If you’re new to cycling, we understand how overwhelming it can be when getting started. On top of the standard rules of the road, it can often feel like there’s a whole set of unwritten rules as well.
Are you required to wear lycra?
Is it necessary to use those “clippy” shoes?
Do you have to shave your legs?
When I started my cycling journey, outside of needing a bike, I had no clue where to begin. Fortunately, I had a couple of friends who were experienced cyclists that were able to provide direction and prevent me from making a lot of the most common beginner mistakes.
If any of this sounds like you, don’t worry, our cycling for beginners guide will help get you squared away.
Regardless of the type of riding you do, by the end of this article, we’ll have you looking and feeling like a confident and experienced cyclist.
So if you’re ready, let’s dive in!
Table of Contents
1. Wear a Helmet
Nearly 1,000 cyclists die, and over 130,000 are injured in crashes on roads in the United States every year. One of the best ways to reduce the risk of head and brain injuries in the event of a crash is to wear a helmet.
Understanding how a bike helmet should fit is critically important. One of the most common mistakes beginner cyclists make is wearing one incorrectly.
The helmet should sit level on your head and be positioned one to two finger widths above your eyebrows. The side straps should form the shape of a “V” under and slightly in front of your ears. If you’re wearing sunglasses, the temples should go over the side straps.
Most bike helmets have an adjustment knob on the back that can make them tighter or looser. Tighten this knob until the helmet is snug but still comfortable. You don’t want it to move when you shake your head from side to side.
The chin strap should NOT be loose. It should be tight enough that you feel some tension when you yawn.
Whether you’re looking for a no-frills model or one with all of the aerodynamic bells and whistles, the good news is it’s easy to find one that will fit your needs and conform to the required safety standards.
2. Don’t Stress About the Gear
When choosing cycling gear, the good news is there aren’t any rules or requirements. It really depends on the type of cycling you’ll be doing.
In the beginning, outside of buying a good helmet, don’t stress about getting a lot of fancy new gear. Just get out and start riding.
However, if you want to step beyond just casual riding, here’s an excellent place to start:
A cycling kit consists of a jersey and bib (padded bike shorts with suspenders built into them). They are made from synthetic fabrics designed to wick away sweat, reduce drag, and enhance overall comfort on the bike.
Clipless Pedals and Cycling Shoes
Confusingly enough, clipless pedals are actually the ones you clip into using cleats attached to the soles of your cycling shoes. The benefit is they provide a better foot-to-pedal connection which helps improve pedaling efficiency and power output.
A good pair of sunglasses will protect not only your eyes from the sun but from rain, bugs, and debris as well. Some versions even come with interchangeable lenses for improved visibility in different riding conditions, such as low light or overcast days.
3. Be Seen on the Road
Although getting out and riding on the road can be thrilling and fun, it’s not without risks. As mentioned above, there are a large number of bike accidents each year that result in injury or fatality.
A significant contributor to these accidents is the cyclist not being seen.
The good news is there are some simple things you can do to make yourself more visible to vehicles and other riders.
The first is to wear fluorescent clothing. The brighter colors can make cyclists more visible from further away than darker-colored clothing during the daytime.
Another effective solution is to utilize retro-reflective clothing and materials on the bicycle. These reflective elements will help make cyclists more visible at night.
Lastly, it’s critical to incorporate active lighting. Active lighting includes white front lights, rear red lights, and other types of lighting on the bicycle or cyclist. The addition of lighting will significantly improve the visibility of cyclists and is required by law in most states when bikes are ridden after dark.
4. Get a Bike Fit
Regardless of your level of cycling experience, a proper bike fit can be a difference maker. It not only improves the power and efficiency of each peddle stroke but also helps maximize your overall comfort and enjoyment.
Although there are multiple positioning elements that a bike fit may address, the most common is saddle height.
Here are some basic guidelines to help you get your saddle height dialed in.
Start by taking your inseam measurement and then multiply it by 0.885. With a tape measure, measure from the center of the bottom bracket to the top of the saddle and adjust accordingly to match the above measurement.
To check this measurement, you can either connect your bike to a bike trainer or lean it up against a wall. Once you’ve done so, hop on and assume a normal riding posture.
Take your leg that’s opposite the wall and slide your foot forward until the back of your heel is lined up with the back of the pedal. Spin the pedals backward until the crank is fully extended (in the 6 o’clock position).
If you’ve set your saddle height correctly, your leg should be fully extended and just barely locked at the knee. If you find yourself having to reach, your saddle’s too high. Conversely, if you’re not able to lock your knee, it’s too low. Lastly, shift your foot back to its normal placement with the ball of your foot centered on the pedal. Your leg should now have a slight bend at the knee.
Now it’s time to take it for a spin and see how it feels. If the saddle feels too high or low, make minor adjustments up or down (no more than 3mm at a time) and then test again until it feels right.
If you’re not much of a “do-it-yourselfer” and prefer a professional opinion, reach out to a local bike shop. Most offer fitting services that range anywhere from a basic fit to a competitive fit.
5. Take Care of Your Bike
Although it’s important to keep your bike in tip-top shape, you don’t need to be an expert mechanic or own a ton of tools to do so. Understanding and performing some simple bicycle maintenance is all that’s necessary.
ABC Bike Check
A is for air. Before each ride, be sure to inflate your tires to the recommended pressure listed on the side of each tire.
B is for brakes. Inspect pads for wear and replace any with less than ¼” of pad remaining. Additionally, make sure the pads aren’t rubbing the tires while spinning.
Lastly, when squeezing each brake lever, check that there’s roughly an inch between the lever and the handlebar.
C is for chain. Be sure your chain is clean, properly lubricated, and free of wear or damage.
Securing Bike Bolts
Loose bike parts can lead to unnecessary wear and tear, poor performance, and even safety issues.
It’s important to periodically check any fastening bolts, your headset, and other critical moving parts and properly tighten any that have started to loosen. Consult your owner’s manual for proper torque specs before tightening.
Additionally, it’s recommended that you perform a full bike tune-up at least once a year. Regularly performing these simple maintenance steps will not only enhance the performance and enjoyment of each ride but will save you a ton of money and frustration over the long run.
6. Carry a Flat Tire Repair Kit
We like to think it will never happen to us, but at some point (usually when we’re miles from home), every cyclist experiences the dreaded hissing sound of air rushing out of their rapidly deflating tire.
Although incredibly frustrating, there’s no need to let this ruin or even end your ride. With a bit of preparation and practice, you can be back on the road in a matter of minutes.
The best solution is always to carry a flat tire repair kit that includes the following:
- Spare tube
- Patch kit
- Tire levers
- CO2 inflator
All of these items fit nicely into a small bike bag that you can attach to the underneath side of your saddle.
Lastly, it’s not enough to just carry a flat tire repair kit with you. You also need to know how to use it. Make sure you practice going through the process of changing a flat tire as well.
7. Practice Good Cycling Technique
Good cycling technique doesn’t have to take years to develop. With a little focus on a few key elements, you can look and feel like an experienced rider in no time.
Use Your Gears
Using your gears properly allows you to ride comfortably over a wide range of terrain.
Use the large chainring and a smaller rear cog for faster pedaling on flat terrain. When climbing hills, use the small chainring and a larger rear cog.
If you’re spinning the cranks extremely fast but not going anywhere or grinding uphill and almost coming to a standstill, you’re probably in the wrong gear.
Spin Don’t Grind
A lot of beginner cyclists grind the pedals much slower than they should. Doing so causes them to put excessive strain on their muscles and work harder than needed.
Although the optimal cycling cadence will vary from rider to rider and depend on the type of riding being performed, shoot for somewhere between 80 and 100 rpm (revolutions per minute).
Avoid Crunching the Brakes
Braking must always be done in a controlled manner. Although the front brake is more effective at stopping you, braking extremely hard can result in a loss of control and, in extreme cases, cause you to fly over the handlebars.
Practice anticipating and braking gradually using a combination of your front and rear brakes.
Clip In and Out
Forgetting to unclip from your pedals after coming to a dead stop is a right of passage every rider goes through at some point. The good news is avoiding this embarrassing moment requires only a little practice.
Find a quiet environment (like a school parking lot on the weekend) and practice repeatedly clipping in and out while starting and stopping. Do this a few times before doing it on your first real ride.
8. Have a Hydration & Fueling Plan
Having a well-thought-out hydration and fueling plan can be easy to dismiss or even overlook.
But not having one is a significant cause for a good ride going bad quickly.
A person’s fluid needs will vary based on temperature and sweat rate. An excellent place to start is to drink 20 ounces of fluid every hour (which is the typical size of a standard water bottle). In hot conditions, fluid needs can rise as high as 40 ounces per hour.
Replacing fluids can come from both plain water and sports drinks.
Plain water is sufficient on shorter rides (less than an hour). On longer rides (more than an hour), incorporating electrolyte-rich sports drinks to replace sodium loss is essential. A good starting point is to consume 250-500 mg of sodium per hour between food and sports drinks.
To avoid the dreaded “bonk,” it’s imperative your body has the appropriate amount of fuel (calories) to burn. It can come from solid foods such as gels, bars, and bananas or from carbohydrate-rich sports drinks.
The amount can vary depending on your time spent cycling, weight, and level of intensity.
You don’t need to consume extra calories on rides lasting less than 90 minutes.
For rides lasting 90 minutes to 3 hours, aim to consume 30-60 grams of carbohydrates (120 to 240 calories) per hour. On rides longer than 3 hours, aim to consume 45 to 90 grams of carbohydrates (180 to 360 calories) per hour.
9. Learn to Ride in a Group
Riding in a group can be a lot of fun. The social element of group rides is a nice break from the monotony of solo rides. And because of drafting, riding in a group allows you to ride faster and push yourself harder than you might when riding by yourself.
However, it’s crucial to understand the skills, techniques, and etiquette of group riding.
- Ride in a controlled and predictable manner
- Have at least a wheel length gap between you and the rider in front of you
- Position your hands where you can quickly access the brakes if needed
- Ride handlebar-to-handlebar in a double paceline
- Swerve, surge, or brake suddenly
- Overlap your wheel with the wheel of the rider in front of you
- Use aerobars or place your hands or body in positions that compromise control
- Half-wheel (ride half a wheel’s length in front of) the person next to you
10. Find a Local Bike Shop
Whether it’s help identifying the best upgrades for your bike, finding a local group ride, or tackling mechanical issues, a reliable local bike shop can be an indispensable resource.
But not all bike shops are the same. Some may be generalists offering products and services related to various types of bikes and riding disciplines, while others may be more specialized.
It’s important to identify and build a relationship with a bike shop that’s knowledgeable about your cycling discipline and can answer questions about and has experience working on your type of bike.
Additionally, a good bike shop knows how to perform a proper bike fit and can help you get your new bike set up and ready to go.
11. Avoid Doing Too Much Too Soon
It’s easy to want to ride further and faster than you should right out of the gate, especially when you’re excited and raring to go.
But doing too much too quickly is one of the quickest ways to burn out or, worse yet, get hurt or injured.
Three simple things you can do to avoid going down this path are to gradually build up your cycling volume, get adequate recovery after each ride, and follow a training plan.
Give your body time to adjust to longer distances and higher intensities. Before you know it, you’ll be raising the bar and routinely setting new personal bests.
Now that you know where to begin and how to avoid the most common beginner mistakes, it’s time to saddle up and hit the road. If you want some help finding the perfect bike for you, check out our guide on the different types of bikes, and we’ll get you pointed in the right direction.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do I prevent saddle soreness or discomfort?
Saddle soreness or discomfort is common among cyclists, especially beginners. The good news is it’ll eventually subside as you get used to sitting on a saddle. Some things you can do to reduce saddle soreness are to wear padded cycling shorts, use chamois cream to reduce friction, and make sure your saddle height and position are correct.
Additionally, take breaks and stretch regularly during longer rides. If you’re just getting started, gradually increase the duration and intensity of your rides to give your body time to adapt. If the discomfort persists, you may need to consult a professional bike fitter or try a different saddle.
What’s the best way to avoid common cycling injuries?
Cycling injuries can range from minor cuts and bruises to concussions and even broken bones. Simple things you can do to avoid these types of injuries are to wear protective gear such as a helmet and gloves, make sure you’re visible to cars and other riders, and use proper form and technique.
A lot of the more common cycling injuries are due to overuse and pushing too hard too fast. It’s important to always warm up before each ride. Avoid going from zero to 60 overnight. Instead, gradually increase the intensity and duration of your rides. Additionally, listen to your body and take breaks when needed. If you do get injured, or experience persistent pain and discomfort, make sure you seek medical attention.
Do bicycles have to follow the same laws as cars?
In the U.S., bicyclists have the same rights and responsibilities as other vehicles and are required to follow the same rules of the road. However, you don’t need a driver’s license or insurance to ride a bicycle.
Additionally, helmet laws and where you can and can’t ride a bicycle can vary from one state to another. Make sure you’re aware of the bicycle-related laws in your state before hitting the road.
How do I know if I have the correct size bike for me?
One of the easiest ways to determine the correct bike size is by using a bike size chart. However, sizing can vary from one brand to another. Because of this, it’s always recommended that you use the specific size chart for the brand of bike you’re considering purchasing. Another alternative is a bike fit calculator. Because they take additional measurements into consideration, they’re often more reliable. The other nice benefit is they’re extremely easy to use. Just key in your measurements and click submit.