Beginner’s Guide to Cycling

Every Friday is Health Tip Day at Zen Habits.

A couple weeks ago I posted my Beginner’s Guide to Running, which turned out to be pretty popular. Today I present my Beginner’s Guide to Cycling, which I hope is just as useful.

I’d like to note that I’m not nearly as qualified to write this guide as I was to write the running guide. I’m a very early beginner in cycling, and what I’m posting here is just the basics, from what I’ve learned from my research (websites, books, and talking to experts) and from my limited experiences so far. I basically just want to share what I’ve learned so far, so that it might help others who want to get started.

Also, I’d like to note that this guide applies only to road cycling, not mountain biking, as I haven’t hit the trails yet. Last, please add to this guide with your own tips and experiences in the comments!

Two Most Important Tips
There are a lot of important tips here in this guide, and in the links I provided, but here are the most important two.

  1. Start slow. There’s no need to kill yourself when you start. Even if you’re already in good shape, cycling uses different muscles than other exercises, and your body will need time to get used to the new types of stress. Start out nice and easy, enjoy yourself, and progress gradually. Just do 2-3 miles at first, and do them nice and slow. Have fun!
  2. Be safe. More than most sports, cycling can be very dangerous, especially if you’re on the roads with all the crazy drivers out there. In my area, two cyclists were hit in recent months (one died), so I take extra precautions. Ride during the daylight hours, follow traffic laws, always yield the right of way, wear bright colors and reflectors, wear a helmet. More safety tips below.

The Bike
What’s the best bike to get for cycling? Heck if I know. I’m just a beginner. I suggest that you start with any old bike you can get your hands on. Really. If you’ve got one in your garage, or you know someone who has one that’s not being used, just spray some WD-40 on the rusty parts, inflate the tire and make sure there are no leaks, and give it a go. You don’t need anything fancy to start with.

The really nice bikes are optimal, of course, but they are also well over $1,000 (some are well over twice that), and they aren’t necessary to get into the sport and enjoy it. Once you get into it, and are sure you’ll be doing it for the long term, look into a better bike.

The nice road bikes are lighter, with strong frames, thin tires (for less friction), with a whole host of other nice features to make riding fast and easy. However, I use an old mountain bike, and I still love riding.

What’s most important is that the bike fits you. The bike should fit your height (from ground to crotch), as well as the distance from the seat to the handle. I’m not an expert at this — it’s best to go to a good bike shop to get fitted.

Cycling, more than many other sports, is equipment-centric. I am of the minimalist school – you don’t need a host of fancy gear to get started. Add those later.

What’s the minimum gear needed? Here’s my list:

Other stuff you could get later:

There are, of course, a ton of other equipment out there. But you don’t need them in the beginning.

The Clothing
We’ve all seen the tight and bright clothing that the pros wear. I’m sorry to report that I’ve gone minimalist here as well — I just wear my running shorts and shirt and shoes. That’s really all you need to start off.

However, if you begin to get serious about cycling, you should consider some good clothing. Good cycling clothing is thin, so you don’t get too hot, flexible for comfort, with special material that “wicks away” sweat (basically, it doesn’t soak it up and chafe your skin like cotton does). It’s also tight, so the wind doesn’t flap your clothing all around and irritate the hell out of you. And the bright colors serve a purpose as well: they make you visible to those crazy drivers!

Cold weather: I don’t live in cold weather, but many of you do — in that case, thin cycling wear is good, but layer it on. If you get hot, you can always take off a layer.
Always be safe on the road. Do not be daring, do not insist on the right of way, do not break traffic laws (yes, you have to follow them too), and always be as visible as possible. If you know the common causes of accidents, you can look out for them:

Safety is too large a topic to be covered here. Try this guide or this one for more.

Shifting Gears
This is a topic that might seem simple, but for many true beginners, it can be confusing and a little scary. But with a little practice, it’s actually pretty easy. Here’s what you need to know:

There’s more to gears and shifting, though. Read this guide for more.

Obviously this is a pretty important area. It’s a major safety skill that takes a little practice to learn. A few tips:

This is a great guide for braking.

For beginning cyclists, hills can be a big challenge. Experienced cyclists actually have no problems with hills — they know how to shift, to brake, to pace themselves, and they have gotten stronger on hills with practice. There are two areas with hills to be concerned with:

Flat Tires
They happen to everyone. Know how to fix them, and be sure to have a pump and a spare inner tube. You don’t want to be walking the bike home. It’s really not that hard. See this guide and this one for more.

Commute to Work
One of my goals is to regularly commute to work. While I’ve done it a number of times now, I’m still working on this one. It saves money on gas, helps the environment, and gets your exercise in all at once. Does it get any better?

The main issues for commuting to work mostly revolve around being clean with clean clothes. I give my tips on bike commuting here, but for me, the key has been to bring clothes to work when I drive or carpool to work, and then to shower at work (this is a great option if you’re lucky enough to have it). Also try this guide on bike commuting and this one for a lot more info.

Cycling Forums
If you’re just getting into cycling, a great way to learn more, and to motivate yourself, is to join a cycling forum (off-line cycling groups are great too). Here are a few to get you started:

Cycling Links
There are a ton of sites on cycling out there. Here are just a few to get you started:

Cycling Books
Again, there are a ton of them. Here are a few I recommend:

Also see: