I spend a little bit of time browsing through the Cycling Advice Facebook group and often I read the questions and they make me smile. My mind is taken back to those days when I first ventured into road cycling and had nobody to ask the same thing. At the time, I honestly didn’t think I needed to know too much beyond learning how to ride the bike, and I had learned that like most people at a very young age. If I picked up a copy of Cycling Plus magazine I rarely understood much of what was being said and that didn’t bother me too much as it simply wasn’t written for me.
Now that I have learnt so much more, I can read the magazines with an informed view. I can now read a product review with an understanding of why the intricacies matter, despite the fact that I ultimately don’t get any more real pleasure from riding than I did from those early few days.
However, if I were starting out again tomorrow, this is what I wish someone had helped me learn more quickly.
1. You Can Ride For Further & Longer Than You Think
I was really anxious the first time I entered a charity bike event that was for 50 miles. So much so, that I laid out my stuff on the floor the night before and woke up early to ensure I had the right breakfast, time to pin my number to my jersey and all the other pre-event steps the organisers walk you through in their detailed notes. When I finished, I was buzzing and walked around the make-shift pit lane (usually a village community centre) with an extra inch in my height and even approached total strangers for conversation. A very unusual thing for me to do it must be said!
And then you realise that the finish line is something that you place in your mind. Had they moved it ten miles that day and not told me, I would have cycled for another 50 minutes but I would not have felt more tired at the finish line. Maybe later that evening, but not on the day itself.
Since those days, I now smile to myself when I go out for 50 miles on a cold January weekend morning and I honestly don’t give the distance a thought. Sure, it is because I am fitter, but mostly because the mental barriers to riding a number of hours simply don’t exist – or at the very least, they have been raised to new levels. My longest ride came in at 192 miles and this was achieved because I set out to do 300km. It was longer than that because the route changed on the day and guess what? The first thing myself and my fellow cyclists said when we finished after 12 hours of riding was that the extra 8 miles would have been really easy to do. We have now set the bar even higher. But I will tell you this, I gained more satisfaction from finishing that first charity bike ride than I did from that ride over three times the length.
2. Riding In A Group Is More Than Just Riding In A Group
When I went out on solo rides I did so when I was in the mood and that was often weather dependant. I had no targets, no fixed routes in my mind and certainly no schedule of when that would be. That was fine. And then I found some other local people that I kind of new to say to hello to and in those discussions we all agreed going out on a road bike together might make it more fun. In fact, some of those people didn’t even have a road bike and bought one so that they could join in.
Riding in a group can be intimidating because you read too much about its dangers. Don’t ride too close, how to use hand signals and a long list of things you must not do. But nobody tells you that when you ride with friends they will help you, you will help them and frankly, they are glad you are there with them and their motivation becomes your motivation – and vice versa. Riding with friends has made me cycle more, discover more roads I never knew existed, improve my bike skills and it has made me a much better cyclist overall. Not just because I have learned more about riding, but I have learned more about bikes; how to look after them, how to fix problems and how to avoid them too. But most of all, it has given me a whole new lease of life as my new friends become close friends who I now look forward to seeing every weekend.
3. Its Not About The Bike
You’ve heard that before somewhere right? When you first start out, you get a little obsessed about what you don’t have and usually that is a carbon bike or fancy wheels. My first bike was a Specialized Secteur which was around £600 new and came with Shimano 105, an aluminium frame and a triple group set. It was a great bike. If it didn’t go fast, it wasn’t because I didn’t have the latest tyres on it, or carbon wheels, it was because I didn’t pedal it fast enough. Make no mistake, carbon bikes, fast tyres and aero wheels will definitely make you go faster because it’s basic physics. However, they should be recognised for what they are which is 80% a reward to yourself because you love cycling and 20% because you actually want to gain the extra km/h that they give you. After all, whatever you get, you will still be riding with the same people most of the time!
4. Bib Shorts
Without doubt, one of the key things that makes a difference to the experience of a ride is how comfortable you are and on the whole that is determined not by the bike or even the weather but by the choice of bib shorts. The first time I put on a comfortable pair of ASSOS big shorts I couldn’t believe it. My own understanding was that the thicker the chamois pad the better. So wrong! I’ll let ASSOS themselves describe how they design their bib shorts the way that they do, but as someone once eventually said to me “if I had £10 for every time I was on a ride and I wished my shorts were more comfortable, I would have ten pairs by now”. As the most significant contact point on the bike, it makes total sense to be as comfortable as possible because it means you get to ride your bike for longer!
Sure ASSOS are expensive but that does not mean you need to spend over £150 to get the benefit. Endura make some great shorts for £100, Specialized shorts can often be bought in the sale if you don’t mind them being a model from 2 or 3 years ago and even Rapha now have entry level pairs that are under £100. But if you can only afford the shorts from ALDI, don’t let it bother you. Just recognise that on the whole, the more you spend the better the experience will be and you will sure appreciate the nice ones when you have tried worse.
5. Riding A Bike Isn’t As Easy As..Riding A Bike
After a few months of riding a road bike I knew how to ride a road bike. Now I look back on what I knew then and smile to myself. Whilst the developments have been very subtle, they have also been really important and have enhanced my riding significantly.
I now understand that using the gears is critical to managing my energy levels in conjunction with choosing the right speed and effort required for the part of the road I am on. Before, I would labour up a hill thinking it normal to be either out of the saddle or slowly turning the pedals. I have now learned that word cadence and how keeping the pedals turning with just the right amount of pressure can be the difference between an enjoyable ride and a leg shattering one.
Likewise, where to position my hands. Being relaxed on the handlebars so that the weight is taken by my bars and not my shoulders means I now no longer look like a gorilla when I ride. More importantly, my shoulders don’t hurt, my back doesn’t get tense and I rarely get headaches regardless of how long I have sat on the saddle. I have never had a bike fit but they make total sense and honestly, I have no excuse for not ever having had one. I do though wish someone had said to me at the begging that choosing a frame based on your height isn’t really the solution. In fact, it could well be your biggest ever mistake.
Whether you have a bike fit or not, learn, look on Youtube for people that can help teach you how to sit on a bike and practice it.
6 Cycling Is Not Free
There is a joke that circulates around cycling social media that says ‘my biggest fear is that when I die my wife will sell my bikes for the price she thinks I paid for them‘. It sums it up well. Cycling could be free and you could enjoy it from a very small budget. But it will always cost you more than you realise, especially the more you do it. I would not want to add up the amount I have spent on bikes over the years but with tyres, chains, inner tubes, cassettes, bar tape, oil, saddle bags, tools and all the various things your bike needs it feels like every month I am having to buy something for it. Add to that the clothing which will quickly go from being single items of the important stuff to colour coded kit for each season and you will soon know it.
Finding out what a winter bike is can also be expensive. Not because they cost much money as the truth is, they might not cost you anything at all. However, the reason for that is because it’s normally your own bike that you are keeping after spending a fortune on a brand new one that you don’t want to ruin on the greasy, muddy wet roads of winter. So more cassettes, chains, tyres, inner tubes etc. etc.
7. Mountains Are Just Big Hills
For the same reasons expressed regarding distances, mountains can initially be seen as enjoyed by professional riders because the only time you have seen them is when watching the Tour de France. Even the local hill, that you sometimes plan your route around avoiding, takes everything you have to get to the top and there is no way you can climb up a mountain that is 20km long with an 8% average gradient when the local hill is 5km and 5%. Wrong!
The first time I set off for Ventoux with friends we had a meeting to discuss what we would do if one of us got into difficulty. What if we were consumed by altitude sickness, ran out of energy, suffered heat stroke or even collapsed. All of these are genuine and real risks, but they are magnified hugely in your mind when you first contemplate such a challenge and might even be enough to put you off. Don’t let it.
When cycling up Ventoux if you got tired you stopped and recovered. If you got too hot you drank some water. There are so many people cycling it when you do that many look older or on heavier bikes (or both) and you realise that you’ve let the numbers get in your head (again)!
Sure it’s tough, really really tough in places, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. After all, ask me how long it took me and I will honestly have to look it up because I have never measured it in that way. Ask me what the view is like from the top and how I felt when I got there and I’ll still be talking in 30 minutes time. If you get the chance, just do it and make sure you have someone to share the story with immediately afterwards because you will be buzzing when you do.
8. You Don’t Need To Be Part of a Cycling Club
Cycling Clubs are great because they can help you meet new people and you will certainly feel part of something when you are doing it with other people that are like minded. However, it’s not critical and may even be a mistake. If you honestly don’t have anyone you know that can join you for a ride then I would strongly suggest you join for a couple of months and sound it out. But be aware, they do like to have their rules and these can be a little intimidating. Cycling people forget what it’s like to be a beginner and there can be a lot of pressure to look right, ride right and be a certain type of cyclist.
Not all clubs are the same of course so it’s vital you make up your own mind, but it is well worth following their social media for a bit and finding out if their characteristics match your own. I like myself to enjoy my riding, go fast at times, ride and chat at others and I like my coffee stops to come with a bacon roll and drag into the wrong side of an hour if necessary. That might not be you, but if it is and your club like to have an espresso stop and then rush off – you might be missing one of the best parts of it all!
If I had a final word on all the above it would be that cycling is often measured in numbers and you will no doubt do the same, as do I. Strava gives us everything we need to know and more and its genuinely interesting to track progress, to compare and to look back on at the end of the ride. Just remember that it is only numbers in a file that is now history and ultimately means nothing. Go out for a ride with no recording device, stop where you want and ride how you want if you don’t believe me. And if you are already doing that, ignore me because you’ve already achieved the ultimate aim in cycling – to ride and enjoy yourself.