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Cycling for Beginners.

Posted by Lexi Miller on
cycling for beginners

Cycling for beginners - Introduction  

Cycling can be an intimidating sport, and there are quite a few barriers to entry: the packs of spandex-clad speedy fellows who seem to own the road, the cars that whiz by, the hills, the gear...!  It can be an overwhelming sport to take on.

What kind of bike should you buy?  What gear do you need?  How do you develop fitness?  The questions around cycling for beginners seem endless.  But once you get into cycling, chances are, you'll be hooked.   

Here are our answers to the top 10 most frequently asked questions about cycling for beginners.

What is needed to start cycling for beginners?

You can't get very far without a bike, of course. 
And gear!  Cycling apparel is technical because it needs to be.  You need cycling jerseys with pockets to carry all of your stuff.  What stuff?  Nutrition, keys, ID, tools to change a flat.  You need cycling shorts with adequate padding between you and your saddle to protect your sits bones.
Once you've got the bike and the gear, where do you go?  Some roads are definitely better for cycling than others.  But how do you know?  Chances are there's a bike shop in your area that caters to cycling for beginners.  See if your local bike shop hosts a ride for beginners, or can at least point you in the right direction. 
Cycling events, such as Gran Fondos are another great way to discover cycling routes.  These rides are often supported, meaning that they have rest stops stocked with food, and SAG wagons should you have a mechanical issue.  Charity rides are also a great way to get to know new routes, while raising money for a good cause.  Finally, look to social networks such as Strava to discover local clubs and routes.

How do I choose a bike?

The most important factor is bike fit.  A bike has to fit your geometry.  Then there are other important factors like price, and color of course.  

When I went shopping for my first ‘adult’ bike, it had been a while (like, a couple of decades and change) since I had gone bike shopping.   Back then, the big decision was what color basket and streamers.  This time around, I was overwhelmed with a rapid line of questions.  My eyes glazed over, I felt a little under prepared and I might have turned on my heels thinking, this seems too complicated.

Clearly, that was short lived.  At some point I walked back in to the shop after talking to some friends and getting some vital info to help me make an informed decision.  A few test rides (including one very embarrassing one which involved falling over at a near standstill), I took my shiny steed home.

Here’s a look at some of the most important decisions you’ll have to make:

1. Frame size?
Your friendly salesperson should be able to quickly determine what size frame is appropriate for you.  It is possible that you might feel a like you are reaching out for your handlebars and you might be tempted to go down a size.  Be sure to do the turn test though.  What might feel comfortable on a straightaway might not accommodate you in a turn.  Your handle bars and your knee should not meet, nor should your toes and your front wheel.

2. Carbon or aluminum frame?
Carbon fiber is strong and lightweight, it provides for a smoother ride, as it absorbs a lot of the road.  Aluminum is less expensive, but you'll notice that you absorb more of the road.  Ride at least one of each to see if it makes a difference to you.

3. What kind of components?
Also referred to as your "groupset,” this is the name for most of the major parts on your bike: shifters, brakes, derailleurs, cranks, cassettes, and chain.  Most of the bikes you will see will probably have components made by Shimano or Sram.

The biggest difference that you'll notice right away is in the shifters.

Shimano uses two levers on each shifter: one to shift up and one to shift down.  Sram has a single lever that you click once, or hold for two clicks depending on whether you want to shift up or down.  Although opinions abound regarding which one is superior, this is a personal preference that you'll have to test for yourself.  

Once you've chosen between Sram or Shimano, you'll need to decide what level.  Shimano offers (from low to high): 105, Ultegra, and Dura-Ace.  Sram offers (from low to high): Rival, Force, and Red.  You'll also need to decide whether or not to have mechanical shifting or electronic.  Mechanical uses cables that run along the frame.  When you shift, the lever pulls the cable and moves the derailleur, which then moves the chain from one gear to another.  With electronic, you still have cables, but these cables carry an electronic signal, as opposed to using tension to move the chain.  Electronic shifting is smoother and generally more precise.  With mechanical shifting, cables can get overstretched, or they can break.  You have to consistently get your bike tuned to ensure proper cable tension and proper shifting. 

As you climb the price ladder, quality and performance increase, and weight decreases.  Again, the biggest difference you'll notice right away is in the shifting: it gets quicker and smoother as you spend more.  Test a few bikes to see if these incremental differences matter. And know that you can always buy new components down the road if you want to make upgrades to your bike.  

4. Pedals & Cleats
The most prevalent choices are Look Keo, Shimano SPD, and Speedplay.
If you cycle indoors, you most likely have shoes with SPD cleats.  If you don't want to invest in another pair of shoes, go for these.

Look Keo is a popular choice.  The cleats cover a significant portion of the forefoot sole, which produces a feeling of being well connected to your bike.

Speedplay pedals are double sided, meaning you can clip in to either side of the pedal, which makes clipping in and out smooth and quick (Look pedals, and some SPD pedals are one sided).  

5. Saddle
Just because your bike comes with a particular saddle doesn't mean it is for you, especially if you buy a men's frame.  You should be measured for a saddle that is the correct width for your sits bones.  Some discomfort is normal as your time in the saddle ramps up.  But if it doesn't subside, get fitted for a new one.

DO test a lot of bikes and frames.
DON'T feel pressured to buy one brand over another just because your friendly salesman says you should.
DO have a in depth bike fitting to refine your fit.

What is the best road bike for a beginner?

That all depends on how much you want to spend (cost) and on how you sit on the bike, and how it fits you (your geometry).  

Cost.  You can spend a few hundred dollars on a beach cruiser or five figures on a super tricked-out race bike.  Frankly, if you are unsure if cycling is for you and you're just getting your feet wet, don't break the bank.  You might not appreciate or need all the bells and whistles such as electronic shifting, carbon fiber, and super lightweight components.  As you progress, you can re-evaluate.  Some shops allow you to rent bikes, or demo them.  It is wise to shop around and try as many bikes as you can before you commit,  

Geometry.  The bike frame lends itself to a certain position on the bike.  Yes, your bike fitter can make adjustments to the components to make the fit better for you, but the bike frame itself is not adjustable, and each bike frame is designed differently.  Bikes that are suited for people getting into the sport tend to have a more "relaxed" geometry, which puts less demand on the low back and hamstrings.  Bikes that are suited to seasoned cyclists, and people who race, or people looking for a more aggressive fit are better suited to cyclists who have worked their way to get there.  An aggressive fit means a bigger differential between the saddle and the handlebar.  This takes years of building strength and endurance to stay in that position for extended periods of time.

Most bike brands have a particular bike that caters to cycling for beginners.  Here are four of the biggest brands, and their "beginner" models:

Giant Contend

Cannondale Synapse

Specialized Allez 

Trek Domane

How much does a decent bike cost?

Be prepared to spend at least $1,500.  Sounds like a lot, right?  Keep in mind that this big initial purchase should last you a long time.

The selection of bikes above are all priced within a range of $875 to $1500.  You'll notice that each of these bikes has multiple models.  So what makes them different?  They all have the same geometry.  The least expensive model will typically have an aluminum frame, rim brakes, and Shimano Tiagra components.  As the price increases, you'll see things like carbon frames, disc brakes and Shimano Ultegra or DuraAce components.  Make sure that you know the difference before dropping the cash.  With your groupset (shifters, derailleurs) you'll notice that the more you spend, the smoother things shift.  Also, the components are lighter.  The lighter the bike, the less resistance.  You're simply moving a lighter machine.  Weight makes a difference when you are climbing.  

  

Is a carbon bike worth it?

That's kind of like asking, "Is a cashmere sweater worth it?".  Short answer: yes.  If you value the softness of cashmere versus plain wool.  Both will keep you warm, but one is softer and more luxurious.
  
The bike frame is the body of the bike.  It determines a lot: geometry, feel, function.  And the frame material makes a big difference.
 
Aluminum is a common choice for novice bikes.  On the spectrum of material choices it is relatively 'inexpensive'.  Aluminum is strong and stiff, meaning it is a durable material.  But that strength and stiffness also means that it does not dampen the texture of the road i.e. absorb shock.  You'll tend to feel rough pavement more.  That said, there are other contact points which help to absorb these vibrations: your wheels, saddle, and handlebar.  So even if you do decide to buy an aluminum bike for its durability and lower price point, you can still modify other parts of your bike to ensure a comfortable ride.  
Carbon fiber is a composite material.  It is incredibly light and strong and it absorbs the road much better than aluminum does.  The best way to really feel the difference is to test ride the same bike in aluminum and in carbon fiber.
Most bikes that you'll come across while shopping for your first bike will be aluminum or carbon.  For a more in-depth look at the carbon v aluminum conundrum, check this out. 
 
But the choices don't stop there.  Steel is another common frame choice.  Steel is known to be even stronger than aluminum.  With that strength comes more weight.  And why does weight matter? Gravity!  When climbing up hills, you are powering yourself and your bike to get to the top.  More weight equates to more work for you!
  
Finally, titanium is another frame material.  It tends to be just as strong as steel, but lighter.  And that means more expensive as well.

Is cycling better than running?

Cycling and running are completely different.  But both are great forms of exercise.  The New York Times featured this very conundrum that many potential athletes face. 
What makes running great?  It's nearly free!  You can run anywhere, anytime.  All you need is a pair of shoes.  Running also fosters a great community.  In towns and cities, running clubs abound, organized races and running events draw people together to challenge themselves.  Running generally burns more calories than cycling. 
What makes running not so great?  Depending on your cadence, your feet strike the ground 80-100 times per minute.  And depending on how your foot hits the ground, a runner can exert up to three times her body weight onto her foot with each strike.  That's a lot of force to place upon the not only the foot, but he ankle, knee, hip, and spine.  Running causes a lot of compression of the joints which can cause injuries such as stress fractures and arthritis. 
What makes cycling great?  Compared to running, cycling is 'gentler' on the joints.  Because your bodyweight is supported by the bike, we don't experience that compression in the joints.  Because it is not as hard on the body, you can go for longer distances and durations.  Not a whole lot of people can run 30, 50, or 100 miles multiple times a week, but plenty of cyclists log hundreds of miles per week. 
So there you have it.  Each sport has advantages and disadvantages.  It simply depends on your body, and what you find to be more enjoyable.
  

What are the disadvantages for cycling?

What makes cycling not so great?  In a nutshell: time commitment, equipment, and weather.  A 30 minute bike ride might not be worth the time it takes to get out the door (getting dressed, pumping tires, maybe getting a flat...), whereas a 30 minute run can be a very efficient use of time.  And of course you can't just do it anywhere.  Once you get your bike, and it fits you, you'll realize that you can't just hop on any bike anywhere and ride.  Finally, running in the rain can actually be fun.  Riding a bike in the rain?  Not so much. 
 

Is cycling a good way to lose weight?

Yes!  The great thing about cycling, even cycling for beginners is that it is something you can do for hours.  Exercising at low to moderate intensity burns fat, builds cardiorespiratory and muscular endurance, and is just plain good for you!
The principle behind weight loss is consuming calories at a deficit.  That is, you have to burn more calories than you eat.  
Especially on long rides, and century rides with fully stocked rest stops, it is easy to be lulled into a sense of constant hunger.  First, make sure you are not mistaking hunger for thirst.  Second, keep in mind that digesting food puts a stress on the body.  Your body can't exert itself (riding) and digest excess food at the same time.  eating too much can cause GI upset.  Eating too little can cause the dreaded 'bonk'. 
For a ride that lasts an hour or less, your goal should be to hydrate.  Take a bar or banana just in case.  For longer rides, here are some great suggestions for hydration and fuel.  

How do I get better at cycling?

Do it more.  Cycling for beginners is all about getting comfortable on the road and building endurance.  The more you ride, the stronger you'll get.  The stronger you get, the more you'll want to ride.
And then there's the counter-intuitive way to get better at cycling: get off your bike.  Cycling involves being in a static position for hours.  A strong core is key to being able to sustain this position.  Your core is more than just your "abs": it's your pelvic floor, abdominal muscles, diaphragm, and back extensors.  
And because you are in a static, forward-flexed position, it is important to stretch.  Hip flexors, hamstrings, your upper back, and neck will definitely benefit from stretching.  
 

Does cycling up hills get easier?

Yes.  Again, the more you do it, the easier it gets.  The most important thing about climbing efficiently is cadence.  It takes some time to find your ideal cadence: how many revolutions per minute -- how fast you are moving your legs, which is measured by RPM.  Too low, and you're mashing on the pedals, likely burning out your quads.  Too fast, and your heart rate will soar.  60-80 RPM is good for climbing, depending on the grade of the hill.

Focus on finding a rhythm: in your breath, in your cadence and in each revolution of the pedal.  The quadriceps muscles are a large group of muscles on the front of the thighs and they tend to be dominate in size and strength when compared to the hamstrings.  But the pull up from the bottom of the pedal stroke is just as important and powerful as the push down.  Focus on that pull up, especially as the quads begin to fatigue.  No doubt, you'll find a few more watts when you do that.

It's a mental game as well.  When you're climbing, you can't rush it.  Settle in to a pace.  Focus on finding a rhythm in your cadence and in your heart rate.  Be patient and learn to enjoy the journey.  Climbing often offers the best views, so be sure to look around and take it all in!

Conclusion

Cycling can be a daunting sport to enter as a beginner.  Hopefully we've helped to shed some light upon how to get started.  From choosing the right bike to how to become a stronger cyclist, there's a lot to learn about cycling for beginners.  Be sure to shop around for a bike, try lots of different models, and be sure that you get your bike fit adjusted when you begin, and periodically after that.  You'll need technical gear, proper nutrition as well.  As you ride more, your fitness will develop and it will become even that much more enjoyable.  So while cycling for beginners might seem daunting, once you get started, you'll be hooked!  Please comment below if you have any questions or anything to add! 

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