Ask The Expert

Top Tips For Beginner Cyclists In A City

Four experts reveal their best advice for beginner cyclists who are thinking about exploring their city on two wheels

City Road Cycling
Cycling in a city is an efficient mode of transport (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Starting cycling in a busy urban environment can be something of a daunting prospect.

But when practiced safely, cycling is an efficient mode of transport which is both environmentally friendly and good for your health.

So, what are some of the key things to think about before setting off on your bike to explore your city?

We asked a selected group of experts to offer some of their top tips and advice for beginner cyclists who are just starting out on two wheels in a city environment.

Here’s what they said.

Be confident but don’t take anything for granted

Professor Chris Oliver (@Cycling Surgeon) Retired Edinburgh Professor and Orthopaedic Surgeon

Cycling is one of the easiest ways to fit exercise into your daily routine: it saves you money, gets you fit and helps the environment.

Cycling is easier on your joints than running or other high-impact aerobic activities. It helps you get into shape and build your cardiovascular fitness.

Exercising for at least 150 minutes every week helps you follow the UK chief medical officer’s guidelines for physical activity.

Cycling fits into daily routines more easily than many other sports activities, and if used as a mode of transport saves time in your day.

Cycling to work is linked with a 45 per cent lower risk of developing cancer, and a 46 per cent lower risk of cardiovascular disease, compared to commuting by car or public transport.

Cycling in a city can be daunting, especially when you are just starting to take your first journey.

Before you start out, make sure your bike is fit to ride by checking that the brakes can stop you and that your tyres are the right pressure (the right pressure is written on the side of tyres).

Don’t pump your tyres up too hard on bumpy roads with potholes. Make sure your saddle is the right height by having a very slight kink in your knee when your foot is at the bottom of the pedal stroke. This gives you the best mechanical advantage and will help avoid leg pains.

When you buy a new bike, the bike shop should make sure you ‘fit your bike’ for you.

When out riding, prepare for weather conditions – layered clothing with a waterproof is sensible. Padded shorts aren’t essential but can make longer rides much more comfortable. You don’t have to dress in lycra. New eBikes allow you to travel further and arrive at your destination less or even not sweaty. It’s pretty essential to wear gloves even when it’s just a bit cold as it can get quite uncomfortable.

Always think about where you are going to secure your bike if you leave it somewhere – and have a sturdy lock. Make sure your bike is insured. Consider riding with daytime lights. It’s always worth carrying a multi-tool and enough spares to fix a puncture, a pair of thin rubber gloves can stop you getting messy, and it’s important to know enough to fix a puncture.

Try to keep your bike clean and lightly lubricated. If you are on a long ride, take water and some snacks with you.

Wearing cycle helmets is controversial, the evidence says that they probably are worth wearing in a city.

When initially starting out, just go for short distances, say up to three to five miles. Getting lost can be problematic and new smartphone apps can help guide you.

Learn to use your gears and anticipate hills, changing up before you need to. It’s better to spin faster with less effort than use high forces which will fatigue you. Try to always pedal at a steady rhythm with a cadence of about 80 revolutions per minute.

When riding in a city, try to be confident and don’t ride in the gutter. Anticipate traffic ahead and think about how other road users see you.

Don’t take anything for granted. Look out for random car doors being opened. It’s useful to scan underneath vehicles to avoid people walking out on you. Be courteous to other road users both pedestrians, cars and lorries. Don’t ever go up the inside of a large truck that might not have mirrors on the left-hand side.

Remember, you can get almost anywhere on a bike and you can certainly use it to replace many shorter car journeys.

You may also find you make new friends, especially if you find a buddy or join a cycling group or club. Most of all, have fun cycling.

Slow down and enjoy it!

Andrew Laws, Managing Director of Ti Cat Brand Titanium

My number one piece of advice for anyone new to city cycling is: slow down and open your eyes.

For all cyclists, the urge to go as fast as possible is strong. After all, going fast on two wheels is fun! If you are on a wide, straight road with no traffic at all then sure, get your head down and pedal like you’re fifty feet from a Tour de France stage victory and Peter Sagan is on your wheel. But if you’re cycling through an urban area then slow down!

Urban cycling is not always the terrifying battle that some ‘hardcore’ cyclists like to make it out to be. In fact, when cycling in a built-up city, motorists are far more likely to expect to have to share the road with cyclists.

Hopefully, these same motorists are also more tolerant of cyclists, or at the very least are more experienced in the way we all move.

But we would be foolish if we tried to pretend urban cycling is a totally safe pursuit. I’m not going to list the hazards, but for almost every single horrid thing that can happen, having a little bit more reaction time makes a very positive difference.

Here in the UK, we are taught to memorise ‘stopping distances’ when learning to drive. The same principle should apply to cycling. The faster you are cycling, the less time your brain has to deal with hazards.

There’s another very good reason to slow down when cycling (in general) – you’ll enjoy your surroundings a lot more.

Shaving a few MPH off your average speed can help you to absorb so much more of the scenery! Remember that we cycle because we enjoy it. Slow down and drink in the fun!

Plan before you go out – and wear a helmet

Bianca Beldini, USA Triathlon Level 1 Coach and Experienced Road Cyclist

Do not opt for cleats and clip in pedals until you are comfortable enough in your environment and trust your bike geometry.

Adding cleats to the pedals adds another dimension to the balance and quick coordination skills required to be able to quickly react to an active urban environment.

Plan before you go out. Find a route with less foot and vehicular traffic if possible.

It is challenging enough to be a new cyclist. Adding in darting pedestrians, parked drivers that open car doors without being aware of cyclists can make for a very dangerous experience.

Always wear a helmet. Even if you are going out for a slow, leisure ride. A cyclist needs to think defensively when in an urban environment. One needs to anticipate quick responses to a fast moving urban street.

Know your route – and ditch the headphones

Nick Karwoski, US National Team Triathlete and Founder of Tagalong

First and foremost, know your route. Even if your city has neatly laid out grid-like streets that are easy to walk or drive, don’t assume that the same traffic pattern will be conducive for a good ride.

I recommend that beginners start by setting a specific mile goal in the initial weeks of riding and map out three to four courses that will cover this distance using an app such as MapMyRide, Komoot or Strava.

Once you’ve mapped your routes, check the elevation or undulation so you have an idea of what effort will be required. Also, take time to make sure they don’t have any unexpected surprises like road closures or one-way streets. Encountering these interruptions when cycling can derail your workout, so make sure the routes you’ve chosen have a continually rideable path.

For the first few weeks, focus on getting comfortable with those rides. Try to stick with riding the same time of day for the courses you’ve chosen, as traffic – both car and pedestrian – may vary in your city given the day of the week or the time of day.

Knowing what to expect and keeping things consistent will allow you to focus on your form and gradually increase your speed.

Cycling safety is always a concern, especially in busy, heavily-trafficked cities. Ditch the headphones so you can be aware of your surroundings. Mount your cell phone to your bike handle so you can easily see your route map in front of you and keep your eyes on the road.

Consider using a heart-rate monitor that will sync with your biking app so you can track your stats with a simple glance at your bike mounted phone instead of having to remove your hand from the handlebars to look at your fitness watch.

And always wear a well-fitted helmet, preferably MIPS, to ensure your protection.

Once you’ve become comfortable with your routes and the experience of city riding, you can start to add some fresh elements.

For example, you can start to explore new routes and longer distances. Allow yourself to get comfortable on the bike at different effort levels. Add efforts that are out of your saddle. Make sure to tighten your core when going downhill to get more balanced power.

Add speed bursts into your workout. Riding in urban environments can be heavily interrupted, so finding sections without lights to allow speed efforts is an interesting and safe way to add value to your workout.

Consider connecting with more experienced cyclists or a pro cyclist to train with you to help you learn the ropes of riding in your city as well as keep you motivated.

Finding groups or pros to train with is as easy as searching social media or Googling apps to Train With A Pro. Getting to tag along with an experienced rider is always a great way to start your cycling journey.

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