As a kid, the only things that mattered about having a bike were:
- If you had one. That was pretty important. And…
- The level of pizzaz on display. I’m talking handlebar streamers, cards in your spokes, maybe even some colorful lights around your wheels.
But walk into a bike store as an adult and well… there’s a lot to consider!
Before you are ready to write a check, you’ll need to decide whether you want a road bike, mountain bike, track bike, tri bike, or downhill bike (yes, there’s a difference!).
Is your bike going to be for cruising or commuting?
Every bike has a purpose, and there are a lot of purposes. So you have to find your go-to.
For me, that’s a road bike.
It’s comfortable to ride for an extended time (once you master changing gears, you can spin away for hours and hours), goes fast, and takes turns and handles elevation changes with ease. I’ve found that it suits my lifestyle because I can clip into my road bike and cycle to the beach or a coffee shop to work, and most places in between.
However, road cycling is not for the faint of heart.
The road is a scary place. Cars drive fast, people are texting and not paying attention, and if you can find a bike lane, they often have missing sections or have cars parked in them.
So, why should you learn to road bike? Well for starters, it’s fun! I love nothing more than cruising down a smooth road.
And I’m positive that the more you know about road cycling, the better cyclist you will be — and the more fun you’ll have.
To help you with navigating the intimidating world of cycling, I’ve put together 10 tips that I have learned from trial and error, dating a bike mechanic, and becoming a regular on many group rides.
Once you master these tips, your bike can take you anywhere you want to go, whether that’s to the bike shop, a group ride, or any other time the rubber hits the road.
Tip #1: Wear a Helmet
This should go without saying, but I’m saying it anyway — WEAR A HELMET
I don’t care if you are riding near or far — WEAR A HELMET.
Get the right helmet. All helmets are not created equal. Like so many other things in life — you get what you pay for, and your brain is not something to skimp on. A new, proper fitting, well-made helmet is essential. Knock off helmets are available all over the internet, so if the helmet you are looking at is priced “too good to be true” . . . it probably is.
I only wear helmets that feature MIPS technology. MIPS: Multi-Directional Impact Protection System. This means it is designed to reduce rotational forces on impact (you know, if your head hits the road, your MIPS helmet is prepared to protect your noggin) at any angle.
Wear it right.
Always try on a helmet before you buy it.
- It should fit snugly and securely, while sitting flat, on top of your head. Helmets come with sizing pads to help you adjust how snug it fits. It should be comfortable, but not wiggle (and you should not be able to fit a finger in between your helmet and your head).
- If you are unsure if your helmet is sitting correctly on your head, you should be able to place only two fingers in between your eyebrows and the top of your helmet.
- Place the helmet on your head, and make sure the two side straps create a Y shape over your ears and clasp under your chin. Pull the strap tight enough to ensure you can only fit one finger in between your chin and the strap.
Keep if fresh. Helmets have a limited life span. Never wear a helmet that has been in a crash or does not properly fit your head. Once a helmet is damaged, it is no longer useful. If you crash, drop your helmet on the concrete, or change your hairstyle so significantly that your helmet no longer fits — buy a new one.
I said keep it fresh. Helmets can be fashionable. If you feel so inclined, choose a color that matches your bike and has vents for air circulation. Some helmets have attachable ear muffs to keep your ears warm while you cruise around in the winter.
When it all comes down to it, it doesn’t matter much which helmet you choose, as long as it is new, properly fitted to your head, worn every time you ride, and replaced as needed.
Tip #2: Be Road Ready
As important as your helmet is (did I mention that is the most important thing?), it’s also important to ensure that your bicycle is ready for you to ride.
If you got your bike from a bike shop, your seat and handlebars should already be adjusted properly, which is an important first step. (If you purchase a flat-packed bike and it needs to be assembled, I suggest paying a bike shop to put it together for you. One mistake building your bike, and your whole body may pay the price.)
After that, there are a few things you should check to make sure you are road-ready before every ride.
- Check your tire pressure. Your tires lose air pressure just by sitting in your house, so you should always check your air pressure before hitting the road. Properly inflated tires will help prevent flats, create less resistance, and make your overall ride more enjoyable. You’ll find the appropriate pressure range listed on the sidewall of the tire.
- Make sure your wheels, seat, and handlebars are secure. Lift the bike off the ground and give it a little shake. If you hear anything rattling — investigate! Bottle cages loosen and quick-release wheels can be bumped loose, causing problems when you ride.
- Check your brakes. Give the brakes a squeeze and try to move your bike back and forth. Does the brake lever touch the handlebar? Time for an adjustment! When you release the brake lever, does the brake stick or release? A sticking brake can make pedaling difficult.
- Always travel prepared. A proper roadside repair kit should include: tire levers, spare tube, CO2 inflator or small pump, and a bicycle-specific multi-tool (in case you need to tighten something while on the road). These can be purchased online or at any bike shop.
Tip #3: Bike Shorts and Jerseys
Let’s talk spandex. Does it make you nervous?
Bike shorts aren’t always the most flattering look; however, if you plan on riding your bike for more than 10 miles, your butt won’t care what you look like. Even the most comfortable of saddles, can create discomfort when riding for short (or long) distances. Bike shorts come with built in padding over the rear-end. This will help your body feel more comfortable as you grow your T.I.T.S (Time In The Saddle).
Jerseys are bright, colorful, and convenient. They are created using wicking material to help keep you cool. The bright colors are not only fashionable and fun, but they also aid in visibility. And they have super convenient back pockets for easy access to things like nutrition, phone, and ID.
Tip #4: Clip In! Or Not
Bicycle cleats are hardware that will attach specialized bicycle shoes directly to matching pedals, keeping your feet securely attached to your bicycle.
This concept can seem intimidating at first, but the benefits are incredible. Pedaling without cleats (in sneakers) you only have the ability to push down on your pedals.
But, once you clip-in to your pedals, the cleats allow you to not only push down, but pull back up, gaining power and momentum without as much output of energy. This gain in efficiency will allow you to go faster for a longer period of time.
There are different styles of cleats and shoes, so after doing a little research on your own, your local bike shop can help you find the cleats and shoes that will be the best fit for you.
Tip #5: Be Extra Prepared (beyond your roadside repair kit)
Before you head out on your next bicycle adventure, make sure you bring a few things with you for safety, to make your life easier, and to ensure you are prepared for all situations.
- Never leave home without ID and money. You never know where your bicycle will take you, and you never know if you’ll need to purchase a snack (or a ride home).
- Bring lights! If you have battery-operated lights, check them before heading out the door. If you have rechargeable lights, charge them before you leave. Often short day trips turn into evening cruises, and lights are very necessary (and in some places, a legal requirement). I always have my lights on — day or night — and set to strobe to be more visible and appear different than other road traffic.
- Pack hydration and nutrition. Short trips become long trips, and long trips become all-day adventures on road bikes. They are so much fun to ride and explore — the day may get away from you!
Tip #6: Riding Long? Fuel Throughout the Entire Ride
When you’re going on a long ride, fueling properly can be the single most important thing you do.
So how much do you need?
A good rule of thumb is to estimate that you will burn 50 calories per mile. If you plan on riding 30 miles, that means you could burn up to (or more) than 1,500 calories.
That sounds like a lot of food to carry, so you can start with consuming 50% of the calories you burn, and adjust as needed. It may take several rides to figure it all out, but over time you’ll learn what you body wants and needs.
I know my body enough to know that I like a mix of salty and sweet, so I try to have a little of everything.
Also make sure you are drinking plenty of water! Although you can get by with replenishing only 50% of your calorie burn, you will need to stay hydrated.
All road bikes will come with at least one bottle cage. If your bike is set up to hold two bottles, I suggest carrying one with water and the other with an electrolyte beverage like Tailwind.
And remember those handy back jersey pockets? They are perfect to carry your nutrition. Toss a gel or gummy in your back pocket before hitting the road.
Tip #7: Make Friends with Your Front Brake
Your front brake, when used properly, will slow your bike to a stop much quicker than the back brake alone. The front brake is more powerful to help stop the higher speeds of a road bike. Skidding your back tire is the least effective way to stop and will wear down your tires.
Gently compress your front brake lever to slow your bike to a stop. Don’t jerk your front brake lever too quickly, or your wheel will lock. Practice using your front brake when on a clear road and not riding with others. Learn how it feels and how quickly your front brake responds. When in an emergency situation, you want to be prepared as to how your front brake is going to respond.
Tip #8: Learn to Use Your Gears
Most road bikes have between 18 and 22 gears (that is a lot of options!). The lower the gear, the easier it will be to spin the pedals, especially uphill or into a fierce headwind. A higher gear will propel you forward faster; however, this is a harder gear to push and requires more effort.
As you ride, adjust your gears to ensure they match your elevation and wind changes. Learning to use the correct gear at the correct time takes practice, so get to know what feels right.
Pro-Tip: Don’t work harder than you have to! Work smarter by letting the bike do the work for you. An indication of whether you’re in an appropriate gear is your cadence (how many times per minute your foot goes in a full circle).
Generally for long distances, you want to keep your cadence a little higher, so you’re not applying a great amount of pressure on the pedals.
Tip #9: Learn the Rules of the Road
By this point, you have done an extensive amount of work to be prepared to hit the road. Are you ready to go? I am!
But first, you need to know the road rules. You should check your local laws regarding bikes, but here are some fairly common laws regarding road cycling.
- Bicycles belong on the road, not on the sidewalk. Sidewalks are for pedestrians, not bicycles (drivers are not in the habit of checking the sidewalk for oncoming traffic, which means riding on the sidewalk increases your chances of being hit by a car). Bicycles, even slow-moving bicycles, can go 10 to 25 miles per hour. This is too fast to be hurling down the sidewalk next to walkers and runners.
- Bicycles ride WITH traffic. Unlike running, where you run facing oncoming cars, bicycles ride on the same side of the road as a motor vehicle. In general, all cars should give any bicycle (fast or slow) 3 feet of clearance when they pass. Although this is a law in many places (and is becoming more common), it is not always readily enforced or followed. Do not be surprised if people don’t give you ample room that you deserve. This is why you are wearing highly visible colors and flashing your strobe light. Also be ready to react quickly should you need to (this is where being familiar with your front brake comes in handy).
- Bike lanes are wonderful! They give you a protected 3 feet of space for you to comfortably ride your bicycle — at any speed. However, bike lanes are often placed to the left of parked cars, meaning that anyone getting in and out of a parallel parked car, may open a door — right into you! Pay attention when riding by parked cars to not get “doored.” Keep an eye out for pedestrians crossing the street. They often do not look, and might walk straight out into traffic/bike lane.
- Plan your route. Although bike lanes make excellent paths to get to where you want to go, what if your route does not include a bike lane? Embrace the adventure and seek out less-traveled back routes to your destination. Who knows what you might find along the way! A new favorite coffee house, a local vegan ice cream parlor, or even a fun arcade. Bikes give you the opportunity to soak in your surroundings!
- Communicate. Communication is a big component of staying safe on the road. Use common hand signals to communicate when you’re slowing or turning. Call out to other riders and pedestrians when you’re approaching or passing (on your right, on your left) and to inform fellow riders of traffic conditions (car back, car right, car left).
Tip #10: Learn to Ride in a Group
Group riding is so much fun! Meeting fellow cyclists, having a bunch of friends who want to go exploring with you, and chasing each other through Strava segments. What could be better? If you do not know of any group rides in your town, check your local bike shop or Facebook events page. Bike shops often lead longer group rides on the weekends and shorter training rides during the week.
Riding in a group requires a bit of practice. Before you head out with a group of people, make sure you feel comfortable and confident on your bicycle. Are you comfortable riding in a straight line? When riding in a group, there may be people on your right, left, in front, and behind you. Maintaining your speed while staying in a straight line becomes even more important.
Also be sure you’re familiar with giving and reading the signals mentioned above.
Keep about one-wheel’s distance between you, and the bike in front of you. This gives you time to react in case they break quickly, hit a bump and go off course, or collide with something.
Take some time to ride alone or with a few friends to build your confidence, and then join a group ride. Rides with friends are always more fun.
Most of All, Road Biking is About Having Fun
Just like when you were a kid, whizzing down the road with your friends, biking as an adult is all about having fun. Bikes take you to places you never thought you would go, and they help you meet people you never thought you would meet.
And for the plant-based athlete, they’ll help you create a healthy, fit, and environmentally friendly lifestyle. Win. Win. Win.
Don’t let those skinny tires intimidate you. A little practice with the gears, brakes, and peddles, and you’ll be cruising down the road in no time.
Now all you need is that perfect bike, a fun jersey and helmet, and to start spinning.
See you out there.
About the Author: You may know Esther Jaffa as the Community Support Coordinator for No Meat Athlete, but did you know she’s also an avid runner and cyclist and owns more bikes than she could ride in a week? Look out for her on the streets of Fort Lauderdale, zipping between the beach, a brewery, and a group ride.
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