A Beginner’s Guide to Biking

This is a guest post from my friend and cycling fanatic Jim Hodgson

Hello and welcome to cycling, friend!

We are glad to have you, even if you haven’t actually bought a bike yet. Like becoming a real estate salesman or web designer, literally anyone can become a cyclist merely by declaring that they are one.

Congratulations on taking that step! Your life just got better.

Of course, eventually you will likely want to get yourself a physical bicycle. Riding an imaginary bicycle around your neighborhood is generally frowned upon these days.  So let’s get started, shall we?

Who the hell is Jim?

“Biking may be great,” you’re probably thinking, “But who the hell might you be to tell me so?” A question well-asked, hypothetical reader.

My name is James C. Hodgson, Jr.. My friends call me Jim, but you can call me James C. Hodgson, Jr.. I’m a former 320+ pounds male person (that’s a picture of me back then) who now hovers in the 220 range depending on season (Winter is beer season). I rode bikes as a kid and always liked it, but gave it up after middle school in favor of a policy of becoming profoundly overweight and out of shape.

Sometime around the year 2000 or so, at the age of 26, I stepped on a scale, and the needle wheezed its way around the dial so far it simultaneously shrugged its little shoulders and screamed in pain.  Realizing that something had to be done and remembering my childhood enjoyment of riding my BMX bike (a Torker II) everywhere I wanted to go, I bought a BMX bike (a dk S.O.B.) off of eBay and began riding it to work.

I dropped 60lbs pretty much effortlessly doing this, which was pretty sweet.

Not long after that, a work buddy of mine recognized that I owned and rode a mountain bike now and again. He asked me out of the blue if I’d like to do a triathlon.

I said “Okay, let’s do a triathlon, whatever that is.” I bought an entry-level road bike (a Specialized Allez Elite), and started riding farther and farther. I signed up for a sprint distance triathlon in August of 2008, figuring that would prepare me for the Olympic distance Nation’s triathlon in September.

While doing the sprint triathlon, I overhead some other riders talking about Ironmans.  I don’t know what it is about me or my mental state at the time that made this happen, but right then and there, without having set so much as a toe or a jiggly love handle in the water on my first race, I said out loud “I would do an Ironman.”

The other racers regarded me, my love handles wrapped tightly in a triathlon skinsuit, looking exactly like a multi-colored modern art representation of a lumpy sausage, and kindly reserved comment.

In fact, I ended up doing the Nation’s tri in september of 08, a Half Ironman in Florida in May of 09, and finishing Ironman Louisville in August of 2009.

In the fall of 2008, I bought a cyclocross bike (a Surly Crosschek) and raced in my local cyclocross series, finishing 24th of 60 for the season.

At 6’1” 220lbs I still consider myself to be a little overweight, and it’s something I struggle with every day, but I remember how much it sucked to be so huge. Plus I really enjoy athletics, my favorites being cycling and sex. I don’t claim to be particularly talented at either, mind you. I’m just glad to be there in both cases.

But enough about that – let’s get back to biking.  If I can do it, you can too.

Just remember: the big round parts go down on the street.

Why should I ride a bike?

There are a lot of excellent reason to take up riding bikes:

  • It’s a great and healthy way to move from point A to point B.
  • It’s free – no gas to put in, no parking spaces to pay for.
  • It’s low impact on your body.  There are no jarring-impact moments like with running.
  • It’s a great place to start with exercise.  Sit on bike. Pedal. Done.
  • It’s fun!

Cycling has a magical ability to be whatever the rider wants it to be. Fun, challenging, scary, romantic, social, silly… you name it and there’s a type of cycling for it. You can even change what type you are doing to suit your mood on any given day, which is why most avid cyclists end up with several different bikes.

Having done a bunch of different styles of racing and bought and sold a few different bikes, I’m increasingly sure that I’m most interested in road riding. There’s just something beautiful about riding with, and, in my case, ultimately being dropped off the back of, a peloton, though I struggle to put it into words.

What kind of biker should I be?

Whew! Ok, let’s forget what kind of rider I am (slow) and spend a few minutes thinking about what type of rider you’d like to be.

The below list is not mutually exclusive, mind you. You can flip back and forth, contradict yourself, or mix and match them to suit your own needs just like our government leaders do every day.

Mountain Biker – No one loves the outdoors as much as these guys do. That’s why they don’t mind skidding to a stop in gravel using only their faces or rebounding off of boulders during their rides.

Roadie – Have you ever driven up a hill in a car and thought, “This would be a lot better if I were crying and trying not to vomit?” If so, road riding may be for you. You also get a sweet superhero costume to wear!

Track – Track racing is like the freebase version of road racing. It even rhymes with “crack” to make this easy to remember. Do it if you want to be in a bunch sprint without all the climbing beforehand.

Triathlete – This type of riding is only for sociopaths for whom the idea of human contact is abhorrent. If you only ever want to ride alone and you dislike going uphill or turning, you could be a triathlete someday!

Casual Rider – This is, in my opinion, the best kind of riding, where you do whatever you want to on a bike and enjoy yourself in the process. Sounds simple, right? It is!

Imaginary – We already went over this.  Not in public.

How to buy a bike

Truth be told, the best bike for you to buy is whatever one you like the best.

I think it’s wise to get a bike shop’s help in buying a bike that fits you, but other than that, go nuts.  Yeah, suck it up and go find a bike shop in your area here.

Now, bikes do cost money. Expect to spend a few hundred bucks minimum at your bike shop. You don’t have to spend thousands, but you’ll have more fun on a decent bike than a heavy, crappy one from a department store.

If you must buy as cheaply as possible, in my opinion, most people are best served with a steel-framed 80’s road bike. They’re cheap, nearly indestructible, and easy to find on Cragslist.

My beloved home of Atlanta has a great Craigslist, but other cities don’t. People are usually asking way more than their bikes are really worth, so don’t be afraid to make counter offers and negotiate a bit.

If you do buy a used road bike, steer away from 27” wheels and from friction shifters mounted on the stem. Friction shifters are fine, but Sheldon prefers downtube-mounted shifters, and thus, so should we.  A little Googling should clear up these terms if need be.

As long as we’re on the subject, let’s turn once again to the inimitable Sheldon Brown for some thoughts on saddle choice, and cycling comfort in general.

There’s also a web site called bikeforums.net where any question that pops into your mind can be asked. Prepare to be amazed at the infinitesimal levels of bicycle minutiae over which flame wars can start. Still, they have some great guides and tons upon tons of info.

You can also check out the newly formed Biker’s Guild on the Nerd Fitness Forums

Lots of people get mountain bikes for their first bike, and I think it’s a mistake. They are heavy and slow because they’re meant for trail riding on mountains. I don’t know about you, but I don’t use a mountain to get places often. My house is on a “road,” and so is my local bar. Road bikes are perfect for getting around, and they can take all the abuse you can dish out.  Yes, “all the abuse you can dish out.”  Remember: I used to weigh 320lbs and I’ve never once broken a bike component. Worn out, sure, but not broken.

There’s also a cheaper bike option called bikesdirect.com. They sell off-brand frames with name brand components, and seem to have good customer service from what I can tell. Even so, I prefer to do business with my bike shop. It costs a little more on the front end, but you get better service overall. A cheap bike with no service support is false economy in my opinion, but many people disagree.

Remember: get the bike you like. If you like it you’ll ride it. Keep that in mind as you’re reading the flame wars and conflicting advice. After all, it’s just bikes. It ain’t rocket surgery.

Other Stuff to buy

Now, once you buy a bike, there are a few other things you should consider. 

Helmet – In my opinion, it is imperative to own and wear a helmet when cycling. I don’t think it should be a law that everyone has to, but I think everyone should of his own volition anyway.

I have had the displeasure of bouncing my head roughly on concrete twice in over ten years of daily riding, and both times I distinctly heard the sharp crack of my helmet on the pavement. I’m super glad it wasn’t my precious melon. Thanks, helmets!

What kind of helmet should you buy? Giro, Bell, and Specialized all make good helmets. Try a few on and get a bike shop’s help with how it should fit.

U-Lock – One of the most awesome things about riding bikes to get places is that you don’t have to park a car. You can just ride right up to the place, lock your bike, and go inside. You will need a lock if you’d like your bike to be there when you come out, though. Read up on locking strategy here.

Blinky Lights – Get yourself a good set of blinky lights for your bike. I like the Blackburn Flea set, but also own the Spok LED light set, and the Planet Bike Superflash rear light.  All are fine choices.

Outside has the unmitigated gaul of getting dark without my consent every single day. It will do it to you, too. It’s wise to have lights in these cases, so that you can be as visible as possible on the roadway.

Clippy Shoes – If you’re going to ride often, eventually it’s wise to switch to clipless pedals and shoes. If you’re worried that they’ll make you fall over, rest assured. You will definitely fall over in them at least once. It’s called a zero mile per hour fall, and it’s a rite of passage. It’s also completely worth it.

Lycra – If you’re doing any amount of riding at all, I recommend getting yourself a pair of bibs. Cycling shorts are nice too (they both have a chamois) but bib shorts are the ultimate in comfort.

What else do I need?

When I set off on a ride, I carry these things: A spare tube, tire levers, a CO2 inflater, a master link, a spare cylinder of CO2, and $20. Everything except the tube fits nicely into a little canvas bag that I slip into my center jersey pocket, which eliminates the need for a seat bag.

I dislike seat bags. The velcro on one side invariably wears out within a few hundred miles, giving the seat bag the appearance of a monkey swinging one-armed from a tree branch. Did I mention I also hate monkeys? Fling poo at me will you? Bastards!

Don’t buy an expensive bike tool to carry on your rides. Any repair you can’t do with the above kit is a ride ender. Take a cab with the $20 instead and spend your tool budget on nice tools to keep at home if you want to wrench on your bike.

Also don’t buy a frame pump or mini pump – they don’t work well at all.  Get a floor pump for home and carry CO2 with you.

How To Ride Your Bike (By Request)

  1. Turn pedals.
  2. Don’t hit anything or fall off.

Getting started is that simple. There are a few tips to remember after that that can help out, though:

For instance, use your rear brake to check your speed and your front one only if you really want to stop. If you grab a handful of front brake on a modern bike it might become a catapult.

Remember when I said clippy shoes were worth it? It’s because they allow you to apply power throughout the whole revolution of the pedal, and to use your whole leg and butt to do apply said power. They’re awesome.

Keep in mind also that it’s more efficient to spin than to mash. This means that you’ll be able to deliver more power for longer if you ride in a smaller, easier gear at higher cadence (RPM) than in a bigger, harder gear at slower cadence. Ideal cadence is said to be 90rpm or so, which is the exact tempo of Cake’s song The Distance. One foot should make a revolution for each beat of the song, or in other words, your foot is a quarter note. Your other foot will be offset, of course, so as a pair your feet will play eighth notes. And you didn’t even know you were a musician!

Cycling is a beautiful sport because it is a sport about suffering, style and smoothness, or as the French call it, souplesse. If you watch the pros ride, you’ll notice that their movements are smooth and controlled even when they’re outputting near the same wattage as the Boulder Dam.

Your body should be pretty much still when you’re riding. Your knees should be in line between your hip and ankle, not out as if you’re trying to climb a pole.

Keep it smooth and supple on the pedals, like the well-oiled machine that you are! Ideally you’ll never be told by a legend of track cycling that your pedal stroke resembles a monkey attempting to get romantic with a football… which is what happened to me!

How can I get better?

Cycling is beautiful and amazing, but the best cycling is also social.

Having some friends who are into it will help keep you into it. Mind you, it is ten buh-jillion times easier to meet people who already like things you want to do than to convert people you already like into doing something new. So, you should go do your local group ride. There’s guaranteed to be a beginner one near you that is run out of a bike shop.  Ask at the bike shop.  Yay for socializing!

If you’re interested in being a little more athletic on the bike — and I encourage it — the more advanced group rides help let you know where you stand with regards to the rest of your local area. There’s guaranteed to be a ride in your town made up of all the local cat p/1/2 and master’s riders. They’ll happily wring every ounce of strength from your body and then drop you ten miles from town, wheezing like an accordion with a hole in it.

Pedaling home on a summer’s eve at 10mph half blind from trying to force my body to stay on the pack is among my favorite feelings. What can I say? I’m a cyclist. I love it.

Riding Etiquette

There’s a tendency for new riders to want to express their liberation from the metal cage of the automobile through a certain free-spirited attitude toward traffic laws.

Please don’t do this.

Whatever we do while riding in traffic will be remembered by every driver who sees us and counted either for or against cycling as a whole in that driver’s mind.

When I was a new rider in traffic, I adopted a Me-Vs-Cars attitude, and it was a mistake. I was in a lot more danger with that philosophy than I am now with my current zen-inspired sense of calm and one-ness with the traffic around me.

Figure out what the laws regarding cyclists on the road are in your area and follow them always!  Google “bicycling laws + [ your state ]”

You’ll also have a much easier time in traffic when you ride like traffic. Don’t hop on and off the sidewalk like a meth-addled cat. Changing states willy nilly from vehicle to pedestrian is only going to create confusion and danger for you.

(Public service announcement: Please don’t do meth or give it to your cat. It’s not good for either of you. The more you know…)

Hit the road, Jack.

Above all, remember that cycling is a fun, social activity.

Wave to other riders. Say hello to them when you pass them. They’re nice folks! Well, except “serious” roadies, of course, but only other roadies listen to them!

If you have any questions on getting started with cycling, leave a comment and Jim will answer those questions for ya.

Have fun out there, and ride safe, cycling friend!

Jim Hodgson is the author of Jack Dick and Other Stories, and the Editor-in-Chief of The Atlanta Banana, Atlanta, Georgia’s local unofficial version of The Onion. He rides bikes for fun and fat management, and is doing a century this year to raise money for Team in Training.


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