After cycling for 8 years and despite my relatively respectable yearly mileage, I feel as though I’ve been a beginner for most of this time. Here are things I wish someone had told me sooner.
There’s a very good chance that your first bike purchase will be followed by another purchase some years later. I mean that in both a good and a bad way.
For those who can count in decades since your last bike, you might end up buying a mountain bike from a sports retail chain, despite not having planned on doing any mountain riding. All because that was what 1980’s kids remembered growing up. Go to a local bike shop and find what is right for you.
If you’re more informed than I was, there’s still a lot of people who only know vaguely what kind of riding they’re going to be doing, or end up riding differently than they had planned. The different types of bikes built for specific purposes does make a huge difference in performance and comfort which can affect overall enjoyment. That said, there is no “one bike fits all situations” perfect answer.
Are Expensive Carbon Bikes Worth It?
I don’t expect any non-cyclist to ever fathom why $10,000+ bikes exist for sale to non-professionals (and I still try to grasp who exactly these people are), but that’s okay because you don’t have to justify to others what they can’t comprehend without putting in the experience.
If money is a concern, maybe don’t spend too much on a first bike. Ride on a $1,000 aluminum bike for thousands and thousands of kilometres until you just know it is holding you back (not from your lack of commitment) from going to the next level, whatever that means for you.
Then try out a $2,000 bike, a $3,500 bike and a $5,500 bike on a test ride between 20 and 90 minutes long — even if you never intend to spend that much, it’s better to know and physically feel the difference your money can buy. Based on your income, how much of it is disposable and how much value cycling brings to your life, you should find your answer. Personally, I wish that I went with carbon sooner.
Spoiler Alert: Carbon bikes are truly worth it, but with higher priced models comes diminishing returns. Just lock it indoors always and when outdoors never leave it out of sight — insurance coverage for theft is not so great I’ve heard.
Some might say you should get a bike fit before buying a bike, and a professional fit is usually by appointment. You can get away with not doing it and still not run into problems for a long time, but a bad fit could lead to injuries and recurring issues. You don’t have to be a “serious” rider to need a bike fit. You will also learn more about your posture and form on a bike.
Some of us have a terrible habit of only stretching properly after a reoccurring flare-up comes back to say “hi”. Maybe you can go a while without any major problems, but one day you might push too hard . Stretching every day is the best way to prevent injury.
I’ve found that the quadricep muscles can become much stronger, disproportionately to the flexibility of the tendons and ligaments in and around the knee and ankle. If your connective tissue can’t handle the pull of your muscles, it is not so pleasant.
Lycra and Chamois vs Casual Wear
If you’re not competitive and want to keep it casual, you might not care about any possible aerodynamic advantage of wearing lycra, or maybe for guys wearing tights threatens your fragile sense of masculinity (I’m actually talking about my younger self).
In all seriousness, riding with jeans and a loose shirt flapping around in the wind may not feel slower, but you can be fatigued easier due to the extra wind resistance making you try harder. Not only that but I can’t count how many favourite pairs of jeans I’ve ripped in the crotch from the extra wear in that area. And sweating in jeans feels a lot grosser than in lycra. The padding of the chamois can be game changing for long rides if you are seeking a more comfortable experience.
Although you should check out local Vancouver brand DU/ER jeans which have flexibility and a gusset to prevent crotch-area tears. I am phasing out all of my old jeans for DU/ERs. If you visit their store, you can even mount on a demo bike while trying on their jeans! Super cool.
Gear Ratios and Cadence
This is going to sound cringeworthy to experienced riders, but I always thought that if I didn’t feel a hard resistance when I pedal, I was in too easy of a gear. I’d start from dead stops in hard gears and always try to hold a hard gear on climbs for as long as possible. I wanted an anaerobic workout for my quads, drawing from my incomparable experience with weightlifting. The strategy was also that if it got steeper then I wouldn’t run out of “easier” gears as quickly.
This of course is inefficient. Changing gears should be done as often as your current cadence becomes less efficient to maintain, or for the power or speed you are targeting. Find your most comfortable cadence and change gears based on your ever-changing ability to maintain it.
Once you get the sense of this, you may start to find a preference for the number of teeth in your chainrings and cassettes, and this I would argue is an important factor that can guide you in your next bike purchase or drivetrain upgrade.
Flat/platform Pedals vs Toe Clips vs Clipless
Platform pedals are fine for casual riding, but are not the most efficient. If you’re like many people who aren’t yet serious and your bike came with pedals that have toe clips, you may have found them annoying and have removed the toe clips and have used the pedals as one-sided flats. Or have replaced them altogether with flats.
These toe clips will give you the benefit of not wasting energy from the upstroke of your pedal rotation. It wont make you faster, but your quadriceps won’t have to work as hard. You will also be recruiting different muscle groups when taking advantage of the upstroke.
If toe clips still suck as a user experience for you there are also clipless pedals which require special shoes with cleats. They work great for the full circular range of motion but if you don’t have the proper adjustments, you can really hurt your knees. Get a bike fit.
Seek Outside Information
Many things I’ve learned, Ive learned it the hard way, or have formed bad habits. Sure, a five-year-old can ride a bike, what’s more to it, right? There’s a lot more to it and by using only your own experience and self-teachings you are robbing yourself of having a better cycling experience.
Seek information from online communities, forums, comments sections of products in online stores, YouTube, etc. Talk to your local bike shops, join groups; cyclists are the best type of people to share with. There is both a breadth and depth of knowledge on the topic and subtopics of cycling. It is amazing what you can learn.
Self Maintenance vs Local Bike Shop
The local bike shop is great. I haven’t walked into one where they weren’t both friendly and knowledgeable. When it comes to maintenance and repair, nothing beats the professional, in the majority of all cases. Showing up at the LBS once in a while is for me about community and relationship building, while also supporting small businesses.
Of course it is always good to know how to do roadside repairs when you’re all by yourself or far from home. Some self maintenance can save you money if it’s tight.
If you like upgrades, custom modifications, rebuilding, then learning isn’t far out of reach. With YouTube and cycling forums, you can learn to remove, clean and install all parts of the bike.
Just be warned that bike tools, a torque wrench and a good workstand can cost hundreds of dollars (and possibly in the 4-digits) if you want to be able to do everything yourself. Don’t let that discourage you from learning bike mechanics though, as there may be community bike garages in your area which provide all the tools and workspace for a reasonably small rental fee.
All Kinds of Road Users Can Suck
What kind of cycling article would this be without the motorist versus cyclist debate? My opinion says we need to squash the “us versus them” mentality and re-humanize the opposing side.
It wouldn’t be super inaccurate to say that many motorists choose to follow the safety rules at their own discretion, and at times some can seem to think they own the road. Yet it is also equally accurate to say that cyclists will sometimes flaunt their right of way, claiming that the law favours them, while breaking the rules at the same time.
This goes to cyclist versus cyclist too. They can ride abreast on 2-way bike paths and have no decency to move out of the way when they block up the oncoming lane. Or to make an idiotic comment toward you for yielding to a car when the car had the legal right of way (the yield sign was a big hint).
And cyclists versus pedestrians as well. Cyclists go on sidewalks without dismounting, which unless it’s a children’s bike, a shared path, or it’s less than 30 meters to get back onto a broken-up bike path, is wrong. Pedestrians jay-walk, or walk off curbs or bike paths, eyes glued to their phones, without even looking. They walk in dedicated bike lanes when there is ample signage via posts and ground paint, ignoring the fact they have a dedicated walking lane that they somehow prefer not to use. Yet they are the most vulnerable of these 3 groups, and the least likely to kill someone else.
Basically, human beings in general are can be very self-absorbed or simply lack situational awareness regarding their surroundings. We all make f*ckups. We all break rules. We all pay income tax, which helps build our cities’ transportation infrastructure. We‘re all blissfully unaware of any wrongdoing. We all blame someone else.
What can you do about this? Follow the rules and set a good example, even when it’s inconvenient for you. When breaking rules becomes normalized, then others will copy what they see; don’t teach the next generation of cyclists to be jerks, if you want any empathy for our cause.