A Beginner's Guide to Cycling: The Best Bikes, Trails, Safety Tips, and More

Ready to turn your casual bicycle rides into a full-on fitness regimen? We’ve got a plan to get you rolling with technique tips, must-have gear, safety advice, and more. Any way you spin it, biking stands out for its fitness perks, like enhancing your cardio, building strength, and offering a fun way to explore the outdoors.

Science supports cycling's positive effects on your heart health, longevity, and mental well-being. Plus, it can introduce you to new people and offer a feeling of freedom, says Tara Parsons, New York-based cycling coach, Rapha ambassador, and a board vice president for Century Road Club Association, the largest racing club in the U.S.

Pandemic Increased Bike Sales

Bike sales boomed in 2020, thanks to the pandemic: According to the 2020 Year in Sport report from Strava—a tracking app for runners and cyclists—bike users clocked almost double the number of outdoor rides compared with 2019 and the number of bike trips booked by women spiked 72%.

Whether you just got back on the bike or you've been a leisurely rider for years, it's time to transform your occasional spin into a consistent (and fun!) fitness routine. With this expert guide, you'll be prepared to hit the road or trail safely and efficiently.

Turn Up the Burn

Steadily build up to heart-pumping, mile-crushing sweat sessions with tips from Parsons and Frank Overton, Strava cycling coach and founder of FasCat Coaching in Boulder, Colorado. Consistency matters more than the order in which you add distance, days, or speed—you'll increase your endurance and strength as long as you keep at it.

Build your distance gradually

Just like going from the couch to a 5K, you should steadily increase your distance on a bike. Your first goal might be 5 miles, two to three times a week. Then aim to add about 50% more miles each week. Your next goal might be a 7- or 7.5-mile ride twice a week.

If you're already doing 20-mile rides, don't add more than 10 miles each week, Parsons says. Do these longer rides at a conversational pace, meaning you could chat with a friend as you go. A less intense pace will allow you to last longer, so you can enhance your endurance.

Add More Training Days

If you're riding just one or two days a week right now, see if you can carve out time for another day—then another, Overton says. This will help you achieve results faster. Once you start training four days a week, Overton suggests a schedule of one hard day, one easy day, a rest day, and repeat.

Challenge Yourself With More Difficult Routes Over Time

If you're not sure where to start, a local bike shop can lead you in the right direction. Or, download cycling apps like Strava and Ride With GPS. Both allow you to explore existing routes or map your own before you head out. On Strava, you can also view "segments" or sections of popular paths, where you can compete with other users for the fastest times and number of visits—only available with a Strava subscription, $5/month or $60/year.

Do Intervals

One day a week, incorporate speed, Parsons says. Do fartleks—a Swedish term that means "speed play"—and ride as hard as you can from one light post, tree, or block to the next. You'll need free range, so do this on a bike trail, open road, or in the park early in the morning. And then take as much time as you need to recover before you repeat that all-out effort. You want to go as hard on the fifth or tenth interval as you did on the first, so give yourself plenty of time to cool down between pushes.

For your first session, Parsons suggests doing five work/rest intervals—going hard and then going slow, letting your heart rate come back down, comprises one complete interval. Do those five intervals, then ride easy for 5 to 10 minutes, and repeat the five intervals again.

You'll know you're going hard enough on the intervals if you can only get a word or two out. During recovery, you should get back to speaking in full sentences during your cool-down phase.

Start Monitoring Your Heart Rate

Once you've gotten comfortable with mileage and speed, grab a heart rate monitor, like the Wahoo Tickr X. This will give you more insight into how hard you're working. For those longer endurance rides, you want your heart rate to stay below about 70% of your max, Overton says. During interval sessions, you can push it above 70% of your max heart rate for the work periods. Then make sure it comes back below that mark during rest breaks.

The Perfect Match

To find the style of bike that's right for you, ask yourself a few questions:

  • What are my goals for riding?
  • Where will I be riding most often?
  • Is there an environment I would be excited to explore—like the woods—if I could branch out?

Ride Safe

Protect yourself on the roads or trails with this prep list.

  • Always wear your helmet.
  • Tell someone when you're heading out for a long ride, and check the weather before you go.
  • Carry personal identification on you during your rides.
  • Bring water, more water, and a few snacks.
  • Pack a first aid kit, plus a waterproof and windproof layer.
  • Carry a flat-fixing kit, including a spare tube, tire lever, CO2 cartridge or pump, and patches.
  • Always have lights on, even during the day.
  • Wear reflective gear at your feet and legs at night to promote biomotion, which helps drivers distinguish you from the background.
  • Wear clothing that contrasts with your environment. Grays and blacks tend to blend in. Bright colors are more visible.
  • Be aware of the traffic surrounding you and share the road.

Also, always do a bike scan. Check the air pressure in your tires; test the brakes; ensure the chain and crank (which rotates the chain) aren't rusty or out of place; and, finally, pick up your bike and lightly drop it, listening for any rattling or loose-fitting components. It's smart to have a pro do a safety check once a year, too.

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