The New Cyclist Checklist | Cycling 101

Kelly O'Mara
by Kelly O'Mara
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The New Cyclist Checklist | Cycling 101

The weather is warmer, and heading out on two wheels sounds like the perfect way to spend a weekend in the sunshine. But riding a bike is more involved than just, um … riding a bike. Before you hit the road or trails, make sure you know basic cycling safety and etiquette.

Fortunately, most local bicycling advocacy groups teach cycling safety or cycling 101 classes. Many bike shops have clinics, and the League of American Bicyclists trains instructors and offers a locator tool to find a certified class near you.

To get you started, league instructor Sarah Hadler, of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, and Tori Bortman, author of “The Big Book of Cycling for Beginners” and owner of Gracie’s Wrench, break down five key things you should do and know before you head out:


If it’s been awhile since you pulled your bike out of the garage, it might not be ride-ready. Hadler tells people to check the ABCs: air, brakes and chain. Make sure your tires have air and pump them up. “Lots of people don’t realize that just because tubes or tires are flat, you don’t need to buy new ones,” says Bortman. Don’t have a pump? You can usually use or borrow the one at a local bike shop.

You’ll also want to make sure your brakes work and the chain isn’t rusted. Bortman says most bike shops will do a free safety check of your bike or provide an estimate if additional work is needed.

The bike isn’t your only piece of equipment, though. “I think of a helmet as a seat belt,” says Hadler. Except it’s a seat belt that needs to be replaced every three years, says Bortman, because it can degrade. Plus, helmet technology has come a long way since you bought that old helmet in the garage. These days, even good helmets are fairly light, cheap and cute.



It sounds like a joke, but stopping and starting can be worth getting a refresher on, says Hadler.

To get started, she instructs people to have one foot on top of one pedal in the 2 o’clock position (in front of your body), so you can simply push down on the pedal and roll forward — instead of having to scoot along to get started.

And when you need to stop, you’ll want to apply even pressure. Sudden braking can cause problems if the wheels skid or lock up. On most bikes, the right brake controls the back wheel and the brake in your left hand controls the front wheel, says Hadler. Generally, you don’t want to brake with just the left hand (front brake) because, if you do it too forcefully, the sudden power applied to the front wheel could cause the bike to flip.

Once you do stop, says Bortman, you don’t need to get all the way off the bike. You can put one foot down on the ground, leave the other on your pedal — in that ready-to-start position — and lean the bike slightly into your leg. That way you’re set to go again.


Now that you’ve got braking down, learning the basics of shifting is next — it takes practice. “It’s always hard to explain; it’s easier to just do,” says Hadler. If you’re concerned, go to a parking lot or a flat bike path to practice first.

Bortman typically has people start with just shifting with the right hand. On most bikes, the right hand controls the cassette in the back, making incremental gear shifts. For many rides, this may be all you ever need. The left hand controls the chain ring, or the bigger gear jumps. Often, whichever lever makes the gears easier on the right hand is reversed for the left hand. It can take some getting used to.

As you ride, you’ll generally want to shift before something happens — i.e., as you get to the hill, not once you’re on the hill. (Don’t worry: If you forget, you can still shift on the hill, but it’ll just make it harder to pedal for a stroke or two.) You might also find it helpful to shift down before you come to a stop, so you can get started again more easily, says Bortman.

The other key point to know, says Hadler, is “you have to pedal when shifting.” Essentially, once you shift into a new gear, the lever moves the derailleur to that position, but it’s not until you pedal forward that the derailleur can pull the chain into the new gear. If you shift and then try to pedal backward, you’ll likely drop your chain. If that happens, get off the bike, put the chain back on and keep going!


If you’re ready to hit the road, you might be worried about those other vehicles on the street: cars.

Traffic laws vary from state to state, but in general you should follow the same rules as a car — with some notable exceptions. On a bike, you typically stay to the right of the lane, unless you’re making a left-hand turn — in which case you’ll want to look over your left shoulder, signal and move into the lane when it’s clear — or if you’re coming up to an intersection where cars are turning right — then it can be better not to get stuck on the far right where a car could turn into you. Simply repeat your look, signal and move procedure to move into the middle or even left of the lane, says Hadler, so cars turning right can go around you. If you’re worried about making a left-hand turn or getting across an intersection, don’t be afraid to stop, get off your bike and walk it across the crosswalk.


Never ride against traffic and avoid jumping in and out of traffic, says Hadler. It’s also best to give some space between you and parked cars that could open their doors into you. Many states have three-foot laws about how much space cars passing a cyclist should also allow.

“A lot of people think they should ride as far right as possible, but the safest thing is just to ride straight,” says Hadler. That might mean riding a foot or two into the road, where drivers can see you, instead of swerving in between parked cars or into the gutter.


“The number 1 rule is be predictable,” says Bortman. Don’t do anything out-of-the-ordinary or swerve suddenly.

Hadler uses the P.V.C. rule: be predictable, be visible and communicate. You don’t have to do all the hand signals (though you should know them), but you can simply point when you’re making a turn and also use your voice when talking to other cyclists.

Now that you’re ready to ride, look for routes on MapMyRide or ask at your local bike shop for good places to get started. Bike paths and low-traffic neighborhood streets can be best for your first ride. (Often bike lanes are on busy, high-traffic streets, which can be unappealing, says Bortman.) If you need to drive out of the city or out of a high-traffic area to start your ride, that’s totally OK, she says.


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About the Author

Kelly O'Mara
Kelly O'Mara

Kelly is a professional triathlete and reporter outside San Francisco, where she is an on-call producer for the local NPR station. Her works appears regularly in espnW, Competitor, Triathlete and California Magazine. She also co-hosts the podcast, Locker Room Talk, for WiSP: The Global Women’s Sports Network. And she trains. A lot.


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