Cycling is one of the best sports to pick up regardless of your fitness level. Its low-impact nature, familiar movement pattern and the fact that it gets you into the great outdoors are just a few of the reasons it’s so popular with accomplished athletes and fitness newbies alike.
But just like any other sport, there are some things that are important to get right when you first start out in order to avoid overtraining, injury and burnout. Here’s what cycling coaches say they most commonly spot in uninitiated — but enthusiastic — cyclists:
NOT GETTING A PROFESSIONAL BIKE FIT
“Many riders, new and experienced alike, assume certain aches and pains are just the price of riding a bike,” explains Nadia Sullivan, a certified USA Cycling and USA Triathlon coach with FasCat Coaching. “Saddle sores, neck and shoulder pain, numb hands and more are usually a sign that your bike doesn’t fit you properly, not that you are failing to hold the correct posture on the bike.”
The best way to ensure these aches and pains don’t happen to you — or fix them once they’ve already started — is to head to your local bike shop for a professional fit. “You wouldn’t run a marathon in poor-fitting shoes, so why ride a century on a poorly fitted bike? Invest in a proper bike fit with your local experienced bike fitter and you’ll instantly find riding more comfortable. You might even be faster with less work,” Sullivan says.
SPENDING A LOT ON GEAR YOU DON’T NEED
There are a lot of cool, fancy gadgets that come along with cycling, and it can be tempting to drop a ton of cash on new stuff when you first start out. Experts say that’s not necessary, though. “If you are new to cycling, you probably don’t need a power meter, cadence monitor, onboard computer, power shifters and an aero helmet,” says Ramsey Bergeron, a certified personal trainer and seven-time Ironman.
“Don’t be fooled into thinking you need to spend massive amounts of money to enjoy or be good at cycling,” he says. Think of it this way: “Why spend $150 on a water bottle cage that’s 3 ounces lighter when you probably have 3 ounces of fat on your body you can lose for free! All you really need to start is a bike, helmet, shoes and open road.”
BEING TOO OBSESSED WITH METRICS
On a similar note, it’s no secret that metrics can be great training tools, even for beginners. Power, heart rate, cadence and functional power threshold (FTP) are just a few. But that doesn’t mean you should live and die by the numbers. “What matters most when you are starting out is spending time in the saddle and riding consistently, not comparing your TSS (training stress score) with other cyclists,” says Tom Holland, a certified strength and conditioning coach, exercise physiologist and 25-time Ironman. Rarely in life does comparing yourself to someone else have a positive effect — and cycling is no exception.
Just because cycling is low impact doesn’t mean you should be doing it every day. “We like to think that if we just work harder, we’ll get faster,” Sullivan says. “But that’s only half of the equation! We need to allow our bodies to adapt to all of that new training stress by getting enough rest off the bike.” Luckily, there are lots of different ways to do this. “Things like 8 hours of sleep a night, a day for yoga that doesn’t include riding the bike and periodizing training by building every 2–3 weeks, then recovering with an easy week, are proven ways to get stronger and faster,” she explains. “Ignoring rest and recovery can lead to illness and injury, so give yourself a break.”
In addition to taking rest days every now and then, it’s also a good idea to switch up your workouts. “It matters not how healthy your exercise modality is; If you do it exclusively, you will run into problems over time,” Holland says. “Cyclists need to strength train and cross-train to stay injury free and continue to improve.”
SKIPPING SKILLS WORK
Sure, you know how to ride a bike, but do you know how to handle a bike in less-than-ideal conditions? “As we get stronger and faster on the bike, good handling skills become even more important,” Sullivan says. “Knowing how to use your brakes properly, how to lean your bike and your body in a corner and how to stop short in an emergency are all critical skills when you’re out on the road.”
She suggests practicing these in a parking lot, or better yet, taking a skills class with an experienced coach. “No matter how long you’ve been riding, it’s hard to know what you don’t know. Knowing you’re weighting your bike correctly for conditions and using your brakes correctly results in more confident cornering and descending. It’s free speed!”
NOT LEARNING HOW TO CHANGE A FLAT
“You really should know how to change a flat before you venture off on your own on a ride,” Bergeron says. Even if you know there’s a bike shop reasonably nearby or you think another cyclist will probably stop to help you, chances are that at some point, you’ll have to change a flat by yourself — especially if longer solo rides are on your agenda. “You should practice at home until you have the hang of it,” Bergeron advises. “Also, make sure you are practicing on both the front and rear tire, as the rear tire can be more challenging since you deal with the chain and cassette.”
SKIPPING CHAMOIS CREAM
“If you plan on riding for longer than an hour, you really need to be using chamois cream,” Bergeron says. “This is a cream that keeps you from getting extreme chafing or saddle sores. I learned this the hard way when during my first half-Ironman; I had to run (walk) the half marathon like a bowlegged cowboy because I didn’t use any cream on the bike. Lesson learned.”
NOT LEARNING THE RULES OF THE ROAD
Cycling is an amazing way to get in shape, but road riding can be dangerous if you’re not clued into the correct hand signals, laws and traffic patterns. “Knowing how and when to pass other cyclists, hand signals while riding in a group and how to share the road with vehicular traffic is essential,” Bergeron says. As for how to get the necessary info, it’s easiest to tap into your local cycling community. “Most bicycle stores or riding groups would be happy to educate new cyclists on safe and proper riding etiquette on the road.”