by Jim Langley
I needed to pick up some small parts for my 1987 VW Westfalia van and went to Van Cafe, which is just a few miles from me here in Santa Cruz. They’re famous for having just about everything needed to keep these retro bicycle-carriers on the road.
A friend named Peter runs the place. He’s also an officer for the Santa Cruz County Cycling Club. So, after we talked Westy, we talked Santa-Cruz road riding, and he told me that they have had a huge influx of new members this year.
That reminded me that’s it’s been too long since I’ve offered any basic tips for beginners. Road cycling is one of the most technical sports anyone can try to take up. So, this week, I offer 15 tips that should help the SCCCC’s newbies and you, if that endless blacktop ribbon just became your new best friend.
If you’re an experienced roadie, feel free to skip the tips. But do me a favor and please leave a comment and add your top tips that I’ve missed to help our new friends get started right. Thanks!
Make sure your helmet fits right. It should fit snugly yet comfortably, sit square on your head and low over your brow (not tipped back), and stay in place over bumps/rough roads. For safety and comfort, ask for help from an expert if you have any doubts. (John Marsh just wrote a Quick Tips column about How to Adjust Helmet Fit in a recent issue.)
Shift lots and try to keep the pedaling relatively easy. Whether couch potatoes or accomplished athletes in other sports, most beginners choose gears that are too hard to pedal and don’t shift enough. You’ll enjoy cycling more and get better at it faster if you do the opposite. Practice pedaling more quickly than seems natural and shift whenever it begins to get harder so that you keep adjusting the pedaling effort, always shifting into gears that let you maintain your pedaling rate (regardless of what the terrain and conditions are).
Wear cycling shorts. Choose baggies or spandex, but get a true pair made for riding. They come without seams and with padding (called a chamois) to prevent chafing and maximize comfort sitting on a bicycle seat. Don’t wear underwear with cycling shorts unless it’s specifically made for cycling.
Avoid the chainring tattoo. Bicycle drivetrains get greasy, and if the black grime gets on you or your clothes, it’s ugly and hard to remove. The most common grease tattoo comes from the chainring or chain on your bike’s drive side. If you can get in the habit of removing your left foot and placing that down when you stop, you may never have to clean off your leg again.
Hook your thumbs to stay safe. By hooking, what I mean is keeping them beneath, or wrapped around the handlebars at all times. That way, if you hit a bump that surprises you, your hands won’t slip off the bars — something that usually causes a crash.
Watch what’s in front of you. Lots of crashes happen because riders become distracted and look away from the road and run into things like unseen potholes or even parked cars. Always remember that you’re moving forward and that’s where the main dangers lie.
Relax! Try to breathe and relieve tension and stiffness, especially in your upper body. A too-firm grip doesn’t do anything to help your riding and can lead to fatigue and soreness or even injuries. If you’re weaving down the road, that’s a sign that your upper body is locked and pulling on the bars. Shrug your shoulders, bend and drop your elbows, keep holding on but loosen your vise-like grip on the bars and let only your lower body do the pedaling.
Change your hand position on the bars every 15 minutes. Be sure to always wear comfortable padded cycling gloves and also move your hands every 15 minutes or so to prevent any numbness or pain.
Keep the links lubed. Road bike chains will use up the lube on them in a couple of weeks’ worth of rides. If yours looks shiny and dry or sounds noisy, it’s time to put a drip of your favorite lube on each link, let it sit for a few hours and then wipe off the excess. Do it the night before your next ride, not the day of — or the lube will get flung right off.
Keep the tires pumped. Most new roadies don’t top off their tires enough. All it takes is having a pump at home with a gauge on it that your favorite bike shop can sell you and teach you how to use. Use it before every ride.
Use your bike shop. Speaking of bike shops, they’re there for you. Whether you need to find great road loops, meet people to ride with, pick up tools like that pump or buy clothing and accessories for your new machine, any good bike shop will be delighted to see you. And, the better you get to know each other, the more help they’ll be.
Practice getting in/out of clipless pedals. Because most new bikes come without pedals, one of the first upgrades roadies often make is getting clipless pedals and the shoes to go with them. If you do this, practice on your lawn a lot before hitting the road. Just straddle your new bike and click in and out of the pedals with your right and left foot until you can do it with your eyes closed every time.
Then, remember this rule: On a ride, if you’re coming to a stop and you think you can’t get out of your new clipless pedals, DON’T STOP. Keep riding! All you have to do is find something/anything to hang onto and hold yourself upright (that’s when you stop), and you can then get your feet out safely. Then practice some more at home so this doesn’t happen again.
For clipless cleats that protrude from your shoes, get cleat covers. You carry these press-on rubber covers in your pocket so that when you have to walk in your cycling shoes, you have a rubber tread. That way you won’t slip and fall. They also protect the cleats, making them last longer.
Carry flat-tire essentials on every ride. These include a spare tube, tire levers and a take-along pump or CO2 air kit. Even if you don’t know how to use these things, they can save the day. Because all you have to do is flag down another roadie, and they’ll either fix your flat for you or teach you how it’s done.
Have fun and stay safe!