For many people, cycling started during childhood with handlebar streamers and training wheels. As we graduate from precariously practicing in parking lots on three-wheelers to roads and trails as adults, the potential for fun—and mistakes—grows. Here are some common mistakes beginners make when getting out into the world of two wheels.
Choosing the wrong bike
First, ask yourself where you plan to ride. Will you be cruising on streets, unpaved roads, bike trails, or a combination of these places? If you’re looking for a fast, sleek, aerodynamic ride to coast through asphalt streets, look into a road bike. The slim tires allow for fast speeds that are perfect for racing, commuting, and exercise.
If you love venturing onto trails, go for a mountain bike, which are designed with shock-absorption suspension. Rocks, roots, bumps—mountain bikes can handle them all. However, there’s a tradeoff that comes with suspension. “Some people buy bikes that have way too much suspension, and it’s sluggish and slow,” says Powell. For beginners on a budget, Powell recommends buying a bike with only front suspension, which will be enough for moderate mountain trails and won’t give you that heavy, slow sensation that bikes with much more suspension can give you. Although they’re much heavier than a typical road bike, mountain bikes typically offer easier gears so that you can hustle up steep terrain.
Some bikes can handle multiple types of terrain. Hybrids combine a more comfortable ride afforded by mountain bikes and the large-diameter, narrow wheels for speed on city streets.
While larger retail stores may offer bikes at discounted prices, professional rider for KHS factory racing Seamus Powell suggests visiting your local bike shop. “Invest in a slightly more expensive bike in the $500 to $600 range,” says Powell. “The return on that is going to be great.” If you buy from a local shop, experts in the store can guide you in the selection process, making sure that the bike you ultimately ride off with is perfectly adapted to your size and lifestyle. A local bike shop purchase usually comes with a few free or discounted tune-ups, which are essential to maintaining the safety of your bike.
Professional cyclist and riding coach Jeff Lenosky loves to recommend local bike shops to beginners because of the cyclist community that can be found there. “You’ll have a better opportunity to meet riders and learn about places to ride,” Lenosky says.
Riding a bike not adjusted for your body and style
Before you ride out for the first time, make sure you’re comfortable on your bike. Adjust your saddle height by placing your foot on the pedal at its furthest point—your leg should be straight, so that when you pedal, your knee bends slightly. Your elbows should also be slightly bent. In this position, you’ll exert less effort and avoid unnecessary injuries. As you start long-distance cycling, what feels good to you may change, so these adjustments might be fluid and ever-changing. Pay attention to aches and pains after a ride to try and figure out if you need to make a change.
Lacking essential accessories
Your state may require a helmet every time you step on a bike. According to the National Safety Council, more than half of all bicyclists killed in crashes in 2016 weren’t wearing helmets. Different riding disciplines require varying types of helmets—a road biking helmet, for instance, doesn’t make sense for intense downhill mountain biking. A local bike shop can help you choose the right lid for your riding style.
Other essentials you may want to consider: a bike lock, if you ever want to leave your bike unattended, and a bike light to make yourself even more visible to drivers. “Everyone should have at least a red blinking light on the back of your bike,” says Powell. Front lights are essential if you plan on riding during dusk or rush hour when road traffic is heavier than usual.
For those considering longer biking journeys, you may want to look into tire repair kits. “It’s no fun being unprepared being twenty miles away from the house and having a puncture,” says Powell. “It’s definitely worth investing in a few simple tools and spare tubes.” These flexible tubes reside within the rubber of the wheel and hold the air. You can repair them yourself, with some practice, after punctures occur.
Other essentials to protect yourself from the elements during long rides:
- Waterproof clothing
- Biking gloves and padded shorts
- Sunscreen and sunglasses
Learning how to navigate your gears is a must, if you want a smooth, comfortable ride. Most bikes typically allow riders to shift on both your front and back wheels, depending on what’s happening on the road in front of you. If you’re facing a steep downhill, choose a bigger, higher gear by combining the highest frontring chain size (typically the lever found on the left side of the handlebars) with the lowest rear cog (the lever on the right side).
For steep hills, choose the opposite—combine the lowest frontring chain size with the highest rear cog. This will help your pedals spin even as you climb a hill. On flat ground, Powell suggests adjusting your front gears to a middle-to-high configuration, and your back gears to a middle one.
“Anticipate your shift before you have to do it,” says Powell. If you try and change gears while suffering up a hill, you run the danger of damaging your bike chains. When you’re in the process of switching gears, pedal slowly forward until you feel all the chains click into place. If you find yourself spinning the pedals quickly, but you’re barely moving, or you’re suffering up a hill and your pedals can barely turn, that’s when you’ll want to change.
Using your bike gears isn’t intuitive at first—Powell likens it to brushing your teeth with your left hand, if you’re right-handed. The most common mistake beginners make is braking too late, says Lenosky. When approaching a curve in the road, make sure to brake in a straight line before you hit the curve—or you run the risk of skidding or damaging your tires.
A general rule of thumb is to use your brakes evenly, or “40 percent front and 60 percent back.” Beginners often shy away from the front brake, because it can be abrupt and jarring if used too forcefully. However, they can be instrumental in stopping you quickly and safely. “The front brake is much more powerful,” says Lenosky. “You want to use slightly less pressure on it to get the same amount of braking ability as your rear.”
Not sharing the road
“You want to ride with the traffic,” says Lenosky. Remember that you’re sharing the road with cars. Make sure to follow all traffic signals, and use your hands to notify drivers of where you’re going. If you’re about to turn right after a stop sign, hold your right arm out horizontally from your body. Another option is to hold your left arm at a right angle, fingers pointed upwards. For a left turn, hold your left arm out horizontally. To signify that you’re stopping or slowing down, hold your left arm at a right angle, fingers pointing downward. Practice these hand signals consistently, so they become second nature to you.
Especially when cars zip by quickly, your instinct may push you to ride on the side of the road or the sidewalk (which is illegal in some cities). Instead, ride in the center of the lane. “You’ll make yourself vulnerable to potholes if you’re on the side of the road,” says Lenosky. “It’s safer to intentionally ride in the road. The biggest danger is when you’re not leaving yourself any room for protection and you swerve into the road.”
Don’t ride past stop signs or traffic lights—this can be a recipe for an accident. Always be sure of blind spots, such as directly behind a truck. And make sure you’re always aware of your surroundings and what’s ahead of you—this means, no headphones, and good eyesight.
If you’re going out for a long biking trip, bring along refreshments. Eat something every hour or so, if you’re exerting yourself, and place a filled water bottle in the holder beneath your saddle. If you’re ever feeling woozy or exhausted, take a break and stretch out your legs.