Cycling 101 – Beginners’ Guide to Recreational Cycling
This article is a basic guide to starting your journey as a cyclist. There is a lot to learn, but with preparation, practice, and patience, you can stay safe and have fun wherever you go on two wheels.
For many of these points, we have a whole article available on our website that goes into depth on the topic. If you would like to find out more, you can find these articles by clicking on the highlighted headings below.
Here are the basics of what you need to know to get started in the wonderful world of cycling.
Table of Contents
1. Choosing Your Bike
2. Cycling Gear
3. Biking Technique & Safety
4. Bike Maintenance
1. Choose Your Bike & Adjust It
With so many options to choose from, budding cyclists can easily be overwhelmed by technical components and materials. If there is a bike store near you with a good reputation, they can be of great value for testing out potential bikes.
Road & mountain bikes are on opposite ends of the spectrum, with 16 different types in total including hybrid, city/commuter, touring, folding, BMX, cruiser, and more.
Your budget will ultimately dictate what type of bike is available to you, but you should try to decide what you will be using it for first.
It is vital to choose the right size bicycle at the beginning. The wrong size will be uncomfortable, less efficient when riding, and may result in you not wanting to ride it.
When Choosing a Bike
1. Where will you be cycling?
2. How often will you be cycling?
3. What is your budget?
4. What are your preferences for the components?
Components such as frame, handlebars, and saddle change the way that a bike feels when you ride.
The frame materials you can choose from include aluminum, steel, carbon fiber, or titanium frames, each with its own pros and cons. Heavy frames make a bike more difficult to ride up hills, so choosing a lightweight frame will be ideal for that purpose.
Different handlebar styles suit different people, with some taking longer to get used to (drop handlebars on road bikes). Test the different styles at your local bike shop to get a better idea of your preference.
Like size, saddles are very individual. Distances between sit bones vary greatly, meaning a narrow saddle may be better for one person, and terrible for the next. This also doesn’t correlate directly with your height/weight. Try a few before choosing.
Setting Saddle Height
When you have chosen the right size bike and saddle, the most important adjustment is saddle height. At the correct height, it’s comfortable, easy to generate power, and helps avoid injuries.
To do this, adjust your saddle so that when you sit on it with one pedal all the way at the bottom, close to the ground (or at the 6 o’clock position of a clock), your heel rests on the pedal with your leg completely straight. Here’s a good video representation by the team at the Specialized headquarters.
2. Safety Equipment & Clothing
Safety Gear & Tools For Riding
Before riding away from the bike shop, make sure you have the appropriate equipment to keep you safe.
Helmets are the number one safety item. Helmets reduce the risk of head injury by 60% and brain injury by 58%. Don’t ride without one.
Reflective and bright clothing helps you stay safe on the road. Choose bright colors for your cycling gear, with reflective material where possible. A reflective jacket is essential for nighttime riding. Don’t rely on your bike’s small reflective surfaces.
Use lights during periods of low light (dusk, night, cloudy days) on the front and back of your bike. This gives other cyclists and drivers the best chance of seeing you so you can stay safe.
Always be prepared with these tools while you ride to get you out of any sticky situation:
- Roadside repair tools
- Hand pump
- Cash or phone
- Food and water
Related – Cycling Essentials
A key step in the preparation for a ride is choosing the right clothing. Duration, intensity, and weather all play a big part in what you choose.
When you begin cycling, you will learn quickly how easily your temperature fluctuates. You could be sweating one moment, and freezing the next. Having good quality clothes and learning how to dress appropriately also helps.
Dressing appropriately is key to enjoying rides during the winter. There are many accessories and clothing styles that help protect you from cold weather, choose the right ones for your climate. Check out our winter cycling gear guide for some tips on choosing the right gear.
Padded shorts are shorts with a chamois (the soft padding between the legs) in conjunction with a harder saddle is generally much more comfortable for longer durations than a padded saddle.
3. Biking Technique & Safety
There are 3 distinct positions to ride in, you can switch positions regularly to take advantage of each.
Standing during a ride has two main functions. Make sure to change into a higher gear before you stand up.
- It is most importantly used when climbing uphill. Standing increases your ability to generate power, but uses more energy than sitting. For steep gradients, it will be necessary to get out of the saddle to generate enough power to keep moving.
- Secondarily, standing up during a ride can help relieve the pressure that builds up while sitting on the saddle, allowing full blood flow back into the area that is in contact with the seat.
Sitting is the most used position on a bicycle. It is the most comfortable and efficient position energy-wise. Keep your arms with a slight bend in the elbow and your fingers hovering over the brakes while you ride sitting.
The drops position relevant only to drop handlebars. Using the bottom set of handles will help you achieve a more aerodynamic position. This can be useful when riding against the wind and going downhill. Take some time to practice getting in and out of this position safely and having full control of your brakes while in the drops.
Slowing your bike is not as simple as pulling on the brakes. There are a few key tips that will help you brake safely and efficiently.
- The front brake is more powerful than the back, less pressure is needed to bring you to a stop.
- To slow down or stop in normal circumstances, apply pressure to the brakes gradually, with more pressure on the back brake.
- For emergency stopping, you should apply pressure heavily while simultaneously shifting your weight backward on the bicycle (hovering your butt just behind the seat) to stop forward motion over the handlebars. Check out YouTube for a visual representation of this.
- Rim-style brakes require a longer time to stop when in wet weather compared with disc brakes
Changing Gears Effectively
As you practice, you will quickly get used to your bike’s gears, and the best way to use them.
For example, when you are about to reach a hill or a traffic light, you should shift down to an easier gear to be able to continue your cadence (revolutions per minute) or start easily when the light turns green. Here are some other tips:
- Avoid the ‘crossed chain’ as that puts extra stress on the drivetrain.
Instead – When your bicycle has two or three chainrings in the front – try to avoid 1×7 or 3×1. On a single front chainring (1x) it is unavoidable but at least the rider can not use their whole body pressure to pedal in such gearing anyway.
- Reduce pedal-pressure when changing gears! Higher-end mountain bikes are equipped with an automatic clutch with smoothens the gear-change
- When you need to stand, shift 1-2 gears higher
When pedaling with clipless pedals or toe cages, you can apply pressure throughout each revolution, not just the downstroke.
Push down, lift up, pull, and push the pedal in one fluid, circular motion.
When you ride on winding roads or downhill it is important to practice good cornering to stay safe and efficient. Here are some quick tips to practice so you can improve your technique.
- Look ahead to where you want to go, not directly in front of you. This is counterintuitive but helps with control in corners
- Slow down before you get to the corner
- Keep the pedal on the outside of the turn at 6 o’clock and maintain pressure on it until you come out of the corner
- Wait until you are coming out of the corner to begin pedaling again
- Relax your body, and ride at a speed at which you are comfortable
Staying safe on the road requires knowledge, attention, care, and patience. In urban areas, it is vital to be predictable, be aware of your environment, and ride defensively.
The following are the 2 of the most important things you can do while riding.
- Know the rules of the road. This allows you to stay in control, be predictable, and understand what is happening around you.
- Know the correct hand signals. Giving the appropriate hand signals in time for drivers and other riders to see them will help you stay safe and predictable.
Before you set off, be prepared with the know-how and right equipment to lock your bike and prevent situations where your bike is vulnerable to theft. Read more – Bike Security
Related – Best Bike Locks
4. Bike Maintenance
Basic bicycle maintenance is simple and quick if you don’t let too much time lapse.
In order for the bike to run smoothly for thousands of miles, get some bike chain oil and degreaser at your local bike shop, as well as a pump and multitool.
Here are the main things you should keep your eye on as a cyclist:
- Use the right pressure. Recommended tire pressure is written on the sidewall in PSI/KPA/BAR – PSI is the most known type.
- Lubricate the chain. It is recommended to lubricate the chain after each ride in the rain or after approximately every 100miles.
- Clean and oil the chain
- Clean your bike (with soapy water)
Learning how to change a flat is one of the basic maintenance procedures a beginner cyclist has to learn.
You don’t want to get stuck on a ride with the tools but not the knowledge. There are many detailed tutorials on YouTube, first, make sure which valve-type your bicycles runs.
5. Stay Healthy & Have Fun
Nutrition & Hydration
Before, during, and after a ride, it is important to eat enough nutritious food, drink enough water, and replace the electrolytes that you lose.
In order to avoid ‘bonking’ (running out of energy) while riding, take along some food for rides over 90 minutes.
Take along 16oz of fluid for every hour you plan to ride, and add some electrolytes if you will ride over 2 hours in hot weather, or at high intensity.
- Related: Cycling & Nutrition
Mobility & Injury Prevention
To avoid injuries, it is important to do recovery work on your mobility (foam rolling, massage balls, stretching), strength training, and general daily movement like walking.
Rest days in between rides, adequate sleep (7-9 hours), and good nutrition and hydration all help boost recovery thus preventing injuries.
- Related: Rehab & Injury Prevention
Improve Your Performance
Improving performance is something both recreational and competitive cyclists strive for. Be it to compete with a friend, or overcome a challenging uphill route, it’s nice to know you are improving.
There are some specific tactics you can use to train different aspects of cycling like climbing or sprinting (endurance vs power). We’ve outlined these in detail in our article on the subject.
- Related: Improve Cycling Performance
Strength training can help improve your cycling performance along with your ability to withstand and recover from injuries. It is also a key aspect for overall health and is linked to increased healthspan (health at older ages).
- Related: Strength Training
Get Out There Regularly
There is only one way to improve your technique and performance as a beginner: by riding regularly!
If you struggle each time you cycle due to a lack of fitness or confidence, it can easily deter you from getting out there.
Commit to riding regularly, whether it’s to the grocery store, to work, or for recreation, and you will soon be both confident and competent, increasing your overall enjoyment when you ride.
Find a Group
If you can, find a group of cyclists in your area that corresponds with the kind of rides you are interested in. Riding with a partner or in a group adds significantly to your enjoyment, and can help you develop close friendships through the shared camaraderie.
Have Fun & Try Different Styles
The most important thing about being a cyclist is that you have fun. This means you can make whatever you need it to be to achieve that goal.
Find your preferred way of riding by trying different styles (mountain biking, road biking, beach cruising), riding with different people, or riding to different places (touring).
If you’ve made it this far, we’re sure there is something out there to make cycling your new favorite hobby!