Between buying a bike and necessary gear to riding safely, many would-be cyclists struggle to get started. But since about half of your time in a triathlon takes place on the bike, it’s crucial to get comfortable in the saddle. Follow these steps to get riding in time for your first race.
Step 1: Gear Up
First things first, you need to wear a helmet. If you don’t already own a bike, visit a local bike shop to buy one or consider borrowing one from a friend to try out. Schedule a bike fitting, where an employee will adjust the seat to fit your height. It should sit just high enough for your leg to extend fully through the stroke — sitting too low results in knee pain while riding and too high can cause Achilles and hamstring issues.
On rides, you should also carry bike maintenance and repair tools with you, including an air pump, inner tube and a multi-tool for tightening loose gears. Although you could learn from a YouTube tutorial, you’ll benefit from learning how to use them at a hands-on training clinic, usually hosted by a bike shop, says Matt Peterson, triathlon coach and owner of Fitness Pursuit Inc.
Check Google Maps to find the best bike route between two points — including elevation gain and loss. You can also use fitness tracking apps like Strava and Ride with GPS to find the most popular routes that others take or ask local cycling groups directly.
Step 3: Start Riding
Even if you’re clocking 20 mph paces during cycling class, don’t expect to transition seamlessly from the spin bike to the streets. Road biking requires unique skills, including navigation and defensive riding, shifting gears and clipping in.
“[During indoor rides] you don’t have to balance, steer, brake, pay attention to anything around you. It’s kind of like learning to drive. When you’re first learning, you do stimulator classes and you didn’t have to hit the gas or look peripherally or anything because you were just driving on a computer,” says M.J. Gasik, USA Triathlon Certified Coach and owner of Tri Right Coaching.
So before hitting the road, keep these considerations in mind:
For safer cycling, remember you are sharing the road or trail with drivers and other cyclists. Always maintain situational awareness. And especially when you’re starting out, avoid highly trafficked routes. Ride without music to remain mindful of both pedestrians and oncoming traffic. Stay visible to motorists by riding with the flow of cars, signaling turns with your hands and wearing reflective gear at night. Learn more tips for safer cycling here.
Learn to Shift
Think of gears as the road bike equivalent of a resistance knob. “Shifting” — twisting the shifters on either side of the front of your handlebars — moves your bike’s chain between smaller gears and larger gears, which eases or challenges your pedaling effort and allows you to adapt to different terrain and weather conditions. Shift to an easier gear on climbs or when you’re riding into the wind, and use a harder one on flats or if the wind is blowing from behind. Good shifting saves you both time and pain. Find more shifting tips here.
Though you can wear gym shoes with pedals that strap across the foot, many cyclists prefer to wear tight-fitting cycling cleats, which attach by the bottom to clipless pedals — like a lock into a key. Though this results in a more efficient stroke, they’ll also prevent you from placing a foot on the ground without twisting your shoe free from the pedal. This motion prompts many to fear that they’ll get stuck — and topple over — when they need to stop.
To avoid any mid-ride mishaps, practice unclipping during indoor trainer rides, Gasik says.
“I’ll have them put their bike on the trainer, and after five minutes, I’ll say, ‘Unclip your right foot, unclip your left foot.’ That does two things: It breaks [the shoe] in and helps them get used to the motion.”
Step 4: Join SAG and Group Rides
To get accustomed to longer distances, Harrison suggests that new riders try SAG (support and gear) rides, which offer the course markings and logistical support of a race without the competition.
“SAG rides are at your own pace. You can go alone, you can go with friends,” says USA Triathlon Certified Coach Jennifer Harrison. “You pay, you get a bib. They have guys and girls out there to help you if you get a flat.”
Also join local cycling groups, which you can find through neighborhood bike shops, USA Cycling or the Ride with GPS website. When you’re researching groups, ask about their usual riding pace and whether they hold “no-drop rides,” which guarantee that an experienced cyclist will stay with you if you fall off the group’s pace. Slow down on a “drop ride,” though, and you’ll get, well, dropped. Steer clear of those more aggressive rides until you can hit their pace. Soon enough, you’ll be in the pack.
About the Author
Kathleen McAuliffe is a journalism student, freelance writer, marathon runner and triathlete pursuing certifications in personal training and run coaching. After experiencing the empowering and transformational effect of fitness on her life, she hopes to help others experience those same benefits.