A friend got in touch to bend my ear about cycling. He’s recently committed to a long distance charity bike ride and wanted my advice on where to start with equipment, clothing and training. I’m no expert but I’ve been in a similar situation that led to cycling being a big part of my life. My email response to him was rather lengthy but I thought it might be of benefit to other newcomers to cycling so I’ve reworked it a little and published it here.
I got into mountain biking about 12 years ago but never particularly seriously. I played around at the local trail centre and had the odd adventure but it never really took over my life. About 3 years ago a friend of a friend mentioned that he was doing a charity 100 mile road ride in the Summer. I immediately said I’d join him, put slick tyres on my mountain bike and got into training for the event in 6 months time. I lasted about a fortnight before I went out and bought my first road bike (a Trek 1.5).
Since then I’ve got deeper and deeper into road cycling, upping my distance year on year and amassing more and more gear, experience and fitness. This year has been especially active. Combining training on the bike with trying to lose weight (I’ve lost 5st now, don’t ya know) I got fitter and faster, which meant I lost more weight, and got fitter and faster. Nice and reciprocal. You can keep an eye on my cycling activities on Strava.
My friend is in a similar place to where I was 3 years ago. With little experience of cycling he’s committed to a long-distance charity bike ride. What follow are opinions I’ve garnered through my own experience over the last few years. It’s incomplete and covers only the bare essentials, especially when it comes to ‘things that you can buy’, but getting into cycling would only be half the fun you were aware of everything from the beginning.
Things you’ll need
My advice here would be to definitely buy a proper road bike. Don’t be tempted to buy a ‘more versatile’ hybrid/commuter bike just in case you don’t like road cycling. You’ll end up paying twice when you inevitably decide you need a dedicated road bike. You’ll get so much more benefit from having the right tool for the job.
If you’re feeling flash and you have the cash buy carbon fibre, but you by no means need it. Alloy bikes are plenty light and at entry level you’ll get a much better quality alloy bike than you will a cheap carbon one. And besides, you won’t want to spend all your money on bike. There’s a lot of other stuff to get. A lot of other stuff!
There are tremendous bargains to be had from online retailers like Ribble, Wiggle, or Chain Reaction but you need to know exactly what you need first. A local bike shop will be able to advise you on the best fitting bike for your size and requirements and a good relationship with a local bike shop is priceless, especially if you don’t want to do all your own maintenance. They’ll also be able to offer you deals on accessories. For a first bike, I’d recommend going local, even if it costs a little more. If you live somewhere with a lot of bike shops like me, visit them all. Get advice from friends and the internet about which shops offer the best service and get to know them yourselves. I can’t stress the benefit of being friendly with your LBS enough.
Now’s the time of year to be buying a bike. Bike shops are heavily discounting old stock to make way for the new year’s models. September/October is prime bargain-hunting time and not just for bikes; clothing and accessories go cheap too.
This is probably the most jarring step to take. You need lycra. You can try wearing a t-shirt and baggy shorts if you want but you’ll be uncomfortable and sweaty and you’ll get a tremendously sore arse really quickly. Get lycra. Embrace it. You’ll feel self-conscious to start with (especially if, like I was, you’re on the larger side) but after you’ve tottered into the office in your cycling gear a couple of times people stop taking notice. The comfort benefits of wearing the right gear far outweigh the embarassment.
For Summer riding you’ll need:
- Cycling jersey – With pockets on the back.
- Padded bib-shorts – Look like Giant Haystacks in this stylish leotard.
- Gell padded fingerless mitts.
- Shoes (I’ll come to this)
- Helmet (Obviously – don’t fight it. It’s saved my life)
- Windproof/water-resistant shell jacket
In Winter you can supplement that with:
- Long sleeve jersey and/or decent arm warmers
- Warmer gloves and socks
- Decent base layer
There’s plenty of other stuff you’ll need but you’ll discover that as you come to it. There are myriad clothing choices, especially for Winter, but you can make do with the above and then discover what else you like or need.
Shoes and pedals
You probably won’t get pedals with your road bike (unless you buy from a local bike shop who’ll sell you them separately). I’ve been told this is because of some EU health and safety rule. Technically, having pedals on the bike makes them dangerous as the distance between the front wheel and the pedals is such that if you turn the wheel sharply you could catch your toes against the wheel. Never happens and I don’t know how true it is, but there you go.
So you’ll need to make a decision on pedals (and matching shoe choice). There are three options here:
- Flat pedals – Like you always used on your bike as a kid. Easy option but not the best for pedalling efficiency due to lack of connectedness. Toe-clips would help but they’re fiddly and not ideal. The benefit of flat pedals is that you don’t need cycling-specific shoes.
- MTB clipless pedals – (Shimano SPD, Crank Brothers, etc) Clipless is a misnomer as you actually clip into these. They’re an easy option for beginners and they’re easy to get in and out if as they’re double-sided. You wear special shoes with cleats attached to the ball of the foot which connect directly to the pedals and disengage with a twist of the heel. Mountain bike shoes generally have a tread so you can get off and walk. You might need this when you start hitting the hills until your fitness improves.
- Road clipless pedals – (Shimano SPD-SL, Look Keo, etc.) These offer a larger platform and better power transfer. Using these you’ll be more firmly connected to the bike. They take some getting used to and you’re more likely to topple over at traffic lights because you forget to unclip.
I was already used to riding SPD clipless pedals on my mountain bike so I went straight into road cycling with Look Keo pedals and road shoes. Because of my initial lack of fitness and strength, the walking up big hills took its toll on the shoes and soft-wearing cleats.
My advice for someone who’s never used clipless pedals before would be to try them, but try the mountain bike variant to begin with.
Tools and Accessories
There’s stuff you’ll need. There’s stuff you’ll need to carry with you on every ride and there’s stuff you’ll need in the shed.
On the bike
- At least one spare tube
- Self adhesive patches (for if you run out of tubes)
- Mini pump – Possibly one that takes a CO2 canister for quick re-inflation
- Tyre levers
- Multi tool (with a decent selection of hex-keys and a chain tool)
- Two water bottles with energy drink in at least one
You might also like
- A bike computer – measure speed, distance etc. Useful for training. You can get iPhone apps to track this but your phone will be in your pocket. Don’t get a handlebar mount for your phone. They’re all rubbish and your phone will hit the tarmac at 20mph. Eventually you will get a GPS and become a statistics fanatic. Like me.
In the shed
- Track pump with pressure gauge – You’ll want to top up your tyre pressure before every ride.
- Chain lube – Synthetic lube for the chain.
- Spray lube (TF2, GT85 or similar) – To drive water out of components and keep your frame shiny and protected.
- Cleaning rags – Free. Look in your wardrobe.
- Cleaning fluid (Muc-off or similar).
Nutrition is quite personal but you’ll get to know what you need. Energy drinks, bars and gels are pretty essential but not necessarily all at the same time. I used to take two bottles of energy drink, a couple of gels and maybe an energy bar but I was over-feeding. The health benefit of cycling was negated. I was probably actually putting on weight by going cycling. These days I ride with a single bottle of energy drink and one of water, a banana and a little pouch of nuts and raisins in case I’m really struggling, but I rarely touch these and probably wouldn’t eat the banana on a ride under 40 miles. You’ll get to learn your own fuelling requirements over time and many errors where you either don’t eat the right stuff or not enough. You’ll feel absolutely terrible but you’ll learn lessons.
I can’t recommend any particular energy drink. There are loads of brands and they’ll all affect you differently. You’ll find some too sweet and some will give you terrible gas. I prefer SiS Go Electrolyte (Watermelon flavour). It’s light and refreshing. Buy sample packs or individual pouches of powder before you shell out £20+ on a tub.
Before a ride, it’s fairly standard. A good breakfast of porridge or cereal with banana and sultanas for energy. If it’s something bigger you might want to supplement that with some low-salt peanut butter on wholemeal toast. This is what I do. You may find a different path.
After a ride you need to refuel but be careful not to over do it. It’s tempting to eat a packet of biscuits and a couple of doughnuts. You’d be much better off with a big pile of scrambled eggs and tomatoes with some wholemeal toast. The aim is to help your muscles recover. Eat properly after a ride and you’ll feel great the next day. Don’t and you’ll hardly be able to walk.
I’ve tried recovery drinks such as SiS Rego. These are good and they do work, but they’re not cheap and I prefer using actual good food.
If you’re going to start cycling in Autumn/Winter you’ll find this difficult. Dark nights and bad weather mean you’re going to have to be pretty dedicated. You can do it though, and your body will thank you for it come the spring, when your fitness is already up and you’ve got the strength in your legs to really take advantage of the better climate.
I’ve never really had a training plan so-to-speak. I just ride as often as I can for as long as I can afford the time. In that first year though I was putting in a couple of rides a week. Initially about 20 miles but slowly building up the distance. By the summer I was riding 60-80 mile rides regularly and further on some weekends.
If you can find somebody to train with then it’s a fantastic aid, especially if they’re better than you. Having riders around you who are more experienced and faster really pulls you on. They’ll force you to ride just out of your comfort zone and this will make you better. They’re also a great source of advice for technique, diet and equipment. Otherwise you might want to join a local club or chaingang. Ask at your local bike shop about local cycling clubs.
At a push, I reckon you can ride 50% further than you think you can ride at any point in time, so don’t worry too much about being ready for the big event you’re training for. Obviously, the more you train and the further you ride, the better prepared you are but if you can comfortably ride 80% of the distance you’re targeting then you should have no problem on the day.
It’s tempting to avoid the hills and tell yourself that you’ll do them when you get fitter. Guess what: You only get better at riding up hills by riding up hills. There is no other training for riding up hills.
Push yourself. If you get back from a ride and you’re not wheezing and spluttering, you haven’t gone hard enough. You’ll learn to love this feeling of achievement and physical sickness. Trust me.
Over the last year I’ve been using Strava to keep track of all my activity and cycling achievements. Seeing the stats presented in that way, and following other local riders who are on the same roads as me has been a real inspiration and has helped me to get better.
This is an area I’m very familiar with. I spend about 70% of my week surfing these sites.
Buy magazines such as Cycling Weekly, Cycling Plus and Cycling Active, all available from your local newsagent or supermarket. You might find you don’t like the style of one or other but you’ll generally fit into at least one of their demographics.
Sites such as Road.cc and Cycling Weekly have great news, reviews and forums. Follow them on Twitter and/or Facebook too.
This little email to a friend turned into quite an essay, but as I said at the beginning of the post, it’s incomplete. I’ve missed loads out here and if you’ve got any questions or feel like I could offer advice, please don’t hesitate to contact me on Twitter @peterjlambert and I’ll do all I can. I absolutely don’t mind talking about this stuff. You might have worked that out already.
I hope this little blog post will be helpful to you if you’re considering starting cycling, and I especially hope it hasn’t put you off.