How to start cycling: A beginner’s guide

Emilee Geist

From the best bike worth buying to the essential safety equipment you shouldn't leave home without, this is your go-to guide to cycling: iStock
From the best bike worth buying to the essential safety equipment you shouldn’t leave home without, this is your go-to guide to cycling: iStock

As we head into the ninth week of lockdown and we’re allowed to exercise as much as we want now, you may be feeling a little restless with your daily exercise and want to try something new.

Which is where cycling comes in. Not only will it keep you fit, but it’ll also help you get the most out of your time outdoors. ​

Sam Jones from Cycling UK told The Independent: “Although government guidance from Wednesday 13 May allows for additional forms of exercise to be taken, cycling remains one of the best in terms of safely maintaining social distancing.”

Aside from a form of exercise, as lockdown restrictions ease and people start returning to work, cycling is also being encouraged by the government as a better mode of transport – along with driving.

It’s a good way to avoid coming into close contact with people as people do on buses, trains and Tubes.

Last week the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, announced there would be a £250m fund to improve cycling infrastructure as well as a voucher scheme for cycle repairs.

There’s already Cyclescheme in place, which is a work benefit many companies offer to employees, encouraging them to ride to work. It means you can save between 25-39 per cent on buying a bike and equipment too, which is taken from your pay at source, and you don’t pay anything upfront.

Whether you’re considering starting to cycle to work, or taking it up as a new form of exercise, go to our cycling section for all of our tried and tested reviews of everything from folding bikes to bike lights and bike locks.

But if you’re unsure where to start, or are overwhelmed by all the different equipment, or simply want to get back on the saddle after a while, then we have the tips, tools and things you need to get started or pick up where you left off.

You can trust our independent round-ups. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps us to fund journalism across The Independent.

Which bike do you need?

Craig Myers, recreation manager for British Cycling UK explains that you don’t need to spend a fortune to get the best bike for your needs.

“It’s a common misconception that cycling is an expensive activity and you certainly don’t need to pay a lot of money if you’re just looking for something to get you from A to B. The important thing is that you choose a bike that is comfortable for you and is fully roadworthy,” he says, recommending to speak with friends who already cycle for recommendations too.

There’s a huge range of bikes from those specifically designed to use just on the road, to mountain bikes, racing bikes and hybrid bikes which can combine certain elements of different things to make them more suitable to all of your needs. There’s also folding bikes, which are great for commuting in cities, as you can get on trains easier and even take them into offices and neatly fold them at the end of a desk.

Then there’s electric bikes which do more of the work for you, and also mean you won’t turn up to work looking like you’ve done a full work out.

When trying to choose a bike, Jones said: “The most important thing is to think what you are mostly going to use the bike for.

“You could buy an ultra-light carbon framed road bike which will look amazing and cost you a hefty sum, but if all you really need is something to get you three miles to work and back, then the top-range bike is not really what you need. If you are only undertaking short journeys, a hybrid bike, which comes with racks and mudguards, might be more suitable, and is also going to be a more affordable option.”

If you do want the luxury of a little extra help, it does come with a more premium price tag. In our IndyBest review of electric bikes, the Brompton electric (Brompton, £2,775) came out on top as a worthy investment. It’s as efficient, easy to fold and portable to carry as the original version, however, the electric one has a battery which sits in a compact bag that clips to the front, with the motor driving the front wheel.

Portable, compact and easy to fold down, the Brompton electric is ideal if you're limited on storage space
Portable, compact and easy to fold down, the Brompton electric is ideal if you’re limited on storage space

Our reviewer said: “This is a set-up that’s designed differently from most other electric models: simply remove the bag and plug it in to charge. There’s also a larger briefcase bag with the battery in, available as an optional extra (£130).”

Another bicycle style that is nifty and easy to use in cities is folding bikes. The Original Brompton S6L (Halfords, £1,130) also topped our IndyBest round-up of folding bikes too.

While perfect for a commute, it’s still easily portable and compact if you don’t have the storage space in your home, especially if you’re flat sharing.

The long seat post and a small, rubber suspension block built into the rear assembly make for a comfy ride, while the 16in wheels allow for good acceleration.

The original Brompton foldable bicycle is easy to fold in about 20 seconds with practice
The original Brompton foldable bicycle is easy to fold in about 20 seconds with practice

According to our reviewer: “The smaller wheel size also means they are super strong – important on rutted roads – and they are shod with excellent Schwalbe marathon racer tyres. Brompton offers an almost limitless range of customisable options, including gearing and handlebar shape, so you can tailor your perfect machine.”

With practice, you should be able to fold one in about 20 seconds.

What safety equipment do you need?

Once you’ve got your bike sorted, there are a handful of essentials tools you need to make sure your rides are safe.

Myers said: “You should always carry a spare inner tube, tyre levers, a multi-tool and pump with you while out riding, and be familiar with how to use them.”

It goes without saying that you should always wear a helmet, to keep you cool, agile and most importantly protected. The POC omne air spin (Sigma Sports, £119) impressed us in our IndyBest guide to cycling helmets, that’s aimed at gravel riders, road racers and commuters.

A helmet is an essential part of any cyclists kit and will keep you safe on the road
A helmet is an essential part of any cyclists kit and will keep you safe on the road

It was the rounded design with a shiny hard shell finish that fits well that won our reviewer over, along with the has nice thin straps and a highly adjustable retention cradle.

A no-brainer is to keep your phone with you in case you need help, and of course, check the forecast before you head out.

If you are going out when it’s dark, make sure you have a high visibility jacket to keep you safe. In our round-up of the best reflective cycling jackets for women, we tested totally reflective jackets that make you glow in the dark to smart hi-vis gilets and the winner was the Reflect360 plus women’s cycling jacket (Proviz Sports, £119.99).

This fully reflective jacket will make you very visible at night, especially if you're cycling on poorly lit roads
This fully reflective jacket will make you very visible at night, especially if you’re cycling on poorly lit roads

It’s covered with millions of tiny glass beads, making it 100 per cent reflective at nighttime, but it will still look completely normal by day.

Our reviewer noticed the biggest change in drivers’ behaviour when riding in this jacket: cars gave her more space, and because the whole sleeve lights up, she felt much safer signalling turns on dark roads.

The jacket is waterproof but mesh-lined, and has great ventilation, which means you don’t feel uncomfortably sweaty on long rides. Other features are quietly luxurious: the fleece-lined collar, generous chest and back pockets, for example.

As summer slowly approaches, your rides may be getting hotter by the day, so it’s important to pick cycling clothes that will keep you cool while you work up a sweat.

This merino wool cycling jersey not only will keep you cool during summer cycling, but it breaks down in a landfill, unlike man-made fabrics
This merino wool cycling jersey not only will keep you cool during summer cycling, but it breaks down in a landfill, unlike man-made fabrics

Our favourite is the Ashmei croix de fer (Ashmei, £128) made in understated merino wool that will cleverly keep you warm in the winter and cool in the summer. The smart grey design features a strip of iron crosses on the back and on the chest – a nod to the Croix De Fer, a high mountain pass on the Tour de France where a cross resides.

Plan your rides

According to Myers, if you’re looking to build up your confidence on a bike it can be a good idea to first head to a park or quiet road, ideally with a good smooth surface.

Start small and build up to larger rides is the advice from Jones. “A park or your garden can be a good place to take your first steps but if heading to the latter, try to pick a quiet area where not many people congregate or a quiet time of day”.

British Cycling has set up Let’s Ride Local, to help parents teach kids how to ride, and provide inspiration and tips for novice cyclists from experts such as Sir Chris Hoy during lockdown. It’s a handy online resource that provides routes and advice on everything you need to know about becoming a better cyclist.

Once you’re up and running and confident on going on longer rides, use a GPS device to track them, set distance goals and record your pedalling rate, power output, or heartbeats.

We’d recommend the Wahoo elemnt roam GPS bike computer (Evans, £299.99). It highlights important bits on your route, such as major roads and rivers and the screen is a hefty piece of glass which should stand up to the rough and tumble of off-roading.

This GPS bike computer won't distract you from the road ahead
This GPS bike computer won’t distract you from the road ahead

Plus, you can set the LEDs on the left of the screen to show heart rate or power zones.

Once you’ve arrived home if you don’t have the storage space to bring your bike indoors or into a back garden, a good bike lock is a necessity. The HipLok DX (£59.49) was the winner in our review of bike locks which easily fits into a pocket or onto a belt loop for safekeeping.

Keep your hardware soft with a reliable bike lock, like this one, which is big enough to go through your frame or a wheel
Keep your hardware soft with a reliable bike lock, like this one, which is big enough to go through your frame or a wheel

It’s Sold Secure gold-rated and the lock is protected from the weather by a rubber seal. You get three nicely-sized, tactile keys which are easy to use, even with gloves on. And if you ever lose them you can get replacements using a unique code.

Read our guide on how to start running here

Read more

Bike buying guide: Everything you need to know

10 best folding bikes for commuting and travel to suit every budget

10 best electric bikes that are compact, efficient, and sleek

Everything you need to know before buying a bike helmet

10 best men’s summer cycling jerseys to keep you cool on the road

10 best GPS cycling computers so you can train smarter

9 best road cycling helmets that will keep you cool and protected

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