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So you wanna take that “I’m in middle school and life is easy” feeling from riding your bike around the neighborhood to the next level. It’s time to get road biking, baby.
All good things! The only real downside? It can feel like there are a ton of barriers to getting started, what with the whole needing a road bike and knowing how to take care of it thing. (And getting those padded bike shorts. Yes, you really need them.)
Enter “First Gear,” our brand-spankin’-new series on starting a hobby or activity in a way that doesn’t feel totally overwhelming. This month, we’re breaking down the basics of what you need — and what you need to know — to ride safely and comfortably (without any of the distracting extras that might make you feel like you’re about to bite off way more than you can chew).
Let’s do this thang.
What you’ll need
- Solid road bike (new, please!)
- Well-fitting helmet
- Padded cycling shorts
- Floor pump
- Road repair tools, including a spare tube and tire patch kit, tire levers, a hand pump, and a multitool
- Bike lock
- Headlight/bike lights
- Bag for your gear
- Water bottle and holder
Ready to hit the road? Sweet. First, you’ll need a solid bike and a few pointers. Here’s what you need to know about shopping — and riding — smart.
Hit the local bike shop
There are tons of things you can buy online with no problem. A road bike isn’t one of them.
“If it’s your first bike, you should definitely buy it in person at a local bike shop where they can size the bike to you, make sure it fits you properly, and adjust it properly so you can be set up for success,” says Garret Seacat, an amateur cycling team manager and former bike shop manager.
Tempted to save some moolah with a used bike? TBH, a new bike will probably be sturdier, safer, and more reliable, so it’s really worth going fresh-from-the-factory if you can.
If used is your only option right now, try to take it to a local bike shop before handing over any cash. The pros there can let you know if you’re getting a good deal and whether the bike is in good enough condition to ride, says Cheryl Beattie, owner of Bicycle Café Kamloops in British Columbia, Canada.
Learn some tricks of the fix-it trade
Tire blowouts and dropped chains happen on the road. Ask a pro at your bike shop to show you how to tackle these kinds of problems so you’re prepared. Some shops also offer free new rider demos once or twice a month, which are worth checking out, Beattie says.
If you’re more of a learn-as-you-go kinda person, pull up some YouTube videos and tinker with your bike at home — and don’t forget to make sure you have basic repair equipment with you when you ride.
Plan out your route
You might not be as familiar with the roads or terrain once you start heading beyond your neighborhood or town. When you’re miles away from home, it helps to know where you’re going, when you’ll be back, and what obstacles you might hit along the way.
An app like Komoot can help you plan your routes in advance based on your fitness level. And it’ll give you a heads-up about essential deets like pathway surfaces, elevation, potential hurdles, and how long the ride will take based on your speed.
Also important: Pay attention to which direction the wind is blowing as you ride and consider how it’ll affect your trip as a whole. “If you have a strong tailwind pushing you, it’s great. But then when you turn around, you have the shock of your lifetime, because that 1-hour ride out turns into a 3-hour ride back,” Beattie says.
Start out slow and steady (and expect it to hurt a little)
Don’t try to go all Tour de France on your first ride. Even if you’re in primo shape, your body needs time to adjust to the experience of being on a bike for long stretches.
“You’re gonna notice that your hands, butt, neck, lower back, and feet will be sore for those first few weeks because riding is a new sensation,” Seacat says.
He suggests easing into things by starting out with a 30- to 60-minute ride two or three times a week. As you start to feel more comfortable, you can increase your total ride time or mileage by around 10 percent per week.
If, after 2 weeks of riding, you still notice that your neck or back is super sore, head back to the bike shop. Your bike might need some adjustments.
Don’t forget the drinks and snacks
“Bring more rather than less, especially if you don’t know yourself,” Beattie suggests. Once you pass the 1-hour mark, plan to take in 100 to 200 calories every hour or two, Seacat recommends.
Because gear is super individualized, it often pays to talk with an expert about your unique needs instead of just shopping generic top-rated picks online. That said, there’s definitely a list of cycling must-haves every rider needs. Consider this your general checklist.
1. Bike (of course)
Again, a bike shop is the very best place to get ride recommendations tailored to your needs and your body. Without some expert guidance, “you can accidentally buy a bike where you didn’t really know what you were getting, then you’re stuck with it,” Seacat says.
For a solid beginner bike, you can expect to pay at least $800 to $1,000, Seacat and Beattie say. For that price, you’ll get a sturdy aluminum frame, a carbon fiber fork to reduce road buzz and make riding more comfortable, and disc brakes for better stopping power. “Be prepared to spend the absolute max you can afford. Nobody’s ever come back and say they regretted spending too much on their first bike,” says Seacat.
Noggin protection is nonnegotiable. Helmets with MIPS (that’s Multi-Directional Impact Protection System) offer the best insurance against concussions. But a proper fit is even more important, says Beattie. “If you’re not sure if it fits, go to a bike shop and have it fit on your head,” she says.
Sure, you can wear jeans and a T-shirt when you’re riding over to your friend’s place. But they’ll be mega-uncomfortable on a longer trek. Stock up on the following:
Padded cycling shorts
Padded spandex shorts with bibs (aka straps) are huge. They’ll keep your butt comfortable on the seat, and the bibs will keep the waistband from slipping down while you’re bent over riding. “It’s going to be a lot more comfortable,” Seacat says. Don’t be afraid to spend big here. A solid pair will run you between $100 and $150.
Tops made of technical fabrics like spandex, polyester, nylon, or even wool are better at wicking moisture than a basic cotton tee, Beattie says. That’s key, because if your skin is soaked with sweat while you’re zooming downhill or facing strong winds, you’ll start to feel like death real quick.
4. Floor pump
Fully filled tires make riding both easier and safer. “When your pressure is low, you can have a blowout,” Beattie says. So you need to refill your tires with a dedicated floor pump before each ride. “You can’t get that pressure with a hand pump,” she explains.
5. Road repair tools
You might not know how to use all these things right now — or even when you go out for your first ride. That’s OK. Have them on hand anyway and rest assured that you’ll learn the ins and outs of road repairs pretty quickly.
Spare tube and tire patch kit
Patch kits are a good bet for tiny punctures, but you’ll need spare tubes for big punctures or blowouts. In other words, both are key for dealing with flat tires so you can get back on your way. Just make sure the tubes you buy are the right size for your tires.
Road bike tires fit super snug to your wheel rim. A set of levers can help you pry a tire off if you need to fix a flat.
Try: Pedro’s Tire Levers
It’s not as powerful as a floor pump, but it’ll get the job done when you’re out and about.
This is basically several little tools in one — think wrenches, chain tools, and screwdrivers. The compact design means it can handle lots of different kinds of repairs without weighing you down.
6. Bike lock
Plan on making any stops along your ride? Then you’ll def want one of these.
Bring one along even if you don’t plan to be out at night. Bad weather can make it harder for traffic to see you, and sometimes rides just take longer than you think.
8. Bag for your gear
Backpacks add extra weight on your back, which you don’t want. A small bike seat pack will hold your repair tools and snacks without weighing you down.
9. Water bottle and holder
The best place for your water bottle? Tucked into a cage that fits right on your bike frame for easy access any time you get thirsty.
Energy bars, blocks, gels, and chews are easy to toss into your bike seat pack and deliver fast energy that you can get down without having to stop.
Road biking definitely comes with an upfront investment, not to mention a learning curve. But you only need a bike, a helmet, the right clothes, some basic tools, and a few free hours per week to get started.
Best of all, the pros at your local bike shop are there to guide you through the 101 of it all, so make that your first stop.