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.

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Getty Images

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.

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—users clocked almost double the number of outdoor rides last year compared with 2019, and the number of bike trips booked by women spiked 72 percent. 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 percent 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 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 fully 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, then going slow to let your heart rate come back down is 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 full sentences.

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 percent of your max, Overton says. During interval sessions, you can push it above 70 percent 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.
  • Bring water, more water, and a few snacks.
  • Pack a first aid kit, plus a waterproof and/ or windproof layer.
  • Carry a flat-fixing kit, including a spare tube, tire lever, CO2 cartridge or pump, and patches.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Get the Gear

Accessories for a more comfortable, easier, and safer ride.

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Bontrager Starvos WaveCel Cycling Helmet

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Trekbikes.com

Accidents happen. The WaveCel structure on this headgear features a honeycomb-like design that acts like a "crumple zone," absorbing the force of a tough fall.

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Pearl Izumi Women's Attack Jersey

Pearl Izumi Women’s Attack Jersey-Print-Joy-Ride-Aug-2021-Gear-Products
pearlizumi.com

This top offers a convenient way to carry your wallet, phone, or snacks with three rear pockets. The lightweight fabric will keep you cool (it's made from recycled plastic water bottles!) and has a silicone grip on the bottom to keep it from riding up, along with reflective detailing.

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174Hudson Saddlebag

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priority bicycles

The one pictured is water-resistant and can easily store your safety tools and personal items like ID or credit cards. The bag also attaches to your seat rail and post for a secure fit.

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Giro Monica II Gel Glove

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Giro

They'll increase your comfort when adding miles to your rides, as they alleviate pressure on the hands. This pair features gel padding, plus a moisture-wicking, four-way stretch mesh.

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Bella Bike Short/Regular

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Terry Bicycles

Both will provide cushioning where you need it, but bibs are held up by built-in suspenders instead of an elastic waistband. Most experts recommend bibs, as they're more comfortable around the stomach—key for longer distances. But any cycling short with padding will enhance your comfort level. Just make sure to skip underwear with either of these bottoms to reduce friction. Luckily, these two are built specifically for women, making the cuts more comfortable—and the fabrics are soft against the skin. Terry Bella Bike Short ($116; terrybicycles.com) and Machines for Freedom Endurance Bib ($235; machinesforfreedom.com).

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Specialized Women's Power Comp With Mimic

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Specialized

Every bike expert says the best way to improve your ride is to find a saddle that fits to your width—and that plush does not equal comfort (instead, it usually means more friction). Get fitted for the right saddle at your local bike shop, or check out Specialized's seat, designed to address female riders' needs with patented technology meant to relieve pressure in sensitive spots.

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