The beginner’s guide to cycling
Have you always wanted to ride but thought it seemed like too much hard work? Cycling is fast becoming one of the most popular forms of exercise and it’s not difficult to see why. Riding develops excellent cardiovascular fitness as well as muscular strength and endurance. The weight-supported nature of the sport means it is accessible to all ages, has a low injury rate, is a great alternative when cross-training and is beneficial for rehabilitation following injury.
Above all, cycling can be one of the most social activities with the mandatory cafe stop at the end of each ride. What more could you ask for? To help you get started, we discuss what to look for in a bike, what gear to get and how to get started riding regularly so you’ll be spinning your way to better health in no time.
Health benefits of cycling
Anyone who has ever watched the Tour de France knows cyclists are some of the fittest athletes in the world. Competitive road cyclists are recognisable by their lean physiques, muscular bodies and amazing stamina. Yet you don’t have to be a champion or ride a road bike to enjoy all the health benefits of cycling. Three 30-minute rides a week can see you reap the following rewards.
Regular cycling stimulates changes in the cardiovascular system, lungs and muscle cells that improve your overall work capacity. Cycling can lower your risk of developing cardiovascular disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. It even helped Lance Armstrong overcome cancer! Research has shown that cycling provides greater fitness benefits than walking, as cyclists exercise at an average of 70 per cent of their maximum heart rate versus 60 per cent for walkers — the added exercise intensity leads to greater fitness gains.
Muscular strength and endurance
The repetitive nature of pedalling leads to substantial improvements in muscular endurance, while conquering hills on your bike can lead to gains in leg strength. Upper-body strength in cyclists has been found to be significantly greater than that of distance runners. If you’re not one for the gym, this is a great alternative for toning your body — and the balance required for staying upright helps train your core stability.
Cycling is less stressful on the body as there is minimal impact on the bones and joints compared with the pounding of running. With less impact, there is less tissue damage and therefore muscles recover from a cycling session faster. Being a weight-supported activity, it is ideal for individuals with joint problems, for older individuals and for recovery sessions. Kathy Watt is a great example of a runner who took up cycling to get over an injury and never looked back.
The weight-supported nature of cycling means overweight individuals can get involved without the risk of joint injury. Cycling also burns a high number of calories and, because it’s low impact, you can keep cycling for longer than you can run.
Low injury incidence
Cycling has an injury rate of 0.005 injuries per 100 hours of cycling, compared with an injury rate of 0.11 for basketball and 0.19 for football.
Melbourne’s famous latte set on the iconic Beach Road route will attest to the highly social nature of cycling. Being able to cycle in groups and at a good conversation pace means many a friendship is formed and many a problem solved in the saddle. As with other forms of exercise, the endorphins released while cycling also help reduce the likelihood of suffering from depression.
How much do I need to ride to get fit?
Physical activity guidelines recommend you exercise on most, if not all, days for about 30 minutes. This can be achieved in one session or broken down into smaller sessions. As a general guide, if you can ride three to four times a week for 30 minutes and supplement this with some walking or other activity, that’s a great start. As you get fitter, you can ride further in the same amount of time — or start doing longer rides to combine your exercise with your leisure time and check out one of the many great bicycle routes or rail trails across the country.
Cycling as transport
One of the best things about cycling is it is also a very efficient means of transport for short trips. Victorian research has shown that if you live within a 15km radius of the city, it’s quicker to commute by bicycle into the Melbourne CBD than drive or catch public transport. With an estimated 35 per cent of all car trips in city areas being less than 5km, it’s a sensible choice. You may initially choose to start riding as a sustainable, convenient, alternative means of transport.
So you’re convinced cycling is a great option for you but you don’t have a bike or don’t know where to start. Follow these easy steps and you’ll be enjoying the open road with the wind in your hair in no time.
Buying a bike
There are lots of different types of bikes on the market, so it’s important to choose one that’s right for you. The first question you will need to ask is what exactly do you want to use the bike for? Do you want it for fitness training, to commute to work, to do some recreational riding with your family, or maybe some off-road weekend adventures? Once you’ve determined what you want the bike for, you will be able to scale down your search to one or two types of bikes.
Make sure you shop around and ask for advice on the different types of bikes a cycle shop stocks. Check out cycling magazines or online cycling sites for reviews or ask other cyclists what they recommend. Shopping around will also give you an idea of pricing and the different types of componentry. More expensive bikes generally have better-quality parts that are more durable. They are often lighter and faster, too.
Once you’ve done your research (remember, the internet is a valuable source of information on different manufacturers and costs), set a budget and go back to the store you felt was most helpful and best value for money. It’s a good idea to set aside some extra money ($200–$300) for basic accessories such as a helmet and pump.
If you have an old bike, take it to a reputable bike shop for a service to see if the frame is undamaged and if it is mechanically sound. If it has a solid frame, it’s possible you can add new parts where others are worn or perished, giving you an essentially new bike for half the cost. An old bike is a good way to start and you can always upgrade as you get fitter and keep it for short trips down to the shops (or lend it to a friend to come riding with you).
For fitness and recreational riding, a road bike is a great choice. These bikes have lighter frames and thinner tyres (slicks) and go quite fast. A good bottom-of-the-range bike will cost about $800. Flat-bar road bikes are popular for commuting. They are lighter and quicker than hybrid bikes, but it’s not possible to fit panniers (carry-bags) to most of these bikes, so you would need a backpack to carry your gear.
Ideal for off-road adventures or weekend jollies, mountain bikes have front suspension to help absorb the bumps of off-road riding. They come with either disc brakes (for faster stopping power) or ‘V’ brakes (standard). For downhill mountain biking, opt for rear suspension as well. The price for a reasonable bottom-of-the-range bike is around $750. Knobby (bumpy) tyres provide extra traction off road.
These bikes look more like mountain bikes except you sit more upright, which many people find more comfortable. They have front suspension (like the mountain bike) and are recommended for commuting and touring. The key feature of these bikes is their flexibility. Pannier racks are easily fitted and the hybrid tyres (thicker and more corrugated than slick tyres) give a faster ride than knobbies, but added control in the wet or around other hazards. The tyres can also be changed to knobbies for some off-roading on the weekend. Expect to pay about $700 for these bikes.
Fitting the bike to your body
Every person’s body is different so it’s very important that the bike is set up correctly for you. Different limb lengths require different seat heights and stem heights.
Technically, the distance along the seat tube, from the top of the saddle to the extended pedal, should be about 1.09 times the distance from the floor to your crotch in bare feet. When seated on the bike, this should enable your leg to be slightly bent at the bottom of the pedal revolution.
Similarly, the frame should be easily straddled with both feet flat, with around 2–3cm of clearance. Generally, mountain bikes require more clearance than road bikes (about 5cm).
Nowadays, with different frame set-ups, it’s easier to work off your height using the following chart. If you’re undecided about two frame sizes, go for the smaller one.
If the seat is too high, you will need to stretch and may suffer joint pain; if it’s too low, your efficiency will be decreased. You should not lean too far forward on your bike, either, as this can lead to back or shoulder problems. Remember, it’s a good idea to take your proposed purchase for a 15-minute test ride to see how it rides and how comfortable you feel before you commit to buying.
If you do get knee or back pain, the bike is probably not set up correctly for you. Return it to your bike shop and explain the problem. If you intend to ride lots, find a physiotherapist or biomechanist who specialises in setting up bikes.
Finding a comfortable seat is another must. Anything that makes you go numb in the nether regions is not good. There are specific seats for both men and women and different materials, such as gel padding, to make the ride more comfortable. You can even choose a sheepskin cover if you wish.
Having proper riding gear and safety equipment is vital. Helmets are mandatory and never leave home without a pump, tyre levers and puncture repair kit so you don’t get stuck. Carrying an extra tyre tube is also a good. Have a water bottle holder fitted to your bike and always carry water, especially in hot weather. A bike lock is another good investment.
Helmets are required by law in Australia and New Zealand and it’s important to get one that is not only comfortable, but has good ventilation if you are riding in hot conditions. All helmets sold in Australia must meet Australian safety standards. More expensive helmets are lighter, more durable and have better ventilation. If you ever land on or damage a helmet in any way, replace it.
What to wear
While a T-shirt and shorts are perfectly OK for riding, proper cycling clothing can be better if you intend to ride regularly for fitness. Lycra clothing helps reduce wind resistance and bike shorts with a built-in chamois (padding) help reduce the pressure on your posterior on long rides. Cycling tops come with handy back pockets for holding tyre tubes or snacks and are often in bright colours so you’re easily seen.
The idea of a sore bottom is often what puts people off riding. However, getting a good pair of bike shorts with a built-in chamois (padding) can significantly reduce any discomfort. Men and women’s shorts are sewn differently so that seams are not between the skin and the seat as seams can cause chaffing (called saddle sores). And, yes, you heard right: you don’t wear undies in your bike nicks as they have multiple seams and can cause rubbing on long rides.
Gloves absorb the road shock and reduce your chances of suffering pins and needles from compressed nerves. They also protect your palms if you’re unlucky enough to crash. Short gloves are sufficient, though long fingers are preferable for winter riding.
Being able to apply pressure to the pedal throughout the full 360 degrees gives cleats (clips) on the shoes a big advantage. More expensive shoes have better ventilation and are made of lighter materials. Many people choose to buy and fit mountain bike shoes and pedals as the shoes are easier to walk in and are therefore more versatile.
Be safe on your bike
One of the most important things to remember when riding is to stay visible. If riding at night or in low light, always have a flashing white light on the front of your bike and a flashing red light on the back. These lights should be visible for 200 metres, so it’s important to get a good quality light and check the batteries regularly. You can even buy small flashing lights for your helmet or the ends of your handlebars. Wearing bright coloured clothing or reflective stripes also helps increase your visibility. Staying in the line of traffic and riding like a car will mean you can more easily be seen by motorists.
Always obey the road rules and if unsure of your rights and responsibilities, take the time to read up on them. The ‘Share the Road’ campaign in Victoria has some great information as do most state cycling associations. Be predictable when cycling – don’t swerve in and out of parked cars and always signal your intention to turn.
If you are unsure of how to use gears, ask your bike shop or another cycling enthusiast for advice. Using your gear correctly will make you substantially faster and more efficient. It’s a good idea to drop back to an easier gear when approaching lights, intersections or roundabouts, so that you can take off much more easily. For those people who may never have learnt to ride properly or who feel nervous about getting out on the roads, there are a number of programs for teaching adult beginners how to ride. This information is best sourced from your state riding association.
You’re on the road
Start riding short distances of 5–10km three times a week and work up to longer rides. This will also help reduce bottom soreness. As your fitness improves, increase the kilometres. Remember, tired muscles are OK, though sore joints probably means the bike is not set up correctly.
Consider joining a local cycling club, bicycle user group or your state bicycle association. State-based organisations offer advice, insurance, member discounts on clothing and equipment and organised rides. Community rides such as the Great Western Australian Bike Ride or Sydney to the Gong are fantastic training goals and a very social way to get fit.
So you’re all inspired and want to hit the road but where do you go for information? To be informed about the safest routes to ride, state bicycling associations are the first port of call for information on commuter cycling routes and where to ride. You can also obtain information from local councils, which often produce their own bike maps of their regions. Or check out the street directory as these often list bike routes. Many areas now have a local bicycle users group (BUG) which can also be a great source of information and support. You may even find someone from your neighbourhood who rides along the same route you would like to take, so you can meet up and ride together.
Whether it’s for fun, fitness or transport, riding provides an ideal opportunity to improve your mental and physical health while looking after the planet — a definite win-win.