10 Confusing Things About Cycling (and Their Explanations)

Marc Lindsay
by Marc Lindsay
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10 Confusing Things About Cycling (and Their Explanations)

Whether you’re just getting started or have been doing this for a while, cycling can be overwhelmingly technical and downright confusing. Beyond knowing how to take on corners and descents and hills, things like gearing, jargon and maintenance can be baffling, leaving you with many unanswered questions.

Here are 10 of the most confusing things about cycling, plus simple answers to the baffling questions.

1

HOW DO I KNOW MY BIKE’S FRAME SIZE?

Road bike frames are in centimeters (i.e., 52, 54, 56, 58, etc.) or small, medium and large. And since sizing can vary between brands, it’s best to visit a bike shop and ask someone what size frame is recommended for your height. To figure out if a particular size fits you, you’ll want to do a test ride.

The two most important details you’ll want to get right are the seat height and the handlebar reach. If you have to lower the seat post so much that it isn’t showing just to reach the pedals, the frame is too big. If it’s extended to the point where it can’t be raised any higher, and you have more than 20 degrees of knee flexion at the bottom of the pedal stroke, the frame is too small. As for reach, you should be able to rest your hands comfortably on the brake/shift levers without excessively leaning forward, as this places too much stress on the lower back and neck.

If you have extra money, getting a bike fit to dial in the seat height and reach and the fore/aft position of your cleats ensures comfort and prevents overuse injuries from not being positioned correctly on your bike. A good bike fit can cost $150–400, so check around to see what services are offered and what best suits your needs.

2

WHAT DO THE CHAINRING AND CASSETTE SIZES MEAN?

Road bikes have lots of gearing options, which can be confusing. The reason you need all these gears is to have a variety of options for the terrain you’ll be riding — easy gears for long climbs and harder gears for descending. In general, the chainrings that attach to the crankset (toward the front of your bike) have either one, two or three rings, with two rings being the most common. The number of teeth on these rings depends on your riding style — more teeth are helpful if you like to go faster and are stronger. Fewer teeth are more suited to climbing. A 50-tooth big chainring and a 34-tooth chainring are common on today’s road bikes, and when paired with a wide-ranging cassette (gearing on the back wheel), you’ll be able to tackle hills fairly comfortably.

On the rear cassette, lower numbers of teeth make pedaling harder, while a higher number of teeth makes pedaling easier. There are usually between 10 and 12 cogs on a cassette, ranging from 10 teeth on the smallest cog up to 32 teeth on the largest cog. If you see cassette sizing that is 11-28t, this means the smallest cog has 11 teeth and the largest has 28. If you struggle with climbing, a higher number like a 28- or 32-tooth cog is helpful.

Another confusing topic related to gearing is when another rider tells you to shift up or shift down. To shift up, you’ll move your gearing to a bigger gear, making it harder to pedal and resulting in faster speeds. This can be confusing because to shift up, you’ll move the chain to a smaller cog on the rear cassette. To shift down, the opposite is true. Shifting down moves the chain to an easier gear ratio, making it easier to pedal. Shifting down moves the chain to a larger cog (more teeth) on the rear cassette.

3

WHAT DOES ALL THIS CYCLING LINGO MEAN?

If you hang out with other cyclists or show up for an organized group ride, you’re sure to hear a bunch of cycling lingo you probably won’t understand at first. Don’t worry, this happens to everyone. Here are a few terms you might come across:

  • Aero: Short for aerodynamic, which basically means less wind-drag and fast.
  • Bonk: Having no more energy, usually related to not eating enough during a ride.
  • Cadence: Number of revolutions your pedals spin in a full circle per minute.
  • Century: Riding 100 miles.
  • Draft: Riding behind other cyclists, allowing them to shelter you from the wind.
  • Peloton: A group of cyclists.
4

WHAT’S THE BEST WAY TO CORNER WHILE DESCENDING?

Maintaining speed through corners, particularly on long descents, can be challenging. Most beginners use their brakes during the corner to control speed and stay safe; however braking during a corner (instead of before a corner) can cause the bike to sit up and travel in a straight line and is actually more dangerous.

Because of this, it’s better to control your speed as much as you need to by braking before the turn. Approach the corner as wide as is safe, aim for the apex of the corner, and lean into the turn. Keep your outside leg straight and press into the pedal while also applying pressure to the inside handlebar drop. This helps you balance and keep your wheels on the road instead of steering too much with your handlebars. You can also swing your inside knee (the knee closest to the apex of the turn) away from the bike to improve your balance if needed. If you need more tips for proper braking and cornering, this article should help.

5

WHERE SHOULD A BEGINNER BE DURING A GROUP RIDE?

Group rides can be a lot of fun and help you meet more experienced cyclists. When heading out on your first few group rides, pick a group that fits with your ability level, as heading out with a fast group can have you off the back and riding alone in no time. To ensure you can stick with the group, inquire beforehand about how long they’ll be riding and what the average speed will be. In general, you should be able to ride a little longer and faster in a group than you can alone, so keep this in mind.

As for where to stay in the pack, most groups rotate riders off the front every few minutes to spread the work around. Riding on the front — and pulling the group — is more difficult because you’re breaking the wind for the rest of the group. If you have the energy, taking a few pulls at the front is good etiquette. However, no one will look down on you during your first few rides if you hang out at the back.

The pace is easier to maintain at the back of the group because you’re shielded from the wind, so use this time to get comfortable riding in close proximity to others, especially during your first few rides. You’ll also want to keep enough distance between you and the wheel in front of you to react to obstacles. Definitely avoid overlapping the wheel in front of you and keep your eyes up so you can see other members of the group signaling during those instances when a hazard needs to be avoided.

6

WHY ARE CLIPLESS PEDALS SAFER?

Clipless pedals refer to cycling shoes that have cleats on the bottom and clip into a pedal, as opposed to flat pedals. They’re called clipless because old-style bike racing pedals had a toe clip and a strap to hold your foot in place. When the toe clip and strap were done away with, the new style was called clipless because the toe clip was no longer there, and instead, the connection was between the entire foot and the pedal.

The clipless pedal design is more efficient and allows the rider to pedal in full circles, utilizing more muscle groups during the pedal stroke rather than only being able to push down. Though it can be scary to try at first, with a little practice using these pedal systems becomes second nature.

For beginner cyclists wondering if this is a safe way to ride (since it seems like it increases your chances of taking a spill), clipless pedals are as safe as flat pedals — once you get the hang of it. The most common reason cyclists fall is by clipping out too late when coming to a stop. To avoid this, clip out your dominant foot (For most, this will be the left.) before coming to a stop. When it’s time to get going again, give the clipped-in pedal a good push, and then clip your dominant foot back into the pedal as you’re moving.

7

WHY DO SOME CYCLING SHORTS HAVE STRAPS

Those funky looking suspender straps on bibshorts have a purpose. The straps help keep the shorts and chamois in the right place while improving comfort. There’s no waistband to dig into your stomach, and there is much less opportunity for chafing. Most straps are also ergonomically designed, and should disappear when in the hunched over cycling position.


READ MORE > GOING COMMANDO AND OTHER (SENSITIVE) LESSONS LEARNED ON THE BIKE


8

WHAT’S WORTH SPENDING MONEY ON?

You can easily spend a lot of money on bikes and bike gear. For example, lighter bikes made of carbon or more expensive metals go faster and climb easier, and if you’re into competition, this may be worth the price. Most upgraded items, like expensive carbon wheels, make you more comfortable and aerodynamic, so how much you value these things determines how much you spend. More expensive kits and gear may also be more durable and breathable, which makes being on the bike more comfortable.

As for what you should spend your money on, focus on items that improve your comfort the most — especially if you’re just starting out. The more comfortable you are on the bike, the more you’ll want to ride, and the more you ride, the better shape you’ll be in. A few of the top items that greatly improve overall comfort and your experience on the bike are:

  • A good set of tires: Quality tires absorb road vibration better to reduce fatigue on long rides. A wider tire (25mm or larger) also makes your bike easier to handle at higher speeds and allows you to use a lower tire pressure, which can result in fewer flats.
  • A comfortable saddle: This is highly individual, so the saddle that works for someone else may not work for you. Some local bike shops have saddle-buying programs that let you test out a few models before you buy so you can pick the best option for you.
  • A quality pair of bibshorts: Quality Lycra lasts longer, is less restrictive during the pedaling motion, and breathes better on hot rides. A quality chamois insert also helps relieve hotspots and soreness from long hours in the saddle.
  • Dedicated cycling shoes: Cycling shoes with a firm sole make pedaling more efficient and prevent hotspots. Try on a few pairs before you buy to find an option that fits well.
9

HOW DO I STAY SAFE WHEN RIDING ON THE ROAD IS SO DANGEROUS?

Cycling is dangerous, especially on the road with cars, but so is walking. In fact, more pedestrians are killed by vehicles per year than cyclists. In 2018, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration calculated 6,283 pedestrian deaths caused by motor vehicles with 857 being cyclists. Barring tragic accidents, cycling is a pretty safe activity and can improve your lifespan by fighting off disease and illness as you age.

Here are some precautions you can take to be safer on the road:

  • Always wear a helmet.
  • Invest in good front and rear bike lights.
  • Wear visible clothing.
  • Follow all traffic laws.
  • Learn how to signal properly.
10

HOW DO I SCAN UP THE ROAD BUT ALSO WATCH FOR GLASS AND DEBRIS?

Keeping your eyes up the road allows you to scan for the terrain as well as hazards, so you have more time to react. Your body, and therefore your bike, tends to go where you look, so you want to keep looking up so you can pick the safest line of travel. You’ll also want to be able to have time to calmly react if you see something in your way.

For those instances when you can’t avoid a pothole or section of glass, try to pick the line that causes the least amount of damage. For example, if a car is behind you, you might not be able to swerve to avoid glass. That said, try to avoid the big chunks of glass when possible. If you don’t see it until late, it’s better to continue a straight line through. Better to have a flat tire than make contact with a car. After you’ve made it through, pull to the side and check your tire to make sure you can continue.

About the Author

Marc Lindsay
Marc Lindsay

Marc is a freelance writer based in Scottsdale, Arizona. He holds a master’s degree in writing from Portland State University and is a certified physical therapy assistant. An avid cyclist and runner of over 20 years, Marc contributes to LAVA, Competitor and Phoenix Outdoor magazines. He is the former cycling editor for Active.com.

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