beginners or cyclists from other disciplines looking for something fast, furious and fun.

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Unlike road cycling and mountain biking, in cyclo-cross you can get away with almost any type of bike. The exception is a standard road bike, which has tires that are too narrow and caliper brakes that will make your wheels impossible to spin through sections of mud. A mountain bike or hybrid bike will be slower than a cyclo-cross bike, but you can make either work.

If you want to use your road bike, check with your local bike shop to see whether your frame can handle the following modifications:

  • Clearance for a 32–35 millimeter tire
  • Cantilever brakes

 

As for clothing and other gear, almost anything goes. Just make sure you have a pair of cycling shoes with tread on the bottom (for running), because you might be carrying your bike almost as often as you’ll be riding it.

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The raucous atmosphere is what makes cyclo-cross events so much fun. Since race courses usually consist of 2-mile laps, events are spectator-friendly. Though it’s all in good fun, heckling is often encouraged — as is a decent amount of beer. But don’t worry about it too much — after your race is over, you can flip the script and do a little heckling of your own in the races that follow.

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Mud, tough turns, obstacles and a course filled with competitors make the likelihood that you’ll be off your bike at some point during a race a near certainty. The problem is getting back on the bike, which can be a challenge while you’re standing in a pit of mud. Before you sign up for your first race, learn how to remount cyclo-cross style. It’ll make things much easier.

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If you’re going to enter a cyclo-cross event, expect to crash at some point. While that might sound scary, it isn’t as bad as it sounds. Speeds are relatively low, and courses usually consist of mud, grass, dirt and very little pavement, which makes hitting the ground not too big of a deal. If it happens to you, hop back on, and worry about any minor scrapes or bruises once you’re across the finish line.

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If it’s your first race, you’re probably going to get lapped. Not a big deal. The courses are short, and some competitors will be comfortable riding at high speeds. Don’t let it affect you one way or the other. Just ride as fast as you feel like going, and have fun! It’s the No. 1 rule of cyclo-cross.

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