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Talking Fitness: Cycling Edition

A guide on how to ride for more than a mile at a time

Don't worry, the aero helmet is optional.
Don't worry, the aero helmet is optional.
Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images

Now that you have a handle on swimming, let's talk about cycling. Cycling can be daunting to some for entirely different reasons than swimming; whereas people tend to be afraid of getting in the water, in cycling it's usually more of a financial concern as people see the Tour de France bikes and think it's going to cost up to $10,000 to get a proper bike setup. While cycling isn't a cheap hobby, there are ways to mitigate the costs that we'll address in the course of the column.

A few notes before we begin:

  1. Much like the swimming piece, this is focused on the beginner cyclist. If you've been riding for many years or done a number of triathlons, this will probably be a refresher course at most.
  2. While this does focus on cycling in triathlons, many of the ideas work just as well if you're simply looking to become a cyclist better able to add distance to your long rides. Maybe you want to finish a longer route on a local bike rally, perhaps some of this can help you get better on the bike(or prevent you from dealing with certain injuries).
  3. Unless I say otherwise, assume that I'm talking about road bikes. There are a ton of bike options out there - road, triathlon, cyclocross, mountain, hybrid, cruiser, etc. - and they all have their uses, but most of my experience is with road bikes so I'm sticking to what I know. If you have relevant information that pertains to some of the other bike types, by all means please add them into the comments below.

Finding Your Bike

TIP #1: Get the right size frame for your body. Many people think they can go on Craigslist, dig around for a road bike, and buy an older road bike for cheap..which is true. However, if you're just starting out, you probably have no idea what size frame you should buy, and it makes a difference. I think shopping for a bike frame is a lot like what women go through when they shop for clothes; frame sizes vary not only within a manufacturer, but between manufacturers because they each use a slightly different geometry when building their frames. For example: on a Felt road bike I use a 54cm frame, but on a Specialized bike I use a 56cm frame. Pop quiz: what does the cm measurement refer to? If you're reading this you probably don't know - which is perfectly OK - it's just a case in point of why you can't go searching on Craigslist to find your first bike right off the bat. The easiest way to find out your frame size is to go to your local bike shop(LBS) and have them find you bikes that fit your dimensions. In fact, while we're on the subject of bike shops...

TIP #2: Learn to love your LBS. Most cities have a handful of local shops that are staffed with salespeople, mechanics, and admins who are almost all cyclists of some variety. They're passionate about the sport, have an amazing depth of knowledge, and are almost always very welcoming of a new cycling acolyte. You know that cycling friend you have who won't shut up about cycling? Your LBS is packed to the gills with those guys, and this is when it's the most helpful. They will walk you through every step of the buying experience, work within your budget, and get you ready to go. Trying to do this on the cheap? Many LBSs have a consignment section where you can pick up a used bike instead of buying a new one. You could go one step further and have them help you on the sizing, then head back to Craigslist to snag a bike for even cheaper, but I'd recommend at least going back & having some service done on your bike at the LBS - trust me, it will need it - so they at least get some money back for lending you their expertise. In the DFW area, I've had good experiences with Richardson Bike Mart & Tri Shop, but they're far from the only places in town. Jack & Adam's was nice to me when I was in town for a race once & seem to be well-liked amongst Austinites I know, but look around and find a place that works for you.

TIP #3: Get a bike fitting. You've snagged yourself a sweet ride on a frame that fits you, which is great. You could (literally) ride off into the sunset at this point, but chances are in a couple of weeks you'll be back because something doesn't feel right. Instead of firing out the front door with your bike, sign up for a basic fitting. The LBS will put you on a trainer and watch you ride, occasionally stopping you to take a handful of measurements on your knees & shoulders. Much in the same way your bike frame has a specific geometry, so too does your body when it's on a bike. The measurements they're taking are to make sure your knees, arms, and back are within an acceptable range, which helps prevent problems down the road. It's not uncommon for people on the wrong size (or incorrectly fit) bike to develop neck, back, or knee issues as they increase their mileage. In a world of expensive - and sometimes unnecessary - options, a proper bike fit is pound for pound the best money you can spend when buying a road bike.

TIP #4: Learn how to change a tire. When you buy a bike, they will usually suggest buying a tire changing kit as well. This generally takes the form of a bag that hangs off the back of your bike seat & contains - assuming you're buying a bike with clincher tires, not tubular - a spare tube, some tire levers, and a CO2 canister & trigger mechanism. I'd highly suggest taking them up on this kit as well as buying a couple extra tubes and a bike pump while you're there. There's a good chance they'll have a free class on how to change a tire, sign up for that class. The last thing you want to do is be out on the side of the road trying to figure this all out. It's not a terribly difficult process, but it gets easier with practice. The first time you try to change a tube, it's probably going to take you 30 minutes and involve a number of 4-letter words; by the 10th time you'll be able to do it in much more quickly and without offending a bus full of children. It's a very handy skill to learn, and if this guy can do it, so can you.

TIP #5: Don't buy tubular wheels. Once upon a time, tubular wheels were the only real option, and some people still swear by them. They have certain benefits to riders of a certain caliber - meaning none of you and definitely not me either - but for the weekend cyclist there's not an appreciable benefit over clinchers. A small segment of cyclists can change out a tubular as quickly as a clincher, but for the rest of us mortals it's a pretty easy choice.

So Many Accessories

TIP #6: Wear a helmet. About a month after I bought my first road bike, I was near the end of a 2 hour ride on White Rock Trail when I rounded a blind curve and saw another cyclist headed towards me. I swung out wide to miss him and managed to wedge my front wheel into the side of the path, sending me over the handlebars and into the side of a metal bridge at about 25mph. After (slowly) regaining an understanding of the world around me and (slowly) walking myself to my car, I (slowly) drove myself to a hospital that was down the street. I crimped my bike frame (which the LBS said they'd never seen before, so...hooray?), cracked my helmet, separated my shoulder, and ended up with a couple road rash scars. The only reason I don't currently eat apple sauce through a straw is because I was wearing a helmet. And I'm out of straws. WEAR A HELMET.

TIP #7: Buy the funny shorts. I know cycling shorts look dumb & they don't seem like they have much purpose when you see people riding by, but that's because the important part is hidden. Ladies & gentlemen, I'd like to introduce you to your new best friend: the chamois. (It's generally pronounced 'shammy'.) The chamois gives you some extra padding - which is nice - from the bike seat, but that's not really the main purpose. While there are a lot of potential hazards for anyone putting in miles on the road - stray dogs, potholes, soccer moms texting while driving their brood to the game - the hazard that doesn't get as much press is the one you will reckon with if you don't wear cycling shorts: friction. Friction is the silent assassin, the quiet pain that you won't notice until you strip off your 1990s Russell brand gym shorts, hop into the shower, and the water hits your most sensitive of areas. When you're having to soap down a part of your body that feels like somebody handed Guy Fieri an 8-ball & a cheese grater and told him your taint held the secret recipe to a new form of deep-fried butter sticks, you'll be a convert to the Spandex Church.

Lesson learned.

Lesson learned.

TIP #8: Body Glide is your friend. Because sometimes the chamois isn't enough to fend off The Force That Shall Not Be Named, especially if you're one of our more hirsute readers. The more body hair you have, the more sources of friction you're going to encounter on a ride. There are alternatives to Body Glide, such as Chamois Butter; feel free to try them all out & see if one works better for you than the others.

TIP #9: Buy shoes & clipless pedals. You don't have to do this off the bat - especially if you're trying to keep the budget low - but if you ride enough you should get to a point where switching the baskets & tennis shoes for clipless pedals & cycling shoes makes sense. The main advantage of these shoes & pedals is that you're able to more efficiently transfer power from your legs to the bike than if you're not clipped in, and as you progress as a cyclist this will become more important. It also allows you to more effectively 'spin' (we'll get into this soon) which helps you as you start to ride longer distances.

TIP #10: Pay attention to your junk. Look, there's no two ways around it, cycling is painful on your butt at first. In your daily life, your sit bones don't get a lot of action - or maybe they do, I'm not here to judge - so they don't react well to sitting on a bike saddle for a couple of hours. Much in the same way learning to play guitar can be painful on your fingers, cycling can be painful on your ass. Much in the same way you build callouses on your fingers learning to play guitar, your sit bones will get used to cycling if you ride regularly. (If you only ride once in a blue moon, you'll never stop dealing with this. Half the reason I ride on a trainer in the winter is to not go through the, uh, 'reacclimation process' in the spring.) That's one kind of pain, but it's not the kind I'm talking about. There's another kind of pain that can happen to both men & women but is significantly more prevalent (and painful) in men, it's called Cyclist's Syndrome. The Cliff's Notes version: you can sit on a nerve that causes numbness in your dick, which is a uniquely nerve-wracking experience. If you let it happen repeatedly, the effects can be long-term. There are two ways to fix this problem: the aforementioned bike fit or getting a different saddle. I had this issue early on and switched to a line of Adamo saddles that alleviate the issue by adopting a design that looks like they wrapped an Excelsior Class star ship in leather.

Phasers sold separately.

Phasers sold separately.

Before we move onto the actual riding, let's take a moment to talk about prices because I'm sure the cash register in your head is ringing loudly. It is true that this hobby can consume entire paychecks without the slightest hint of remorse, rampaging through your budget like Scipio running through a Ninja Warrior course on the tail end of a 3-day fish oil bender. There really is no limit to the high end of the budget, but there is a low end limiter in the bike itself. A decent entry-level road bike is likely going to be at least $500 if you buy it new, and after you add in the bike fit, shoes, pedals, a couple of pair of bike shorts, etc., you're going to be approaching the $1k mark pretty quickly. There are ways around this, namely skipping the shoes/clipless pedals & buying a used bike which can cut this bill nearly in half if you're diligent in your efforts. Alternatively, mountain bikes tend to start at a lower price point, so if you're not married to the idea of a road bike you could try your hand at mountain bikes at a lower initial cost than a new road bike. (Mountain bike owners please correct me if I'm wrong about this.)

Get to the Riding, Already

TIP #11: NO HEADPHONES. I love music as much as anyone, but seriously, don't do it. If you're out on an open road, you need to be aware of your surroundings. Screw that, you need to be hyper-aware of your surroundings. In the state of Texas, bicycles are legally considered the same as motor vehicles. This means you have to be on the street unless there's an explicitly-designated bike path. This means you're sharing the road with every one else, and it pays to be able to hear everything from another cyclist announcing their presence to the F350 preparing to coal roll you when you're in a 2-lane road.

This f'ng guy.

This f'ng guy.

You need to pay attention, particularly in a state like Texas that at best is unaware cyclists exist and at worst treats cyclists like target practice. Leave the iPod at home if you're getting on public streets, it could literally save your life. On the same note, take your whole lane, and I mean plant yourself dead in the middle of it. You're legally entitled to it(unless it's a 2-lane road) and it discourages drivers from buzzing you using half of your lane. You need to own your piece of the road.

(Personal note to drivers: I get it, we're in the way. I do my best to stay off the main roads, to stay out of rush hour, and to otherwise reduce my impact on traffic as much as is legally possible. I realize me being on the road is a burden & largely the product of a half-assed solution from our legislators so I try to minimize my presence in your world. All I ask is you realize that you can kill me with your impatience. The chamois stops chafing, not a side mirror. I like living, you like low insurance rates and a commute free of police interrogation; let's be pragmatic in our asphalt entanglement.)

TIP #12: Watch the road. I'm not talking about cars - though obviously you need to keep an eye for them - so much as I am about the condition of the road you're on. Road bikes have skinny tires that don't handle cracks or railroad tracks (always cross railroad tracks as close to perpendicular as possible, trust me on this) so you need to keep an eye on what's in front of you. Also, running over branches or similar road debris is a quick way to ensure you're practicing that tube change on the side of the road sooner than you expected. Or worse.

Hey what's tha-

Hey what's tha-

TIP #13: Find some group rides in your area. If the idea of braving city streets is intimidating, consider finding a group ride in the area. A large portion of them start at a LBS and have a standard route you can find online. They have speeds & distances in all varieties, usually including a couple of no-drop(meaning there's somebody on the back riding as slowly as the slowest rider) rides you can try out. Riding in a group is generally safer than riding by yourself because drivers are more apt to notice 20-30 riders than a single cyclist. You can also use the rides as a way to test your limits and potentially move up to faster groups over time. It's a great way to figure out what you're good at and what needs work. If nothing else, maybe you make some cycling friends you can ride with outside of the groups.

TIP #14: Learn how to spin. I'm not talking about the hell caves in your gym where an over-caffeinated 24 year old scream-cries motivational poster sayings as you try not to stare at the lycra-clad ass of the 35 year old soccer mom in front of you; I'm talking about spinning. Most beginners mash the pedals, stomping on them because it feels productive. It makes sense, you want to feel like you're working, but it's detrimental to your goal. Instead of sitting in a big gear turning over at 70-80 rpm, try dropping down a gear or two and spin faster at 90-100 rpm. It's going to be a bit uncomfortable at first but if you can get used to it, you'll be more efficient in applying power to the wheels which results in using less energy to get where you're going. Similar to some of the swimming tips, the more efficiently you allocate power, the easier it is to increase distance.

TIP #15: Don't try to beat the hill, try to survive it. We all like to think we're stronger than we actually are and in the middle of a ride a hill can stoke your competitive desire to make that hill submit to you, but believe me when I say this: hills are undefeated for a reason. None of us are training for Le Tour, we don't have money riding on our performance. You might be able to take the first one out by hammering up the incline at 500 watts, but each time you do that you're lighting a match and you only have so many matches in your matchbook. The better plan is to drop down a few gears & try to spin up the incline. You may end up in your smallest gear cranking along at 60 rpm, which is still better for your long-term ride than trying to take out a 4% incline in the big ring. You'll end up on the other side of the hill with more energy, and you'll probably finish the entire ride faster than if you were hammering up the inclines. Oh, and don't stop pedaling when you hit the top of the hill, keep pedaling lightly as you go down the other side. It helps flush out some of that lactic acid you built up climbing the hill in the first place.

Shut up, legs!

Shut up, legs!

TIP #16: Use the front brake sparingly. If you clamp down on the rear brake, you leave a skinny tire track on the road & maybe fishtail a bit. If you clamp down on the front brake..

He's not getting her number.

He's not getting her number.

TIP #17: Gadgets are your friend. Different electronics have different uses and can give you different levels of information, and as with everything else in this sport, depending on your budget you can go far down the statistical rabbit hole. A simple cadence/speed sensor is an inexpensive place to start and from there you can progress to heart monitors and power meters if you feel like dropping a good chunk of cash(though they're steadily getting cheaper). It all depends on your wallet & your interest level. If you're starting out, the cadence/speed sensors are a good bet and you can get heart rate monitors for under $100 depending on what capabilities you want. As you increase your fitness & distance, they can become more vital in helping you dole out your energy at a sustainable pace for longer periods of time. I have a Garmin Edge on my bike that I pair with a Mio wristband(for HR) and Quarq power meter, so I've got a ton of information coming out of every ride, but I'm also an incurable data nerd so I like digging into this stuff. Start with a simple wired cadence/speed sensor system and add more later if you like.

TIP #18: Learn how to take in nutrition on the bike. With a little practice, it's not hard to eat a Gu or Uncrustable while riding. And while nutrition is important, it's worth mentioning that you're not going to need that much of it on an average ride. If you've eaten properly during the day, you shouldn't need to take any food on a ride that's shorter than 90 minutes or so. Ditch the Gatorade & 'sports' drinks for the hour ride & drink water instead. If you cramp up during an hour ride it's not because you sweat out electrolytes, it's because you're not in the shape you may think. Which is perfectly OK, by the way, that's why you're riding in the first place. You'll get better with practice, and you won't need as many calories as you think(because you're not burning as many calories as you think).

TIP #19: Don't ride a tandem bike with your significant other unless you're looking to jump start a divorce. If you want to see the unvarnished truth of how strong your relationship is, a tandem bike is a quick way to find out. If you and your partner can work well together on a tandem bike, you'll last forever.

TIP #20: Have fun. This probably sounds hacky & simplistic, but it's true. I try to make sure I have fun on my rides; whether it's trying to catch somebody ahead of me or blowing past a radar gun as fast as I can, it's important to remember that riding a bike is actually really fun. Even if I'm out doing power intervals and turning myself inside out for 20 minutes at a time, I still keep an eye on the speedometer and grin a little when it climbs. If you make it a priority to enjoy your workout, it stops being a workout and becomes a fun activity. The more fun you have, the more likely you are to continue riding, so go out and have a good time on the bike.