by Stan Purdum
“When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without thought on anything but the ride you are taking.” — Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes
Perhaps you’ve been thinking about taking up road cycling, but you’re already intimidated: All that high-tech clothing, bicycles costing thousands of dollars, lots of traffic, steep hills, and maybe, you think, an equally steep learning curve.
But not so steep, actually. Though there’s plenty you will learn, most of it comes along the way, after you are already riding and experiencing bicycling’s pleasures. (For good reasons, I sometimes refer to my bike as a “genuine joy generator.”)
At minimum, all you have to do is get on a bike and start pedaling down the road. But there are some things that can smooth the beginning experience and head off difficulties you might not have foreseen. Explaining those cycling tips is the purpose of this article.
What is Road Cycling?
It’s possible to define road cycling for beginners too narrowly. Broadly speaking, anyone who rides a bicycle on paved surface streets and roads — as opposed to off-road trails, backcountry landscapes, beaches or uncharted wilderness — is a road cyclist, whether the purpose of that cycling is errand running, messengering, commuting, recreating, exercising, adventuring, touring or racing. And cyclists who pedal primarily for recreation and exercise may still ride for one or more of these other reasons as well.
But for our purposes here, we’ll think of road cycling as riding extended distances on streets and roads mainly for the enjoyment and the personal benefits of doing so. The advice included here applies to all forms of road cycling, but it may be overkill for the person who rides only an occasional trip the library or grocery store and be insufficient for those planning to ride self-contained tours or participate in competitive bike racing.
Which Road Bike Should I Start With?
If you’re just thinking about starting cycling, you might expect the first step to be “go buy a bike.” While you could start there, a better beginning point is to look at what bicycle you may already have on hand or can borrow or rent.
Bicycles come in many types, different handlebar configurations, sizes, frame materials and prices. While the staff at your local bike shop can help you narrow your choice, if you’re truly a beginner, you may not be informed enough or experienced enough to select a bike you’ll be happy with in the long term, even with the help of the shop personnel and their informed cycling tips.
I know several riders who purchased something early on, only to decide later that they’d have been better served by something different, which they eventually bought. But why spend that kind of money twice?
So, if you have a bike in the garage or one you can borrow to start with that is a reasonable fit and doesn’t require a major investment to get on the road, consider using that. This is an especially useful if you know some other riders to pedal with or can join local a bicycle club ride. The bike you have will let you start riding with them, where you can see what kinds of bikes they are riding (and most riders are glad to share what they know about bikes and cycling).
If you are a woman, talk to other female riders about what bikes they are using. Most manufacturers today make bikes sized for women. (I’m not talking about the old “woman’s bike,” which was basically a man’s bike but with a low, stepover top tube. Today’s bikes for women are designed with the proper geometry from the ground up.)
Regarding whatever you might have sitting in your garage, however, if it has been damaged or poorly maintained or is not a good fit for you, starting with it may be self-defeating in that it makes starting to cycle on your first rides so difficult, uncomfortable or unsafe as to discourage continuing. But unless left out repeatedly in the weather or wrecked or ridden a long time without lubrication, most older bikes still function reasonably well. If yours fits you all right, you might want to take it to the local bike shop for a tune up (and probably new tires and tubes, as those deteriorate with age and disuse).
Some years ago, I was pedaling on a rural road and saw a young man dressed in street clothes tinkering with bike turned upside down on the side of the road. I stopped to see if he needed help. He did. He explained that he really didn’t know much about bikes but had decided to give it a try. He’d pumped up the tires on an old 10-speed he had in the garage and set out. He had gotten as far as we were before “something got screwed up,” and he couldn’t figure it out. I took one look and realized his rear derailleur had rotated 180 degrees out of position. I had enough tools with me to help him get it back in place and tightened down enough that he could probably get home on it. If he’d have first taken the bike to a shop to be checked over, he’d have likely avoided that mechanical issue.
But here’s the thing: The ride he’d had that far had gotten him hooked. He talked enthusiastically about it and how much he enjoyed it until the mechanical problem happened. He agreed when I recommended he take the bike to a local bicycle shop and have them tune it up. He asked questions about what I was riding, and I was glad to tell him some tips, but I also advised him not to rush into an immediate purchase. Ask questions at the shop and of other riders and learn a bit about what he liked and didn’t like on the bike he had.
How to Buy a Road Bike
It may be, however, that you’re ready to start with a new bike. All the major-brand bikes sold by regular bicycle shops are well-designed and made with good quality control and decent components, so when purchasing from a shop, you’re not going to end up with a “lemon.” Prices for good bikes range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars, but if you’re just beginning, you probably won’t know your bicycle-feature preferences well enough yet to justify buying a bike at the high end of the price scale. (Often, in the upper dollar reaches you get a steed that is marginally lighter and has the very best components, but the midrange components on less expensive bikes work fine.)
You can find bicycles at much lower prices in department and discount stores. Don’t buy a department store bicycle. This is truly a case of getting what you pay for, and the durability of these bikes and the quality of their components is low. What’s more, all bicycles, regardless of whether they are very cheap or very expensive, are shipped to the seller in boxes, only partially assembled. At a bike shop, a trained bicycle mechanic completes the assembly and checks that the assembling done at the factory is all as it should be. At a department store, who knows who completes the assembly. Such stores seldom hire bicycle specialists.
Unlike at your local specialist shop, there’s nobody at a department store to advise you on what styles and models of bikes are best for kind of riding you do, and many of the bikes they do have come in one size only. Bikes sold in shops come in several sizes, and if the shop doesn’t have the size you need in inventory, they can order it for you. REI would be an example of an exception to the “bike shop only” rule, as they have an outstanding cycling department with great bikes, salespeople and mechanics.
Ten years ago, I paid $1,200 at a local bicycle shop for a new bike, the primary one I am still riding. It was an end-of-the-season sale and the bike had been selling for $1,500. I knew what style and features I wanted, and once we determined which size of that model I needed, the shop clerk set the bike up in a stand that held it upright while I sat on it and pedaled. Using a large geometric device, he measured my position on the bike, and then lowered the seat post and exchanged the stem for a shorter one to bring the handlebars closer to me. The height adjustment and part change made me more comfortable on the bike and were done by the shop at no cost to me.
Then, because I wanted some lower gears than what came standard on the bike, the mechanic swapped out the rear cassette (gear cluster) for one that provided them — again, at no cost. And because I already had specific pedals I wanted to use, the mechanic removed the ones that came with the bike and subtracted their cost from the price of the bike. I was also entitled to a free tune-up at the shop after riding a few hundred break-in miles.
Try getting that kind of service or cycle tips with a department store bike!
If you know what you’re doing, you can purchase a good bike online, but remember that you’ll have either finish assembling it yourself or pay a shop to do it.
It is generally safe to purchase a road bike in any price range from one of the major bicycle brands. There are lower priced road bicycle models that cost less than $1,000 from Specialized, Trek, Cannondale, Giant, Bianchi, Raleigh, Fuji and Schwinn, among others.
Bicycle Frame Materials
Bicycles frames can be made of steel, aluminum, titanium or carbon fiber. Frames made from the last two are the lightest weight and usually the most expensive, but steel and aluminum frames are just fine to start with or even to ride forever. You may also find frames made of more than one of these materials. The main triangle of that bike I bought for $1200, for example, is aluminum, but the stays (the tubes running from the triangle to the rear tire) are carbon fiber as is the front fork.
Why does the weight of a frame matter? In general, the heavier the frame, the more effort it requires to pedal, though that’s most noticeable when going uphill. Some riders who stay with steel frames say the advantage of lighter frames doesn’t matter unless you are doing long rides or racing.
Of the four, steel has been in use for bike frames the longest — more than century. It provides a good riding bike, is long lasting, easily repaired and generally the least expensive. The lower quality steel used in department store bikes makes them heavy, but the better steel bikes sold at bicycle shops can last a lifetime if protected from rust by a quality paint job and washed periodically. Good quality bikes are often made from a steel alloy referred to as “chromoly” or “chrome-moly” (short for chrome molybdenum), which is strong but weighs less than the lower grade steels. My touring bicycle, which I rode from Niagara Falls, New York to El Paso, Texas, on U.S. Route 62, carrying loaded saddlebags, is chromoly, and a great riding bike.
Aluminum frames are strong but lighter than steel ones, and aluminum won’t rust. As raw material, aluminum is lighter than carbon and titanium, but the amount needed to achieve the desirable strength can result in aluminum bikes being slightly heavier than those made of the other two materials.
Titanium is lighter than steel but just as strong. It is a more expensive metal, but it flexes especially well, giving the frame some shock absorbing qualities.
Carbon fiber (sometimes just called “carbon”) is not a metal — in fact, I have a friend who describes it as “string and glue” (but he rides a carbon bike nonetheless). It is a fabric that’s impregnated with resin that enables the material to be shaped and joined. It results in light, durable frames that are impervious to corrosion, but the manufacturing process is complex, making carbon fiber bikes costly. Carbon fiber has a natural shock-absorbing quality that makes it an especially desirable material for forks and stays (as on my otherwise aluminum bike).
Which Handlebars Should I Use? Flat Bars or Drop Bars?
Flat Bars: These are straight handlebars are usually seen on mountain bikes and hybrids, where, in rough terrain, they make it easy for the rider to steer the bike and make sharp turns quickly. Some road riders like flat bars because that they position the riders fairly upright, which is helpful if you have back problems. But they offer only one hand-grip location and require the rider to steer only in the elbows-out posture, which becomes tiring on long road rides. A second hand-grip location can be obtained by adding vertical bar ends, sometimes referred to as “horns,” at both ends of the handlebar.
Drop Bars: These are the type of handlebars that you imagine when you think of a racing bike. They extend outward and then form an inward and downward curve like a ram’s horn. They are the default style for road bikes for two reasons:
First, riding with your hands “in the drops” positions your upper body in a low, streamlined position for reducing wind resistance. This is crucial to bicycle racers, but also helpful to road riders when riding into a stiff breeze.
Second, drop bars offer the rider six different hand positions, each of which repositions your upper body, providing overall relief. The most prone position is with your hands grasping the bottom of the handlebar curls and your knuckles pointing down toward the pavement. Next, your hands can be moved slightly forward to the point where the bars begin curling upward. There your knuckles point at about a 45-degree angle toward the road. The third option places your hands in the front of the drops with fingers curled around or just behind the brake levers and knuckles pointing straight ahead. In any of those postures, your body presents a low profile to the wind. A fourth choice is to rest your hands on top of the brake-lever hoods (which are mounted on the front of the down curls). To go higher yet, you can grip the top of the curls themselves. And finally, the most upright position: holding the straight part of the bar near the stem.
Some road-bike beginners choose a hybrid bike, which in design is a compromise between mountain and road bikes and usually has flat bars and a geometry that keeps the rider in a more upright position. That can be a good starting point if you’re uneasy about using drop bars.
Bike Brake Options
On road bikes, you have a choice between rim brakes, which stop the bike by exerting pinch pressure on the rims of the wheels, and disc brakes, which stop the bike by exerting pinch pressure on a disc, also called a rotor, attached to the wheel hubs. Both are effective in stopping the bike. Disc brakes are the newer technology, but lots of high-end bikes and pro riders still use rim brakes.
On rim brakes, the stopping force is applied via calipers that are actuated by cables between the brake levers and the calipers.
On disc brakes the stopping force may be transmitted via braided steel cables just like the ones used with rim brakes. These are called cable attenuated disc brakes, but most people just call them mechanical disc brakes. Higher end disc brakes use cables filled with hydraulic fluid instead as with mountain bikes (hydraulic disc brakes). Pistons activated by the brake levers move brake fluid and force the calipers to close on the disc.
The advantage of disc brakes is that in wet weather, they tend to work a bit more quickly than do rim brakes. Additionally, disc brakes don’t heat the rim, which has been known to cause tire blowouts on long descents when rim brakes are used.
The bottom line: Both brake systems work well, and the more expensive disc brakes won’t make enough difference to you as a beginner to justify the added expense.
Tires and Tubes
Riders and bike industry professionals alike used to believe that very skinny bike tires run at very high pressure reduced rolling resistance, and thus were best on road bikes. That belief has since been debunked by research that shows wider tires and lower pressures are actually more effective, as well as providing a more comfortable ride.
Most road bikes use tires and wheels that are 700 millimeters in diameter (often marked as “700c”), with designations such as 700 x 23, 700 by 25, 700 x 28, 700 x 32, etc. The second number in each case denotes the tire width in millimeters. Some older bikes use tires designated in inches, such as 27 x 1¼. The 700-mm tires and 27-inch tires are close enough to the same circumference that inner tubes for one will generally work in the other, but the tires themselves are not interchangeable.
In view of what we now know about the benefits of wider tires, if you’re looking for a new bike, make sure to get one with enough clearance in the forks and stays to handle at least 28mm tires or larger. But don’t worry if your existing bike has narrower tires because those are still fine at this point.
On most new road bikes, the valve stems for inflating the tires are skinny metal devices called Presta valves. Older road bikes and many mountain bikes have valves identical to the ones on your car, which are called Schrader valves. On today’s road bike rims, which tend to be narrow, the Presta valves are preferred because they require a smaller hole to fit through the rim and thus don’t reduce the cross-sectional strength of the rim as much as the larger hole necessary for a Schrader valve. If your existing bike has Schrader valves, however, that’s not a problem, as your rims would have been designed to accommodate that size hole.
There are tubeless tires available for road bikes today, but at present, they require special rims and are difficult to change beside the road when you flat. I don’t recommend them for beginners.
Which Pedals Are Best for My Road Bike?
Regardless of whether you are starting with an older bike or purchasing a new one, you can put whatever style of pedal you want on it. Many road riders use special shoes (see discussion on shoes, below, in the “What to Wear” section) with cleats on the sole that clip into pedals made for that purpose. Cleats offer two advantages: They keep your foot from slipping off the pedal in mid-stroke and enable you to pull up as the pedal moves from the bottom of the crank-cycle and thus add a bit more power to each spin of the crank.
When I started riding as an adult, it was on a ten-speed bike with flat pedals. On that same bike, I later switched to a newer style of pedals called “toe-clips.” These were kind of like a stirrup and could be used with any shoes. You slipped the toe of your shoe into the clip and tightened an attached strap around the shoe. This arrangement provided the same two benefits that a shoe cleat and matching pedal does today, but since the toe clip added weight to one side of the pedal, it hung down went not in use, so that each time you mounted the bike, you had kick the pedal over to get into the clip, which was annoying.
On a later bike, I switched to the cleat-and-pedal arrangement, mounting the cleats on bike shoes. Even though you clip the cleat into the pedal, the pedals are called “clipless,” to distinguish them in name from the older toe-clip pedals. I used clipless pedals for about ten years, but I’ve now come full circle, riding flat pedals again. I don’t race and for recreational riding and touring, I like the freedom of being able step right off the pedal without having twist my foot to unclip.
The cleat decision must be coupled with one about pedals, for the various styles of cleats available are each matched to a specific type of pedal.
What’s the Best Bike Saddle?
While you have your bike at the shop, have them check your saddle fit, which can be adjusted in four directions: height, setback (distance from handlebars), tilt and rotation, all of which are important and any of which, set wrong for your physique, can make a long ride agony. In fact, experienced riders will tell you that on a long ride, it’s usually not leg discomfort that makes cyclists squirm on a bike, but butt discomfort. Be aware that an adjustment in one or more of those four positions may increase comfort.
Because we’re all built a little differently, saddle comfort is subjective, and sometimes, the only solution is a different saddle. Some bike shops have a saddle “library” and will let you try out different models (and you usually need a ride of several miles before you decide yea or nay about any seat).
When buying a new saddle, make sure to avoid wide specialty saddles padded with layers of foam or gel. These plush saddles often feel great — for about the first five minutes one is astride them. After that, they feel no better than the harder seat they replaced, and sometimes feel worse, because the foam disperses the support the saddle ought to provide. And the added width can become a problem if it forces you to sit too far forward and cause chafing on your inner thighs. (A small amount of padding on a saddle is generally okay.)
The truth is, there isn’t a saddle made that feels great after planting one’s tush on it for eight or more hours, but some do better than others, and there are ways to minimize the discomfort. (See the discussion of bicycle shorts in the “What to wear” section below.)
Recommended Cycling Gear and Apparel
You’ve already noticed that cyclists wear specialized clothing. Most of it is for practical reasons, but you don’t need any of that gear when you first start riding — except for a helmet. Your head is important, and in a fall, a helmet will help you escape a head injury.
Over many thousands of miles of riding, I have twice crashed hard enough to split my helmet — but both times my head was okay. The helmet “died” so I could escape a serious head injury. Another time I tumbled off my bike when I hit unexpected gravel and slid several yards on my right side. I staggered to feet, feeling like I’d been beaten up. My right hip hurt, and I’d ground a five-inch circle of skin off my right shoulder, exposing the meat below. Blood oozed from the wound. I was feeling sorry for myself until I removed my helmet and noticed that it had a large scrape down its right side. I was immediately thankful for the headgear. That scrape could have been on the side of my head. I might have left my ear, or more of me, on the highway.
I’m not a hot-dogger. I’m an average rider who tries to be careful and not behave recklessly on my bicycle. But falls and crashes can come without warning to any of us. Buy and wear a helmet. Please.
In the United States, all bicycle helmets are required to meet established safety standards, so on that point just about any bicycle helmet will suffice. Some have better fit systems and better ventilation. and some have an additional safety technology called MIPS (Multidirectional Impact Protection System). That’s a slip-plane concept using two layers in the helmet to help the head rotate slightly on impact. The intention is to reduce the rotational forces during a crash, which are thought to be a prime brain injury mechanism and related to concussion.
The next three items are for points where your body contacts the bicycle.
One point of contact is with the saddle, making padded bicycle shorts beneficial. These are made of spandex, which is a synthetic fiber known for its elasticity, and thus the shorts hug your body closely, providing four benefits: First, the close fit means there is no excess fabric to get wrinkled between you and the seat, which can chafe and lead to saddle sores. Second, the elasticity keeps the material from riding up during activity, again eliminating chafe-causing friction. Third, the material provides support for that area of your body, which helps battle fatigue on long rides. Fourth, the fittedness leaves no fabric to flap in the wind and create drag on your body while riding.
The padding, which is in the crotch area of the shorts, is called a “chamois” in cycling jargon. That term comes from the early days of bike shorts when the pad was cut from pliable sheepskin, though today virtually all the padding is synthetic material. The chamois provides cushioning between you and the saddle, and that cushioning is more effective when it’s inside your shorts rather than built into the saddle.
Additionally, the padding is designed to wick away moisture, which helps when you sweat during the work of riding. And because today’s chamois have antimicrobial properties, they help fight the growth of bacteria in that dark, damp place. This is also valuable because bicycle shorts are intended to be worn sans underpants or panties, because the fabric of underwear bunches up during riding and defeats the purpose of the shorts. After a couple of hours, the seams and finished edges of the standard pair of briefs and the rumpled acre of extra yardage on boxers burrow into the rider’s flesh, giving rise to painful inflammation. I have no personal experience of the risk from wearing panties underneath bike shorts, but my daughter, who had ridden many miles with me, says don’t wear them. Also underpants are not antimicrobial and become soggy as you perspire, making them a prime environment for the development of saddle sores.
Admittedly, it takes a bit for most new riders to get used to the idea of not wearing underwear, but it helps to think of bicycle shorts as short pants and underwear combined in one garment. (This is why most riders eventually own more than one pair of bike shorts, so that a fresh pair can be worn with each new day of riding between launderings.)
For a long time, I resisted wearing spandex shorts, somehow thinking they didn’t look right on a middle-aged man with more pounds around his middle than he liked. I knew the value of the chamois, though, so I purchased bicycle shorts made of polyester but without the elasticity of spandex, so while they were fitted, they didn’t hug my body as spandex shorts do.
But then I rode a weeklong trip with daughter, who was 17 at the time. She had adopted spandex shorts and wore them on the trip. On the fifth day, we got caught in a pouring rain that lasted for hours, so when we arrived at our motel for the night, not only were the shorts I had on soaked, but so were my spare pair that I had stretched on my bike’s rear rack to dry after washing them the night before. My daughter, who still had some dry shorts in her saddlebag, offered me a pair that had been marked “unisex” when she’d purchased them. I wore them the next day and found them so comfortable that I never wore my polyester shorts again, instead buying more spandex ones.
Most riders use a cream on the parts of their nether region where there is any rub or friction between themselves and the shorts. These are often sold as “chamois creams” and formulas made expressly for riding are sold in bike shops and online. I’ve found that plain petroleum jelly, which is inexpensive and widely available, works just fine.
Bicycle shorts have an effective waistband, but they are also available in bib versions with straps that go over the shoulders, and many riders, including professional bicycle racers, prefer them. There’s a bit more undressing involved, however, when the wearer needs to use the bathroom. For that reason, the standard, non-bib models remain popular.
Shorts aren’t sold as “unisex” anymore. They are available in men’s and women’s cuts, both with and without bibs.
The second point of contact between you and the bike is your hands on the handlebars. Most riders find it helpful the wear fingerless gloves with padding in the palms that provides cushioning and helps absorb the jarring from road bumps that are transmitted up the bike. The gloves also help protect your hands should you crash and extend your palms to break your fall.
The other point of contact is your feet on the pedals. You can bike in tennis shoes, no problem, but as you start riding longer routes, you may find your feet cramping or hurting from the repetitive flex of your feet. Shoes made especially for cycling have rigid soles that keep your feet from flexing, reducing the likelihood of cramping and pain, and optimizing the transfer of energy to the pedals.
There’s a lot of choice when it comes to bicycle shoes, and the first decision is whether to buy road bike or mountain bike (MTB) shoes. That question may sound counterintuitive. You’re planning to ride on the road, so you want road bike shoes, right? Well, maybe. The two kinds were developed separately for the two activities, but they’re still kissing cousins.
Road bike shoes are stiffer than MTB ones, and are made to work in one position, with a cleat on the bottom that clicks into the pedal in somewhat the way a ski boot attaches to a ski. But road shoes are so stiff as to render them impractical for walking very far. And because of the slick bottom, for ease of slipping into the pedal, the cleat protrudes making walking in these shoes feel like you have stone glued to the bottom, right below the ball of your foot. If you are racing or simply want absolute maximum pedaling efficiency, these are the shoes you need.
MTB shoes can also use cleats, but don’t have to. They are slightly less rigid, though still sufficiently stiff to minimize foot flex. But because they were designed for mountain biking, where the rider has to dismount and walk through some stretches, they have a lugged sole and are more comfortable than road shoes for walking. What’s more, the attachment point for cleats is recessed into the lugged sole, so that if you use cleats, they don’t protrude below the bottom surface of the shoe.
I have used both types, but for the kind of riding I do, longer rides were I get off from and walk around from time to time, MTB shoe are the best choice for me. And I have used those both with and without cleats.
If you buy MTB shoes, you won’t have to decide about cleats right away. The shoes will work fine on flat pedals, but if you later want to add cleats, the shoes will still accept them.
Other Bicycle Clothing and Apparel
There are other specialized clothing items you may wish to add, such as bicycle jerseys, but if you heed our tips for cycling, they needn’t be immediate purchases. Their prime features are 1) they’re made from synthetic fabrics which, unlike cotton, doesn’t turn soggy and chill you if you get caught in the rain, 2), they’re close fitting so as not to leave fabric flapping in the wind to subtract from your forward motion, 3) their usual bright colors make you more visible to motorists, and 4) their pockets on the back keep your stuff from interfering with the pumping movement of your legs.
In colder weather, you’ll want additional clothing, but as in the warm weather, you can start with what you have on hand and add specialized items as they become desirable. Do wear something bright colored as the top layer, to keep yourself highly visible on the road.
I’ve also found that once family and friends learn you are serious about bicycling, it gives them a whole new field of items to buy for birthday and Christmas gifts, so dropping a few hints about items you’d like to add to your bicycling ensemble can’t hurt.
Necessary Gear and Accessories for Road Riding
There are more sorts of bicycle gear available than you need but, but a few items are particularly useful. Necessary items include:
Water Bottle: You’ll definitely need a water bottle and frame-mounted cage to carry it in. When you’re riding, you’re exercising, and you need to stay hydrated.
Spare Tube: You’ll need a spare tube in the correct size for the wheels and tires on your bike. You can also carry a patch kit, but when your tire flats on the road, you’ll find it easier to just replace the tube and then patch the punctured tube later at home.
Tire Tools: You’ll need a tire tool to get the tire off the rim so that you can get to the the punctured tube and put in the new one. (See the “Bicycle Maintenance” section below for dealing with flat tires.)
Multitool: Most modern bikes have quick-release levers through the axles that allow you to remove your wheels from the frame without using a tool, but some older bikes have solid axles with nuts on the ends that require a wrench to loosen. Many riders also carry a small multitool that provides what’s needed to loosen or tighten nuts and bolts and perform other repairs out on the road. But unless you are comfortable making such adjustments, your best procedure if you break down may be using your cell phone to call a friend to pick you and the bike up.
Seat Bag: You’ll want an under-the-seat bag or other arrangement for carrying the spare tube, tire irons, tools and personal items.
Mini Pump: You’ll use the mini air pump for inflating the new tube. These pumps come with a cage that can be mounted to the bike frame. There are also CO2 cartridges that can be used instead, and if employed properly, are less effort than the many strokes of the pump shaft it takes to inflate the tire sufficiently. But it’s easy to misfire with the cartridge, and when the gas is gone, it’s gone. Be sure the pump you buy matches the type of valve on your tires: Presta or Schrader. (See above under “Tires and inner tubes”) Most new road bikes have Presta valves. These days, you can buy floor pumps that will accommodate both types of valves, but many frame-mounted pumps are specific to one valve or the other.
Lights: Many riders, including me, consider daylight running lights — a front white-flashing light and a rear red flashing light even in bright daylight — a good idea to increase your visibility on the road. On gloomy days, they’re even more important and after dark they are essential.
Bike Computer: Cyclometers, also called “bike computers” tell, at minimum, your present speed, how far you’ve ridden on the current ride, and overall mileage on the bike. Some also tell average speed, maximum speed, elapsed time, current cadence (speed at which you are spinning the pedals in rpms), average cadence, time and temperature. The simplest ones are as cheap as 15 bucks, and will be very useful in knowing how far and how fast you rode.
Consider a GPS style of bike computer that pairs with apps such as Strava, MapMyRide or RideWithGPS, that give not only the info that cyclometers provide but also enable you to plan and track rides, have turn-by-turn directions, and be part of an online community where you see their routes, post your rides and “compete” against other riders who post their rides.
Lock. Depending on where you ride, you might move this to the “necessary” items list above, but many riders don’t carry them or if they do, don’t use them at every stop. The best protection is to never leave your bike where you can’t see it, and there’s no lock made that can’t be defeated by a determined thief with tools and few minutes alone with your bike.
Mirror. Not every rider considers this essential, but the ability to see traffic coming up behind you without turning your head is valuable. Mirrors come in types that mount to your bike and others that mount to your helmet or eyeglasses.
What Do I Eat and Drink on Long Bicycle Rides?
There are food products made specially for consumption during active sports activities that work well for cyclists, including sports drinks, energy bars, gummies and gels. But for the most part, you can get by pretty well on regular food and water.
The main thing is to avoid “bonking,” reaching a state where your energy evaporates and fatigue sets in, and it usually seems to happen suddenly. Technically, this condition is caused by depletion of glycogen stores in the liver and muscles, but it can leave you wiped out for the day. Mild cases may be remedied by brief rest and consuming food or drinks containing carbohydrates. But it’s better to head it off by keeping glycogen levels up, by eating and drinking throughout your rides.
I usually carry fig bars, water, a sports drink, and especially during hot weather, salty snacks such as pretzels. At rest stops where I can purchase food, I often go for a banana and chocolate milk. Ice cream and regular soda are both good quick pick-me-ups.
Bicycle Maintenance Basics
With the average bike that doesn’t get ridden more than a few trips to the store or for a few semesters around campus, you can usually get away with little more than pumping up the tires occasionally. Bikes are forgiving and will usually still function — though less efficiently — even after parts start wearing out.
Maintenance will become necessary, however, when you start riding regularly and begin racking up miles. You’ll learn to think of items such as chains, gear cassettes, cables and housings, brake pads, chain rings, handlebar tape and tires as “consumables.” Even more durable items such as derailleurs, shifters, brake mechanisms, headsets and wheels will wear, and may need to be replaced eventually. And none of that includes parts upgrades you may choose to install on your bicycle.
Your first replacement is likely to be your chain, which usually shows “stretch” wear by 2,000 miles, and tires soon after that.
Of course, you can have replacement work done at your local bicycle shop, and, depending on your interest and mechanical savvy, that’s often a good choice. But if you have the interest, bicycle repairs aren’t a great mystery. Unlike cars, with bicycles, all the mechanical parts are right out in the open where you can see them. These parts work in logical ways, and when one malfunctions, you can sometimes see what is wrong. (When you can’t, it’s often because the parts are worn and the problem is not obvious to the average rider. Your shop mechanic can likely spot the problem quickly, however.) And these days, you can usually find a YouTube video or other directions online to help you diagnose and fix specific problems on your bike. It’s also possible to replace parts yourself and then take your bike to a shop to have the fine tuning done.
At minimum, however, you’ll find it helpful to learn how to repair a flat tire, lube your chain and check the nuts and bolts for tightness (as stuff can rattle loose on the road). Regarding fixing a flat, it’s a good idea to practice it at least once before you go on a long ride so you that you know you have the tools and can really do it.
Cleaning your bike is also part of maintenance. Whereas a dirty car will run as well as clean one, gunk in your bike’s drivetrain will impede crisp shifting. Dirty brakes won’t stop you as quickly. Dirt and debris in your brake pad will score the wheel rims or disks. And salt, picked up during winter rides, will corrode metal parts.
How to Ride a Road Bike
Getting on the Bike
On a bike tour, I once met a skinny, fit young man who mounted his bicycle by standing on its left side and then, without leaning the bike at all, swung his right leg up and forward over the handlebars and down to the right pedal in one smooth motion. He then put his left foot on the left pedal and started riding.
I marveled at his elasticity, but most adults, including yours truly, are not that flexible. For most of us, this works better: Stand on the left side of the bike. Grasp the handlebars with both hand and lean the whole bike toward you until the top tube is low enough to step over with the right leg. Then place the right foot on the right pedal as you pull the bike upright with your hands on the handlebars. Set the bike in forward motion by pushing off with your left foot, and then place that foot on the left pedal. Keep pedaling and you’re on your way.
How to Shift Gears on a Road Bike
Once you’ve started, you keep rolling by pedaling and coasting. On flat ground, shift into a gear that lets you ride a comfortable cadence (the rate at which you pedal). Typically, the shift lever on the right side of the handlebar moves the chain up and down over the sprockets on the cluster on the rear wheel. The shift lever on the left side of the handlebar moves the chain across the chain rings surrounding the crank in the middle of the bike (but for drive-chain purposes, called the “front”). You must be pedaling while shifting.
The number of gears on your bike is determined by multiplying the number of sprockets on the rear wheel times the number of chain rings. For example:
5 sprockets in the back x 2 chain rings in the front = a 10-speed drive chain
9 sprockets x 3 chain rings = a 27-speed drive chain
11 sprockets x 2 chain rings = a 22-speed drive chain
And so on.
A common number of gears for road bikes in the last few years would be 22, because most road bikes have two chainrings in the front, and a cassette with 11 gears in the back. But 9 or 10 gears in the back is also common for bikes under $800, and is a perfectly acceptable solution.
Don’t be intimated by the numbers. Unlike with a car, you don’t start in first gear, then go to second and then third, and so forth in sequence. Rather you select a combination — say one of the middle sprockets in the rear cluster and the smaller of your two front chain rings — that’s comfortable for the terrain you are on. As the terrain begins to climb or you encounter a headwind, shift to a lower, easier gear. As the terrain begins to descend or you have a tailwind, sift to a higher gear, or coast without shifting.
Your lowest possible gear is when your chain is on the smallest chain ring in the front and the biggest sprocket in the back. Your highest possible gear is when your chain is on the largest chain ring in the front and the smallest sprocket in the back.
How to Use the Brakes
Typically, the right brake lever controls the rear brake and the left brake lever controls the front break. The front brake supplies the most stopping power, and for that reason, you should not apply just the front brake. Doing so, particularly at speed, stands the bike on its nose and dumps you over the handlebar onto the road. Generally, you should apply both brakes at the same time, and except when you must stop suddenly, it’s better to apply them gently and then increase the pressure.
To control your speed going downhill, apply the brakes lightly, on and off repeatedly, feathering the brakes rather than keeping them engaged. Keeping the brakes on creates friction that can cause the rims to overheat and lead to tire failure.
Tips for Riding Safely on the Road
On a bike, it’s easy and often even safe to ignore some traffic laws. Frequently, the police won’t bother you for doing so, but I don’t recommend it, especially in traffic. Drivers find it irksome to see cyclists flaunting the laws that motorists must follow, and who wants an irked driver overtaking them? Besides, when we cyclists obey traffic rules, we behave more predictably in traffic, and that makes us safer.
It’s wise to think of your bike as a highway vehicle, and legally, you are required to ride in the same direction as traffic, not against it. If a road has a wide paved shoulder, by all means ride on it. If there is no shoulder, or no paved shoulder, you should usually ride as far to the right side of the road as is feasible (at least in the United States, where cars drive on the right).
However, when there is no shoulder and the lane is not wide enough to permit motor vehicles to safely pass you, you are better to “take the lane,” especially if there is oncoming traffic in the opposite lane, which keeps cars in your lane from moving over to pass you. Careful drivers will wait until there’s assured clear distance and room to move over before passing, but there are usually a few drivers who will try to squeeze by where you are over on the far right, coming too close for safety. So taking the lane, riding about three-feet out in the lane, or even in the center of the lane, forces overtaking vehicles to wait to pass until there is no oncoming traffic and they can swing into the other lane.
Another place where you need to move away from the far right of the road is at intersections where the roadway you are on broadens to accommodate a right-turn lane that forks off from the main track. If you are turning right move into that lane, or even into the paved shoulder to the right of that lane, but if you are proceeding straight ahead, stay out of that lane or drivers will assume you are turning right. Instead, stay on the right side of the straight-ahead lane,
At junctions, yield to crossing traffic, just as you would in your car.
When turning onto another road, particularly after stopping for a red light, position yourself appropriately so that drivers will realize what you are doing. If you’re turning right, position yourself near the curb. If you are turning left, move near the center lane.
When changing directions while riding with traffic, use your arms to signal your intention. Extend your right arm to the right before making a right turn and your left arm to the left before making a left turn. Despite what you may have been taught in driver’s training, don’t signal a right turn by extending your left arm with the elbow crooked and your fingers pointing upward.
You can also “talk” to drivers with signals. I was riding a narrow curvy road one day when a car approached from behind me. Though the driver couldn’t see very far ahead because of the curve, from my position ahead of him, I could see an oncoming car. So when the driver behind began revving his engine to pass me, I held my right hand down and out from the bike, with my open palm facing the driver to warn him to wait, which he did. Once the oncoming car passed us, and I could see the way ahead was clear, I motioned the car behind to come around me.
Types of Road Rides
There are several types of ride in which you can choose to participate, starting with solo treks and rides with friends or family, and continuing with organized bicycle events including races, bike club rides, rallies, gran fondos, one-day fundraisers, open invitational rides (often defined by distance, e.g., “A Metric Century Ride” or by sights, e.g., “The Covered Bridges Ride” or even by cold weather “The Red Flannel Ride”) and tours. Except for races, most of these, depending on the specifics, are events that allow you to be with many other cyclists, often on every type of bike, and have lots of fun, test your limits and make new friends.
Is Road Cycling Safe?
That’s a fair question. There is some risk involved, as there is in any sport. We’ve all seen occasional reports of a cyclist being killed by a distracted driver, and we can picture pedaling on the roadways as asking for trouble.
The Pedestrian and Bicyclist Information Center, a national clearinghouse of pedestrian and bicycle information about health and safety says that in 2015, the most recent year for which figures were provided, 818 bicyclists across the United States were killed in crashes with motor vehicles, but that’s compared to 5,376 pedestrians who were killed by motor vehicles that same year. Even allowing for the fact that there are more pedestrians than cyclists to begin with, one way to read those figures is that biking near traffic is no riskier than walking near traffic. See the PBIC’s Pedestrian and Bicyclist Crash Statistics.
What’s more, some of those bicycle deaths are attributed to factors that usually don’t apply to people who cycle on the road for exercise and sport. Some 19 percent of bicyclists killed had blood alcohol concentrations of 0.08 g/dL or higher, and 20 percent of the fatalities occurred between 6 and 8:59 p.m. a period when fewer recreational riders are on the road.
But most accidents do not involve motor vehicles. Many don’t even involve a group of other cyclists, but rather are a result of a rider falling due to skidding in gravel, catching a wheel in a road crack, inattentive steering, sudden braking or some other factor. There are no exact figures on bicycle injuries, because many are minor enough not to require ER care or hospitalization and so don’t get recorded and those that are recorded include mountain bicycling injuries along with road bike injuries. For 2015, the PBIC estimated 45,000 total bicycle injuries and 70,000 pedestrian injuries nationwide.
The more decisive data is likely to be anecdotal, what you’ll learn from people who have been road cycling for a long time. Most will have a personal story of about a careless or reckless driver and perhaps a fall or two, and maybe an injury, but you’ll rarely find a serious rider who chose to stop because of any of that. And most will say that with reasonable precautions, road cycling is mostly safe.
The Challenges and Rewards of Road Cycling:
Dealing with traffic is part of what it means to be a road cyclist. Cars and trucks own the roads, and ranting about that is a waste of time. So learn to ride safely beside traffic. Don’t expect to learn everything all at once, but start with low-traffic roads, or ride with experienced friends, and enjoy the experience.
It’s natural to go slower on hills and into wind, so just accept it. Put your bike in an easier gear and keep going. Embracing these challenges increases your fitness and adds to the sense of achievement when you are done.
Riding significant distances is a big part what gives road cycling its character. And you will be amazed at how many miles you will cover as your fitness and riding skill increases. Start with shorter rides and gradually add miles. My rule of thumb is if I get to where I have about a mile yet to ride, and I find myself wishing I were finished with the ride, that ride is about right for where my fitness is at that point. Pushing through that last mile stretches you a bit and moves your fitness level up. If I get to the wish-it-were-finished point with five miles still to go, the ride is a too long for where I am fitness-wise. Still, I can push through those miles too, and while I’ll be quite tired by the end, the push hasn’t hurt me. I may need a bit more recovery time, however, before I head out again.
Increased fitness, thinking time, scenery, a sense of adventure, and friendships with other cyclists are among the great rewards of road cycling.
I bet you’ll discover some additional rewards I haven’t even mentioned here!
Anatomy of a Road Bike
Still Have Road Cycling Questions?
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Stan Purdum has ridden several long-distance bike trips, including an across-America ride recounted in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day, and a trek on U.S. 62, from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas, the subject of his book Playing in Traffic. Stan, a freelance writer and editor, and Methodist minister, lives in New Jersey. See more at www.StanPurdum.com.