It is easy for cyclists to forget what they didn’t know when they started cycling. Very quickly, long-time cyclists get excited talking about tubeless tires, clipless pedals and the correct complex-carbohydrate-polymer-gel to fuel with, but forget there are many things a new cyclist needs to learn before they can actually be comfortable on the bike.
If you are just starting out or helping a friend get started with cycling, these tips and experiences are drawn from novice cyclists who wish they knew these concepts when they started riding.
“I didn’t find out that chamois — that’s the bike shorts with padding in them — were needed until I had several uncomfortable rides,” says Sara, who has become a proficient mountain biker over the last couple of seasons. “Even after I found out about the bike shorts, it was a whole season before someone mentioned awkwardly that I shouldn’t wear underwear with them.”
A major component of cycling enjoyment involves enhanced saddle comfort by reducing friction. Skipping underwear helps avoid friction that can lead to chafing and even saddle sores. While you don’t need to wear spandex bike shorts to ride, most experienced riders use some form of padding in their shorts to enhance comfort. It makes a big difference, especially as you start to ride longer.
In line with avoiding saddle discomfort, a lot of new riders assume cycling is inherently painful. Sure, pushing your limits up a climb will always be uncomfortable no matter how fit you get. But there are certain types of pain that you can avoid. “I had numb feet and hands for the first two years I rode. I just thought it was what cyclists did,” says Julie, a gravel rider who got started three years ago. “Then, I got a bike fit and changed saddles and realized it is possible to ride and be comfortable!”
If you’re feeling localized pain every time you ride, it might be time to adjust your bike, either with a professional bike fit or even just by playing with your seat height, saddle type and handlebar height.
Many beginners tend to overdo an exercise because your body isn’t used to it. The positive view of this is it doesn’t take much to see improvement — and if you aren’t used to riding, you can get faster and fitter by riding for short periods. Bob is in his fourth year of cycling and says his biggest surprise came when he found gains by adding a few extra short spins each week instead of lots of longer rides. “I didn’t see how these short rides would help, but after a few weeks I felt so much more familiar with the bike and found I really enjoyed the variety of longer and shorter rides, rather than riding until I was completely exhausted every time I rode.”
At any level of fitness, it’s important that not all sessions are miserable or depleting. For beginner riders, ‘enough’ isn’t very much and it’s best to include a variety of fun workouts in the routine. This may be as simple as riding at your own pace, for 10–30 minutes a couple of times a week between longer group rides.
Many new cyclists have a goal of losing weight and avoid eating on the bike to double down on weight loss. “I never ate on the bike those first couple years but then I would be so hungry by the time I got home that I would stand at the door of the fridge and eat,” Sara recalls. “I finally started bringing some snacks on the ride, and I found I could come home and get cleaned up before having a well-thought-out snack. My workouts were better, and I was actually down a pant size!”
A basic rule of thumb is to eat and drink ‘something’ every hour you ride. It’s not exact, but it’s better than not eating at all. As you gain experience, you can adjust and become more specific with your fueling based on what you need. Listen to your body for signs you need more (like running out of energy or getting grumpy) or that you are eating too much or the wrong thing (like feeling sick).
There are many forms of ‘coaching’ you could pursue if you aren’t ready to work one-on-one with a coach. Local clubs are a great way to find a community and get all of these getting-started questions answered quickly. Many clubs offer weekly group rides or at least sessions to learn to group ride or improve skills at different points during the season.
A good friend who is patient and not that far ahead of you in their cycling journey may also be a great resource since their experiences and mistakes are not so far in the past. These same friends may have ideas about where to ride safely and might have recommendations for equipment that worked for them.
If you have aspirations to conquer big goals or big events, you may want to look into coaches who have helped like-minded cyclists. Coaching can be an ongoing relationship or a few sessions focused on your bike skills, bike setup and answering questions. Any of these resources help ensure you are safe and being efficient with your shifting and positioning.
While this is important for new riders to learn, it’s also important for experienced riders to remember. Figure out the optimal clothing and gear for your discipline and terrain, train with variety and leave something in the tank on many of your rides, fuel the workouts that push your limits, and look for feedback from coaches and other riders to keep progressing.