How to get into cycling
Cycling coach Mark Turnbull teaches complete newbies through to riders at international level. Here, he explains how you can get started on two wheels.
Keen to trade in your season ticket for cycling to and from work? Want to take your indoor spinning sessions outside? Ready to sign up for your first triathlon but not been on a bike since your teens?
Following the pandemic, it seems there’s never been a better time to get on ‘yer bike, with cycle charity Sustrans revealing that around 336 streets across the UK have been adapted to make them more cycle-friendly. And in a poll of 4,778 British Cycling members, 75 per cent say cycling on the roads has improved since lockdown measures were introduced.
But how do you get started when you’re a complete beginner? Your first port of call should be investing in a bike.
Buying a bike and getting it fitted
If you’re employed, you might want to take advantage of the Cycle to Work Scheme, which allows you to spread the cost of your bike (and kit) over monthly tax-free instalments through your employer.
‘You can spend anything from £200 to £2000 on a new bike,’ says Mark Turnbull, a Level 2 & 3 cycling coach, personal trainer and nutritional advisor at Cheshire-based cycling performance company Sparks Into Life. ‘But if you’re starting out and just need to get from A to B, a second-hand bike will do the job as long as it’s comfortable and roadworthy.’
Whether you buy old or new, what’s essential, says Turnbull, is that you get a professional bike fitting at your local bike shop to ensure your bike is set up to work with your body - not against it.
‘Cycling on a poorly fitting bike can do you more harm than good if it’s not set up for your height and reach, leading to hamstring and glute strains, lower back pain and numbness which can affect your comfort and performance on the bike,’ he explains. ‘A bike fit will give you better weight distribution and balance, and the bike will handle much better, making your cycling much more efficient.’
What type of bike should I buy?
Choosing the right bike can be a tricky task with so many types now on offer, so take your time in finding one that’s suitable for your needs.
Road bikes are designed to help you go as fast as possible on surfaced roads with their aerodynamic dropped handlebars, lightweight frames and skinny tyres, making them more suitable for cyclists training for endurance events.
Mountain bikes are designed to handle rough terrain with their chunky, knobbly tyres and powerful breaks, but the tough frames can be heavy, making them one to avoid if you’re a casual cyclist.
If you’re in the countryside and likely to be riding over bridle paths and semi-rough roads, a hybrid bike (part road bike/part mountain bike) might be your best choice with its slightly wider tyres. They also offer a more upright position, so you’ll get a comfier ride and be more able to look further ahead – great for the urban rider stuck in heavy traffic.
City bikes are like hybrid bikes but adapted for city riding and commuting, with luggage racks, integrated lights, and easy-to-maintain parts. But, if your journey to work involves getting on a train, opt for a foldable bike as many trains don’t allow full-size bikes during rush hour.
And finally, if you’re feeling unfit, have a reoccurring injury, or a particularly long commute, think about investing in an E-bike, which has an electric motor so you can cover more distance in less time - and puts less strain on your muscles and joints.
What kit do I need?
When it comes to kit, always go for function over fashion to make sure you are safe and seen at all times. Your first three purchases should be a helmet, bike lights and visible top, says Turnbull.
‘While a helmet isn’t compulsory by law, it’s common sense to wear a helmet every time you head out on a bike,’ he advises. ‘You can get a decent helmet for £30: just make sure it’s adjustable, well ventilated and has a multi-directional impact protection system.’
Next, you need to buy front and rear lights for your bike. It’s a legal requirement in the UK to have lights on your bike if you’re cycling after dark, but Turnbull says there’s no harm in putting your flashing lights on during the day to increase your visibility to other road users, especially during winter months.
The final essential item you need is a visible top or jacket. ‘Cyclists don’t wear crazy, colourful tops as a weird fashion statement – they need to be seen,’ says Turnbull. Choose something that incorporates reflective qualities, such as the Sundried Ultra High Visibility Cycle Jacket, which provides 360 degree fluorescent visibility, has removable arms for wear in warmer weather, and is windproof and waterproof.
If you’re spending any longer than four hours a week on your bike, Turnbull suggests you also consider buying a pair of padded cycling shorts or tights to improve your comfort on the bike and alleviate chaffing, bruising and pain. If you find the waistband is uncomfortable while you’re bent over or restricts your breathing, opt for a pair of bib shorts instead, like the Sundried Peloton Men’s Training Bib Shorts (women-specific versions also available), which have over-the-shoulder braces to keep them held up.
How can I become a better cyclist?
If you don’t have a driving license, you should definitely learn the Highway Code which applies to cyclists as well as motorists. You can also check out Cycling UK for more information.
If you’re feeling nervous about setting off, consider signing up for some Bikeability lessons (formally known as Cycling Proficiency), where you can learn skills on how to keep you and others safe, such as positioning yourself at junctions.
Heading out with more experienced riders will also help boost your confidence, bike knowledge and skill set. ‘Definitely join your local cycling club,’ says Turnbull. ‘Decent-sized clubs usually have two groups – one for the faster riders who like to go flat out, and a second that will only go as fast as its slowest rider (and probably include a few stops for coffee and cake). Here, you’ll be able to learn from your fellow cyclists and put basic road safety skills into practice, such as signalling, taking corners, using your breaks and gears, and learning to look over your shoulder.’
Additionally, you can hire a cycling coach for one-on-one coaching on all of the above, and even receive online training programmes and performance analysis from your coach via a bike computer or smart phone to develop your fitness and endurance on the bike, or train for a cycling or multisport event such as triathlon. Find your nearest coach at British Cycling’s coaching and instructor directory here.
Once you get confident on your bike, you’ll discover a whole new world of possibilities for travel, making new friends, building your fitness and competing in all kinds of events. The open road is yours for the taking.