Started Cycling this Summer? Advice for beginners

Just a collection of words of advice for those starting out. Spring/summer’s a good time to begin, with the warmer weather and longer days. I’m not a professional-anything (except fiction writer!), these are tips I’ve picked up from the days of being a newbie, and helping other newbies along.

BIKE

People blame all kinds of factors for there being less women on road bikes than men. From vanity to not having friends out there.

Do you know what the single major factor I’ve noticed is? The one thing that really puts women off?

Their bike doesn’t fit.

It’s as simple as that. They aren’t comfortable, they are more wobbly, they feel unsafe in the drops, and bits of their bodies start hurting after only a few miles.

Discomfort means they never get the zen-like feeling of flying along for miles and miles. Of spending a really enjoyable day in the saddle with friends. Of finding an exercise that works for them in the battle against the bulge.

I actually started on a hybrid, so learnt to use my gears and keep cadence BEFORE I looked for a road bike. I don’t think I would have been so brave as to get a road bike straight away. That my seat is higher than my bars would have spooked me out for a start!

Size – For a start, is your road bike the right size for you? A quick way to tell is your seat should be higher than the handlebars.

If you are struggling to keep your hands on the hoods for the duration of a ride, the reach is too long. (I’d say 50% of newbie women I lead out on rides are on bikes which are too big for them, or would have been easier to control had they got a smaller size).
There’s not much you can do if your bike’s top tube is too long, as moving the seat forward too much will also depower your pedalling, and the seat may dig in. A badly-fitting bike leads to instability, lack of confidence, lack of desire to be on a bike and pain – neck, arms, hands, shoulders and crotch in particular.

Instability issues could be caused by the geometry of the bike – if a too-long bike has been made smaller by shortening the stem, the steering becomes twitchier. Coupled with women’s bars being narrower, guess what? Yep, wobbling all over the place. Wider bars with shallower drops may make you feel more stable, but aren’t a long-term solution as may give you shoulderblade pain once you’re really putting the miles in.

(I ride a 48cm with 38cm bars and a 120mm stem – 4cm longer than the stem it came with. It improved the handling immeasurably.)

Saddle – It should be the right width to support your sit bones but not so wide that you can’t pedal properly. It also should be level, or the nose marginally pointed down. Apart from that, saddle is personal choice as everyone is different. The right one can be heaven, the wrong one hell.

Shifters – are you struggling to reach the levers in the drops, or squeeze the brakes on the hoods? Two things you can do here (if the levers aren’t adjustable): insert shims in the tops of the levers which bring them closer to the bars, and loosen the brake cable to bring the ‘bite point’ of the brakes closer to the bars.
(Last year, I finished rebuilding a bike but forgot to put the shims back in. I have never been so scared going down one particular hill, and my hands were killing me from straining to reach the brakes. They make a big difference.)

I also have my shifters angled slightly inwards. I’ve found this takes pressure off my shoulders and hands, and was recommended to me during a bike fit.

Pedals Don’t be rushed into clipping in. Put flat metal pedals back on so you can stop worrying about your feet and concentrate on learning to steer and use the gears/brakes. Only clip in once you’re feeling like the bike is part of you, and are going fast enough to need them. I’ve always used MTB shoes and pedals (SPDs, or ‘spuds’) as I need to walk normally off a bike due to my joint problems.

Gearing – Compact crankset (50/34), and a decent cassette on the rear (11-28) if you have any hills around. There’s no harm in having a triple crankset, nor a basic groupset such as Sora or Tiagra, though 105 is really what you should be aiming for, if possible.

Training – Some local clubs will have newbie sessions (I’ve been helping out with one around here), plus BC or other organisations have training sessions you could attend.

KIT:

Helmet – I’m not convinced of the efficacy of wearing a helmet. However, you’ll get hassle if you don’t wear one, sometimes from complete strangers.

Sweatband – Can make an ill-fitting helmet more comfortable, and if you sweat heavily, stop it getting into your eyes. I don’t usually wear one in the summer.

Glasses – I would never cycle without a pair of clear glasses, at least. You want to keep insects and pollen out of your eyes. Safety glasses are only a few quid, and available in many different designs – you don’t have to fork out for expensive cycling glasses which, if you’re anything like me, will end up broken in short order. And if they get scratched, just buy a new pair. I like Bolle.

Moving on to clothes: don’t splurge on too much kit to begin with – if you really start enjoying cycling, you will lose weight and all your nice kit will be too big.  I was lucky enough to find a secondhand bundle of good quality brands on eBay which I wore until I lost too much weight and they started (literally) dropping off me. There’s nothing sadder than sagging Lycra.

Jersey –  Look for body length, zip length, and proper (usually 3) pockets. You may fancy going sleeveless, but you’ll be mistaken for a triathlete. Besides, it’s OK to have strange tan lines.

Padded shorts Generally, the more you pay for shorts, the better they should be.

Waist shorts are convenient for going to the loo, but the waistband can dig in, and there may be a gap at the back if your jersey is short in the body or rises up.

Bib shorts (traditional-style) should be more comfortable on the bike, but can be awkward for going to the loo.

Loo-friendly bib shorts are difficult to find, and some people don’t necessarily find they’re any more convenient than normal shorts. I have a couple of pairs I like though.

Wind/rain jacket I carry one in my second bidon (water bottle) for most of the year, but in the summer, you may want to have two bottles of fluids for any ride over 40 miles (one water, one energy or electrolyte drink). Always check the forecast an hour or so before you go out (NOT the previous day) – if it looks like the weather will change, or you’re riding into the evening, always take a light jacket. I have one with zip-off sleeves which doubles as a gilet or arm warmers.

Arm warmers Very useful for those rides which aren’t quite warm enough to go sleeveless. I often have them around my wrists for parts of some rides. There are different weights available, but the most important is to find a pair which don’t fall down. Look for a good, tight fit at the top.

Knee/leg warmers aren’t really needed in the summer, but they’re worth knowing about.

Fingerless gloves I can’t cycle without gloves. Like saddle fit, these are often a personal preference. Never touch another rider’s gloves – you don’t know where they’ve been.

Socks and shoes Trainer socks, ankle socks? Who the hell cares? Just get on your bike!

As above, I advise most newbies not to clip in until they’re confident handling their bike.  A pair of trainers and flat metal pedals (which will grip the rubber soles) will do until then. When advancing to clipping in, road shoes have better transfer of power than MTB spuds, but IMO that doesn’t really matter until you start racing.

I think I’ve covered all the basics. Please comment if you agree/disagree/want to know more.

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