Bicycling Fast Start!

Introduction

This web page is an introduction to bicycling, written by someone who loves bicycling and has been doing it for over ten years. It is intended to tell you just the things I consider most important, without going into the finer points and details.

There are many fine books out there, and you might want to read some. (Later I'll add a list of my favorite books.) But it takes a while to sit down and read a long book. The books are there when you want the details; but this web page is to get you started quickly.

There are many places where I will tell you to go to a bike shop and ask for advice. If you prefer, you can go to a friend, or read a book and do it yourself. But most people who just want to get going will do well to get expert advice from a good bike shop.

I really enjoy bicycling, and I hope that will come across in this web page. If I do my job right, some of my love for bicycling will rub off on you as you read this.

Instant Start

If you are really in a hurry to get going, I'll make this quick:

  • Ask your doctor first
  • Wear a helmet
  • Keep your first rides short and don't ride too hard
  • Have fun!
  • If you aren't in that big a hurry, please keep reading!

    Instant Start, explained

    Ask your doctor first

    I don't want to belabor this, but you should talk to your doctor before you begin any exercise program, which includes bicycling. I remember riding in an organized ride where one rider had a sudden heart attack and just fell over dead; the truly sad part was that he had not seen a doctor in years, and a simple checkup exam would have saved his life. (He had a heart problem that any doctor would have found easily by listening to his heartbeat.) He might have lived for decades more, had he just talked to a doctor before doing the bike ride.

    Wear a helmet

    Get a helmet. Wear it every time you ride. It could save your life.

    Bicycling is usually a very safe sport, but sometimes accidents happen. Usually the accidents are not serious, but sometimes they are. Few people die from bicycle accidents, and of the ones who do, almost all of them die from head injuries that a helmet would have prevented. I read about one young girl who simply fell off her bike, and hit her head right on a sharp curb; she wasn't wearing a helmet and she died. With a helmet she would have been fine. Please, wear a helmet, and make sure the people you care about wear one too.

    If you are buying a new helmet it should have a CPSC certification. (If you have an older helmet with ANSI or Snell certification, that's fine too.) There are many fancy helmets available, but I just use a simple one. You can easily pay over US$100 for a helmet if you wish, but the ones I buy usually cost about US$35 or so, and they work just fine. There is a wonderful guide to helmets here.

    The Snell Foundation recommends that you should not keep using a helmet that is over 5 years old, and I agree with this. A helmet contains a springy foam; when you are in a crash, the foam soaks up the shock to protect your head. If the foam gets brittle or starts breaking down, it may not perform correctly. However, if you have a helmet that has been stored in a safe place and seems just like new, it should be fine. (If you are trying to decide whether you need to replace a helmet, read this.)

    If you ever get into a crash, replace the helmet as soon as possible afterwards. The helmet could have been weakend by the crash, and it may not protect you as well the next time. Get a new helmet as soon as possible. Some helmet manufacturers might send you a brand-new helmet if you crashed while wearing one of their helmets.

    Helmets have air vents so your head won't overheat on a hot day. I like to buy white helmets: when hot sunlight is beating down on me, I want it to reflect off the white of the helmet. Also, I want to be very visible to cars.

    Get a helmet that fits you. It is best to try on helmets before buying them; one brand might fit you well while another brand doesn't. My wife tried on a special brand of helmet, specifically designed to fit women's heads; she found it didn't fit her head at all well, and she ended up just getting the same US$30 helmet I got.

    I have a friend who was riding his bike in downtown Seattle. The front wheel of his bike got caught in a storm sewer grating, and he flipped over his handlebars onto his head. With no helmet he would have died; thanks to his helmet he wasn't hurt very badly (and he still loves to ride his bike). Get a helmet, and wear it!

    Keep your first rides short and don't ride too hard

    Bicycling should be fun. Aches and pains are not fun. So, keep your first rides short, to get your body used to riding a bike. If you haven't been riding a bike, you need to get your butt used to sitting on a bike saddle; you need to get your hands and wrists used to holding on to handlebars; you need to get your neck and shoulders used to holding your head up over the bike; and so on.

    Also, I am a fanatic about having your bike fit you properly. I'll discuss that more below. For now, I'll just note that the shorter the bike ride, the less critical it is to have the bike fit you exactly.

    Have fun!

    Don't just ride on busy streets and dodge cars. Go someplace fun. Find some quiet back streets to ride, or maybe a bicycle trail. Get out of the city and ride in the country. Say hello to some cows.

    The best thing about touring by bicycle is that you go at just the right speed: you are going fast enough that you go places and see things, and slow enough that you have time to see things. Walking, or even jogging, you won't go as far in one afternoon as you can on a bike; driving in a car, everything goes by too quick.

    My wife and I found out that when we started riding our bikes, we really got to know the area we live in; we found little out-of-the-way places we never knew were there. And we have gone to organized fun rides all over our state; we have visited towns and seen things we would never have seen had we not taken up bicycling.

    We like to have a destination. See if you can figure out a book store, a coffee shop, or some other place that is just the right distance for your bike ride. Maybe you can figure out a place to park your car, and ride from there: if you only want to ride 12 miles at first, maybe you can park 6 miles from your destination. Or park at your destination and ride a loop; when you arrive back where you started, then you can go inside and enjoy yourself. (You will enjoy it more if you have earned it!)

    How to ride safely

    Whole books have been written about how to ride safely. I'm just going to give you three rules:

  • Be visible
  • Be nice
  • Be predictable
  • Be visible. Wear bright colors so you are easy to see. If you ride at night, make sure you have a headlight, a tail-light, and reflectors. Don't ride on the sidewalk and then suddenly pop out from between some parked cars; either wait for a more open spot where cars can see you, or stop and make sure there is no one there before you pop out.

    Be nice. Don't ride where you are really in the way of traffic or pedestrians; don't zip through stop signs and red lights; don't swerve in front of people. You might get where you are going a few seconds faster, but if you get in an accident you will lose those seconds and perhaps much more.

    Be predictable. When cars can figure out what you are doing, they are less likely to hit you. Don't make sudden turns; signal the turn, give the cars a chance to see the signal, and then go. Don't ride on the wrong side of the street; it confuses the cars. Don't weave from lane to lane; pick a line and ride very predictably along that line.

    Choosing a bicycle

    If you don't have a bike yet, or you are thinking of getting one better than the one you have now, this section is for you.

    There are three major types of bicycles, and a few other types I'll talk about later. The three major types I want to talk about now are: road bikes, cross bikes, and mountain bikes.

    Road bikes (often called racing bikes) have skinny, high-pressure tires and drop handlebars. Mountain bikes (often called all-terrain bikes or offroad bikes) have wide, low-pressure tires with big rubber knobs on them, and flat handlebars. Cross bikes (also called hybrid bikes) have medium-pressure, medium-width tires with some tread on them.

    Road bikes

    Road bikes are best for riding long distances on good roads, or possibly for riding very fast on good roads (i.e. racing). Everyone in the Tour de France or other big road races rides road bikes. The skinny, high-pressure tire is the most efficient tire, but it is more prone to flats. Drop handlebars, found on road bikes, are curly-looking bars that give you multiple places to rest your hands.

    A road bike that fits you properly is comfortable, even for long distances, and you can ride faster and with less effort than heavier bikes with less-efficient tires. If the bike doesn't fit you properly, you may find that your neck hurts, your back hurts, and your arms hurt. Go to a good bike shop and get the bike adjusted! Or see if you can swap it with another bike that will work better for you.

    Older road bikes have the shifters mounted on the "down tube" of the bike, which is the tube closest to the front wheel. To shift, you need to let go of the handlebars, reach down and move the lever, and then go back to the handlebars.

    I do almost all of my bicycling on road bikes. I have a "winter" bike with rain fenders, and a "summer" bike that is lighter and has more expensive parts. I love my road bikes.

    Mountain bikes

    The flat handlebars on a mountain bike let you sit more upright, which many people find more comfortable. Also, bike fit is somewhat less critical in the upright riding position, so you may be fairly comfortable even if the bike doesn't fit you perfectly. (I still recommend going to a good bike shop and getting the bike adjusted to fit you properly!) The knobby tires let you ride on dirt, and bounce over small rocks and tree roots and such. Many mountain bikes have shock absorbers, to lessen the shocks of riding over small rocks and tree roots and such.

    But mountain bikes don't really make sense for riding on the road. Smooth pavement doesn't really need shock absorbers, and they make the bike heavier (and more expensive). Knobby tires are the least efficient tires I know, although they do resist punctures very well. If you plan to ride a mountain bike on the road very much, consider removing the knobby tires and putting a set of cross bike tires on instead. With a set of cross tires, a mountain bike rides like a heavy-duty cross bike.

    Bicycle police, who want to be able to ride anywhere, ride mountain bikes. I'm told that bicycle police can actually ride their bikes down staircases! I'd like to have a chance to see that, someday...

    Cross bikes

    Cross bikes are a compromise between a road bike and a mountain bike. Their medium tires are less efficient than road bike tires, but more efficient than knobby mountain bike tires. They are not built to withstand as much abuse as mountain bikes, since few people drive them over tree roots and rocks, so they are lighter than mountain bikes. Like mountain bikes, cross bikes have flat handlebars and an upright riding position.

    If you want to get started in bicycling, a cross bike might be a good choice. For fairly short rides around town, they are great. You can ride them long distances (although a road bike is much better). You can ride them offroad (although a mountain bike is much better). Decent cross bikes can be found for US$250 to US$350 or so.

    I used to have a Specialized Crossroads cross bike with fenders and a cargo rack. I rode it in nice weather and bad, and I sometimes used it to haul groceries or other purchases. I spent many hours riding it, and I think of it fondly. However, these days I am very used to a road bike with drop handlebars, and a cross bike seems way too heavy.

    Other kinds of bikes

    Recumbent bikes are very different from conventional bikes: instead of riding in a vertical position with the pedals directly underneath you, you ride in a sitting position with the pedals in front of you, and your legs stretched out in front of you to reach the pedals. Recumbent bikes are more expensive and harder to find than the more common sorts of bikes. Some people with back problems can only ride a recumbent bike. Some people prefer the aerodynamic advantage of being more horizontal. Recumbent bikes are low to the ground and difficult for cars to see, so if you ride one you should have a safety flag sticking up to make you more visible.

    If you have problems with balance, you might prefer a tricycle. There are tricycles designed for adults; some of them are very expensive, high-performance machines. For riding to a grocery store, a tricycle with a cargo basket might be just the thing.

    Track bikes are designed for racing on a bike racing track. They have no brakes. Let me say that again: no brakes. They don't freewheel, either: you cannot coast; when the wheels are going around, the pedals are going around, which means your legs must be going around. They have no shifters because they don't shift: they have only one speed. You stop them by using your leg muscles to fight against the pedals, and force them to spin more slowly and then stop. I have no intention of ever riding a bike like this on city streets, or even bike trails; I'll get one if I ever take up the sport of track racing, and otherwise not. But some people get them and ride them. It does give your legs an awesome workout to ride around all day on a track bike. (In the movie Quicksilver, the Kevin Bacon character has a track bike, and he's a bicycle messenger riding around in traffic!)

    Some bikes are designed for travel: they fold, disassemble, or otherwise collapse down into a smaller package for transport. Many of these bikes are actually very poor bikes, and if you try to ride them very far you will regret it. But other bikes, such as the Bike Friday bicycles, are serious, well-made machines that can serve as your only bike, even when you are not travelling.

    Beware of cheap bikes!

    You may go to a store that sells toys and find a bike for US$150 or even less. Is that a good price for a bike? If it is a bike for an adult, the odds are good that it is actually not a good deal!

    Quality bikes are made from quality materials, which cost more. Cheap bikes are made from lower-grade steel. How do you make lower-grade steel strong enough to build a bike out of it? Easy: you just use more of it. You make tubes thicker. The result is a heavy, non-responsive bike.

    You can make a bike cheaper by leaving out the nice little touches. Quick-release wheel axles, which make it easier to change a flat tire, are not as cheap as threaded axles with heavy nuts on them. (If you own a cheap bike, you should carry a box wrench or adjustable wrench in your tool kit. It's difficult to fix a flat tire if you don't have the tools to take the wheel off the bike!) Will that US$150 bike have braze-ons to allow mounting water bottle cages? Probably not.

    All my bikes have "index shifting", so if I want to shift my bike one gear I move the shifter one click. One click, one gear. Easy. That cheap bike may not have index shifting; it might just have friction shifters, and so you might have to hunt around to find the gear you want. That cheap bike will probably not have as many gears as a quality bike, either.

    If money is a problem for you, you might do better to purchase a used quality bike rather than a new cheap bike! If you buy a used quality bike for US$150, odds are good you can sell it for about US$150... but if you buy a new cheap bike for US$150, you may not find anyone who will buy it from you for over US$40.

    When I first started out with bicycling in 1992, I bought a used cheap bike for something like US$40 or so. It rattled when I rode. I had to hunt around for gears. It was heavy and hard to pedal, so every hill became a mountain. It only had six gears, so it didn't have any really low gears to make hills easier. I quickly came to the conclusion that I enjoyed bicycling but I hated that bike. I bought another bike for US$400, and then had the problem: how to dispose of the cheap used bike? I didn't really want to sell it, because my sales pitch would be "You don't want this bike, especially in the hilly Seattle area. Get a better bike." I wound up donating the bike to a charity, and the charity shipped the bike to Cuba.

    Really expensive bikes

    What is the difference between a US$300 bike and a US$700 bike? Why on Earth would anyone spend US$3500 on a bike? Here are several reasons.

    The big one is weight. More expensive bikes weigh less. Both the frame and the components will weigh less on a more expensive bike.

    The frame on a really cheap bike will be really cheap steel. A US$300 cross bike will have a frame made from quality steel. A US$1000 bike will be top-quality steel, or perhaps quality aluminum, or something exotic like carbon fiber. A US$3500 bike might be made from titanium. As the price goes up, the weight goes down. Also, the different materials ride somewhat differently: the aluminum might be stiff, the titanium might be supple. Carbon fiber might be made into creative shapes (bat-wings or whatever).

    Components are all the little parts that make a bike work. When you shift gears, the gear shift lever gadget is a component, and there are cheaper ones and better ones. The gears themselves might be cheaper or more expensive. Brakes, brake levers, shift mechanisms, all these can range from cheap to decent to good to expensive to oh my goodness. As they get more expensive, weight goes down, and to some extent things work better (shifting gets smoother, etc.). The companies that make these parts usually make them in "families" of parts, usually called a "group" (or "gruppo" in Italian). You might look at two mountain bikes, one for US$300 and one for US$700, and they might have identical steel frames; but the US$300 bike has Shimano Altus components and the US$700 bike has Shimano RX components.

    If you buy a bike and something breaks, you always have the option of upgrading to a better replacement part. For example, when my cross bike's Altus shift mechanism (its derailleurs) became worn out, I asked the bike shop to put RX components on the bike, and better Grip Shifters. Result: the bike has shifted more smoothly ever since, and the new parts have gone many miles without wearing out, many more miles than I got from the cheaper Altus components that came with the bike. The lesson here is: if you don't want to spend big money on a bike today, at least get a decent one with a quality frame. If you never ride the bike, you wasted less money; if you ride the bike a lot and wear out the cheaper components, you can upgrade your bike and it will be better than ever. Do that enough, and you will be riding a bike equal to the better bike you didn't get; you just bought it a few parts at a time.

    Another reason a bike might be expensive: custom bikes. Anything mass-produced will be less expensive than anything made custom to order. A custom bike should fit you perfectly, and should be set up just the way you want it, and will be painted the color you like, but it will cost extra.

    One last word about the really expensive bikes: sometimes they have features that you may not want. For example, the truly fast racing bikes have really big gears on them. This is great if you are a professional racer in a race, but what if you are an ordinary person trying to ride up a hill? You might wish you had some lower gears. And some parts are made so light they are no longer very strong or durable (a friend of mine calls these "stupid-light"). I've seen some parts recalled, after it turned out that they weren't quite strong enough. I don't want to be the guy who finds out the hard way that my bike isn't strong enough!

    Stuff you really need!

    Just to start out, all you really need is a bike that fits you, and a helmet. I also strongly recommend bicycling gloves and some eye protection (ordinary sunglasses are fine).

    You should take the bike to a good bike shop, and have them look the bike over and make sure it is safe and working well. They should also adjust the bike to make it fit you as well as possible. If you don't have a helmet and bike gloves, they will be happy to sell them to you.

    Then get out there and ride! Short rides at first, then work your way up to longer rides. When you start doing longer rides, you might want to start buying some optional bicycling equipment. The longer the rides, the more likely you will want some of this stuff.

    Here is my opinionated walkthrough of stuff you could buy. As always, the bike shop can answer your questions, or you can read books to find out more.

    Some way to carry the stuff

    Do you have an old backpack? That will do for carrying the basics. But I prefer a bag mounted on the bike.

    If you have a whole lot of stuff to carry, you might want to get panniers, a bicycle messenger bag, or even a trailer. If you are a minimalist, you may only want a small bag that mounts under the saddle.

    The bag I like is about the size of a loaf of bread. It has one really large main compartment, and a few smaller ones. It mounts on a rack. It has enough room for all the stuff I routinely carry: tools, spare tube, food, spare clothes, etc. etc.

    Food and water

    For any rides longer than half an hour, you really ought to have water. Your bike may have water bottle cages, which makes it very simple: just get a water bottle and put it in one of the cages. If your bike does not have cages, talk to the bike shop about adding them.

    You can also get a "hydration pack", which is a sort of backpack that holds water. Many people love these.

    I'll talk more about food later. For now, I'll just say that some sort of portable light snack is all you need; you can buy special food bars, or you can carry Fig Newton cookies or a peanut butter sandwich.

    Pedals

    If you are just starting out, don't worry too much about your bike pedals. You should have pedals that turn smoothly, and they shouldn't be bent at odd angles. As long as you are comfortable pedaling, it's good enough.

    But if you will be riding long distances, it can be very nice to upgrade your pedals.

    When you use plain, simple pedals, you don't realize it but you are constantly working against yourelf. The only thing holding your feet on the pedals is pressure; when you push down on one side of the pedals, the other side is coming up, and to keep your foot on the pedal that is coming up you need to press down a bit. So you are pushing down on the side that is coming up! You are working against yourself, just a bit. Over a long ride, it adds up.

    Clip-in pedals let you ride without fighting against yourself as much. To use clip-in pedals you wear special shoes, which have metal cleats on the bottom; the pedal has a clip. When you step onto the pedal, the clip locks on to the metal cleat, and your shoe is locked to the pedal. To get your foot out, you simply twist your foot sideways to break the clip loose.

    With clip-in pedals, you don't need to worry about holding your foot on the pedal; your feet stay in place. With practice, you can develop a smooth and efficient pedal stroke. Also, while you may not do this often, if you want to really pedal hard, you can push down on one side and pull up on the other side! This allows you to put maximum power into the bike.

    The best clip-in pedals allow your foot to rotate slightly in place; this is called "free rotation" or "float". I recommend this sort of clip-in pedals; while some people don't need any float in their pedals, other people can really hurt their knees if they don't have some float. Why take a chance? Get the ones with float.

    The first clip-in pedals were made for bike racers; they have large cleats on the bottom of the bike shoes, which makes it difficult to walk. Some of the newer systems have small cleats, which are surrounded by rubber tread; you can walk normally, and the cleat doesn't touch the ground. This sort of pedal system is often called a "walkable" pedal system.

    Some of the clip-in pedal systems have double-sided pedals; others are single-sided. I prefer double-sided pedals, because they are easy to get your foot in; you don't need to worry about which side is up. People who try to keep their bikes absolutely as lightweight as possible prefer the single-sided pedals; by removing the clips from one side of the pedal, these pedals save some weight.

    I have SPD pedals on all my bikes. When I got started, SPD was the only walkable pedal system available; even today, most walkable pedal systems say that they are "SPD compatible". I have double-sided SPD pedals on all my bikes.

    A friend of mine uses, and recommends, another pedal system made by a company called Speedplay, called the "Frog". The Speedplay Frog costs less than SPD pedals, is walkable, and can work with any SPD-compatible shoes. (The cleat on the shoe is not SPD-compatible, but you can buy an SPD-compatible shoe and put a Frog cleat on it.)

    Another option, which I do not recommend, is toe clips. Before clip-in pedal systems were invented, all serious bicyclists had tight toe clips because they were the best thing available. For maximum benefit, toe clips need to be tight; you have to tighten them after you get on the bike and start riding, and then loosen them before you stop the bike and get off. This can be a problem when you need to get off the bike in a hurry! Also, there is no float when your foot is locked down by a tight toe clip.

    Today, many bikes come with simple loose plastic toe clips; these do no harm, but don't do much good either. If you have loose toe clips on your bike, and you don't mind them, don't worry about them; just leave them there. Just realize that you aren't getting the full benefit of either clip-in pedals or the tight toe clips.

    One last note about pedals: because clip-in pedals replaced tight toe clips, they are often called "clipless" pedals. I find this name very confusing, because you clip your shoe in to the pedal, so I prefer to call them clip-in pedals. But if someone talks about "clipless" pedals, now you know what they are talking about.

    If you get clip-in pedals or tight toe clips, it is important to make sure they are adjusted correctly, and it is important to practice using them. It's no fun to try to get your foot out of the pedal, only to find that it is so tight you can't get it loose! It's also possible to forget how your pedal system works; you try to just lift up your foot, and it won't come, and you fall over before you figure out why.

    When my wife and I got our clip-in pedals, the mechanic at the bike shop adjusted them so they were nice and loose (easy to get out of). Then we went to an empty parking lot, and spent an hour practicing: get on, clip in, ride a little, clip out, stop, and over and over. We got really used to the idea: twist foot to get loose from the pedal. I recommend doing this when you first get clip-in pedals.

    After you have had clip-in pedals for a little while, you get used to them. You no longer need to think about them; you just rotate your foot and get out, without thinking about it.

    One last note: I do not recommend changing pedal systems right before an important bike ride! Only make a big change like that when you have some time for practice rides on your own, to get used to the change.

    Shoes

    For short rides, you can use any comfortable shoes. An old pair of sneakers is fine.

    For longer rides, you should consider a set of bike shoes. The most important difference between bike shoes and ordinary sneakers is that the bike shoes have a much stiffer sole.

    When you pedal the bike, you press your foot down on the bike pedal. Very soft soles can transmit pressure directly to a small area on the bottom of your foot; on a long ride, you can get a sore spot on the bottom of your foot, above the pedal. Stiff-soled bicycle shoes spread out the pressure over the whole bottom of your foot; you don't have just one "hot spot" of pressure.

    If you aren't sure what kind of bicycle shoes to buy, I recommend buying SPD-compatable shoes. If you later decide to put clip-in pedals on your bike, you will already have compatible shoes; and even if you always use simple flat pedals, the SPD-compatable shoes will be about as good as any other shoes. They have a nice stiff sole, and they work just fine on ordinary pedals.

    Some shoes use shoe laces; others use Velcro strips. I prefer the Velcro shoes, because they are easier to take off and put on, but it really doesn't matter; get whatever you prefer.

    Bike shoes usally use European sizes. Those of us used to American sizes need to be careful to get shoes that fit! I prefer to buy shoes from a bike shop, rather than mail-order, so I can try them on first.

    If you buy shoes and a clip-in pedal system at the same time, the bike shop might install the cleats for no extra charge.

    Socks

    I don't have much to say about socks. They should fit you well, they should not have big seams that press into your foot, and ideally they should be made of some fabric like CoolMax rather than cotton. (If your feet sweat less than mine, maybe cotton would work for you.) When I first started riding, I wore some old polyester socks I had, rather than buying special bike socks, and they worked just fine for me.

    Bike shorts

    Bike shorts are another thing that you don't need for short rides. But the longer the rides (the more hours you spend on the bike) the more benefit you will get from bike shorts.

    Bike shorts are form-fitting shorts made from stretchy fabric, usually with a liner (chamois or something like it). They have no large seams to press into your body for hours as you ride, the stretchy form-fitting fabric does not bunch up or wrinkle and press into your skin, and they wick sweat away from your skin. Also, because they are form-fitting, they stay in one place, and don't rub or chafe against your skin. Many bike shorts are long enough to keep your thighs from rubbing against each other as you pedal. Many bike shorts have some small amount of padding built in, as part of the liner.

    I do not recommend wearing underwear under bike shorts. It defeats the purpose: the underwear probably won't wick sweat away, might have seams, and might bunch up or wrinkle.

    Make sure you get shorts that fit. If they are too loose, they might wrinkle, and of course it's no good to wear too-tight shorts for hours.

    If you want to try the comfort of bike shorts, but you are shy about wearing form-fitting shorts in public, there are some bike shorts you can buy that have a loose outer fabric layer covering an otherwise fairly conventional pair of bike shorts. Ask at your bike shop.

    Saddles

    The bicycle's seat, or "saddle", is important if you will be riding your bike much. If you only do short rides, the saddle that came with the bike may be just fine... but if you plan to spend hours riding, you will probably want something better.

    Saddles aren't magic: if you are not in shape for a long ride, there is no saddle that will save you from an aching butt. You need to start out with shorter rides, and work up to longer rides, even with a good saddle. But a bad saddle can make you very uncomfortable, every time you ride, so you will be much happier if you get a good one.

    Expensive bikes often come with very nice saddles, so if you have a nice bike you may not need or want a new saddle. But the less-expensive bikes usually come with less-comfortable saddles.

    So, how do you find a good saddle? You really need to try one and see how it works for you. People are different; a saddle that's great for me might be bad for you. That's why most bicycle shops have some way to let you try new saddles: maybe they let you exchange a new saddle for full credit, maybe they have some "loaner" saddles for people to try. This is another way a good bike shop is better than a mail-order catalog.

    My personal favorite is the Specialized Body Geometry. Their basic model, suitable for mountain bikes or cross bikes, is only about US$40. It supports the "sit-bones" in your butt, but doesn't put pressure on any of your more tender parts. There is a model specifically for women, but I've met several women who just use the basic model and are very pleased with it.

    Gloves

    I strongly urge you to get a quality pair of bike gloves. Bike gloves have padding that cushions your hands, and the more time you spend on the bike, the more important that becomes.

    Also, if you fall off the bike, you may instinctively use your hands to cushion your fall or stop you from sliding; if this happens, the paddinq can protect your palms. Once my wife fell off the bike, and we found a sharp pebble stuck in the palm of her glove. Better the glove than her hand!

    Just about any bike gloves should be fine; there is no need to spend a lot of money on gloves. But I do recommend buying bike gloves rather than trying to use gardening gloves or some other gloves that might have seams that could press into your hand.

    There are two major types of bike gloves: half-finger gloves, and bad-weather gloves.

    Half-finger gloves are suitable for warm weather: They are also called summer gloves. They cover your palm and part (half or so) of your fingers, leaving your fingertips and possibly the backs of your hands exposed. They may also have some terry-cloth, which you can use to wipe sweat from your face.

    I recommend buying short-finger gloves that are washable. If you come back from a ride dripping sweat, it's nice to be able to throw your gloves in the wash with the rest of your cycling clothes. Some fancy gloves have leather in them, or gel cushion pads, and must be carefully washed by hand.

    Bad-weather gloves, also called winter gloves, cover your whole hand. When it's cold outside, you will want to have your whole hand protected from the chill air, and that goes double if it starts raining!

    My favorite bad-weather gloves are called Concept 2000 gloves; REI used to sell them. They have been replaced by Concept 2002 gloves, and I'm sure those are just as good as my beloved Concept 2000 gloves. These gloves are pretty much like the gloves from a wetsuit: they don't keep your hands dry, but they do keep your hands from freezing when they are wet.

    As a beginning cyclist, you may only want to ride when the weather is nice, so if you only buy one pair of gloves, get the short-finger ones.

    Repair Kit

    If you will only ride for short distances, you can plan to walk your bike home or carry it home if you have a problem. For longer rides you should have a simple repair kit.

    The basic kit should include a tire patch kit, tire levers, and a tire pump, plus some hex wrenches.

    The most likely problem that could keep you from riding is a flat tire. Any good bike book will describe how to fix a flat, and later I'll give a few tips on how I do it, but for now I'll just say that it isn't too hard and you can learn to do it.

    There are two kinds of patches you can get: one kind comes with a little tube of glue (rubber cement), and the other kind has self-sticking patches. I like the self-sticking kind, and I buy Park brand. The Park patches come in a little tiny plastic box; very convenient.

    I also recommend carrying an actual spare tube. I once had to fix the same flat three times, because I kept making mistakes with the patches; it would have been very nice to just stick in a good spare tube. Also, some bike accidents can slash a huge, non-patchable hole in a tube, and a spare tube will save the day.

    Tire levers are used to get the tire off the wheel. The first tire levers I bought were lousy, and they made changing a tire harder than it should have been; they were made of plastic that flexed too much (making it hard to lever the tire off the rim) and they weren't strong (I broke two levers just trying to change one flat tire!). Now I use Specialized Pry Babies, which work nicely.

    There are many kinds of tire pumps you can get. Some people get long pumps that mount under the bicycle's top tube, but I prefer small pumps that you can tuck away inside a bag. The small pumps are easier to carry but harder to inflate a tire with, but I don't have flats very often so I'm happy with that tradeoff. Buy any kind of pump that you like, as long as it will work with the valves on your bike's tubes. Probably the coolest pump ever is the Road Morph by Topeak, which you can actually use as a sort of very small floor pump. It's bigger than the pumps I favor, but it will do the best job of actually pumping air into the tires. You can even get a model that comes with an air-pressure gauge, which I favor.

    Almost all adjustments you might ever need to make on a bike can be done with a few hex wrenches. Hex wrenches have a six-sided shaft, that fits into a six-sided hole on a bolt (a hex bolt). The most common sizes are 4mm, 5mm, and 6mm. I like to carry a combination tool, that has multiple sizes of hex wrench plus a few other tools all built in. You can get combination tools that range from a half-dozen sizes of hex wrench (about US$8) all the way up to 40-tool monsters (about US$50!).

    Glasses

    I recommend that you always wear glasses when riding. During the day, wear sunglasses; at night, wear clear glasses.

    You can buy special bicycle glasses, but I just use ordinary sunglasses during the day, and ordinary safety glasses at night.

    Why do I recommend glasses? Because I have had insects and other things bounce off my glasses during a ride! There is nothing like having a bee bounce off your glasses to make you glad you are wearing them!

    Optional stuff that's nice to have

    Fenders

    Most bikes come without fenders these days, but you can put some on your bike. I have inexpensive plastic fenders for all my bikes, since I ride even when it is wet and raining outside. Fenders cost about US$30 or less for a set.

    My "winter" road bike and my tandem have fenders permanently mounted on them. My "summer" bike has clip-on fenders; these are not quite as effective as the permanent ones, but when I don't need them I don't need to carry them on the bike.

    Lights

    You only need lights if you will be riding at night. You can always get a set of lights later if you want them, so don't feel you must get them when you first buy your bike.

    Headlights come in two broad categories: small headlights and powerful headlights. The small ones are inexpensive, perhaps US$20, and are adequate for riding on clean and dry roads. But when conditions are poor for riding, they don't put out enough light to really help. They are enough to make you visible to cars, which is good for safety, and they are enough to make you legal to ride after dark.

    Your bike probably has a set of reflectors, but reflectors are not a good substitute for lights. If you plan to ride at night, get some lights.

    The really bright headlights cost more; I spent US$250 for mine! For that money I got lights that are many times brighter than the US$20 ones, and can run for a long time on the battery. The battery is made in the size and shape of a water bottle, and I can carry it in my water bottle cage. It has two bulbs: a 12 Watt bulb and a 20 Watt bulb. With both bulbs lit I can see everything in front of the bike, even when the road is wet. The light is designed to be easy to move from one bike to another, so I just have the one and I move it from bike to bike.

    On the rear of the bike you can put a blinking LED light. These are inexpensive (US$10 or less), are very bright, and run a very long time (perhaps 200 hours!) on a set of batteries.

    If you want to be very safe, you can get a small light that you wear on your left leg. Usually it will be a small LED reflector light. A bright red light whirling around as you pedal makes you very visible to cars and anyone else!

    You can also get headlights that mount on your helmet, and thus you can always have the light where you are looking just by turning your head.

    If you can't afford a new headlight, or don't plan to ride very often at night and don't want to spend any money, you may be able to mount a flashlight on your bike. Don't plan to ride while holding a flashlight; your hand will get very tired and it isn't safe. I've tried it and I know.

    Mirrors

    It is very nice to have a mirror that lets you keep track of what is going on behind you.

    One kind of mirror mounts on the handlebars of your bike. Many people have those.

    The other kind attaches to your helmet or glasses. (I'll call these "head-mounted mirrors"). This is the kind I use. I often like to stand up while riding a bike, and with the mirror on my glasses; when I stand up, the mirror comes with me.

    Head-mounted mirrors are small; usually a little under an inch (about 2 cm) in diameter. You might think that a tiny mirror won't show you much, but when it is mounted very close to your eye, it shows you a lot.

    I tried a mirror that mounted on my helmet, and I didn't like it very much. That particular mirror mounted on a velcro patch, which didn't hold it still very well. The mirror was constantly moving, and it was very difficult to actually see anything useful in a vibrating mirror so close to my eye.

    The glasses-mounted mirror works better for me. I have a "Third Eye" brand mirror, and it uses three little plastic fingers to clip on to my sunglasses. The problem is that the little plastic fingers can break easily. After buying several mirrors, each time because a little finger broke, I finally just took some duct tape and strapped the remaining two fingers to my eyeglasses. It doesn't look pretty, but it works, and it lasted for years. These days I'm still doing the same thing, but I use black electrical tape and it looks prettier!

    (Pssst. All you companies that make those cool curved aerodynamic bicycling glasses... how about adding a mirror mount? A little post with a little ball on top, just like the one that clips on with the three little plastic fingers. If it was on the glasses it would be very durable. I know I'd buy at least two and maybe more.)

    Sorry, this is still under construction... I'll be adding more to it soon.

    Disclaimers

    This information comes without any guarantees. I have done my best to give good advice, but you can't sue me if you follow my advice and something bad happens. Use your common sense before following my advice (or anyone's advice).


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