How to Get into Road Cycling

Let’s be real, road cycling can be a totally intimidating sport to get into. It can also be really expensive and time consuming. I have come to enjoy a long bike ride on the road, but it wasn’t always that way. It has taken some trial and error, and overcoming many fears to get to a point of being able to check off some major cycling bucket list items. I have cycled the 120 mile Jack and Back (Nashville to Jack Daniels Distillery and back), the breathtaking Cades Cove loop at Smoky Mountains, and many long rides on the historic Natchez Trace. I have also done multiple Sprint and Olympic triathlons. Learning to cycle has opened the doors to experiences I always wished for and hope to continue to add (like cycling in Napa Valley or Shenandoah). Another reason I love cycling, other than a great workout and epic experiences, is because it’s a great way to get involved in my community and raise money for charities I am passionate about. Many cycling events are fundraising events! In this post I would love to share the things I have learned in my cycling journey so far and maybe open your eyes to a new hobby. I don’t believe anyone should be intimidated by anything in life and let that hold you back from pursuing the things you are interested in. You do not have to be an athlete, a bike expert, or really rich to start getting into cycling. Read on to learn more about cycling form, road cycling safety, bike maintenance and repair, and the gear needed for your first ride.

If you are considering training for a triathlon make sure to check out my article How to Train for my First Triathlon.

How to Get into Road Cycling

Cycling the Cades Cove Loop in The Great Smoky Mountains during Fall

Cycling Form

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Cycling form is crucial to your success and enjoyment of cycling. It’s easy to get muscle strain and injury from improper form, so trust me on this one.

Bike setup:
First, it’s important we discuss how to set up your bike to fit your frame. When purchasing your bike, make sure it is the correct size so it can be adjusted to fit your body height.

  • Seat Height (aka saddle) – Sit on the bike seat with your foot on the pedal and your leg extended. Your knee should have a very slight bend, but not locked out. When your leg is extended your hips/butt should not have to move either.
  • Handlebar Height – Adjust your handlebars to be at about the same height as your seat. If you want to be a little more comfortable, adjust your bars a little higher. If you want speed, adjust the bars a little lower.
  • For a more in depth understanding of getting your bike fitted see this Cycling Weekly article

Upper body form while cycling:

  • Keep your neck in line with your spine, with slight tilt upward of your chin to look forward
  • Relax your shoulders away from your ears and try not to hold any tension here
  • Keep a slight bend in your elbows
  • Engage your core and maintain a flat/comfortable back
  • Do not hunch your back or over-arch your back, maintain a flat back
  • If dropping into aero (aero bars described below) keep a flat back, almost like trying to get your shoulders in line with your hips

Lower body form while cycling:

  • Knees should be pointing straight forward, not out to the sides or inside
  • When your foot is in the most forward position, it should be in a 90 degree bend in your knee with the knee tracking exactly over the heel
  • Push and Pull – Make sure to both push the pedal down and pull up the pedal to engage the full leg muscle (clip-ons and shoe racks help do this)
  • The foot should remain mostly flat through the cycle, toes not pointing towards the ground or dropping the heel

Switching gears:

  • Higher gear – go into your higher gear (or harder gear) when going downhill or flat. The highest gear is the largest chain ring in the front and the smallest on your rear gear.
  • Lower gear – go into your lower gear (or easier gear) when going uphill. The lowest gear is the smallest chainring in the front and the largest on your rear gear. 

Cycling Safety

Taking a lunch break while cycling on the Natchez Trace Parkway

Honestly, cycling safety was the reason I waited to road cycle for many years (and only stuck to indoor SPIN classes). It was because it scared me. I was afraid of being on a road far away from civilization in case something went wrong. I was afraid about other cars not seeing me, disrespecting cyclist rights to the road, honking at me or hitting me. I was afraid of getting lost and losing GPS, I was worried that I would run out of food/water/sunscreen, or that I could fall off the bike (especially when using clip-ons) and be seriously injured. I was terrified of the very likely chance that I would get a flat tire or mechanical issue that I couldn’t figure out how to fix and be stuck on the side of the road.

Here’s the thing, road cycling has inherent danger, however, there are a lot of things you can do to ensure your safety and feel much more comfortable out on the road. Here are some safety tips for road cycling:

  • Ride with the flow of traffic and stay to the right
  • Obey all traffic laws such as stop signs, lights and yields
  • Wear a well fitted helmet
  • Wear reflective or bright colored clothing
  • Use a rear light on your bike so cars can see you better
  • Use hand signals when turning – right arm out when turning right, left arm out turning left
  • Make sure your bike has been serviced and your brakes work well
  • Take a class on road side bike repair
  • Get a rear view mirror for your bike or helmet, but be careful not to forget to keep your eyes on what’s ahead
  • Tell someone where you will be cycling
  • Learn your states bike road rules especially when riding in groups or side by side
  • Ride with a buddy or group when possible
  • Learn your bike intimately and know when to switch gears
  • Constantly scan the road for potholes, debris, and other unsafe road conditions
  • Be aware of parked cars and doors opening
  • Find roads with bike lanes or roads that are often used by other cyclists
  • Carry a bike repair kit, first aid kit and extra cash in your bike bag
  • Always pass cars or cyclists on their left
  • Always have water and some quick carbohydrates (like a Gu gel) with you
  • Get a fitness watch that includes an app to detect falling
  • Always check the weather for storms, strong wind, or icy/wet conditions
  • Make sure your phone is charged and stored in your bike pouch
  • Don’t wear headphones. You will be sharing the road with other cyclists, cars and pedestrians, so it is imperative you can hear your surroundings. On long quiet roads, I put my phone on speaker in the back of my cycle shirt, but use your discretion and always make sure you can hear your surroundings.
  • Avoid high traffic hours and busy intersections if possible
Beautiful (and hilly!) country roads during the 120 mile Jack and Back

Tips for First Time Riders

If you were as terrified as I was to start cycling on the road, then you may want to take cycling in steps before doing a first big road cycle. I recommend to:

1. First, learn the proper form by taking indoor cycling classes. Also use this time to try out your clip-on shoes and practice clipping in and out.
2. Next, cycle on paved trails at a local park with NO cars on it. Practice shifting gears and getting comfortable with your bike. Some parks do not allow cyclists, so not to disrupt hikers and walkers, always make sure to double check.
3. Find a lightly trafficked road with a large bike lane and do your first road cycle during the EARLY hours. Avoid rush hour or busy driving times on your first road test and keep it short so as to get comfortable on the road. Tell someone where you will be going and ride with a buddy if possible.
4. Once you’re ready for a longer cycle ride on the road, find a group of cyclists to ride with. You can find cyclists just about anywhere you live, you can check your local REI, local Facebook Cycle groups, or hit up some mom and pop cyclery’s and ask about road cyclist meetup groups.

Bike Repair

Cades Cove Loop in The Great Smokey Mountains

Get your bike serviced – First, I recommend getting your bike serviced every season or before/after big rides. You can check out a local cyclery or an REI. They will assure your brakes are working well, your chains are lubricated and your gears functioning seamlessly. This will help take a little anxiety away before your big ride.

Reattach your chains – I use to put my bike in the back of my car before I got a bike rack and it caused my chains to always fall off. If your chains fall off the gear, just slip them right back on, no tools needed. Place the chain in the bottom groove of the rear cog first, then put the chain over the teeth on the top of the front chainring. Then use your hand to crank the pedals and assure everything is operating smoothly.

Fixing a flat tire – It happens to the best of us, so best be prepared. Make sure you have a flat tire repair kit on your bike or in your car. Watch this video and learn how to fix a flat:

Read this article to learn more important tips such as tightening bolts and lubricating your bike chains.

Cycling Gear

In order to get into cycling there are some definite must have gear essentials. You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars on the best gear, but make sure to have some decent equipment to set you up for success. Check out my list below:

Natchez Trace Parkway Bridge
  • A Hybrid or Road Bike – cost can range from $100-$10,000+
    • Check out this article: 5 Great Entry Level Road Bikes
    • For novice riders, try finding a used bike on Craigslist or borrow from a friend
    • Look into renting a road bike from your local cyclery
    • Avoid using a cheaper bike from Target – it’s possible, but it’s going to be a real hard race without the mechanics of a well made road bike
    • Do not use a Mountain Bike (fat tires) – these bikes are made with different functionality and it will make you slower than average and probably really frustrated
  • Helmet – it’s required in every road race and could save your life
  • Water bottle – your bike should have a cage to hold a water bottle, if not, make sure you add it
  • Bike repair kit and seat pack – most races will have a mechanic at the race (make sure to check), however it’s always a good idea to have a couple tools in your bike. I actually have 2 bike pouches, one under my seat for repair and one on my handle bars for my extra Gu gels, sunglasses, phone, etc.

Optional:

  • Padded bike shorts – this is purely for comfort, but you may also find they cause chaffing, so try a few out
  • Cycling jersey – they have convenient back pockets, but other than that, it’s just to look the part. Make sure you have some kind of wick away shirt
  • Bike rack – if you can’t squeeze your bike into the back seat of your car, you may want to invest in a decent bike rack. Make sure to get one that works for your car
  • Shoe cage – a shoe cage is a great option in lieu of clip-ons (advanced). It ensures you are using both the push AND pull mechanics of your leg when you pedal
  • Speedometer – attach this to your bike to track your speed and distance
  • Helmet Mirror or Bike Mirror – I love my helmet mirror, I feel a lot more confident riding on the road because I don’t have to turn my head if I hear a loud car. Some races do not permit these, so always double check
  • Sunglasses – make sure you bring a pair that fits under your helmet and preferably with Croakies

Advanced:

  • Clip in Shoes AND Clip Pedals – I did not get these until I had a few rides under my belt, but these will help improve speed and efficiency. Make sure you get BOTH the pedal for your bike and the shoe, and make sure they fit each other.
  • Aero Bars – great for improving speed and adds comfort for long rides. Make sure you get the correct one for your bike
  • Aero helmet – I’ve never used one and some look super silly, but if you are getting serious about competing, this may be a good investment

Fun training tip – Get yourself a CycleOps trainer, download the app called Zwift and start doing some virtual rides with friends and people around the world.

Now go enjoy your first ride!

Bikes and Brews, yes please!
Our private party at the Jack Daniels Distillery after our 60 mile cycle ride

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