A beginner’s guide to cycling

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If you took up cycling during lockdown, you’re far from alone.

city cycles

Bike sales have soared, with some brands reporting waiting lists until 2021, while the government has announced a £2bn walking and cycling boost - including pop-up lanes and safer junctions - as a direct response to the number of people getting active since the start of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Whether you’re a bicycle newbie or getting back in the saddle for the first time since school, however, there’s a little more to it than simply powering those pedals!

Which bike is best for me?

Jack Noy, UK marketing manager at German bike specialist Canyon, said: “The first thing to think about is the terrain you’re riding on. Are there lots of hills? How far is it? Will it be on road, off road or a mix of the two? You will also have to think about whether there’s safe storage at your destination and whether you’ll need to carry the bike up stairs or put it on the roof of a car.”

The main types of bike are:

  • Road bike - with narrow, slick tyres and drop handlebars, road bikes are lightweight and perfectly suited to longer distances at higher speeds
  • Mountain bike - larger tyres and suspension to help absorb bumps and increase traction, these are the top choice if you plan to go predominantly off-road
  • Hybrid bike - part road bike, part mountain bike, a hybrid offers a nice blend of efficient on-road riding and some capability off-road. Trekking options with a small front suspension fork and wider semi-slick tyres are perfect if you want to spend time off-road but still retain good rolling efficiency on tarmac
  • City bike - similar in many ways to a hybrid, but designed for city riding and commuting, with fenders, luggage racks and low maintenance parts
  • E-bikes - increasingly popular, e-bikes have an in-built electric motor assisting every pedal stroke, offering the chance to ride further and faster or over hilly terrain

Sarah Wakefield runs Mountains and Memories, offering guided riding and coaching for women in Afan Forest Park, south Wales. She said: “First you need to decide what you want to get out of cycling. Is it purely fitness, being outdoors, exploring, racing or improving your health? 

“How fit and healthy are you? Consider any medical conditions - all of these factors will be important when choosing the best bike for you. My advice would be to go to a local bike shop, where they're interested in your cycling experience.”

The cost of a new bike ranges from around £100 to several thousands of pounds, with many retailers offering finance plans to help you spread the cost. Some employers also sign up to the Cycle 2 Work scheme, a salary sacrifice initiative enabling staff to pay a monthly amount from their wages for a set period in order to buy a bike.

Safety in the saddle

cycling group

So you’re ready to go - but ‘tread’ carefully, especially as traffic builds back up to pre-lockdown levels. “You need to ‘learn’ your bike - after all, you wouldn't drive a car without lessons,” said Sarah.

“Spend time on gentle cycle paths working out how your bike handles you and how you handle your bike. Get used to how sharp your brakes are, how the gears work and how your bike handles on wet or uneven surfaces. Think of your bike as a new pair of shoes.

“You'll also need to know the rules of the road and what tracks you are and aren’t allowed on in the mountains. The best way to learn these rules is to join a social cycling club or group - for example, British Cycling has a ‘Let’s Ride’ programme, including Breeze rides, which are for ladies only.

"These sorts of groups are excellent for gaining confidence and knowledge, while having a coaching session or two will teach you the ‘dos and don'ts’ of cycling.”

Brush up on the Highway Code for cyclists - did you know, for example, that it’s illegal to cycle on a pavement? At night, your bike must have white front and red rear lights lit, as well as being fitted with a red rear reflector and amber pedal reflectors. 

Cycle training for families

A cycle training course can be a great way to improve your ability to cycle safely. This is particularly important when it comes to teaching children about learning to ride.

Parents may be interested to know that this month (April 2021) the Government has announced an £18 million boost for modern-day ‘cycling proficiency’ courses across the country. It says the funding, managed via the Bikeability Trust charity, will go towards delivering high-quality, practical on-road cycle training.

Brought in from 2007, some of the things the Bikeability course teaches includes:

  • developing early cycle handling and awareness skills
  • mastering pedalling
  • preparing for on-road cycling (Level 1)
  • cycling on single-lane roads and simple junctions (Level 2)
  • handling busier streets, complex junctions and roundabouts (Level 3)

For families looking to improve their confidence cycling together, local authorities can also offer bespoke Bikeability family training sessions with an instructor. This can help parents feel confident in a range of scenarios ranging from a weekend ride to commuting and taking the children to school.

Emily Cherry, Executive Director of the Bikeability Trust, said: “Personally, I know the value of Bikeability cycle training for both children and their parents, having taken part in family training with my teacher husband and our children. Now, they cycle to school daily using the skills they learned from the training and, as a family, we continue to enjoy cycling together.”

All the gear

You don’t have to spend a lot of money on expensive kit, but there are some safety elements that will help protect you - and your lovely new bike!

Jack said: “The most crucial accessory, without doubt, is a helmet, which drastically reduces the risk of serious injury. Cycle helmets come in all shapes and sizes, as well as at different prices.

"Typically, cheaper models may only come in a ‘unisize‘ option, relying on adjustment mechanisms to ensure the helmet fits the user. They may also be heavier and less ventilated. As you spend more, you'll find comfort and fit improves. 

“All helmets sold within the UK are tested to the same CE standard, so the protection offered will be similar across the board. But it’s important to check the fit of a helmet before committing. A helmet should be comfortable with no pressure points when adjusted to fit snuggly.”

Sarah added: “As long as you're wearing suitable clothing and footwear, that's all you need; specific cycling clothing can be expensive. But I do think a pair of cycling gloves is important. If you fall off, the first thing that touches the ground is usually your hands! If you’re riding on the road, be as bright as you can. When I go road cycling, I generally resemble a Christmas tree with all the lights and trimmings!” 

There's also bike security to think about. A quality security device might seem expensive but can prove an invaluable investment, with the right bike lock not only deterring would-be thieves but also keeping your bicycle insurance valid. And, just like driving a car, it’s good to know basic bike maintenance before you set off. 

Jack said: “Buy some simple tools and accessories, such as a pump, to keep tyres inflated, and basics including a replacement inner tube to take with you on each ride. Taking the time to learn how to carry out repairs like fixing a puncture is well worth it.”

Apps and maps

Map reading on bike

Technology makes it very easy for us to find new places to explore - but bear in mind that phone signal can be patchy, while batteries can drain quickly in cold weather.

“Getting lost can be quite unnerving, especially if you’re in the mountains and the weather turns,” said Sarah. “If you are riding at a mountain bike centre, stick to signposted trails. If you’re tempted to go for an adventure, take a map or download an app and make sure you know how to read it.

“I personally use OS Maps, which you can view in various forms, such as arial or a more detailed view. You can also pre-download routes, in case you don't have signal, and I also carry a paper version.

“There are also apps available to track you, allowing another person to see where you are. The most important thing is to tell someone where you are going and stick to the plan. Give that person a ‘late back plan, so they can call for help if you’re not back within, for example, 90 minutes of when you said you would be. The more apps and maps you carry, the better!” 

Cycling first aid 

Carry a basic first aid kit, with a sterile tube of water for the scrapes and grazes that cyclists commonly experience.

“Big coverings and bandages are also good to carry, while it’s sensible to chat with your cycling buddy about what you would do in a serious emergency,” said Sarah. “This may seem a bit scary, but it's good to be prepared.

“Make sure you have plenty of fluids and snacks and never underestimate the dangers of dehydration on your body and mind. Always have a plan B in case of injury or navigational error, and always take waterproofs - we can’t rely on the weather in the UK.”

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