Getting into cycling: A friendly user’s guide

Many people have rediscovered cycling to get their exercise or even to avoid public transport during COVID-19. You may have found an old bike lying in the basement, bought a new bike, or even received one as a present (lucky you!).

If this sounds like you and you want to get more into cycling but don’t know where to start, this post might be helpful. Let me be your guide, if I may. A guide of sorts for a journey to the first base camp up the mountain of cycling.

A year ago, I was in a similar position. I had a hybrid bike (i.e. general bike which is neither a road bike nor a mountain bike) and, whilst I have ridden it last about 10 years ago, one wonderful June day, I pumped up the tyres and headed outside as I needed some distraction from studying for my final exams.

I went out and rode about 20 km. Despite being utterly exhausted and unable to walk afterwards, I thoroughly enjoyed it. The beginning of my obsession.

Since I didn’t have proper cycling clothes asides from a pair of mountain bike shoes and an old helmet, I just wore gym shorts, a cotton T-shirt and tennis socks.

Whilst they do the job, clothes like this really aren’t ideal. Without padding, my backside hurt, and my T-shirt became heavy with perspiration and began to rub against my skin.

As I wanted to do more cycling, this had to change. Below I list the upgrades which carried me from 20 km rides through flat neighbourhood bike paths to 120 km plus bike tours and climbing up the highest mountain pass in Austria.

Unless you already know you will 100% commit to cycling, I recommend that you upgrade slowly and bit by bit. What do I mean by this? Whilst there are some famous companies which make excellent cycling clothes, these are often very expensive.

Instead, I opted to settle for something more affordable at the beginning which worked “well enough”. I would then replace these as I outgrew them in skill. After all, if you have spent several thousand GBP/EUR/USD buying the best bike clothing and equipment, it may be a bit hard to realise that you don’t enjoy cycling after all.

This approach applies to most cycling kit, with few exceptions, as described below.

In this post, I mention a few brands – I am neither sponsored by them, nor I am I formally recommending them (rather, don’t blame me if you don’t like them). There is a lot of useful information and reviews online, you can easily research what suits you best separately.

My KTM hybrid – the one that sparked my obsession.

Bike

Let’s address the elephant in the room. You may have been lucky like me and have a bike in fairly good condition or something which can work with a little care from your local bike shop. Alternatively, it might only have two wheels and bear a passing resemblance to a bicycle.

A bike is important, but don’t focus too much on what you have right now. Realistically, you probably don’t really know what type of riding you want to do. Road riding, gravel, cross-country mountain bike, downhill, touring, time trial, city, cargo bike, folding bike, fat bike – the list of bikes and disciplines goes on. At the beginning, all you need is something that moves.

I used my hybrid bike both offroad and on road, and after a few months riding it was clear that I preferred longer tours on road. Six months after my first ride, I bought myself a dedicated road bike.

I would suggest that you take what you have, make sure it works and is safe, and just ride it. Have fun, get a few hundred kilometres under your wheels, work on your bike handling skills, and then think about to upgrade.

When you do buy a new bike, don’t rush out and buy the most expensive bike. After a certain price, the law of diminishing returns bites and you will find that you begin to pay more but only get limited additional benefit.

There are some fantastic bikes for about a 1000 GBP/EUR/USD. Do your research, and think about what you feel comfortable with paying. The most important thing is that you get a well fitting bike.

That being said, don’t exclude the option of selling your bike in a few years time to upgrade, either due to your greater skill level or better technology coming onto the market as it develops.

Clothes

My T-shirt and gym shorts were quickly replaced by a cheap cycling jersey and bib shirts (top and shorts) from an online retailer (costing in total 50 GBP/EUR/USD). I chose these as they were synthetic, wicked away my perspiration (unlike a T shirt which soaks it up), and had a chamois, which provides cushioning between the legs.

These clothes lasted one Summer, and then I replaced these with new and better kit from another, slightly more expensive brand. After one year cycling, I know what I wanted from my kit, but I still didn’t want to spend too much yet.

This “cheap and cheerful” rule doesn’t always apply. Bad weather and winter cycling clothes need closer attention. Whilst I managed my first winter with a fairly cheap but warm top and leggings, to keep me riding through my second winter, I decided to get more expensive clothes. These were warm, waterproof, windproof and light, and they had reflective panels for riding safely in the dark.

Another place to spend money (in colder months) are good gloves and shoes. Gloves should be waterproof and windproof, as well as allowing you to sufficiently move your fingers to operate your gears and brakes. Whilst your legs move, your feet stay still and will get cold – I suspect you don’t like cold feet either.

In summary, as long as you have basic cycling clothing for good weather, whatever keeps you comfortable and riding in the rain and cold is definitely worth paying a higher price. This way you can enjoy riding throughout the year, rather than avoiding it and staying indoors. Upgrade these over time and you’ll be even more comfortable and have better fitting clothes.

The damage suffered by well made helmet after hitting a vehicle windscreen. (Copyright, MuddyTweed 2021)

Helmet

Don’t mess, get a good one. I decided to splash out on a fairly expensive POC, which promised to be strong, light and aerodynamic. Several days later I had a crash (no-fault) where my head hit a vehicle windscreen. My helmet shrugged off the impact with minimal visible damage (see above) – I don’t want to think what would have happened if I didn’t wear a helmet.

There is an ongoing debate on whether wearing bike helmets is necessary, but after this experience, I will never ride without one.

Shoes

Good shoes are important, as they are two of five contact points to your bike. Generally, you can either get normal shoes which you just rest on flat pedals, or you can get “clipless” shoes (and pedals) where you lock your shoes into your pedals, giving you more power and control.

After using flat pedals for a while, I bought a pair of mountain bike shoes with “SPD” clips for my hybrid bike. Its a personal choice, but I prefer being “clipped” in – its worth trying out! Eventually I bought new, lighter weight shoes designed for racing. These are great in Summer, with enough ventilation so that my feet stay cool.

For winter I spent more, knowing that I don’t like cold or wet feet. I got myself a pair of Fizik Artica X5 shoes, which are fully waterproof and cover my ankle. Just another thing which lets me ride in bad weather.

Riding in Winter means a lot of salt and dirt splashing up from the road. My Fizik Artica X5’s keep my feet dry and fairly warm.

Tech

Technology (electronic devices) is a bit of a minefield. Once you get started, it can be hard to stop yourself!

Lights (front and rear) are important. I am a big fan of daylight running lights, as anything which improves my chances of being seen on the road can only be good. I have a small pair of lights which are alway on my bike, as well as a powerful headlight for riding in the dark. Spending more on lights generally means smaller size, greater brightness and longer battery life.

Get some basic tools and take them with you. This may include a multi-tool (make sure it has the right tools for your bike), a mini-pump (who doesn’t enjoy a puncture?), tyre levers, and a spare inner tube (and practice replacing it!).

After I had been riding a while, I wanted to see where I had been, how fast I rode and how far. I started off with a basic monitor which operated with a magnet and a display which showed me basic live data when I rode.

Later on I started to plan more complex routes and recorded these with my smartphone. Whilst you can attach your phone to your handlebars, I never liked this idea. I therefore decided to get a dedicated bike computer (a Wahoo Elemnt Bolt) which I now use all the time. This shows me maps and routes I have saved, provides turn-by-turn navigation, and also collects and shows real-time data.

I am interested in my riding data, and over time I got myself a heart rate monitor, cadence sensor (for pedalling speed), and a power meter. With all this real-time data, I can see and adapt my riding style to ride further or to train properly. When I’ve finished, I can analyse the data and share it with fellow cyclists over platforms such as Strava.

Next steps

My journey has only just begun. Last year I rode a total of 7,200 km last year. This year, I am planning on riding 10,000 km (and riding up several more mountains). What next?

Well, I have a new interest in racing. Last year I have joined a cycling club with a racing team, I have applied for a racing licence, and I have already registered for some races this year (COVID notwithstanding). I also want to try endurance riding, perhaps with a tour or a race longer than 500km. I want to do some touring and see parts of the countryside I would never see from a car or a train.

I also want to build another bike. Last year, I decided to extensively upgrade my current road bike, and now the only original parts are the frame and the fork. I love the blog TheRadivist, which always provides a great deal of inspiration. If I find the right parts, I would like to build either a gravel bike or a time trial bike from scratch.

Cycling is a fantastic sport which has become a major part of my life. There is always something else to buy, and new gadgets come and go. Today more than ever you can get good cycling clothes and equipment for not a lot of money. That being said, some expensive kit really does offer significant benefits.

It’s up to you if you want to spend lots of money and get great kit immediately, or if you decide to gradually build up your kit as your skills and experience develop. The second seems to me a little more prudent.

– MT

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