Summer is without a doubt the most popular time to take up cycling - riding outside is considerably more pleasant, and there are some major events taking place right on our doorsteps which can prove to be hugely inspiring.
Though many of us might feel tempted to pick up a bike after seeing pro cyclists whizz past, resplendent in matching lycra, it doesn't mean we want to copy them down to the mid-calf socks and deep section wheels. The average beginner roadie wants to have fun, stay safe, and feel comfortable.
Here's a look at some of the key questions beginners ask - and the answers...
Can I ride any bike?
You can ride pretty much any bike on the road - with the exception of a track bike with no brakes. But that doesn't mean that any bike will be nice to ride on the road.
Road bikes are designed with slim tyres so they roll well on the tarmac, light frames to make the climbs pleasant, and drop handlebars so you can change positions. All of these things mean that they're quick and fun in their natural habitat.
This said, if drop bars aren't up your street, flat bar road bikes and hybrids are also perfectly good road companions. Some come with knobbly tyres so that you can take them off-road, but you can swap them for slicks if you plan to stick to the smooth stuff.
The golden rules:
- The jury is still out on women's road bikes. Generally they're slightly shorter in the top tube, because some brands believe women need a shorter reach. They also come with women's saddles and narrower handlebars - but you can swap these out yourself. At the end of the day, the choice is personal - test ride a few bikes and decide what you like.
- Always test ride a bike before you buy it - they do all have their own 'personalities' and characteristics
- Buy from a shop where they will set you up with the right saddle height and reach
Do I needed padded shorts?
I remember when I started cycling, my mum referring to 'gel padded shorts' that a friend had bought to ride a sportive in. Though not essential, padded shorts are a very good idea for cyclists.
The pad is called a chamois, and is constructed from a soft, foamy fabric in various densities to suit your anatomy. A good chamois shouldn't feature any stitching, and shorts designed specifically for women will be cut with the female body in mind.
The shorts should be cut in a way that you don't feel like you're wearing a nappy, and they'll prevent you from developing saddle sores when teamed with a comfy saddle (more on that later).
The golden rules are as follows:
- Do not wear knickers, or anything, under your cycling shorts - the pad should sit against your skin
- Buy shorts that fit - too big and the chamois will move around and chafe, too small and you'll cut off blood supply!
- Always wash your cycling shorts every time you wear them
- Don't sit around in them longer than you need to - put them on before your ride and take them off after. Sitting around in a sweaty chamois can encourage saddle sores.
- Bibs or waist shorts - it's totally up to you. Bibs are more comfortable in the long run, but some women prefer how easy it is to take a toilet break with waist shorts
A word on other kit...
In terms of other kit - a helmet is not compulsory, but is a very good idea to wear one that complies with British safety regulations. Cycling jerseys are great because they dry quickly and wick sweat, but a good technical t-shirt will work, too. A base layer to help manage your body temperature and mitts to dampen road vibrations are also nice additions.
Do I need to ride clipped in?
Riding clipped in (called going 'clipless' - because there are no foot cages involved) is more efficient, but not essential. The clipped in pedal stroke is much smoother and utilises more of the muscles in your legs. You're also less likely to suffer from a shin scrape from your foot slipping from the pedal.
So though you don't have to take the plunge - you'll enjoy the ride and be more powerful if you do.
Here's what you need to know...
- There are various different systems: Time, Look (the most popular), Shimano (second most popular) and Speedplay (most adjustable). You need to buy cleats that match the pedal style or they won't engage.
- Most pedals can be adjusted so they're less 'firm' and easier to clip out of. Start this way, then tighten them up when you're comfortable.
- To clip in, press down firmly. To clip out just twist your ankle outwards. Practice at home against a wall or on a turbo, then on grass, then on the road. There's more information here.
Why is my saddle so uncomfortable?
It's common for women to feel so put off by saddle discomfort that they pack the cycling lark in before they've had a chance to fall in love with two wheels. Before you lock the bike away forever: it does not have to be this way!
Saddle discomfort could be caused by an array of factors - and the actual saddle doesn't have to be the root of the evil. Here are some options:
- It could just be the saddle. There are many saddle styles and they suit different rider's and bodies. There's more information here - but most women will get on with a women's saddle and it's best to buy from a dealer who can measure your bone structure (ask in your local shop). Those leaning forward often want a large cut out and those leaning back usually need extra padding at the rear.
- It could be the angle of the saddle. If it's pointing upwards, it'll dig in to you in all the wrong ways. Pointing too far down and you may experience lower back pain from crouching over and instability. Here's how to adjust saddle angle.
- It could be down to poor bike fit, or lack of flexibility causing you to put extra pressure on the saddle. Other symptoms could include lower pack pain, wrist pain or knee issues. The best option is go get a professional bike fit if you think this could be it - most niggles can be fixed with a proper set up.
What about getting lost, mechanicals, and dangerous drivers?
These are the most common logistical complications that beginners worry about. And they all have one very simple answer: join a cycling club!
A good cycling club will be friendly, welcoming, and full of people who can answer your questions, show you around the lanes and help you understand your bike better. If you don't feel welcomed then find another club - a good cycling club is a small and tight knit community and should have a friendly atmosphere.
If a formal 'club' doesn't sound up your street, check out Breeze rides for local women's only groups where you'll still find a leader happy to support you as you learn your way around the area and the bike. There are also a selection of off-road cycle tracks across the country - such as Lee Valley in London and Cyclopark in Kent - and many offer 'rock up and ride' style road sessions as well as formal coaching.
There's just a few ground rules if you ride with a club:
- The most common mechanical failure is a puncture - we show you how to fix a flat tyre here. Someone on a club ride will always be able to help you do this, but it's a good idea to learn how to fix a flat yourself - it really just takes practice, so have a go yourself at home. Regardless, always have a spare tube, patches, tyre levers and a pump or co2.
- Learn the hand signals and calls used on group rides to indicate pot holes, parked cars, slowing and stopping.
- Be prepared to ride close to another rider's wheel - there's advice on the skills required here, but a good club will welcome you to a beginner's ride and show you the ropes.
Hopefully that's answered the key, burning questions. If you've got more - pop them in the comments, or check out some of these guides below...