In honor of National Bike Month, I spent the weekend making a list of the things I’ve learned about cycling over the past year. Namely, the things I’ve learned not to ride without. After surviving Little Red Riding Hood last June despite a savage lack of preparation, I decided that cycling might be the sport for me, so I made a few upgrades to my regimen. I quickly realized they were long overdue. If you’re just getting started with cycling or are stuck in the budget-DIY-version, here are four investments you should make now. Don’t worry, some are free.
1. Throw down for gear and a bike fitting.
This I learned the hard way—literally. Riding without proper cycling gear really hurts! If you’re pretty sure that you’ll stick to cycling, even just on the weekends, it’s worth splurging on some clothing and equipment.
You like being uncomfortable just to save a few bucks? Fine. But those bicycling backaches, wrist aches, knee aches and “other ailments” (you know what I’m talking about) can stick around long after your rides. So get the padded shorts, ventilated jersey, gloves and shoes. To be able to ride longer and have correct posture is well worth it, and ergonomic accessories can help prevent overuse injuries. (By the way, I’ve spent eons shopping for the right pair of bike shorts. The verdict? Sugoi shorts rock. They don’t bunch up in the you-know-where.)
As for the bike, yours should fit you proportionately with your seat at the right height. Gender-specific matters. And side handle add-ons or drop handlebars are great for giving your wrists a little variety.
2. You needn’t head for the hills.
Repeat after me: Gear-mashing is not the only way to get fit on your bike. Yes, you want to build muscle in order to get stronger and burn more fat, and you’ve been told that steady-state cycling won’t do much for you. But according to Bicycling Magazine’s Selene Yeager, “fast feet stave off fatigue.”
So rather than hammer your way uphill on the high gears—especially if you’re going for a long-distance ride rather than a quick strength-training workout—she recommends pedaling faster on a lower gear for better results. That’s called spinning, by the way, and let the sweat puddles in spin class be testimony to its effectiveness.
3. Get more than a leg workout.
Hey gladiator quads. Cycling can tap more muscle groups than you think. A pedaling technique I used last year while riding for 5 straight hours? Switch the muscles you’re using to power yourself. Give your quads and calves a rest by channeling your glutes, pulling instead of pushing as you pedal. It disengages your legs and draws energy from your butt through your hamstrings. Give it a try. You might not be able to walk the next day, but hey, it’s a glute workout.
You can also get an energy boost by engaging your core. In fact, holding yourself upright and strong on your bike is a serious core workout and means less work for your other muscles. I actually prefer to power with my glutes instead of my legs because it uses less energy. I also have a more even, elegant pedal stroke and can better hold my line.
4. Events are awesome.
Like Ryan says, there’s no reason to fear your first race. Events and competitions should not be intimidating. As for support, the people are friendly and the water, food and SAG wagons abound. Not only that, but the camaraderie and the goal are shockingly effective ways to jumpstart a sleepy cycling routine. [See 7 Easy Ways to Rekindle Your Workout Routine and 5 Cheap Alternatives to Hiring a Personal Trainer.]
Need more proof that all of this works? How ‘bout this: Little Red Riding Hood, which raises money and awareness for cancer research, caps at 3,000 riders. Each year, it sells out literally within days of registration opening. People flock from all over and camp out to do this ride.
Cycling events make awesome mini getaways and are a chance to meet new people and see new places. Sounds better than a weekend in Vegas, if you ask me (unless you’re there for Viva Bike Vegas).
A final word of warning
You will probably spend more on your cycling hobby than you intended. This is where upgrades blur into blatant splurges, and you might just choose to roll with it. For example, yesterday I stopped in at a bike shop for a $30 bike light. 30 minutes, 60 dollars and one baby-blue-eyed freckled salesperson later, I was the proud owner of two flashing-blinking-chargeable-by-iPhone bike lights. And I’ll probably still get run over.
But hey, sometimes the toys make the sport.
What are your tips for improving the cycling experience?