Cycling 101 – Beginners’ Guide to Recreational Cycling
This article will guide you through the beginning of 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.
Many of the points mentioned below have their own dedicated article, so be sure to check them out if you want to dig deeper.
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 bikes to choose from, budding cyclists can easily be overwhelmed by technical components and materials. However, if there is a bike store near you with a good reputation, check out their range of bikes to do test rides.
Road & mountain bikes are on opposite ends of the spectrum, with 16 different types, 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 can be pretty uncomfortable, inefficient to ride, and potentially lead to injuries.
Consider the following questions 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 all affect how 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 certain people, with some taking longer to get used to (drop handlebars on road bikes). Test the different types at your local bike shop to get a feel for your preferred one.
Like size, the correct bike saddle is different for each person. Distances between sit bones vary greatly, meaning a narrow saddle may be better for one person and terrible for the next. Sit bone width also doesn’t correlate directly with your height and width, so try a few before choosing.
Setting Saddle Height
Once you have the appropriate bike and saddle size, the first fitting adjustment you should make is saddle height. At the correct height, it’s comfortable to ride and easy to generate power.
To do this, adjust your saddle so that when you sit on it with one pedal at 6 o’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, ensure 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%. So 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. Doing so 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 critical step in preparation for a ride is choosing suitable clothing. Duration, intensity, and weather all play a big part in your choice.
When you begin cycling, you will learn quickly how easily your temperature fluctuates. You could be sweating one moment and freezing the next, so having good quality clothes and learning to dress appropriately also helps.
Dressing for the temperature and precipitation 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 three distinct positions to ride in, and you should switch between them to take advantage of each and keep your wrists fresh.
Standing during a ride has two main functions:
- Most importantly, stand up intermittently when climbing uphill. Standing increases your ability to generate power but uses more energy than sitting. Riding out of the saddle is necessary for super steep gradients to create enough power to keep moving (unless you have very low gears).
- Secondarily, standing up during a ride can help relieve the pressure that builds up while sitting, allowing blood to 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 is relevant only to drop handlebars. The lower bars will help you achieve a more aerodynamic position and give you more control while cornering and descending. Take time to practice safely getting in and out of this position and using your brakes.
There are a few tips that will help you brake safely and efficiently. It’s not as simple as just pulling on the brakes.
- The front brake is more powerful than the back. As a result, less pressure is needed to bring you to a stop.
- To slow down or stop in normal circumstances, gradually apply pressure to the brakes, with more pressure on the back brake.
- For an emergency stop, you should apply pressure heavily while 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
Using your bike gears correctly will improve your efficiency, speed, and enjoyment when riding.
For example, just before reaching a steeper gradient, you should shift to an easier gear to maintain your cadence (revolutions per minute). Likewise, shift down when approaching a traffic light so you can 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 being on the smallest cog and smallest chainring or vice-versa.
- Reduce pedal pressure when changing gears. Higher-end mountain bikes are equipped with an automatic clutch that smoothens the gear-change
- When you need to stand, shift up one or two gears.
When pedaling with clipless pedals or toe cages, you can apply pressure throughout more of the pedal stroke, not just the downstroke.
To complete a pedal stroke, push down, pull back when the pedal reaches 5 o’clock as if you’re scraping something off the bottom of your shoe, allow the pedal to move up and around fluidly, and push the pedal forward from 10 to 12 o’clock in one 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 for practicing 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, maintaining pressure on it until you clear 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.
- Knowing the rules of the road allows you to stay in control, be predictable, and understand what is happening around you
- Know the bike hand signals. Giving the appropriate bike hand signals when cycling 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 proper 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
Simple at-home bicycle maintenance helps keep your bike running smoothly for thousands of miles, saving you money in the long run. 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 correct pressure. The recommended tire pressure is written on the sidewall in PSI/KPA/BAR – PSI is the most known type
- Clean and lube the chain every three or four weeks
- Clean your bike (with soapy water)
Learning how to change a flat is an essential maintenance procedure each beginner cyclist must learn.
You don’t want to get stuck on a ride with the tools but not the knowledge. Double-check which valve type your bicycle runs to know how to operate it.
Road bike (Presta Valve) / Cruiser bike tire change (Schrader)
5. Stay Healthy & Have Fun
Nutrition & Hydration
Before, during, and after a ride, it is essential to eat enough nutritious food, drink enough water, and replace the electrolytes you lose.
To avoid ‘bonking’ (running out of energy) while riding, take some food for rides over 90 minutes. In addition, 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
It is crucial to do recovery work on your mobility (foam rolling, massage balls, stretching), strength training, and general daily movement like walking to avoid injuries.
Rest days between rides, adequate sleep (7-9 hours), and good nutrition and hydration all help boost recovery, reducing the chance of injuries.
- Related: Rehab & Injury Prevention
Improve Your Performance
Improving performance is something both recreational and competitive cyclists strive for. Whether competing with a friend or overcoming a challenging uphill route, it’s nice to know you are improving.
You can use specific tactics 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 and ability to withstand and recover from injuries. It is also a key aspect of overall health and is linked to increased healthspan (health at older ages).
- Related: Strength Training
Get Out There Regularly
The only way to improve your technique and performance as a beginner is 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 as transportation, competition, or 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 having fun, so make it 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 other 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!