How to get started: A beginner’s guide to what to buy for cycling
Riding a bike is great for your health and fitness, as well as saving you money and being environmentally friendly. There is also a type of bike and a style of riding to suit all kinds of people, and from toddler to senior citizen.
But if you haven’t sat on a bike for number of years, the much-revolutionised world of bikes and kit could easily confuse you. Here is my guide to cycling for beginners.
Choosing a bike
There is a growing range of bikes to choose from. When buying a new bike it’s a good idea to think about where you will most likely ride and then ask a shop or on-line expert for the best type of bike to suit your budget.
Road bikes, or racer bikes, are built for speed. A road bike has thinner tyres with less traction, which are ideal for riding on smooth, tarmac roads.
These bikes have drop handle bars so that the rider can get lower on the bike and achieve higher speeds due to less wind resistance.
Road bikes have a relatively wide range of gears to cope with the ups and downs of road cycling.
A sub-set of the road bike is the sportive road bike, which is aimed at a more comfortable riding position for those riding long distances or who are less flexible.
A TT bike is another version of a road bike and is built to ensure a rider is in the most aerodynamic position possible. This type of bike is built for speed in races rather than comfort.
You can buy unisex road bikes or bikes built to suit the average male, female and child.
With front suspension, or back suspension, or both, and wider, chunkier tyres, a mountain bike is built to cope with rough, off-road trails.
The bike position is more comfortable and upright than a road bike. And the wider handlebars allow for increased bike control.
A greater range of gears (especially easier gears for cycling uphill) means that riders can tackle seriously steep uphills. Many mountain bikes now have disc brakes for better stopping control on downhills.
A sub-set of mountain bikes are fat bikes, with over-large tyres for better traction.
Again there are mountain bikes to suit men, women and kids.
These can be called cyclocross, cyclo-X or simply “cross”, while other people also refer to this type of bicycle as a gravel bike. The look is more road bike than mountain bike while the tyres are created to suit trails.
These bikes do not come with same level of suspension as mountain bikes but they are designed to be ridden on a range of surfaces such as gravel, dirt and grass.
Cyclocross bikes are used for races, while gravel bikes are aimed at people who like to travel through the country by bike.
A hybrid bikes blends the best characteristics of road and mountain bikes into one bicycle.
Some people argue that they are too much of a compromise bike but most hybrids do offer a great ride for cycling commuters and people who want to cycle on paths such as towpaths and other traffic-free off-road routes.
A hybrid has wider, more grippy and forgiving tyres than a road bike but slimmer tyres than a mountain bike. The frame offers a more upright ride and will be generally more comfortable than the bent-over position of a road bike.
The fastest growing area of cycling, e-bikes offer battery-powered assistance. This doesn’t mean you do not have to pedal the bike. The battery power offers assistance for longer rides or, perhaps, when you need an extra push going uphill.
There are e-bikes for the road and off-road.
Think lightweight and with easy-to-use components for a kids bike. You might think it’s better to spend less because they will quickly out grow the bike, but it’s better to encourage their cycling habit with a children’s bike that is easier for them to ride and use.
A note about female-specific bikes
There are many more women’s bikes on the market these days and they have the advantaged of being designed to suit the average female physique, which is generally longer legs and a shorter torso compared to a man.
I really like the Liv Cycling brand (made by Giant), which is a range of bikes made exclusively for women.
What to wear for cycling
If you are riding short distances, perhaps to the shops or to the office, there is no need for specific cycling clothing. However, you may find it more comfortable to wear cycle clothing.
It is not a legal requirement to wear a helmet in the UK but I think it’s worth it because I have seen what happens when people fall off their bikes and hit heir head. I have also hit my head when coming off my bike and it would have been far worse if I had not been wearing a helmet.
However, other cyclists do not believe in helmets, so it’s up to you. Have a read of the big cycle helmet debate.
There are helmets to suit mountain biking and road cycling but both serve the same purpose. Always check that it has the kite safety mark.
A basic helmet will cost from around £15 and to several hundreds of pounds. In general, the more you pay for a helmet the less you get! That is, pricier helmets have more holes for better ventilation and aerodynamics.
A baselayer is a thin short or long sleeved top that is usually made of sweat-wicking and breathable material. It is worn next to the skin.
Layering these thin tops, rather than putting on just one thick top, is the best way to keep your body at the right temperature. Baselayers are not essential for cycling but they do help you to manage the sweat and body temperature.
Another useful item is a cycling specific jersey. It will be designed to suit your position on the bike with a longer rear hem and possibly a gel tape inside the hem to keep the jersey in place. Most jerseys have pockets at the rear for carrying cycling essentials.
Choose short or long-sleeved according to the weather. Arm warmers are a useful extra to turn a short-sleeved cycle jersey into a long-sleeved version.
Scottish weather means that a cycling jacket is pretty much essential. When not in use you can roll it up and pop it in a rucksack or a back pocket.
It’s worth spending a bit more to buy a jacket that is made from a good quality fabric that is both waterproof and breathable.
I usually advise that you buy a jacket specific to your gender as they are made to fit your physique. Remember that a cycling jacket will have longer arms and rear hem to aid coverage while in a cycling position.
Many beginner cyclists shy away from all things Lycra, tight and padded. However, padded shorts do make a huge difference if you plan to do longer bike rides.
Always buy shorts specific to gender because the padding is adapted to suit our different undercarriages.
I like bibbed shorts because I find them more comfortable than shorts that end at the waist. You can add cycling tights for colder days.
If Lycra is a step too far for you, choose baggier style mountain biking shorts with a padded lining. Some women are now choosing Lycra shorts with a skirt overlay.
Again, there are shorts that are sold for road cycling and mountain biking but it doesn’t really matter what you chose to wear. It’s comfort and what is practical rather than looks.
Comfortable bike seats
It’s a good idea to get fitted for a bike saddle and to buy a saddle to suit your gender. There are so many to choose from that it is best to get advice in a shop or on-line.
There are saddles to fit different bikes and riding positions, as well as your gender and butt size.
A comfortable bike seat will make all the difference to your enjoyment of riding a bicycle.
Short-fingered in summer and long fingered in winter, gloves keep your hands warm and dry and prevent chaffing if you sweat.
They come in all kinds of styles, from “lightweight summer” through to padded for winter and for mountain biking and road cycling.
Wear trainers or similar if you’re using straightforward pedals or toe-clips that you slide the toes of your shoes into.
I ride a mountain bike with flat pedals and MTB shoes without cleats. I like that I can quickly get my feet down if I need to on trick terrain.
I use bike shoes with cleats on my road bike. If you want a better cycling performance, bike shoes with cleats are the best solution.
Cleats are the gadgets that “click” into special pedals. As well as the downward push while cycling, you’ll benefit from the upward pull.
My advice is to familiarise yourself with simply riding a bike in the first place. Then build up to using the cleats, and always try them somewhere that you do not mind falling off.
A good bike lock: Check that the one you buy is insurance company approved, if you want to ensure a payment due to theft. A D-lock is the most theft-proof but also the heaviest to carry. Other locks come in a wide range of wire and chain thicknesses and weights.
A puncture repair kit: You’ll require tyre levers (for getting the tyre off the wheel), spare inner tube and a pump. You’ll also need to know how to use these. It’s not difficult, so ask a cycling friend to talk you through it.
Track pump: This is a pump that you keep at home (it’s too big to carry on your bike) and allows you to add the exact amount of pressure into your tyres.
Water bottle and bottle cage: Fitting a bottle cage to your bike allows you to carry bottles and fluids on days when the sun comes out!
Reflective arm or leg bands, and fluorescent clothing are a great for improved safety on roads.
Bike lights: If you plan to be out late, or during the winter, then make sure you invest in front and back bike lights so you can be seen on your bikes.
Panniers and bike bags: You’ll need a bike with a pannier rack on which to affix your panniers. These are a great idea if you plan to commute to work or use your bike for shopping. Alternatives include a rucksack or bike packs.
A GPS gadget is a great way to keep track of your speed, distance, ascent and route taken. It’s not necessary, of course, but it does allow you the opportunity to compare your bike rides, see improvements in your fitness and share your routes with other cyclists on-line.
Once you get into cycling you’ll find yourself surprisingly keen to buy ever more kit and accessories. Remember, though, that you don’t really need a great deal to make your first outings on a bicycle…