Want to start cycling? Here’s how to choose your first bike, stay safe on the road, pick the right accessories, and most importantly, how to enjoy riding your bike :)
Bicycles are having a bit of a moment right now. I’m not going to explain why, but hopefully one day, many years from now when this is all over, someone will scroll down to check the date on this article and go “Ahhhhh, I see!”.
For now, let’s just say that the trope about bicycles being the most glaring omission from post-apocalyptic movies has been firmly vindicated. (And you know what, one day I might try to fix this by combining two of my favourite things: cycling and zombie movies.).
Rewind to the early summer of 2010. I’d been living in London for a few months, and wanted to start cycling to work like all my friends were. But I was scared — of the roads, the traffic, and the seemingly impenetrable crush of double-decker buses between my house and the studio where I worked.
So one Sunday I borrowed a bike, and my flatmates took me on a test ride along the route I needed to take, from Hackney in East London down to Borough by the river Thames (right through the skyscrapers and madness that is the financial heart of London). Less than 5km in distance, but during rush hour it felt like a fair old distance.
The first week or so was tough going, but I loved the freedom that cycling gave me. And from that point on there was no looking back. A year later I’d upgraded my crappy second-hand hybrid bike to a decent single-speed, and was about to buy a road bike for longer rides. And the year after that… well, oh boy, this talk explains the rest of that particular cycling story.
What’s so great about cycling?
I started cycling out of practicality — it was the fastest and cheapest way for me to get to work. Instead of checking times for trains or buses, I could leave exactly when I wanted, and get there on time 99% of the time too. But I soon realised that cycling was the most enjoyable option too. And you can get fit on a bike without really trying. Cycling on a regular basis completely changed my life, and once I started again, I couldn’t understand how I’d gone through almost my entire 20s without owning a bike.
This was the third second-hand bike that I got in London, and the bike I still ride to work most days even now. An early 90’s Raleigh. Steel is real.
Choosing your first bike
If you don’t have a bike yet, this is probably the biggest decision you’ll need to make.
One way to sidestep it completely is by starting with a basic and/or second-hand bike for now, and upgrading later on once you know what you want. (Or you might be lucky, and have an old bike that you can fix up with the help of a cycling buddy, or get professionally serviced at your local bike shop).
If you’re thinking of buying a new bike, I would avoid the very cheapest models, which often come with basic components and can therefore a false economy in the long run.
So what kind of bike do you want?
- A hybrid bike with flat handlebars is a good bet for beginners and will give you a nice upright riding position.
- A road bike with drop (curved) handlebars will get you there faster, but has a steeper learning curve because the brakes and gears are operated by the same lever.
- A “Dutch” style bike has the benefit of an upright riding position, but might be a bit on the heavy side, especially if your route has any kind of hill. (But if you’re planning on cycling with a dog, this is an almost-obligatory choice of bike, because of the front basket)
- A folding bike is great if you need to do some of your journey by train, but will cost more money because of the extra engineering required to make it fold-uppable. If you’re in the market for a folding bicycle, you can’t go wrong with a Brompton. (Disclaimer: I haven’t ridden one before but everyone raves about them so they must be good. Plus they are made in the UK which is a rare thing these days)
- A mountain bike will do the job if you have one already, but isn’t really the right tool for the job because of the huge tyres. (Unless you live on a mountain, in which case… I’m jealous!) That said, old school rigid mountain bikes are not really that different from the new-fangled gravel/adventure bikes that have recently become popular). Speaking of which….
- A gravel/adventure bike is again somewhat overkill for city riding, but a better choice than a mountain bike in my opinion, because it’s basically a road bike with wider wheels, and therefore will smooth out any potholes or rough surfaces. These bikes usually have disc-brakes too, which give you more dependable stopping power than rim brakes do.
Other options: many cities has a cycle-hire scheme where you pay a few pounds/dollars/coins to rent a bike for a fixed period of time, so long as you return it to a designated spot. This is a great way to dip your toe in the water if you’re not ready to invest in your own bike yet.
As with anything, you can spend as much or as little as you want on a bike, and spending lots more doesn’t necessarily guarantee a hugely enchanted experience for day-to-day casual rides. Starting with a cheap second-hand bike worked well for me. Alternatively you could invest, say, £500 on an entry level bike from the usual online stores, or better still from your local bike shop.
Exploring and choosing routes
Do you want to get to work as fast as possible, or as safely as possible? To start with, I’m guessing the latter — so it’s worth taking the time to map out quieter routes, or asking people you know who cycle about the best options, or even just watching where other people go on their bikes. Most cities now have dedicated maps of their cycling networks that you can order online or pick up for free at bike shops.
Of course when you’re riding for fun, you don’t always need to know where you’re going. Taking a ride with no particular route in mind is an amazing way to explore where you live. Just follow your nose, or follow other people you see on bikes, or pick a general direction and see where you end up.
Staying safe on the road
Sadly, here in the UK there isn’t much a huge amount of goodwill towards cyclists, which means you have to keep your wits about you at all times.
- Expect the unexpected. Cycle like no-one can see you, and you’ll be ready for anything that might happen.
- Indicate when you’re turning and do so well in advance so that cars behind you have time to react. And if you’re turning across the road rather than off it, look behind you first. (see 1.)
- Use decent lights at night time front and back (see 1.)
- Don’t hug the kerb You’re more likely to get punctures from glass/debris that collects at the the side of the road, and it puts you at risk of getting hit by someone opening a car door without looking (see 1.)
- Make eye contact with drivers. Eg if you’re cycling past a car that’s waiting to turn onto the road, look at the driver to make sure they’ve seen you. (see 1.)
- If you must cycle on the pavement, go slowly, and be courteous. Most of the time you should be on the road of course, but if you should end up on a pavement, be respectful of the people who are meant to be there, and ideally just get off your bike and push for a bit. (see 1.)
Looking after your bike
If you buy a bike from an actual shop, you’ll get the benefit of being able to pop back in to get it serviced. And probably a free service after the first year. Getting your bike serviced once a year will also save money compared to riding it into the ground and then racking up a huge repair bill. (Been there, done that, ouch). Love your bike and it will love you back.
There’s one thing you really should learn to do, and that’s fix a puncture. See Getting a puncture in the FAQs section further down.
In general, maintenance tasks are easier to learn these days thanks to YouTube, and whatever you do, please please please keep your chain lubricated with oil so it doesn’t squeak. For everyone else’s sake, if not your own :)
Keeping your bike clean is easy to do, especially if done regularly, and will help reduce wear and tear on components like your chain and gears. I’ll also confess that I’m rubbish at this, and that my day-to-bike usually has a “well-loved” look which I’m going to try and blame on Glasgow crappy weather rather than my own laziness.
The cycling accessories I wish I’d bought sooner
There are three things I’ve recently added to my bike that I wish I’d invested in years ago. In no particular order, there are…
- A bell. So you can let people know you’re coming. Especially handy if your cycling on shared-use paths, or through parks, or anywhere there are lots of people around. (Eg pretty much anywhere in a city).
- Proper mudguards. I started off with one of those mudguards that attaches under your saddle and keeps the worst of the spray from your back wheel off your back. But the real deal is a full set of mudguards on both wheels, because the one on the front stops all the spray from the road soaking your feet when it rains, and the one on the back also protects people behind you from getting sprayed.
- A permanently-attached bag. You can either get a saddle bag that sits behind you, or a handlebar bag that nestles between/under your handlebars (making sure you check the sizing carefully, especially if you have a road bike with drop handlebars). You can also get smaller top-tub bags that sit just in front of you, and are a handy place to store some snacks or your spare tube and tools.
But what about… (insert FAQ here)
Wearing a helmet? Whilst this is a legal requirement in some countries (e.g. Australia), in most places this still comes down to personal choice. Will a helmet protect you from minor scrapes? Yes. Will a helmet protect you from being crushed by a lorry? No. And in-between there’s a grey area (which this blog covers in great detail). In short, cycling helmets are not tested to very high standards, and there’s mixed scientific evidence as to their effectives. I’m not saying don’t wear one, just that you can’t treat a helmet as a silver bullet. There’s lots more choice when it comes to helmets these days. (And I do wear one for longer road rides).
Cycling in the rain? If you cycle regularly, it’s going to happen, and you’re probably going to get a bit wet. The easiest thing to do is just take public transport when the weather is properly rubbish, and not feel bad about doing so. There’s no shame in taking a few months off in winter too, I know I do sometimes. The harder thing to do (but therefore the most rewarding) is to change your mindset, so that cycling to work in the rain becomes fun. You might need a change of clothes at the other end too. Hiking clothes can help, although waterproof trousers are often too baggy for cycling, and you don’t EVER want to be 100% waterproof… otherwise you’ll drown in your own sweet.
Getting a puncture? Again, it’s going to happen, so be prepared. If you only learn one bit of bike maintenance, this is the thing to learn. It’ll take ages the first time, your hands will hurt, and there might be swearwords too. But if you carry a spare inner tube (or patches), a pump and tyre levers with you, you’ll never have to worry about getting punctures again.
On the prevention side of things, you can also get thicker, more puncture-resistant tyres like the Schwalbe Marathon Plus. These are a bit slower and heavier than normal tyres, but give you extra peace of mind. In fact I’ve been riding with Marathron Plus tyres for almost two years now and haven’t had a single puncture so far. Touch wood. Probably shouldn’t have written that down at all. But yeah, they have worked remarkably well so far.
Getting sweaty on my way to work? This is more of a summer problem because in winter, if you get your clothing right you won’t sweat (Hint: you should be cold for the first 5 minutes of your ride). In summer you want to avoid having anything on your back because it’ll get quickly get sweaty. So if you do need to take stuff to work, use panniers or a handlebar/saddle bag to hold your bits and pieces. It sounds obivous but leaving earlier and cycling slower can help you avoid getting sweaty too. If you don’t have a shower at work then a change of clothes, especially for your top half, is helpful. I spent 7 years cycling to work in London and never once had the option of a shower when I got there, and it was always fine, even for commutes as long as 50 minutes.
Storing my bike at work? Wherever possible, park your bike inside somewhere. If you do have to lock it outside, use the biggest, strongest lock possible. Possibly with another cable lock around your wheels to keep them safe. You can leave this bigger lock permanently attached outside your work too, so you don’t have to lug it home each day. If lots of people are cycling to your workplace, you might be able to get some kind of dedicated bike storage arranged.
Gears - how many do I need? If you live somewhere relatively flat, you might not need any at all. A single-speed bike also has the bonus of reduced maintenance, as you don’t have any gears to look after. You don’t need a ton of gears either, just enough to get you up hills, and let you go fast on the flat. This is one of those things that’s easier to get your head round once you start riding, so probably not something you need to worry hugely about to start with, as long as you have some.
Ready for a spin?
I can’t imagine life without cycling. For me it’s far more than just a form of transport. Cycling is a meditation, a form of freedom, and a way to magically shrink a city to human scale. A bicycle is the best way to get anywhere you want to go.
So here’s to your cycling journey. And a few closing words from a poster I once designed…
Ride your bike.
Ride any bike.
Ride with friends.
Ride for fun.
Ride to work.
Ride in the sun.
Ride in the rain.
Ride in the dark.
Ride up hills and down hills.
PS. For further reading and nerding-out on all things bicycle, Sheldon Brown’s website remains the ultimate resource and cyclopedia. God bless his soul.